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?


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.


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.” 


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.”


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.”

Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images
Sip on This: The Queen Has Banned Plastic Straws at Buckingham Palace
Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II is a big fan of naturalist David Attenborough, and it’s making an impact on royal dining. After working with the iconic Planet Earth narrator (and British knight) on an upcoming conservation film, the monarch felt inspired to take action close to home, banning plastics at royal palaces, Fast Company and The Telegraph report.

At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Scotland’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, staff will now have to eschew plastic straws and plates, ditching disposable plastic dishware for china, glass, and recyclable paper. The ban will slowly rid public areas of plastic, too. In the palaces’ cafes, all takeout containers will be replaced with compostable or biodegradable alternatives, and plastic straws will slowly be phased out.

While plastic water bottles and bags often get more attention in anti-pollution campaigns, plastic straws are terrible for the environment, and the Queen isn’t the only one taking notice. Plastic straws are one of the most prevalent types of litter, and because of their size, they can’t be recycled. Scotland’s government banned them in parliament in January 2018 and hopes to ban them throughout the country by 2020. Companies like Pret a Manger are already trying to take action against straw waste, introducing paper straws instead.

The problem isn’t limited to the UK—in the U.S., Americans throw away an estimated 500 million straws per day (that’s between one and two per person). In California, several cities have mandated that restaurants provide plastic straws only if customers specifically ask for one, and the legislation may soon spread to the rest of the state. Beginning in July 2018, Seattle restaurants will have to offer compostable or recyclable straws instead of plastic ones as part of a new ban.

Time to make like the Queen and start a BYO-straw movement. Might we suggest you try a reusable silicone or stainless steel option?

[h/t Fast Company]

NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.


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