60 Years on Everest: Is It Safer Now?

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In the past few years, the number of climbers attempting to summit the world’s tallest mountain has risen to the point that Base Camp resembles a small town. Many have associated the crowds with increasing danger. Sensational headlines call the mountain a “death trap” and a “morgue.” But one climber’s analysis of data reveals that the number of deaths per summit has actually declined.

“I thought it would be interesting to look at this question because whenever anyone dies on Everest the media goes crazy,” said Alan Arnette, who has been to Everest four times and summited in 2011. “I thought, wait a minute; let’s really look at the facts.”

When he did, gleaning statistics from the Himalayan Database, 8000ers.com and Wikipedia, he found that the death rate per summit has dropped significantly since the 1990s.

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When commercialization hit the mountain in the 90s, the rate went up to 5.56 percent. And since 2000, it's dropped to 1.5 percent. That’s lower than the overall death rate of 3.2 percent since 1922.

Of course, because 5,048 of the 6,214 summits have been in the 2000s, there are more actual deaths: 69 since 2000, vs. 59 in the 90s.

Ellen Miller, the first American woman to climb the mountain from both sides, agrees that safety innovations have made the climb less risky than it was decades ago.

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“Armchair mountaineers really generalize a lot about Mount Everest,” Miller said. “They say, oh, it’s so dangerous now because of the crowds. But my perception is that it’s safer now than it was 50 years ago.”

The most obvious safety innovation is much improved weather forecasting and communication. Other factors, such as improved responsibility among commercial outfitters, using established routes, and better partnership with sherpas, probably also play a role.

Some think that with today’s forecasting, the 1996 tragedy might have been avoided. A surprise storm hit Everest and eight people died during a two-day span in May.

Today, not only are the predictions better, but communication is fairly simple: Cell phone antennas were installed in base camp in 2010. Arnette's team delayed their summit by a week last year because they knew a front was moving in.