A new study conducted by the University of Washington and the University of California takes a look at the past two decades of climbing on Mt. Everest and comes away with some interesting trends. The researchers who crunched the numbers determined that despite the fact that the mountain has become increasingly crowded, it has also gotten a little safer as well. Furthermore, the success rate on the world’s highest peak has increasing substantially too, leading to more people than ever reaching the summit of the mountain.
According to the report, from 1990 to 2005, the risk of dying on Mt. Everest stood at 1.7% for men and 1.9% of women. Since then however, those numbers have dropped significantly, even as more people have flocked to the mountain. From 2006 to 2019, the mortality rate for men stood at 1.1%, while women faired even better, dropping to just .5%. This comes despite a fourfold increase in the number of climbers attempting Everest over that same span, which increased from 222 mountaineers in 2000 to 955 last year.
These numbers run a bit counter to what the mainstream press has been telling us over the past few years, stressing the narrative that climbing Everest is incredibly dangerous and deadly. Those who don’t follow the mountaineering scene closely will point to the 11 fatalities from 2019 and say that it was one of the desalted years on record. From a single number standpoint, that is true. But when you factor in how many climbers are on the mountain, the death rate doesn’t look quite so scary.
That said, any death on Everest is tragic, and I’ve been a proponent of increased regulation on climbing permits for years. The mountain may be getting safer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to further improve it. Even though the mountain has gotten somewhat safer—at least in terms of the raw data—limiting it to fewer climbers with more experience would still be a benefit to everyone involved.
In addition to seeing an increasing number of climbers and a decreasing mortality rate, the study also revealed that the level of success on Everest has increased dramatically too. Stating in the early 90s and running through 2005, about one third of all the climbers who attempted the mountain were successful. Today, that has climbed to two thirds, more than doubling the number of people who stand on top of the peak. This is probably due to a number of issues, including better all around training and experience for the guides, improved gear, a more-proven strategy for climbing the mountain, and so on.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the research is that overcrowding doesn’t seem to be a factor when it comes to safety on the mountain. At least not yet. The document clearly states “Surprisingly, crowding has no evident effect on success or death during summit bids,” which is again counter to what we’ve been told. The researcher do go on to point out that as the numbers of climbers continues to rise, it will invariably slow down the ascent. This can lead to individuals being exposed to the cold and low levels of oxygen for longer than they had in the past, which ultimately remains a very dangerous proposition.
With no climbing season in the Himalaya this year, 2021 could end up being a very busy one on the Big Hill. Whether or not that will have an impact on the level of success and the number of fatalities remains to be seen. Right now though, there are an awful lot of people in Nepal, and elsewhere, who are anxious to get back to business.