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4.8.2008 Risks involved in mountain climbing

There are 14 over 8000m mountains in the world and all of them have been ascended both with and without supplementary oxygen. The conditions in those altitudes are, however, approaching the human limits. Even though well acclimatized climbers manage to operate in these conditions a short period of time the low atmospheric pressure and lack of oxygen will eventually lead to both physical and psychologic problems. The biggest problems are hypothermia, dehydration, low humidity and lack of oxygen.

Mountain climbing is risky, but with proper attitude and safety culture the risks can be reduced considerably. All accidents, starting from traffic accident during approach to a collapse of serac cannot be always predicted. Therefore the ascents of Mount Everest done prior to 1990 were deemed dangerous. Until then 37% of the summited climbers died. Since then, due to the improved oxygen apparatus, climbing techniques and better equipment, the risk has gone down to 4.4%. If all ascents until 2003 are taken into account (1925 ascents) the fatality rate has been 9.3% (179 dead climbers). As of today there are probably more than 2500 summited climbers. Major accidents have been rather scarce, 1996 in Mount Everest and now in K2. The statistics show that the world?s third highest mountain, Kachejunga (8584m) is the most dangerous. There are 185 summited climbers and 40 fatalities. Until 1990 the mortality rate was 22%. After that out of 81 summiteers 18 has died, again mortality rate of 22%. This shows that improved equipment and climbing techniques have not helped the climbers in Kachejunga at all. The mortality rate in K2 has been assumed being high and yes, it has been high. All in all 198 summiteers and 53 fatalities gives mortality rate of 27%. Until 1990 the mortality rate was 40% but has been declining since very strongly. Between 1990-2003 K2 was summited 132 times and 26 people died during the descent giving mortality rate of 19.7%. That is clearly more than in Mount Everest but less than in Kachejunga.

The climber who ascends to any of these over 8000m mountains without supplementary oxygen has clearly higher risk than a climber with supplementary oxygen. E.g. every fifth summiteer without supplementary oxygen in K2 has died during the descent. Usually only the most experienced climbers do decide to summit without supplementary oxygen and they do have a support of a big expedition with number of porters, guides and oxygen to be used in case of emergency. Therefore we can assume that climbing without supplementary oxygen would be even more risky in smaller expeditions without these extra reserves. The most usual cause of death in these mountains is probably a fall. But deaths due to exhaustion, dehydration and frostbite do also occur and these occurring before a fatal fall is difficult to estimate. And even though a climber is well acclimatized a hard physical exhortion can lead to acute mountain sickness and pulmonary edema.

Even though you cannot accurately predict a collapse of a serac a good climbing technique, calm and analytic thinking, acknowledging the risks, knowing, accepting and respecting own limits can help to manage and overcome even invincible risks.

The Airborne Ranger Club of Finland Everest expedition tries to take into account this kind of risks and acting accordingly while preparing for the spring 2009. E.g. we have chosen to use the North Ridge route starting from Tibet. There we have to travel in a glacier at the heights of 5000-6400 meters without a need to cross such dangerous and unstabile serac areas as Khumbu ice fall in the normal route in Nepal side. And from 7000m onwards the route follows rock formations which do not have glacier problems like crevasses or seracs. The ascend to North Col will be done via a ice and snow wall but we aim on using lines that are known to be as safe as possible. Eventually we will make the decisions to push forward based on our own experience and the information gathered from other expeditions in the area.

The expedition doctor, Heikki Karinen