4 Reasons Why Climbing Everest Is Deadlier Than Ever

Prakash Mathema/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema/Getty Images

On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas on Mount Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. But one year later, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake triggered another fatal avalanche that killed more than 20 climbers and shut the mountain down for the 2015 season. During this year's season, at least 11 climbers have died on Everest experts say.

At 29,029 feet, Everest is known for its dangers; that's part of the allure. But in recent years, tragedies have spiked, and frozen bodies scattered across the mountain are an eerie reminder of the growing hazards. So why is the world’s tallest mountain claiming more lives than ever before?

1. Climate change makes Mount Everest unpredictable.

Everest tragedies are nothing new; since 1990, at least one climber has died in pursuit of the summit every year. But each climbing season, Everest is getting more unstable. Kent Clement, a professor of outdoor studies at Colorado Mountain College, argues that climate change is possibly the most imminent risk for climbers.

“As temperatures rise, Everest’s thousands of feet of ice and water are becoming unstable, making the mountain even more volatile,” Clement said.

Collapsing seracs—50- to 100-foot columns of ice formed by intersecting glacier crevasses—are a growing threat. Seracs can stand perfectly still for decades, then spontaneously fall over, killing those nearby and, in some cases, triggering avalanches further down the mountain. Case in point: The deadly 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas was caused by a serac collapse in the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous section of the route up Everest's southeastern face.

As you’d expect, climate-related risks are the new norm. A study in the journal The Cryosphere [PDF] predicts that Mount Everest’s glaciers could shrink by 70 percent this century, making currently unstable sections of the routes even more so.

2. Human biology is at odds with high altitudes on Mount Everest.

Climbers ascending the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest
Prakash Mathema/Getty Images

In addition to natural disasters, Everest climbers face a number of life-threatening health risks.

In high-altitude settings, there is less oxygen in the atmosphere, and oxygen doesn’t diffuse into a climber’s blood as well as it would at sea level. That can lead to serious medical problems. The two most common illnesses on Everest are high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), in which constricted blood vessels cause fluid to leak into the lungs' air sacs; and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which fluid leaks from blood vessels in the brain, causing headaches, neurologic dysfunction, coma, and eventually death if not treated (and in some cases, even when treated).

“Altitude illness impacts people in different ways, and we don’t really know who is susceptible until they have altitude illness,” Christopher Van Tilburg, an expert in travel medicine and a physician Oregon's Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, told Mental Floss. “High-altitude pulmonary edemas can hit people suddenly—even highly trained, fit mountaineers.”

3. Neurological and psychological factors can impair Everest climbers' judgment.

Another health risk that affects a climber’s cognition is hypoxia, which is simply when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. According to Clement, hypoxia can drastically impair judgment, making it one of the most dangerous Everest risks.

“The higher you climb, the more your judgment gets impaired,” Clement said. “It’s amazing how hard it is for smart people to do simple math and memory problems at high altitudes.”

In addition to causing treacherous missteps, hypoxia can drive climbers to push harder and go farther than they normally would—but not in a good way. These “cognitive traps” often happen when a climber gets closer to the top and replace logic and safety with stubborn determination, putting everything at risk to reach their goal. Another word for it? Summit fever.

According to Clement, the cure is setting a strict turnaround time: an ironclad moment when a climber promises to turn around and forego the summit to save their life. Turnaround times are decided before setting foot on Everest, and should be agreed upon between climbers, guides, and expedition leaders. But hypoxia, exposure, and inexperience can encourage climbers to ignore the protocol.

“Every time you ignore your turnaround time, you’re putting yourself at risk,” Clement said. “Professional guides are also supposed to follow these rules, but they get stuck in cognitive traps, too, because the more clients they get to the top, the more clients they’ll have next season.”

4. Medicine can reduce—but not eliminate—Mount Everest's dangers.

Any climb above 19,000 feet—the altitude known as “the death zone”—will have associated health risks, but there are treatments that can help climbers survive. Medicines include acetazolamide (sold under the brand name Diamox), a diuretic that helps prevent a mild edema, and dexamethasone (brand name Decadron), a steroid used to treat a brain edema and reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. The only true fix for acute mountain sickness is immediate descent.

