By John Branch (NY TIMES)
Mount Everest is the tallest and most famous mountain in the world — a global beacon and metaphor wrapped in awe and mystery. It is also one of the most accessible big mountains in the world, bringing hundreds of climbers and thousands to its base camp in a typical season.
Q: How high is Mount Everest?
At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), Everest is the world’s tallest mountain. It straddles Nepal and Tibet.
Q: How do you get there?
Most climb Everest from the Nepal side. From Kathmandu, Nepal’s bustling capital, mountaineers take a short flight to Lukla, then trek about 10 days to Everest Base Camp (17,500 feet). Most will spend weeks there in the spring, acclimating to the altitude with rest and day hikes, waiting for the route to Everest’s summit to open in May.
In 2017, six people died, a typical number, including a cook in Base Camp and an Indian man near the summit. A seventh, famous mountaineer Ueli Steck, died in a fall on a nearby mountain while waiting for Everest’s route to open.
Q: How many bodies are on Everest?
Nearly 300 people are known to have died on Everest. Nepal’s government estimates that most of them, perhaps 200, remain there.
Q: How do people die, and what are the primary dangers?
Most famously, as depicted in popular culture, climbers die from exposure to the elements — the subfreezing temperatures and the high altitude, especially after running out of supplemental oxygen and getting caught in sudden storms. But many climbers die from falls and avalanches, and others from health problems like heart attacks. Increasingly, climbers worry about the role of the crowds on Everest, where routes can be jammed with people desperate to reach the summit. More than 20 years after it was published, Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” remains the cautionary tale.
Q: What does extreme altitude do to the body?
The area above 8,000 meters (about 26,000 feet), from Camp 4 to the summit, is called the “death zone,” because of its thin air and brutal weather. With gains in altitude, each breath draws less oxygen for the lungs and bloodstream, which is why most climbers, including guides, use supplemental oxygen.
Typical effects of altitude include headaches, nausea, and exhaustion. But in the death zone, high-altitude cerebral edema can create a lack of muscle control, impaired speech, confusion, and hallucinations. High-altitude pulmonary edema results in coughing and breathing problems. Frostbite, snow blindness and hypothermia are major threats.
Q: I want to climb Everest someday. Can anyone do it?
The primary barriers are money and fitness. While Nepal’s government has placed restrictions on foreigners — expensive permits, the necessity of hiring an outfitter with guides, and an age requirement of 18, for example — it is only now considering ways to restrict attempts to highly experienced mountaineers.
Q: How much does it cost?
The range is wide — from nearly $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Foreigners must buy an $11,000 permit from the Nepalese government, plus pay other fees, but the variance has to do with the outfitters hired. Some offer Western guides for Western clients, which can be more expensive than local ones, or some hybrid in the ratio between climbers and guides. (For example, 1 local guide per climber, plus one Western guide for every four climbers.) Other substantial costs include travel, gear, oxygen and weeks of food and camping while acclimatizing at Base Camp (17,600 feet).
Q: Who are the sherpas?
Guides in the Himalayas are often called “sherpas,” though not all are part of the ethnic group of Sherpa, from which many take their surname. Most are young men, living anywhere from small villages to the chaotic city of Kathmandu, who find they can make more money as a guide than in other lines of work. The Nepal government said that most guides earn about $6,000 per expedition, but the range is broad, from camp cooks (perhaps $2,500) to lead guides ($10,000). They are not immune to the dangers; nearly half the people who have died on Everest have been sherpa guides.