Pitfalls to avoid and why people don’t summit on Mt Everest.
What to do to prepare for it and how to
maximise your chances of success
(or ‘why people fail’)
|Giles Ruck at the top of The Geneva Spur en route to The South Col on a pretty windy day. Only by having a prolific mountaineering cv and by being fully acquainted with his gear was Giles able to successfully negotiate his way without encountering any problems en route. On Everest even just losing a glove can rapidly become a life threatening situation.
I’ve been asked not only for details of the route and itinerary on Everest but also, increasingly, people want to know what are the pitfalls to be aware of and how best to prepare for the expedition. For some folk the expedition top tips
will be sufficient, for some they will need to get up to speed with the skills required
whereas for others a more tangible approach is to find out the actual problems that people face when they are on Everest and then be able to be prepare themselves (mentally and psychically) accordingly.
There are going to be a lot of generalisations because sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between, say, the person who hasn’t acclimatised very well and the person who succumbed to illness part way through the trip. Basically they both may have been successful if they had more time – but there isn’t more time. They have flights to catch, jobs and family to get back to and bills to pay.
First off we cannot ignore that, sadly, people die year on year on Everest. Interestingly there is no direct correlation between numbers on the hill and deaths that happen every year – so one cannot come up with a straight %age figure. Partly this will be due to variables (people, their experience, their acclimatisation rotations etc) but also will be due to the variances every year with weather conditions, route conditions and, in particular, how people fare on summit day.
There would appear, however, to be a direct correlation between fatalities and experience (or lack of it) as well as fatalities and cheap operations on the mountain.
More people die as a result of high altitude and / or exhaustion than any other reason. Falls account for the next highest %age closely followed by exposure. In reality falls may well be down to human error and possible a result of either complacency or lack of experience. I’m not entirely sure how exposure can be differentiated from high altitude and exhaustion because, surely, an exhausted climber who sits down and can’t move … will eventually become a cold climber who can’t move. So, personally, I’d say that exposure is right up there with the high altitude and exhaustion issue.
Crevasses, heart attacks, avalanche etc are way down there and only account for a very small %age of fatalities in the great scheme of things.
So we have to ask ourselves – why do more people die on summit day than at any other stage of their expedition? Well I’m afraid there would appear to be two reasons and they may well be linked (which I have already alluded to).
Generalisation No 1:
A lot of people who die on summit day would appear to be inexperienced mountaineers. Yes there are some folk up there who are pretty experienced and unfortunately things went wrong – but generally it would appear that the majority of folk who die on Everest summit day are lacking in sufficient experience.
Only by building a mountaineering cv where you are an independent mountaineer in your own right are you going to be able to react automatically to the ever changing weather and conditions. It’s all very well having a Climbing Sherpa by your side but he can’t tell you that your hands are getting cold and how to deal with it. He can’t force you to drink (although our Climbing Sherpas will keep reminding you that you ought to) so he can’t tell if you are becoming dehydrated.
To that end when it suddenly becomes apparent that a) you have cold hands and can’t operate the karabiners and jumars or b) you collapse because of exhaustion (but added to that you are dehydrated and therefore much more prone to frostbite and hypothermia) there may not be a great deal that he will be able to do for you because you are a liability to yourself and everyone around you. More so if you are with a cheap operator with inexperienced Sherpas, inadequate oxygen supply and no way of mounting a rescue operation.
Generalisation No 2:
When people die year on year the same agency names keep cropping up. Hardly any clients on Everest die with the big operators (who incidentally have good summit success rates to boot) but people die every year with the cheap Kathmandu outfitters and shoddy companies who provide a crap service at a cheap price.
And incidentally they also have very poor success rates for those clients who manage to live through the experience.
What can you do?
Get yourself suitably well trained up and go with a proper professionally led expedition. But therein lies a problem … how do you compare like for like?
Why is it that people ask more in depth questions about buying a second hand car than they do about what their operator will be providing (or not providing) when they are climbing Everest? People will negotiate the cost for trading in, want a set of mud flaps, ask about the number of previous owners, the service history, how long there is on the MoT etc etc.
