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How Dangerous, Difficult and Expensive is it to climb Everest?

Author : Dave Gott

This article attempts answers to the following questions :

  1. How Dangerous is it to climb Everest?
  2. How Difficult is it to climb Everest?
  3. Which is the best route up Everest : Nepalese or Tibetan/Chinese?
  4. Is it worth paying for a top expedition operator when attempting Everest?
  5. How Expensive is it to climb Everest?
  6. Why is it so expensive to climb Everest?

This article is my personal view based on limited experience of climbing Everest once from the Nepalese side, trekking to the Nepalese Everest Base Camp 5 times and trekking to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp once, together with book and internet research. It focuses on the Nepalese route as my climbing experience is limited to that side, though much of the discussion applies similarly to the Tibetan/Chinese route.

1. How Dangerous is it to climb Everest?

"Out of every six climbers who reach the summit, one of those will die" - Bear Grylls in "Facing Up"

"The current death rate was estimated at one in every ten attempts" - Ranulph Fiennes in "Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know"

If either statistic were true then surely you'd have to be mad to attempt Everest and stark staring bonkers to make a living guiding on Everest? Authors and film makers tend to select dramatically bad statistics while commercial expedition operators, if pushed, would quote vastly safer statistics.

Probably the most authoritative and uptodate source for data on Everest ascents is the Himalayan Database run by the legendary Elizabeth Hawley This database is not free to access so I will quote instead from Alan Arnette's Everest page (which is partly based on the Himalayan Database) :

"Recent years have been tragic with 16 Sherpas killed in the Khumbu Icefall by a serac release on April 8, 2014 and 19 people killed on April 25, 2015 at Everest Base Camp from an avalanche triggered off Pumori's ridge by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake almost 200 miles away in Nepal."

"The Grand Dame of all Everest statistics, Ms. Elizabeth Hawley reports on the Himalayan Database that there have been 7,646 summits of Everest through June 2016 on all routes by 4,469 different people. 1,015 people, mostly Sherpa, have summited multiple times totaling 3,861 times (included in the 7,646 total summits). The Nepal side is more popular with 4,863 summits compared to 2,783 summits from the Tibet side. 197 climbers summited without supplemental oxygen, about 2.5%. 14 climbers have traversed from one side to the other. About 60% of all expeditions put at least one member on the summit."

"282 people (168 westerners and 114 Sherpas) have died on Everest from 1924 to June 2016. Of the deaths, 109 died attempting to summit without using supplemental oxygen. 70 climbers died on the descent from the summit. The Nepalese side has seen 4,863 summits with 176 deaths through June 2016 or 3.7%. The Tibet side has seen 2,783 summits with 106 deaths through June 2016. or 3.8%. Most bodies are still on the mountain but China has removed many bodies from sight. The top cause of death was from a fall, avalanche, exposure and altitude sickness. 640 people summited in Spring 2016 from both sides and there were 5 Everest deaths."

"From 1923 to 1999: 170 people died on Everest with 1,169 summits or 14.5%. But the deaths drastically declined from 2000 to 2015 with 5,832 summits and 112 deaths or 1.9%. However, two years skewed the deaths rates with 17 in 2014 and 14 in 2015. The reduction in deaths is primarily due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations."

"Annapurna remains the most deadly 8000 meter mountain with one death for every three summits (71:255) or 28% thru 2016."

Summarising Alan Arnette then, as of June 2016 :

Note that these fatality rates are per summit so the fatality rate per attempt is considerably lower as 71% of Everest attempts fail.

The much higher fatality rate of 14.5% from 1923 to 1999 explains the dramatic statistics from Bear Grylls and Ranulph Fiennes quoted above and illustrates that for any Everest statistic you really need to know which years it refers to, whether it covers commercial or private expeditions or both, whether a given % is relative to all climbers or just the summiteers etc.

Still, a success rate of 29% and death rate of 1.9% is far from ideal for your holiday. Is there a way to improve these figures? Yes, going with a top commercial operator (I went with Jagged Globe in 2011) should significantly increase both your success rate and odds of survival, though even the best operators have limited influence over avalanches and earthquakes (unless you count the Puja ceremony).

Further statistics (note the dates though) at www.adventurestats.com

2. How Difficult is it to climb Everest?

Very difficult if you do it Goran Kropp style (cycling 7000 miles from Sweden towing 240lb of climbing and camping gear, then climbing Everest solo without porters or bottled oxygen, then cycling back to Sweden).
Historical Badass: Goran Kropp, the Man Who Rode to Everest
Goran Kropp (Telegraph obituary)

And possibly harder still via the Kangshung Face without oxygen :
Everest Kangshung Face - First Ascent of the Neverest Buttress, Stephen Venables

For a "normal" guided ascent you need to be fit* with good stamina, a head for heights, experience at altitude and competent with ice axe and crampons (actually we hardly used the ice axes). The technical climbing ability required is quite low and you are on fixed ropes almost all the way above base camp. The key difficulties are altitude (and the corresponding absence of air), cold (especially if windy), correct regulation and functioning of oxygen kit, getting a suitable weather window at the right time, your health and fitness holding up and (potentially) queues on summit day. Deep snow would be bad as would avalanches and/or earthquakes.

