Saturday, October 06, 2012

Death Tourism

Six people died on Mount Everest on the weekend of May 19-20. This year was the deadliest on Mount Everest since 12 climbers died on the mountain in 1996. But this year's deaths were not the result of mountain climbers being caught off guard by a sudden storm, being struck by falling rocks or being buried by an avalanche. They died because they were exhausted, because they were climbing too slowly, or because they ignored the symptoms of altitude sickness and did not turn around in time.

Every spring, when Himalayan weather conditions are most favorable, alpinists from all over the world attempt to scale Mount Everest. They include professional mountain climbers and scientists, but also a growing number of adventurers who really have no business climbing the world's highest peak. They are people seeking an extreme experience, lured by an expedition industry that is marketing Everest as a tourist destination. The Himalayan peak has become "an amusement park," says top Italian alpinist Simone Moro.

There are about 100 companies in Nepal that organize expeditions to the top of Mount Everest, and 40 of them are headquartered in Kathmandu. The well-known outfitters charge about $35,000 for the climb, while trips with discounters that offer climbs on the Tibetan side can be had for about $10,000. To lower the cost, they cut corners with personnel and equipment, such as ropes, carabiners, radios and oxygen bottles.

In the death zone, barometric pressure is only about a third of what it is at sea level, meaning that there is less pressure to push oxygen into the lungs. Breathing is difficult and climbers can only move at very slow speeds, even though their hearts are racing. So little oxygen reaches the brain that climbers revert to the mental capacity of a small child. Their minds become dull and their ability to perceive their environment is limited.

Oxygen deprivation causes brain cells die off and the blood to thicken. There are two forms of altitude sickness that are life-threatening: pulmonary edema, in which water accumulates in the lungs, and brain edema, in which fluid collects in the skull. Within a few hours, a brain edema can trigger swelling of the head that puts the mountain climber into a coma. People who develop altitude sickness in the death zone have to descend as quickly as possible.

No one should remain in areas of very low barometric pressure for more than 24 hours, which is why the ascent to Everest from Camp 4 is a race against time.

Billi Bierling, a Swiss professional mountain climber "The disaster in May was a signal that the mountain urgently needs a break. But it won't get it. There's too much money to be made on Everest," he says.

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