Climbing Mt. Everest is No Walk in the Park
I remember the night of May 20, 2022 very well. I was waiting on a phone call. This call was special. This call was from the top of Mt. Everest.
Meagan McGrath, Sudbury’s most beloved adventurer, had left for the summit of Mt. Everest 4-5 hours before, and I wasn’t about to miss her phone call that would come in sometime late that evening. I had hunkered down at Science North with snacks, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a couple of movies to pass the time. Meagan wasn’t nearly going to be as comfortable as me as she climbed the world tallest peak struggling with every breath and pushing her body to its limit.
I knew Meagan’s journey was not going to be easy. Success in summiting is not guaranteed. There are many risks on summit day and anything can happen on Everest. Altitude sickness, avalanches, crevasses, severe frostbite, weather, and human error are all risks climbers face.
After hiking to base camp, climbers begin many days of altitude acclimatization. You don’t climb Everest all in one shot. Your body needs time to adjust the amount of air available to you to breathe. The higher you go, the less air is available for you to breathe. At the summit of Mt. Everest, there is only 33% of the air that you breathe at sea level. Basically breathing three times on the summit is like taking only one breathe at sea level. So in order to adjust, climbers will slowly acclimatize their bodies to this lack of oxygen by consistently climbing each day, reaching different altitudes and climbing back down to a camp below.
Acclimatization is essential, but is also a dangerous. Climbers must climb up and down the Khumbu Icefall. This area is the head of the Khumbu glacier and is constantly moving and changing. Here, a climber could fall into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, be swallowed by an avalanche, or be hit by a crumbling tower of ice, called a serac. There is no safe place on Everest.
When summit day finally approaches, weather is key to a successful attempt at the summit. Weather can change on a moment’s notice and being aware of the weather and possible changes to the weather is imperative.
Many climbers explain how “easy” it can be to reach the summit. You put your heart, soul, lungs, and entire being into getting to the summit, with adrenaline carrying you there, but that’s only half the battle. There is the small thing about making it back down. Many climbers die on the way down, having run out of oxygen, suffering from altitude-related illnesses and extreme fatigue. The extreme cold can begin to take its toll and there is a constant risk of avalanche.
I knew after Meagan had summited and I had received that phone call from her, the most difficult time was about to begin. When we finally received word that she had made it safely down to Camp 3 and then back to base camp, we knew she had done it. But over the newswire we were hearing stories about Meagan and her efforts in saving a Nepalese climber who was suffering from cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).
“I saved her life, but she was also dying in my hands, too. It was a very tenuous situation. I did not have everything I needed to help her,” Meagan told The Associated Press. “Her condition was deteriorating to a point where I was very concerned that she would die.”
In Meagan’s true modest fashion, she never mentioned this to us here at Science North and we relied on news reports to tell us what was unfolding on Everest. A week later Meagan was honoured by Nepal’s Mountaineering Association, in a ceremony in Kathmandu. But not all climbers are as successful as Meagan, or as lucky as Usha Bista, the climber Meagan helped to save.
More than 250 people have died while climbing Mt. Everest since 1922, with the most recent seasons being among the deadliest. In 2014, a large avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 people. But the 2015 climbing season became the most fatal year in Everest history, with at least 22 fatalities following an avalanche triggered by the large 7.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal.
Climbing Everest is not without controversy. Increased traffic on the mountain has caused the ropes to become overcrowded - often slowing down faster climbers and causing dangerous and sometimes life-threatening human traffic jams. Trash, human waste, and the bodies of fallen climbers line the route of Everest, with the potential to pollute the local watershed below. It is estimated that there could be up to 10 tons of trash on the mountain. Officials are moving to make Everest more sustainable and in 2014 imposed a policy to ensure that each climber brings down 18 pounds of trash with them once they leave Base Camp.
Climbing the world’s tallest peak will certainly remain one of life’s most extreme adventures and will continue to capture the hopes, dreams, and imaginations of many. Despite of the risks, as long as there are mountains to climb, there will be climbers wanting to climb them.