But that same person will not ask about the experience of the Climbing Sherpas and whether they have a command of English (or any other language), what is the policy regarding Climbing Sherpas and clients on summit day (1:1 is the only option), how much oxygen is available, is there spare oxygen, are there spare masks and regulators, what contingencies are in place for problems to be dealt with, what (if any) medication is carried on summit day, who is sorting the logistics on the hill, what weather forecasting do they have, are there any high altitude porters etc etc. Some folk even manage to end up paying MORE than they would with a professional outfit because they hadn’t realised that oxygen and Climbing Sherpas were not included in the price!!!
I think ‘WTF?!?’ springs to mind.
Regardless of all that (and I could go on so don’t get me started) there are other issues that people will come across that are very often quite personal to them as an individual. Other than having a tragic accident, what other reasons are there for people not summiting Everest? Generally speaking most people who fail have probably underestimated the mountain and overestimated their own ability.
There are a few cases of shear bad luck (illness at exactly the wrong time in the expedition (is there a right time to be ill?)) – but most are probably due to lack of personal preparation and attention to detail and, with better training and planning before the trip, the clients may well have fared better with a successful summit under their belt.
Know your gear.
A classic case where inadequate preparation starts to manifest itself in other ways is when people don’t know their gear. It all sounds very anal but you need to know the subtleties about how your gear works, if there are any drawbacks that you have discovered along the way and what, if anything, you can do about it. You may not have noticed in the comfort of the shop that it is difficult to grab hold of a zipper on your down suit because you hadn’t popped a pair of mitts on and discovered that it was an issue. But it can be.
Or that you are unable to go to the loo for a No2 wearing your suit because the zipper on the thigh is useless, the position makes it a very awkward proposition and you now realise why you should have bought a suit with a rainbow drop seat or an up and under arrangement (see the down suit review
Or that you can’t fit your mittened hand in your jumar without squashing that precious down that results in less warmth being available to the compromised circulation in your hands.
These small innocuous sounding examples suddenly take on a whole different and, at times, life threatening meaning. You suddenly realise that perhaps more time being acquainted with your gear would have been invaluable and this can put you in to a psychologically bad place. Being in tune with your clothing and equipment, and having discovered any drawbacks before the trip, will allow you to either adapt the way you operate or, better still, replace the item in question.
It is too late when you are departing C3 to go on your summit bid via the South Col that you find it a bit claustrophobic wearing the oxygen mask. It is too late when you are popping your crampons on at the beginning of The Khumbu Icefall to discover that they aren’t long enough for your oversized boots and that you need extension bars (and incidentally what have you been doing for the past week whilst sat acclimatising at Base Camp dickhead?).
Prior preparation is absolutely key to being in a better frame of mind and able to deal with the real issues around you.
Other concerns people may have.
In no particular order I have also come across the following situations :
1. ‘It was colder than I thought it would be.’
Okay folks – I don’t want to be too harsh here because there are some extenuating circumstances – but this is Everest. What did you expect? Yes, some seasons are slightly colder than others, but in the general scheme of things there isn’t that much in it really. So, what can you do to prepare for the cold nights and the cold summit day?
Well first off a good grounding in Scottish winter mountaineering, where you are out in all conditions, will stand you in extremely good stead. Not just the nice blue sky days (not that there are many of those anyway) but out in all weathers, come snow or shine regardless of how windy it is (without compromising safety of course) and for decent quality hill days. Don’t kid yourself that trekking in to Sneacdha and out again, or mooching to the CIC hut and back down, is a quality day. If you have had a lie in and / or are back in time for lunch you are not building a significant mountaineering cv and you are kidding yourself that you are a seasoned Scottish winter mountaineer. Long arduous days on the hill, in a whole variety of conditions, over a number of seasons, will stand you in extremely good stead. It’s arguably some of the best training that you can do for any expedition.
A good grounding on other expeditions will obviously serve you well and is a definite pre requisite for Everest. Regardless of your previous experience you are still venturing in to the unknown. So remember to bear in mind that as you go higher, and there is less oxygen so, in turn, your circulation may well be compromised. To that end if you are a cold person you will inevitably feel colder at altitude. Regardless of that make sure that you bring decent quality clothing and equipment (don’t settle for 2nd best) that you are well acquainted with (see above), have good quality spare mitts (and use them before your hands get cold), use foot and hand warm up pads on summit day as a default, don’t have snug boots or you will get cold feet and remain hydrated. Knowing instinctively when to layer up, when to keep moving because you are in the shade and the sun is just over there, realising the importance of concurrent activity and remembering that the best way to not get cold hands is to not let them get cold in the first place are all the sorts of things that should have been learnt over the course of an extensive number of years out in the hills.