The best way to stay alive on Everest is proper training, fitness, and organization, but even those steps can't guarantee safety.

“Training doesn’t really offset objective hazards like rock falls, ice falls, avalanches, and earthquakes,” said Van Tilburg. “And while we have medicine for altitude illness to help people acclimatize, we don’t have medicines for the myriad other risks on Everest.”

103-Year-Old Julia 'Hurricane' Hawkins Just Set a New World Record for the 50-Meter Dash

Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins participates in the 2019 Senior Games,
Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins participates in the 2019 Senior Games,
All images copyright NSGA

Here she is, as the Scorpions would say, rocking the 50-meter dash like a hurricane. On Monday, 103-year-old Baton Rouge native Julia "Hurricane" Hawkins set a new world record in her division—the women's 100-plus—by completing the 50-meter dash at the Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in just 46.07 seconds.

Amazingly, this isn't the only world record Hawkins holds: In 2017, the former teacher set her first world record (which she still holds) by finishing the 100-meter race in less than 40 seconds. "I thought it’d be neat to run at 100, and do the 100-yard dash,” Hawkins told KRQE. Although family members say she has always been active, she only started running fairly recently—lacing up her sneakers for the first time at the age of 101.

Hawkins, who credits the sport with keeping her mind and body sharp, says she has no plans of slowing down any time soon. Her preferred method of training? Walking around her garden. "I have an acre of land and I have 50 kinds of trees, and I’m working on them all the time,” Hawkins said.

While the "Hurricane" nickname is certainly befitting, the world-class athlete has a better suggestion: "I like the flower lady better."

Aside from maintaining her personal health, Hawkins has a more noble goal each time she picks up the pace. "I hope I’m inspiring [other people] to be healthy,” she said, "and to realize you can still be doing it at this kind of an age.”

[h/t KRQE]

What Bill Buckner Said 19 Days Before Game 6 of the 1986 World Series

Gray Mortimore, Allsport/Getty Images
Gray Mortimore, Allsport/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of May 27, 2019, former MLB player Bill Buckner passed away at the age of 69 after battling Lewy Body Dementia. "Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life," Buckner's wife, Jody, told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap. "Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Buckner, who played for more than 20 years, had a storied career: He made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1969 at the age of 19, was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1977, then moved on to the Red Sox from 1984 to 1987. He spent time with the California Angels and the Kansas City Royals before making his way back to Boston in 1990 as a free agent; it would be his final season.

Though he logged more years with the Dodgers and Cubs, Buckner's time with the Red Sox is the period he's most remembered for—specifically because of a fielding error that cost the Red Sox a game during the 1986 World Series.

On October 26, 1986, New York Met Mookie Wilson's routine ground ball passed right through Bill Buckner's legs, forcing a Game Seven that the Mets would also win.

You've seen the clip and heard the call, but did you know that Buckner himself laid out the scenario weeks before the fateful play?

On October 6, 1986, Buckner was interviewed by WBZ-TV's Don Shane about the pressures of postseason play. In a quote that later appeared in ESPN's Steve Bartman documentary Catching Hell, Buckner eerily explains his worst case scenario:

"The dreams are that you're gonna have a great series and win. The nightmares are that you're gonna let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs. Those things happen, you know. I think a lot of it is just fate."

According to Dan Shaughnessy's 1997 book At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation, the footage didn't resurface until 1995, when intern Maggie McGrath spent two weeks looking through old tapes after a viewer said he remembered the interview.

When Buckner returned to Boston as a free agent in 1990, the city made it clear that there were no hard feelings. "Opening Day I got a great ovation," Buckner told ESPN in 2006. "Fans in Boston are really good. They really are. They liked me and they were always good to me, and I think they just got caught up in the media. Overall, they were good. That was probably why tears came to my eyes, and it was pretty emotional."

Buckner, too, eventually came to forgive himself. "I have come to the understanding that it is here to stay, so I try to look at it in a positive way," Buckner told ESPN in that same interview. "Everybody still remembers me, they say, 'Yeah, he was the guy that made the error, but he was a pretty good player.' So I guess that is a positive about it."

Eventually, even Buckner was able to poke fun at his own mishap. In 2011, he appeared in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where he redeems himself by catching a baby whose mother throws it from a burning building.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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