Into the Death Zone on Mt. Everest

Holy Week Meditation

At 29,035 feet, (5.5 miles above sea level), Mt. Everest’s summit has approximately one-third the air pressure that exists at sea level, which significantly reduces a climber’s ability to breathe because of reduced oxygen. At this altitude, the body begins to die off. When summiting Everest, carrying supplemental oxygen is the norm with few exceptions. Without this life-saving necessity, it would be impossible for most people to reach the summit and make it back down without encountering numerous complications. That is why it is notoriously called the “Death Zone,” reaching altitudes at and above 26, 247 feet above sea level.  Most of the 200 plus climbers who have died on Mount Everest have died in the Death Zone.

Dangerous Queues at the Top in the Death Zone

At high altitudes the human body cannot function properly and a lack of oxygen results in a multitude of health risks. When the amount of oxygen in your blood falls below a certain level, heart rates soar up to 140 beats per minute (normal rate is between 60-100), increasing heart attack risk. Oxygen is so limited that the body’s cells start to die. Climbers’ judgment becomes impaired, and they can experience heart attacks, strokes, or severe altitude sickness. To make matters worse, climbing Mt. Everest has become so popular that queues of climbers form at the top before reaching the summit increasing the time spent in the Death Zone and have culminated in more deaths. In 2019, the queues to reach Everest’s summit have been so long that climbers in the Death Zone are dying of exhaustion waiting in line for their turn to climb.

Sometimes in life, what we’ve planned is confronted with the unexpected.

No Man Left Behind Does Not Apply on Everest

You help each other out on the mountain and there are many stories of heroism—and also of tragedy. Often times, climbers will encounter other climbers along the way who have been waylaid for myriad reasons. Depending on where you are located on the mountain and what condition the downed person is in, will determine their fate. When you are in the Death Zone and you only have enough oxygen for yourself to make it down, even if you didn’t continue to the summit, the decision is made for you—you most often must leave your fellow trekker on the mountain, or you will both perish.

Before reaching the upper camps, climbers must cross the Khumbu Icefall. The icefall consists of layers of gigantic ice blocks that are constantly shifting, creating giant crevasses in-between them. Climbers use metal ladders to span these cracks. It is safest to climb the icefall in the dark before the ice begins to wake up under the warmth of the sun. The push to the summit is also initiated in the cover of darkness so that trekkers can reach the summit in the daylight and then descend before darkness falls.

A Host of Physical Ailments

Mountaineers typically spend one to two months at Base Camp, making multiple trips up and down the mountain to acclimatize. If climbers don’t give their bodies enough time to adjust to the lung-crushing conditions in the Himalayas, they could experience swelling in their brain and lungs. When you are at the upper camp levels above the Khumbu Icefall, the potential is there to develop high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), in which dangerous levels of fluid build-up in the lungs. The best treatment is to get down the mountain.

One of the biggest risk factors at 26,000 feet is hypoxia, a lack of adequate oxygen circulation to organs like your brain. If the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it can start to swell, causing a condition called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Essentially, it’s HAPE for the brain. Humans begin to deteriorate, sleep less, lose weight and their muscles begin wasting away.

This swelling can trigger nausea, vomiting, and difficulty thinking and reasoning. An oxygen-starved brain can cause climbers to forget where they are and enter a delirium that some experts consider a form of high-altitude psychosis. Hypoxic climbers’ judgment becomes impaired, and they’ve been known to do strange things like start shedding their clothes or talking to imaginary friends.

There is also glare from the endless snow and ice which can cause snow blindness which is temporary vision loss or burst blood vessels in your eyes. Any exposed skin freezes instantly in the Death Zone. Temperatures never rise above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite is common and can turn gangrenous. It often takes everything to put one foot in front of the other. Poor decision-making can lead climbers to forget to clip back into a safety rope, stray from the route, or fail to properly prepare life-saving equipment like oxygen tanks.

The Denial of Impending Death

The Sherpa, who do most of the “heavy lifting” on the mountain carrying necessities and sometimes haul up luxuries that some of the more prominent expedition companies advertise to entice clients. Along with carrying the bulk of supplies, Sherpas are there to guide and assess the mountain for their clients. Sherpas indicate that many of the deaths on Everest happen after climbers inadvertently push their bodies past their limits, which makes it hard to climb back down. Some climbers suffer an oxygen-starved delirium and their judgment becomes impaired often times just sitting down and not going any further.

In order to summit successfully, everything must go just right. Around 10 p.m., climbers leave Camp Four at 26,000 feet. The first chunk of their climb is done in the dark, lit by starlight and headlamps.

About seven hours later climbers typically reach the summit. After a brief rest filled with celebrations and photographs, the expeditions turn around, making the 12-hour trek back to safety and arriving (ideally) before nightfall.

A Different Kind of Passion

Why on earth would anyone want to climb Mt. Everest? Maybe it is the risk–the excitement–the challenge. Will it make us happy?

Just living daily life can be a challenge. The world continues to move forward for good or for naught—the battle between good and evil, light and darkness. We sure may feel that way after the Colorado mass shooting inside of a grocery store where 10 non-suspecting shoppers and police officer were brutally mowed down with a machine gun. (Catch the live-stream funeral Mass for Officer Eric Talley here today March 29.) A grocery store, a bastion of the every-day, essential places, and many of the few places we can go during the pandemic, can now be considered a potential threat. We need to remind ourselves that we do not know the day or the hour that we may take our last breath. I am saddened by the incident.

We could look at Holy Week and Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross as some sort of death zone. Maybe as Christians, we could die more and more to our sins. We focus on his death because our sins put Him on the cross. Jesus suffered bloody torture and then was lifted up high to hang from a cross to die—he, who was sinless. We examine our lives and any sin or habits that don’t work toward building up the Kingdom of God.

Heavy Lifting in Life and on the Mountain

In life, we may carry a heavy burden like the Sherpas. We unite this burden with Christ’s suffering, who essentially paid the price so that we might have eternal life. When we reach the top of Everest have we made it to our life’s goal? Will we want more after this? Will we be fulfilled? Making it to the top doesn’t guarantee that we will make it back down. Just as in life, and climbing Mt. Everest, one foot in front of the other is required—every day.

Sometimes climbing and summiting don’t go as planned. Such is life. Not everything goes as planned. The important thing to remember is how do we make a difference where we are? How do we give our lives to and for the service of others no matter the position we hold or our vocation? During Holy week when we meditate on the Passion of Christ, we can do this.

Crucifixion painting by Diego Velazquez.

King of Kings movie trailer.

King of Kings movie.

Live-Stream Mass for Officer Eric Talley

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