As long as you understand the importance of, say, not losing a glove and the implications that can have on Everest then you are focusing in the right direction. In The Lakes if you lose a glove you can just pop your hand in your pocket. In Scotland, in winter, if a glove blows away then you probably have a spare one in your rucksack.
On Everest however … if you put a glove or mitt between your knees or pop it in your mouth, and then drop it, you have suddenly enterred a life threatening situation. By the time you get your rucksack off and untangled yourself from your oxygen set your hand will be cold. Circulation is already compromised to the extremities because of the lack of oxygen available and so vaso constriction will be almost instantaneous in the wrist. By the time you get your spare mitt (if you were carrying one in the first place) your hand will be so cold that even popping the best mitt on will serve no purpose. It is not a ‘warm mitt’ it just has the potential to be a warm mitt. But that is reliant on warmth being available to be trapped in the mitt – but there isn’t any warmth being geneated and so your cold hand becomes inoperative. It’s difficult trying to operate the gear and manage stance changes with only one hand. You become slower, the situation becomes more drastic, you become colder and before you know it you are looking down the barrel … and all because of a lost glove.
2. ‘It was a bit harder than I thought.’
This is a difficult one because unless you have been there you don’t know what to expect. Or do you? By building a comprehensive climbing and mountaineering cv you can start to prepare yourself for most eventualities and turns of events. As long as you are happy in the vertical environment and able to look after and manage yourself in the ever changing mountain conditions then you will stand a good chance of summit success. But this is only possible by digging deep and a lot of it comes down to whether you have the inclination, drive, stamina, mental tenacity and a positive mental attitude – a lot of which comes with a prolific amount of experience (see note above re Scottish winter!).
3. ‘How can I climb THAT when I feel like THIS down here?’
Well, unless you have a go you’ll never know. People forget that when they first arrived at BC (circa 5,200m) they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well (altitude is great isn’t it?). But after a visit to C1 at 6,000m (where they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well) when they returned to Base Camp it was suddenly a much better place to be.
And then when they had had a couple of nights at C2 at 6,400m (guess what – they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well) Base Camp, by comparison, was a very +ve place to be, rest was forthcoming and they had the best night’s sleep of the trip thus far.
So when you hearken back to how you initially felt at BC and compare it with the BC experience 7 or 8 days later you then need to have the self belief that a similar process will happen for your experiences at C1 and C2. A positive mental attitude (and a certain faith in the words of your illustrious expedition leader) will go a long way.
4. ‘I’m missing my wife / husband / girlfriend / dog / children.’ (not necessarily in that order).
You need to put your life on hold for at least a month before the trip (you will still physically be at home but mentally you’ll be away with the fairies), as well as for the 8 weeks’ that you are away and then for another fortnight or so when you get back (post trip high). If you don’t have the support of your friends and family then it is difficult to be away. And if you have what I call ’emotional baggage’ you will find it very difficult to make upward progress.
I’m not suggesting that you be a heartless soul and just forget about your family … but you do need to be able to concentrate on the job in hand because it’s a risky venture and you can’t be having distractions whilst on the hill.
5. ‘It’s slow going at altitude … I thought I was fit.’
Yes it is slow. And whenever I see people going what they think is slow I have to tell them that they should be going slower. Invariably it is a case of the hare and the tortoise – those who power ahead will stop every 10 to 15 minutes whilst the slower people (usually me) will catch up and cruise past without breaking a sweat.
Perseverance will go a long way as will managing yourself along the route. Adjusting zippers, hats, gloves, applying lip salve, drinking etc can all be managed on the move and concurrent activity at stops will also help to save a lot of time. You also need to realise the importance of looking after yourself on arrival at the next camp. Rather than sitting down and recovering on arrival at C1 or C3 (we have a cook at C2) what about popping a cooker on the go to melt some snow … and then recovering? Once recovered ‘Hey Presto!’ you have a drink. And remember, drink is more important than food and food more important than sleep. You can go in to deficit when you are on the hill for a few days and then when you get back down to BC it’s time to rest, rehydrate and recuperate before the next foray.
