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.
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.
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.
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.