Everest’s “Death Zone”

The “Death Zone” refers to high altitudes high up in the mountains that are too dangerous for human to remain for an extended time span. It starts at 8,000m above sea level and the longer the section, the lower the probability of human survival. Everest, 8,848m above sea level, is the highest mountain in the world. The 848m-long “Death Zone” is a notorious section where many Everest deaths occur. Rainbow Valley, said to be like a rainbow because the bodies in colorful hiking suits are scattered, is also in the “Death Zone.” The living man goes over the neglected body and goes up to the summit. However, it is not known whether they are heading to the top or heading to death until they leave the 1.7km round trip “Death Zone” safely. The Everest “Death Zone” is on the border between life and death. How did it take so many lives?

The higher the altitude, the lower the amount of oxygen. It is 8,000m above sea level, and the oxygen concentration in the death zone is only 1/3 of that of flat land. Breathing runs out to make up for the lack of oxygen. It rises sharply from 7 to 80 times of breathing, which was usually 20-30 times per minute. However, no matter how big or often you breathe, you still run out of breath because of the light oxygen layer, even if you’re wearing an oxygen tank. Even a professional mountaineer expressed an unresolved oxygen thirst, saying that breathing in the “Death Zone” seems to be breathing with a straw on a treadmill. The reason why the last 848m section of Everest is called the “Death Zone” is not because of the dizzying cliffs, the harsh cold of minus 30 degrees Celsius, or the avalanche that swallows the world in an instant, but because of hypoxia. Hypoxia symptoms include shortness of breath, exhaustion, and decreased concentration. He sits down and waits for death due to a sudden decline in physical strength. Or they trip due to poor concentration and fall off a cliff. Hypoxia can progress to severe conditions, then brain swelling occurs, which causes a mental disorder that causes death. In 2006, the U.S. climbing team, which was climbing the “Death Zone,” found Lincoln Hall sitting halfway through the padding and taking off his gloves. Fortunately, he was rescued safely and was able to recall the situation at that time. Taking off hats, gloves, and padding under the illusion of burning hot is a common symptom of mental disorder in death zones. A light oxygen layer that drains your physical strength in an instant, and a voice urging you to take off your clothes because it’s hot. As such, the “Death Zone” is aiming for the life of a climber. What is the way to survive there?

If you get out within a day, you can go back alive. Humans are said to be unable to survive more than 24 hours in a death zone. Even that is based on professional mountaineers. You have to get out 20 hours at the latest. It takes about 16 to 18 hours to travel back and forth from the last camp on the threshold of the “Death Zone” to the top of Everest. It’s a close schedule with only two to four hours difference in death zone survival time. Some expressed the pressure of being chased by survival time, saying that they seem to be wearing a time bomb on the day they reach the top. Factors that delay the climbing schedule while competing for survival can kill lives. For example, if a bottleneck occurs right in front of the summit of Everest. Yes, Everest’s “Death Zone” is the reason why it is fatal. 

This photo, which heated up 2019, was taken at the South Summit, only 130 meters from the top of Everest. The passage to the summit is as narrow as the width of the laptop and is a round-trip section where climbing and descending take place. In addition, it is said that even a small number of people will cause bottlenecks because it is a place where they lead their weakened bodies to the point of weakening due to hiking for more than half a day. It usually takes two to three hours to get to and from the top of the South Summit. On May 23, 2019, the largest crowd ever flocked to the top, creating a “death waiting line.” An Indian climber who lost his life due to exhaustion while descending said he wasted as much as 12 hours in the “death waiting line” alone. Numerous people spent precious survival time and oxygen waiting for their turn to pass, standing still in the cold of minus 30 degrees Celsius and snowstorms reaching 160 kilometers per hour. Eleven climbers died on Everest in 2019. About half of them are said to have been caused by the “waiting line of death.”

The international community strongly criticized the Nepalese government’s irresponsible administration for killing climbers who were climbing the “Death Zone.” Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, says the Everest tourism industry is their main source of income. In the 1990s, the Nepalese government removed the limit on the number of climbing permits issued only to maximize profits. Since then, the issuance of permits has increased every year, issuing the largest number of permits ever (381 foreigners) in 2019. In addition, the proportion of novice climbers has increased. Local travel agencies, which are only bent on attracting customers, have given climbing permits to those who have never used crampons and jumar to those who have never climbed alpine. Beginner climbers who are not prepared technically, mentally, or physically can cause stagnation in climbing with slow and immature movements. To make matters worse, the weather in May 2019 was not good, so the period for climbing to the top was short. As a result, the “death waiting line” occurred as the largest number of people ever flocked in the shortest period in recent years. 

But wouldn’t you feel threatened with life if you saw hundreds of people lined up while your survival time was decreasing? Nevertheless, why are we in the “waiting line of death” without turning away? It’s probably because of the Summit fever. Summit Fever is a kind of compulsion that is obsessed with reaching the top and overlooks risks. It is said that it is common in death zones where normal people come into view. They say they make bold decisions rather than rational because they expect that they will be able to reach the top if they suffer a little more and that their efforts and investments are wasted otherwise. In addition, if your judgment is blurred due to hypoxia, beginners who are not good at arranging their physical strength are more likely to make reckless decisions. Like choosing to wait endlessly in the “death queue” without considering the physical strength and oxygen needed for descending. The reason Everest’s “Death Zone” was fatal was not because of its dangerous terrain and ruthless natural disasters, but because of a waiting line of 300 people. The Nepalese government says it will issue permits only to those who have climbed more than 6,500 meters of peaks in Nepal to prevent “death waiting lines.” However, there is still no upper limit for the number of climbers. Unfortunately, the number of climbers visiting Everest tends to surge after major accidents. I think the 2019 disaster will also stimulate a hasty desire to challenge rather than raise awareness. In addition, I think the 2021 Everest Base Camp will be crowded with the largest number of people ever as many people postpone their climbing plans to the following year due to the 2020 pandemic. Wouldn’t those who climb Everest in May 2021 need the courage to turn to the top more than ever?

By Sunghun “Matthew” Park