6. ‘No pain, no gain.’
Well actually it’s a case of the first person to get to camp is often the first to get a headache. Go slowly (see above), drink plenty, take photos and enjoy the trip. It’s a shame to have come all this way and not to actually see anything because you are so intent on proving something to the others around you. All that you will prove is that you are stubborn and not looking after yourself appropriately.
7. ‘I can’t sleep at night.’
Some people really struggle with sleep apnoea (chain stokes breathing
) which is a by product of going to altitude. It’s to do with pH imbalances in the blood and how our brain adjusts our breathing when asleep. It basically involves periods where you aren’t breathing and then, when there is the right level of CO2 in the blood, the brain tells you to start breathing again – which means you wake with a start and a gasp. All a bit unsettling but if you remember that a) it is normal b) it’s happening to most of the other people on the trip and c) you were doing it at BC when you first arrived and now you aren’t (see 3 above) then you will hopefully become accustomed to it.
You will feel that you haven’t slept but in fact you have just spent 12 hours or so in your bag and are, despite everything, probably well rested. Have faith.
8. ‘I am ill / don’t seem to be acclimatising / am struggling with the altitude.’
Again a certain amount of faith that you will get better / feel better / adjust to the environment may well will see you through. You know what it’s like at home when you have a bout of flu – how will I ever go back to work feeling like this? And 3 days later you are out of bed and within a week you are running, jumping, laughing, working, socialising.
You have to accept that fact that illness often takes longer to recover from at altitude but, fear not, you’ll get there. The itinerary is generous enough that you aren’t out of the loop and I have various tricks up my sleeve to maintain as much flexibility to allow for individual ascent profiles right up until the day we are trekking out.
Plus I have the biggest bag of medication you have ever seen.
Like the situation of ‘how can I climb THAT whilst feeling like THIS down here’ some folk can be very anxious because of the stories they hear from other climbers. It isn’t necessarily scare mongering … just excited summiteers coming down to recount the tale of their ‘ordeal’. Just because they lost a glove, their crampon came off, they had a piece of ice whizz down past them doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you.
Probably best not to listen to their stories in the first place. So don’t read more in to it than there is and, if anything, learn from their errors and experiences.
10. ‘I thought there would be better logistical support on the hill.’
Well … you should have signed up with me then! I’m not suggesting that what I provide is absolutely perfect – but it’s not far off it.
Have a look at this blog entry for further details about what level we go to to make sure that people are suitably looked after on the hill and the level of support that we provide. It’s what we see as a standard belt and braces approach that is the minimum requirement. Other expeditions aspire to fulfil the same levels of service and fall far short.
My belief is that the expedition should not only be safe and fun but should be run as a tight ship with a perfect handle on logistics. This should be done in conjunction with a proficient Base Camp crew and experienced, competent and trustworthy Climbing Sherpas. This then needs to be underpinned by a Western leader who understands acclimatisation and has a grasp of Wilderness First Aid who works alongside an experienced Sirdar. And lastly the expedition needs the safety net of having one of the best agents in KTM who can organise helicopter rescue at the drop of a hat and who can then deal with an evacuation and look after clients and their needs accordingly.
You get all that, and more, with my trip.
So there you have it – a variety of reasons why people don’t summit this magnificent mountain. Yes there will always be the unfortunate cases where people literally will never acclimatise (a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage by the way), and there will also be the bouts of illness or injury where folk just don’t make an adequate recovery.
There are a whole load of things that I can do to help with getting camps established, having some loads carried and assigning Climbing Sherpa support where necessary, but at the end of the day it is down to you to make sure that you are physically and mentally prepared.
It’s all very well sending me a comprehensive mountaineering cv and getting accepted on to the trip – but unless you follow that up with some vigorous training (hill training is far better than gym training and outdoor climbing more tangible than indoor) leading up to the trip you may well be in for a short sharp shock.
Only you can put one foot in front of the other – it can’t be done for you.
Time to get out on the hill.