Long lines, piles of garbage, human waste, even dead bodies. No, we are not talking about a natural disaster or a third world country. We are talking about the trek up the highest mountain on Earth above sea level. Mount Everest, 29,000 feet.
At least 300 climbers have died in the attempt to reach the top of Mt. Everest. Most remain where they died. Some are so obvious, new climbers literally step over their remains. Some have been covered with tarps. Most are buried under the snow or have been swept away by avalanches.
It seems somehow un-human to leave a body of a loved one on top of a lonely mountain. A large percentage died above 26,000 feet in an area that climbers call the “dead zone.” The oxygen in the air is so thin a person cannot survive without “canned” oxygen. They bring the oxygen in small cylinders. If a climber runs out of supplemental oxygen above 26,000 feet, his fate is sealed. There is no place to get refills. Most bodies are left there because it is both expensive and dangerous to try to bring them down. Retrieving a body from high up on the mountain would put others in a dangerous situation. Surviving at high altitude is challenging enough without the burden of a frozen body. Also because of the intense cold, the bodies are frozen solid to the mountain itself. Detaching them from the bedrock is, in many cases, practically impossible.
Nearing the summit, the path to the top is essentially a one-way trail. It follows what climbers call a “knife’s edge.” A knife’s edge is a narrow elongated ridge that reaches the top. On either side, the cliff falls away for thousands of feet. In places, a cable has been installed for climbers to hold on to.
One of the several climbers who died this year made it to the top and began his descent. But he had to wait several hours for the line of climbers still ascending. Lack of oxygen and fatigue took their toll. He might have been saved if other climbers had shared their oxygen, but it seems the almost insane drive to reach the top deprives them of their humanity. One might rationalize this by asserting other climbers must conserve their own oxygen to ensure their own survival, so it’s every climber for themselves, humanity be damned. But in reality, even those that make it suffer the effects of altitude sickness to varying degrees. Typical symptoms include dizziness, headache, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and vomiting. More serious effects include irregular heartbeat, pulmonary edema (fluid build up in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid build up in the brain). Probably the most dangerous symptom, however, is the decreased ability to make rational decisions, which puts themselves and others at risk, and may explain why they are able to walk past others who are in need of assistance; an inhuman action they would not have considered under normal circumstances.
Not all people react to lower oxygen levels the same. Some groups of indigenous people survive quite well at higher altitudes, including natives of Nepal and the Andes of South America. But these people have lived there for countless generations. Their bodies have the advantage of generations of adaptation to low oxygen levels. But people who go to these places from lower altitudes are at a distinct disadvantage. Usually, the “flatlanders” spend weeks gradually ascending to intermediate camps of increasing altitude to allow their bodies to “acclimate.”
Why do people die in the attempt? Some people are not prepared physically and may die from health related problems. Some lose their footing and die from injuries in a fall. Some die from frostbite and exposure and oxygen deprivation. Most die in avalanches. There are also a significant number that simply disappear, their fate forever a mystery.
Someone once was asked why he wanted to climb a mountain, and famously said “because it is there.” Some do it to prove something to themselves. Some to prove something to others. Others do it for the emotional thrill of standing on top of the highest place on Earth. But if you have walked past a dying person in order to achieve your goal, you must ask yourself if it was worth it.
Email Terry Mejdrich at email@example.com.