Take Two for April 9, 2013

60 years of epic (and deadly) climbs at Mount Everest

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PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

This photograph taken from an aircraft shows an aerial view of Mount Everest (C) and The Himalayan mountain range, some 140kms (87 miles) north-east of Kathmandu on April 3, 2013, on the 80th anniversary of the first manned flight over Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain. This year is the 60th anniversary of the first summit of the 8848-metre peak.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most epic hikes ever. On May 29th 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. 

Since then, all sorts of ambitious folks have followed in their footsteps.

For more on what's happened at Everest this year and what we can expect to see in coming weeks, we're joined now by Grayson Schaffer, senior editor for Outside magazine.

Interview Highlights

When did this year's climbing season begin?
"It's actually just getting underway now. Most of the teams are now arriving in base camp, the team of sherpas responsible for clearing a route through the Khumbu icefall, which is the dangerous glacier at the bottom of the mountain – they've put the route through the icefall now and have established camp two. So teams are now arriving and beginning to climatize."

There has already been one death on the mountain. What happened?
"One of the icefall doctors apparently slipped and fell into a crevice between camp one and two, and in the 20 years that the ice fall doctors have been establishing this route through the Khumbu icefall, which is known for being an extremely deadly place, but these sherpas who put the route through it are highly talented, are some of the best climbers up there, in 20 years this is the first time that one of them has died on the job."

What is an icefall doctor?
"The Icefall doctors are a core group of sherpas who don't guide clients, don't carry loads, they just maintain the aluminum ladders and ropes that span the crevices in the icefall at the bottom of the mountains. If you've ever seen photos of Everest and people climbing it, you see people on these rickety looking ladders. This ice fall is moving down hill about four feet per day and it's constantly moving and swallowing these ladders and avalanches land on top of them, so these guys are constantly tinkering with the ladders and keeping them in good shape so that people can cross them and get to the upper flanks of the mountain."

With so many people climbing the mountain have things begun to go out of control?
"I think it's a constant worry. It's something people are constantly debating, whether there are too many people climbing it. I think there are very few people who would tell you that there aren't too many people climbing it. The question is can they communicate and figure out a way so that they're not all climbing the mountain at the same time. Last year what we saw was a giant traffic jam during the first weather window where 200-300 people all got in line at about 25-26,000 feet and essentially created the world's highest traffic jam, and people were getting exhausted and were dying because they had to wait in line for too long with very little water and extreme cold."

What performance enhancing drugs are climbers using to scale the mountain:
"It needs to be said that climbers have always used drugs, basically starting with bottled oxygen, being one of the most powerful drugs you can get an carry up to high altitude, and then in the 1960's using amphetamines. Now the drug of choice is dexamethasone, which is a steroid that helps reduce inflammation on the brain. Cerebral and pulmonary edemas, which is where you have water and fluid in the brain or in your lungs is one of the most common causes of death on the mountain, so this drug reduces inflammation. Typically its used for people who are experiencing difficulty to escape or get off the mountain, increasingly people are using it to go up the mountain as crutch to help them get up rather than an escape patch to get off."


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