Why The Economist thinks Mount Everest is so dangerous

Last week The Economist published an article with the headline Why Mount Everest is so dangerous.

Now you may be wondering what a magazine about economics has to bring to the table on the subject of mountaineering. You’d be right to ask.

The Economist explains: Explaining bollocks, daily
The Economist explains: Explaining bollocks, daily

There are many reasons Mount Everest is dangerous, even on its standard routes.

Climbers on the south side have to pass through the Khumbu Icefall, with its giant crevasses spanned by ladders tied together with rope, and towers of ice ready to topple at any moment. Avalanches pour down from both the West Shoulder on the left, and Nuptse on the right. On the Lhotse Face rockfall is a frequent risk, not to mention the precipitous terrain. Parts of the South-East Ridge are a knife-edge, with drops of over 2000m on both sides. On the eastern side there is the risk of falling through a cornice.

On the north side there is considerable crevasse danger and risk of avalanches when climbing the North Col Wall. On the North-East Ridge the terrain slopes like a tiled roof, with a drop of 2500m down the North Face.

And these risks are only on the standard, commercial routes. The less-trodden routes are even more dangerous.

On all routes oxygen deprivation is an extreme hazard. On the summit there is only a third of the oxygen found at sea level. The smallest of tasks can be exhausting. Lack of oxygen to the brain can lead to poor decision making, while lack of oxygen to the lungs makes breathing difficult. The majority of deaths close to the summit are from exhaustion or altitude sickness. High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) results from a build up of fluid in the brain, while in the case of high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) the same happens to the lungs. Both of these conditions can result in death very quickly if the victim is unable to descend.

Those murderous jetstream winds striking the North-East Ridge and creating a giant plume of ice crystals, are a lot more dangerous than a crowd of people
Those murderous jetstream winds striking the North-East Ridge and creating a giant plume of ice crystals, are a lot more dangerous than a crowd of people

Temperatures of -50°C are not uncommon, and many climbers have lost fingers, toes, feet, arms, or parts of their face, to frostbite. The mountain is so high that it reaches into the jetstream, fast-moving air currents that circulate the Earth’s surface close to the cruising altitude of a jumbo jet. The summit is frequently battered by winds in excess 200 km/h, no place for humans. Storms can last for days, producing metres of fresh snow in a matter of hours.

And then, of course, there are less predictable hazards. In April 2015 nineteen people died at Everest Base Camp when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal, triggering a huge avalanche on Pumori, one of the mountains which towers over camp.

So which of these dangers does The Economist and its team of … er, economists think pose the most danger? Well, none of them, it seems. I’ve read the article several times now, and its analysis of why Mount Everest is so dangerous can be found in a single paragraph. This one:

But whereas rocky crags, treacherous cornices, thin air, and wildly fluctuating temperatures are common to most vertiginous snow-clad peaks, Everest’s troubles are partly man-made. The mountain’s two most popular climbing routes, one from Nepal and another from Tibet, are terribly overcrowded. Improved weather-forecasting tools allow all commercial expeditions to exploit the precious “weather window” that stands between them and the summit. Key portions of the routes are often secured with a single rope-line tugged by more than a hundred climbers at once. One misstep can trigger a domino effect. Any jam at that altitude can be fatal. Many dodgy local operators, eager to woo customers, skimp on costs, hire fewer Sherpas and enlist rookie climbers.

BTW, I love their use of the phrase “vertiginous snow-clad peaks”. Such poetic use of language. They could have just said “mountains”.

If I interpreted this correctly The Economist believes Mount Everest’s principal danger is overcrowding.

I have no problem with The Economist mentioning overcrowding on Everest, for there is no doubt it’s an added risk, but it needs to be put into context. There is overcrowding on the Northern Line as commuters make their way to work in the City of London every weekday morning. You sometimes have to wait for three or four trains to pass before finding one with enough space to barge into. Then you must stand cheek to cheek with other commuters, with the corner of somebody’s brief case nestling uncomfortably between both buttocks.

This is overcrowding on a different scale, but it’s not dangerous, even when half the people in a carriage fart at the same time. Overcrowding alone doesn’t make Everest dangerous.

When George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died on the Northeast Ridge in 1924, there was nobody within a vertical mile of them. It was most likely a combination of exhaustion and, in Mallory’s case, a fall which killed them. When Maurice Wilson died on the north side ten years later he was the only person on the mountain. He had no mountaineering experience, and no clue of the risks. Nobody knows how he died, but it certainly wasn’t due to overcrowding.

