Monday, December 15, 2008

Why climbers die on Everest

In my daily Slashdot read I came across an article describing why climbers die on Everest.

ScienceDaily (2008-12-15) -- Researchers have conducted the first detailed analysis of deaths during expeditions to the summit of Mt. Everest. They found that most deaths occur during descents from the summit in the so-called "death zone" above 8,000 meters and also identified factors that appear to be associated with a greater risk of death, particularly symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema.

This reminded me of the first South African expedition up Everest in 1996, close on the heels of the first democratic elections in '94.  Everyone in the country was feeling the euphoria of a peaceful transition and the promise of the "Rainbow Nation" and this trip was touted in the newspapers because it was sponsored by Nelson Mandela and was originally a multiracial team.

I knew two of the people who went on this expedition: Cathy O'Dowd and Ed February.  Cathy was working at the Journalism department at Rhodes University in the few years before and I met Ed later through a close friend and climbing icon in the Eastern Cape (Keith James).

Ed is a towering figure in the South African Climbing community and he and Andy De Klerk (another famous South African climber) resigned from the expedition early on after conflicts with the leader, Ian Woodhall.  The rest of the expedition was full of controversy.  We read about it in the newspaper (the Sunday Times withdrew support for the expedition) and heard accounts via climbing friends of Ed and Andy's unhappiness with the organization and how Woodhall handled it.  Cathy gives gives an account of this on her web site.

A massive storm that year took the lives of 12 people.  John Krakauer, in his book Into Thin Air makes a short critical mention of the South African party's unwillingness to allow others to use their powerful radio to help co-ordinate rescue efforts during the crisis.

In 1998, Ian Woodall and Cathy O'Dowd returned to Everest and were forced to abandon the summit attempt when they came across a stricken climber (Francys Arsentiev) about 800ft from the summit.  She begged them not to leave her and after struggling for more than an hour to help her, they were forced to descend without her.  They returned to summit the next year and could clearly see her body where they had left her.  That year Cathy became the first woman to complete ascents of Everest from both sides.

Ian Woodall returned to Everest in 2007 with the intention of burying the woman they had been forced to abandon.   He located her and dropped her body off the North face after a brief memorial.

No comments:

Post a Comment