The challenge is well described (though I'd say 2 months climbing rather than several) in Mike Hamill's excellent book "Climbing the Seven Summits: A Guide to Each Continent's Highest Peak " :

"Attempting to climb Mount Everest is a huge physical, financial, emotional, and time commitment that should not be taken lightly. It requires several months of climbing while on the expedition, not to mention countless hours of training and preparation prior to beginning the expedition, putting life at home on hold, an immense amount of organisation and a lot of money. Climbing the mountain requires putting yourself at risk in a harsh and uncompromising environment, trying to live where humans can't survive, asking your body to push harder than it has ever pushed before, and having the mental toughness and persistence to continue climbing until the summit has been attained."

"In short, climbing Mount Everest is the hardest thing you will ever do and will push you to the limit. Every year climbers die trying to summit Mount Everest, and many more leave the mountain disappointed simply because of sickness or their body's predisposition to not survive in this rarified, extreme environment. Mount Everest is not a walkup, and everyone who climbs the mountain climbs it under their own power."

The summit day will probably turn out to be the toughest single day of my life, but to put Everest in context the expedition as a whole is surely (I imagine) much less demanding than bringing up children? Yet billions of people do this, apparently unaware that they are super-heroes.

in terms of difficulty the Nepalese route can be split into 3 sections :

  1. A trek to Base Camp at 5,380 m (17,600 ft) on the south side of Everest. Expedition members usually fly into Lukla (2,860 m) from Kathmandu and hike through Namche Bazaar. This is a reasonably straightforward trek and may take in a high pass for acclimatisation on the way (eg. Kongma La (5,535m)). Base Camp is about 571m higher than the summit of Mont Blanc.
  2. Climbing gradually from base camp to the South Col (including a number of retreats to lower altitudes). Each climb through the 2,500 foot Khumbu Icefall is approximately as hard, say, as running a marathon (maybe harder). Except you get up at 2am and head out into the night with a head torch at -10°C climbing up house-sized blocks of unstable ice and (in my case) attempting (briefly) to keep up with much fitter people and hoping you can manage several meters between energy draining fits of almost uncontrollable asthmatic coughing. Hiking up the Western Cwm to Camp 2 and then part way up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3 seemed fairly straightforward (after aquiring 3 asthma inhalers). After sleeping badly on a shelf at Camp 3 climbing up to the South Col (using oxygen for the first time) was quite hard - initially the oxygen mask felt about as helpful as a plastic bag - probably the flow rate was too low. The Lhotse Face must be dangerous when the ice is hard, but we had good conditions.
  3. The summit day - definitely the hardest part of the trip (together with paying the bill - which takes a bit longer). The key problem is humans have evolved to run off oxygen and food. Due to the atmospheric pressure at the summit you can only use 1/3 the oxygen you normally would, even with an oxygen tank and mask. This has severe performance implications for your mind and body, and those of your team. For the summit day you will burn about 20,000 calories**. Running a marathon uses about 2,600 calories. At the South Col and above you struggle to eat anything, and drinking is limited, as your body is in "I'm dying" mode. Instead of getting a good night's rest you typically set off about 9pm (still attempting to recover from your climb earlier that day up from Camp 3 (during which you were trying to recover from the previous night's bad sleep at Camp 3). So you are almost at the top of the World, without enough oxygen for your body and mind to function properly, with a very long, difficult and dangerous climb ahead. You are already knackered (as we say in English) and nervous and you have to climb through the night by headtorch in the bitter winds (in our case) and freezing cold. Personally if I were planning a night hike I wouldn't choose the top of Everest for it normally. And should you slip or fall through a cornice on the right it's a 3350 metre (11000 ft) drop down the Kangshung Face - which could prove serious even for Adam Potter (Adam was on our expedition and summited Everest just a few months after his back breaking 1000 foot fall). All being well you summit around sunrise and descend in the daylight.

In summary then, there are approximately 10 hard days on the 2 month Expedition, with the Summit night (20,000 calories) being super-hard and dangerous. Using a simple calorie comparison a non-summit climbing day (6,000 to 10,000 calories) is equivalent to running 2.3 to 3.8 marathons and the summit night equivalent to 7.7 marathons. Given that there is at best a brief afternoon nap between climbing from Camp 3 to the South Col and the overnight Summit Bid you could argue these climbs blend into one giving a 30,000 calorie effort, equivalent to running 11.5 marathons.

Putting the whole expedition in context, I'm not sure if any of these hard days, except the summit "day", are much harder than a typical working day for many tough people around the World, such as the local Porters, who carry loads I can hardly lift all day long up and down steep hills.