Take the 1996 Everest tragedy, the single event that earned commercial mountaineering on Everest the most notoriety thanks largely to Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air. Even this tragedy wasn’t due to overcrowding, but a storm that arrived sooner than predicted. There were only around 30 people aiming for the summit that day. There were several days in May 2016 when many more people than this were on the South-East Ridge, and all of them got down safely.

Many of the deaths on Everest occurred long before the commercial era. The dangers still existed then, and none of them were attributable to overcrowding.

There is no doubt overcrowding in the Khumbu Icefall does make Everest more dangerous, but it's not the only factor (Photo: Edita Nichols)
There is no doubt overcrowding in the Khumbu Icefall does make Everest more dangerous, but it’s not the only factor (Photo: Edita Nichols)

You can certainly argue that overcrowding was a contributing factor in some Everest tragedies. In 2014 sixteen mountaineering workers died when a serac collapsed on the West Shoulder, triggering a huge avalanche which swept across the Khumbu Icefall. The sixteen who died all found themselves in the firing line because they were queuing to climb a ladder which had fallen out of position.

It’s not easy to overtake on the knife-edge sections of the South-East and North-East Ridges, and summit days can be two or three hours longer if climbers get stuck behind slower people who won’t let them past. There is no doubt this increases the risk of altitude sickness and frostbite, or getting caught in worsening weather.

There is no doubt too many people try to climb Everest without having a true understanding of what they are letting themselves in for, so to highlight the dangers to people and reduce the numbers of grieving relatives is a worthy cause. I’m not sure this was The Economist’s intention here though, and if it was then their analysis has fallen woefully short of answering the headline.

So what happens when a writer who knows bugger all about a subject publishes an article to an audience who also know bugger all?

Does someone write in and set the record straight?

Here is a selection of comments that were made in response to The Economist’s piece.

The top of Everest is one of the world’s largest, long standing crime investigation sites. It rivals Bosnian genocide sites for unidentified dead. That is the flip side of Everest ‘Disney Expeditions’.

Mount Everest has become the world’s highest tourist trap. The honor and romance of summiting has been significantly diminished as a result of unscrupulous guide companies preying on inexperienced climbers. Unless you can do it like Hillary and Tenzing, you have no business on the mountain.

Dangerous only if you’re stupid enough to try and climb it. What’s the purpose? It’s been done so many times before, nobody cares anymore. The first guy got a lordship out of it.

Arrange a ONE WAY trip for Adolf Putler !

234 in one day?! Fewer than a thousand people have swum the English Channel … maybe these folks should try that instead. Although perhaps it’s not a challenge you can throw money at.

Well, technically you could. You could get a speed boat to tow you across.

The day 234 people reached the summit of Everest was 19 May 2012. I happened to be one of them. Who knows, perhaps I will try to swim the English Channel one day. I certainly have a high regard for anyone who tries. I’m guessing the commenter hasn’t though.

So this is what happens when ignorant people preach ignorance to other ignorant people. Ignorance spreads and truth becomes lost. Some of these comments are more than just ignorant, they are hateful too. That’s because ignorance and hatred tend to go hand in hand. Not a single commenter actually tried to explain in more depth why Mount Everest is so dangerous.

Well, apart from this one:

It’s very, very, very, very, very HIGH!!…that’s why..

Which, on balance, is quite an intelligent comment.

I don’t know if The Economist ever analyses the response to their articles, or whether they just publish into the void, forget about what they’ve written and move onto the next story.

I don’t know much about their editorial policy and what its aims are: whether they just publish any old crap that gets clicked on and pleases their advertisers, or whether they aim to make the world a better place.

Nor do I know much about economics, and whether their articles on economics are just as worthless as this one.

But I do know that the more crap you write, the more crap your readers will become. Personally, if I was going to write about something I knew bugger all about, I’d have to research it pretty thoroughly before writing, or otherwise it’s better left unwritten.

And if they’re not prepared to moderate comments to their articles or post responses, then I don’t know why they switch that feature on, as they just end up turning their websites into a forum for hate.

It’s quite revealing about their readership though. If all the comments are inane, then there is quite a high chance this is the reading level the writing is pitched at. I’m not that surprised. I’ve been following The Economist on Twitter and have noticed how their tweets are starting to resemble clickbait style headlines. The Economist wrote this article about Mount Everest, and you won’t believe how their readers reacted.

I recommend any journalist who doesn’t want to appear ignorant about commercial mountaineering picks up a copy of my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. Enlightenment and humour are the perfect antidote to ignorance and hatred.

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14 thoughts on “Why The Economist thinks Mount Everest is so dangerous

  • June 15, 2016 at 5:25 pm
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    Econ 101. When demand ratio to supply increases the cost goes up. The cost of mountaineering is death and injury. Therefore the more people on the mountain the more death and injury. I think not.
    Fundamental to Neo Lib economic theory is the postulate that everything is reducible to economic theory.

