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4 Reasons Why Climbing Everest Is Deadlier Than Ever

On April 25, 2015, rescuers use a makeshift stretcher to carry an injured person after an avalanche triggered by an earthquake flattened parts of Everest Base Camp. Victims were airlifted out. Image credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides on Mount Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. 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 season. Unfortunately, this year is following the trend. During this year's climbing season, six people died while attempting to summit Everest.

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 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. According to Kent Clement, a professor of outdoor studies at Colorado Mountain College, climate change is possibly the most imminent risk for climbers.

“Recently, we haven’t seen many health-related deaths—the majority of Everest fatalities are linked to avalanches and earthquakes,” Clement said. “As temperatures rise, Everest’s thousands of feet of ice and water are becoming unstable, making the mountain even more volatile.”

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.

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

2. BASIC HUMAN BIOLOGY IS AT ODDS WITH HIGH ALTITUDES.

While climate change and corresponding natural disasters may be the leading cause of casualties, Everest climbers still face a number of dangerous health risks.

In high-altitude settings, oxygen doesn’t diffuse into a climber’s blood as well as it would at sea level, which can lead to serious medical problems, including pulmonary edema, in which fluid from the blood vessels going into the lung tissue leaks into air spaces, causing a climber to drown in their own fluids; and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which fluid from blood vessels in the brain leaks out, causing intracranial pressure, headaches, neurologic dysfunction, brainstem herniation, coma, and eventually death if not treated (and in some cases, even when treated).

In terms of Everest health risks, both of these issues are particularly dangerous because they can happen to anyone during high-altitude ascents—even the most experienced climbers.

“Altitude illness impacts people in different ways, and we don’t really know who is susceptible until they have altitude illness,” Christopher Van Tilburg, the medical director of occupational and travel medicine at Oregon's Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, told mental_floss. One of Van Tilburg's specialities is mountain emergency medicine. “High-altitude pulmonary edemas can hit people suddenly—even highly trained, fit mountaineers.” 

3. BOTH NEUROLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS CAN IMPAIR 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 of all.

“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 treacherous missteps, hypoxia can drive climbers to push harder and go further than they normally would—but not in a good way. These “cognitive traps” often happen when a person invests significant time or money into something, such as climbing Everest. As a climber gets closer to the top, they replace logic and safety with stubborn determination, and will put everything at risk to reach the summit.

According to Clement, the cure for cognitive traps 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 and their guides.

Unfortunately, these guide-and-climber turnaround promises aren’t always upheld.

“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. MODERN-DAY MEDICINE CAN REDUCE BUT NOT ELIMINATE RISKS.

Any climb above 19,000 feet—the altitude known as “the death zone”—will have associated health risks, but the climbing industry has made significant strides with medicine and safety gear. Medicines include Diamox, a diuretic that helps prevent a mild edema, and Decadron, a steroid used to treat a brain edema and reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (but the only true fix for acute mountain sickness is descent).

While the climbing industry is constantly innovating, experienced mountaineers know that new medicines and inventions will never be a match for treacherous Mount Everest.

“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.”

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Live Smarter
All National Parks Are Offering Free Admission on April 21
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Looking for something to do this weekend that's both outdoorsy and free? To kick off National Park Week, you can visit any one of the National Park Service's more than 400 parks on April 21, 2018 for free.

While the majority of the NPS's parks are free year-round, they'll be waiving admission fees to the more than 100 parks that normally require an entrance fee. Which means that you can pay a visit to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, or Yellowstone National Parks without reaching for your wallet. The timing couldn't be better, as many of the country's most popular parks will be increasing their entrance fees beginning in June.

The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, maintains 417 designated NPS areas that span more than 84 million acres across every state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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