Porters with huge loads of plywood below Khumjung

* It's possible (but definitely not recommended) to arrive in Kathmandu as an obese couch potato and pick up fitness during the expedition. This risks collapsing from exhaustion in the Icefall or being sent home by the Leader as too high risk (I probably got close to both).

** What do Climbers eat on Mount Everest?

3. Which is the best route up Everest : Nepalese or Tibetan/Chinese?

Background: I have trekked to Base Camp on both sides (4x Nepalese, 1x Tibetan), I have only climbed on the Nepalese side.

With regard to summit and fatality rates the 2 sides are probably closely matched. Adventurestats have a spreadsheet which includes stats for commercial expeditions from 2000 to 2006 and this shows little difference for the Clients :

On the Tibetan side climbers will normally take a dusty jeep ride all the way to Tibetan Everest Base Camp where, in the climbing season, according to some sources, then can expect drugs, prostitutes and theft. Maybe this has been cleaned up now? Everest base camp a 'wild-west town'

In contrast, On the Nepalese side, climbers take a spectacular hair-raising flight to Lukla and then enjoy over several days one of the very finest treks anywhere in the world through fabulous Sherpa villages to eventually arrive at the isolated, generally well-behaved and stunningly located Nepalese Everest Base Camp.

When I trekked myself (out of climbing season) to the Tibetan Base Camp, travelling independently, it took some effort to get there and I was expecting to be blown away by the scenery from all that I'd read. The scenery was good, but below my high expectations and no match for that on the Nepalese side. The locals weren't all friendly - one drunken guy approached me brandishing a huge machete and demanding money. The only other travellers I met (who had cycled from Europe) had stones thrown at their tent. But some locals were friendly and kindly put me up in their smoky house and plied me with copious amounts of salty butter yak tea.

Tibet : Everest from Rongphu Monastery (below the Tibetan Everest Base Camp)
Everest, Tibet

Nepal : Everest (centre), Nuptse (right) from Kala Patthar (Base Camp is on the left of the glacier below the col)
Everest, Nepal

Looking at the above 2 photos you might think the scenery on the Tibetan side is nearly a match for the Nepalese side. The difference is that the first photo shows probably the only great view on the Tibetan side at that elevation, while on the Nepalese side the view is mind blowing through 360 degrees at Base Camp (as it is for pretty well the whole trek in).

4. Is it worth paying for a top expedition operator when attempting Everest?

Yes because your odds of summitting and returning safely are greatly increased, and your trip will be more enjoyable and less stressful. It can't be much fun returning home having to explain to friends and family why you didn't summit and then mulling over at length if you should try again another year (Everest gets under your skin). Worse still, of course, is not coming home.

Why are the top operators so good? By having the best and most experienced Guides, Sherpas and Chefs (great food at base camp is a big help) and most oxygen and one Climbing Sherpa per Client on the critical summit day, and access to a dedicated weather forecasting service., and access to Base Camp doctors.

5. How Expensive is it to climb Everest?

For their Spring 2017 Everest Expedition, via the South Col from Nepal, Jagged Globe are quoting £38,700 including flights. To this you may need to add about £3800 to cover purchase / hire of personal equipment, insurance, personal expenses for 68 days and tips (we were recommended to tip our climbing Sherpa US$1000). So with Jagged Globe, in total, about £42,500 (US$53,125 or 49,725 Euros).

Also to be considered are the minimum 68 days off work for the Expedition and potentially years or at least many months of preparation : Jagged Globe Everest Expedition Details, including suitable preparation

There are cheaper options of course. More details can be found here : Everest Cost Details (by Alan Arnette)

Traditionally the Tibetan/Chinese route has been cheaper than the Nepalese side largely due to lower peak fees and a jeepable track all the way to Base Camp. However, see "3. Which is the best route up Everest : Nepalese or Tibetan/Chinese?" above.

6. Why is it so expensive to climb Everest?

Per Climber costs on the Nepalese side include :

  1. US$11,000 peak fee to Nepalese Government
  2. $2,750 for (say) 5 bottles of oxygen at $550 per bottle (doesn’t include costs to take to high camps). The top operators make more oxygen available if required.
  3. $600 contribution for Ice-fall doctors (who fix the route through the Khumbu Ice-fall)
  4. $200 contribution for rope fixing above the Ice-fall
  5. One climbing Sherpa (and their oxygen) per climber right to the summit (only the top operators provide this)

Other costs include :

  1. Setting up, running and supplying a decent multi-tent hotel for 2 months at Base Camp (supplied by Porters and Yaks)
  2. Setting up, running and supplying a decent multi-tent hotel for < 2 months at Advanced Base Camp (supplied by Sherpas)
  3. Setting up camps 1, 3 and 4 and supplying with oxygen
  4. Providing experienced Guides and Chef(s), comms equipment and links, specialist detailed weather forecasting, access to Base Camp Doctors
  5. Experienced Climbing Sherpas are the Nepalese equivalent of Premiership footballers - so they don't come cheap.
  6. Hotel in Kathmandu and return flight to Lukla
  7. Food for 2 months