  • June 15, 2016 at 7:45 pm
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    A well written article Mark, maybe you should become the journalist for ‘The Economist’, you made a lot more sense than what they had published!

    Colin
    Mount Everest The British Story

  • June 15, 2016 at 7:54 pm
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    BTW, I love their use of the phrase “vertiginous snow-clad peaks”. Such poetic use of language. They could have just said “mountains”.

    Love. This.

  • June 15, 2016 at 9:56 pm
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    Your conclusion that inane articles often degenerate into forums for hate is wise and perceptive. The Economist follows a Left Wing Liberal bias which tends to demonize any sporting activity or lifestyle that stresses manliness, ruggedness, daring, independence, and personal responsibility. Mountaineers, fishermen, farmers, policemen, and soldiers all fall into this category which is why they are disparaged so much in the medial. Liberals don’t like people who who think for themselves, take risks, and push themselves to succeed where ordinary people fail, thereby putting them outside of the scope of their totalitarian control.

  • June 16, 2016 at 6:30 am
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    I wasn’t trying to make a political point. I just found it a misleading article.

  • June 16, 2016 at 8:54 am
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    I agree with RachelB, although the only variance pertains to “The Economist’s” outlook.
    Being apolitical myself, I’ve been reading the magazine regularly since 1986 and find they take a rather paternalistic open markets, privatisation (of most things it seems), neo liberal outlook.
    RachelB is correct though in that they pour scorn on people who “march to the beat of their own drum”.
    I take their editorial policy with much salt.
    That said they do have interesting stories on many subjects, but often they just talk bilge.

  • June 16, 2016 at 6:48 pm
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    Ha, OK nice trolling, guys. You got me. I take back my point about silly comments on The Economist article. 😉

  • June 16, 2016 at 9:58 pm
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    Mark, I loved your book despite the shortcomings of your style and the stretched over abundant and misplaced metaphors, by the end I thought it was great. Even so I don’t know anybody that I could recommend it too. Similarly I like the Economist (which is not a magazine about economics) and I read it cover to cover every week but I don’t know anybody else who would read it. I never understand what people are talking about when they criticize it, they are generally ignorant folks who use some preprinted/pre-prepared labels like the guy who posted above. You are probably right that the comments on the articles are stupid, but this is the case on most forums posts everywhere. Having read your book recently and having read the article you refer above, I didn’t see any incongruity. The Economist gives me everything I need to know on any topic in the world, and for the people who read it (rich powerful smart people with limited time who will never climb Mount Everest) that was a fairly accurate print article.

  • June 17, 2016 at 7:41 am
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    That’s my writing style, Mihai. They may seem over-abundant and misplaced to you, but they are entirely appropriate for me. I’m not the only travel writer to use abundant comic metaphors, and many readers enjoy them. I know I certainly do. They are less common in a book about mountaineering, but that’s OK. If I wrote any other way then it wouldn’t be me writing, and I don’t intend to change my writing style just because some people don’t like them. But I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

    I’m not quite clear why rich powerful smart people (presumably not the same ones who posted the comments) need to know about overcrowding on Everest, but not its greater dangers.

  • June 17, 2016 at 10:01 am
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    Oh yes I forgot to mention that “Economist” types do also tend to be rather touchy about criticism, which leads to them often mistaking concise analysis and identification of their flaws for sloppy labelling ,of which the above correspondent ably demonstrates.
    Oddly they also seem to pop up in the most unlikely of places extolling their propaganda…. Um I mean….”perspective”, such as taking to task anyone on a blog discussing Everest safety who happens to disagree with the diktats of the “Economist”.
    Scientists still have no explanation for this curious phenomenon.
    Its all over for us all if they next appear on my favourite blog about cats……

  • June 20, 2016 at 8:24 pm
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    Just well said Mark, flinging all those comments aside.

  • June 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm
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    Ever heard of “Godwin’s law”? It seems, there is something equal re. Everest: Always the same old bashing, mostly by people who have zero knowledge of mountaineering on extreme peaks. Same cliché-type, “Sherpas are always poor, clients/Westerners are always rich”. Well put, Mark!

  • July 24, 2016 at 12:33 pm
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    Now Mark stop bitching, just think if all these fools ceased writing crap as per The Economist you really would have nothing to bitch about and I would have nothing to chuckle about. Keep up the good work

  • Pingback: The Guardian prints another self-righteous opinion piece about Everest by some couch potato – Mark Horrell

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