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Four People Have Died on Everest in as Many Days

The mountain’s terrible toll has set the 2016 climbing season off to a rocky start

A pile of discarded prayer flags lays in front of Mount Everest, which claimed four lives in just four days over the weekend. (Gunter Hagleitner (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

The trails that wind up the world’s tallest mountain peak are littered with dead bodies—silent sentinels of the perils of the ambitious trek. Now, Mount Everest's dangers are being made clearer than ever with reports that four people have died on the mountain in as many days.

The Atlantic’s J. Weston Phippen reports that the death toll began on Thursday, when a climbing guide named Phurba Sherpa fell to his death. He was followed by Eric Arnold, a Dutch man who may have had a heart attack after summiting, Maria Strydom, an Australian professor who died of altitude sickness, and Subash Paul, a member of a team of Indian climbers and four Sherpas, who also died of altitude sickness. And as the BBC reports, another 30 have suffered altitude sickness or frostbite in recent days, and two other climbers in Paul’s group are missing in the “death zone” near the mountain’s summit.

Researchers have found that most deaths on Everest take place in the “death zone,” which can be found at the highest parts of the mountain above 26,000 feet. At that altitude, frostbite, low atmospheric pressure and low blood oxygen can wreak havoc on the unacclimated human body, causing fatigue, dizziness and severe conditions like pulmonary edema—fluid in the lungs—and brain swelling.

The frailty of the human body isn’t the only threat on Everest, though: In recent years, the mountain has become so dangerous that it was repeatedly closed by Nepalese and Chinese authorities. Nobody summited during the 2015 season, and the 2016 season has been just as treacherous.

Local policies could be to blame, writes Curt Mills for U.S. News: Since 2014, Nepalese authorities have cut permit fees for the climb and have been accused of not doing enough to ensure climbers’ safety. But a Nepalese tourism official tells Mills that the deaths are due to unprepared climbers.

As Phurba Sherpa and Madison Park write for CNN,  though April and May are the most popular months to climb due to reduced wind, the climate is still “brutal,” with temperatures between -31 and -4. Smithsonian.com contributor Rachel Nuwer writes for the BBC that most deaths on Everest occur after the summit has been reached. Avalanches cause the most deaths (29 percent), followed by “other” (27 percent), falls (23 percent), exposure/frostbite (11 percent) and acute mountain sickness (10 percent), according to Nigel Hawtin's infographic Deaths on Everest.

Amazingly, the deadly four days are not the worst Everest has ever seen. That grim milestone happened in April 2015, when 17 people died in an avalanche triggered by the huge Nepal earthquake. Given the dangers of the mountain—and the toll humans take on its once-pristine slopes—perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether people should summit Everest at all.

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