Is it harder to get up or down Mount Everest?
You have made it to the iconic mountain of Everest that you have only seen in many books and documentaries. It’s a great feeling after reaching the top after almost spending months or even years prepping for the journey. But now, What? If you have studied much about Everest and other climbers’ journeys, you know that the tricky part is not ascending here- it’s getting down. You heard it correctly; descending from the peak is where things get tough.
The average period to summit Everest is around 6 to 12 weeks, but descending from the peak is another challenge. Your 6-12 weeks to reach the peak includes adjusting to harsh weather, trekking to the base camp, and gathering supplies. Getting down from the process consists of the same things, but you may have to push yourself harder than ascending.
In this article we will try our best to answer your question, “Is it harder to get up or down Mount Everest?” from all medical perspectives to mental preparedness and physical fatigue.
The Challenges of Ascending Everest
Climbing the world’s tallest mountain surely sounds fascinating with all the views, but it is no easy feat. Moreover, every summit requires a special kind of climber to make both ascend and descend. Climber should be mentally and physically determined, with an unwavering commitment to reach the peak. To make the ascend easier, many climb Everest at night. At night, you cannot see clearly like in the daytime, but you can use headlamps and make an easy ascend. There are many challenges to climbing the Everest.
While ascending, mountaineers may have to face extreme altitudes and harsh weather conditions. Similarly, there will also be a high chance of other states, like blizzards, avalanches, and low temperatures. Climbers must endure altitude sickness, which may cause when one ascends too quickly without acclimatizing correctly, especially in the Death zone. Beginner symptoms of AMS are headache, nausea, etc., and extreme system AMS symptoms build up fluid in the brain and lungs that eventually cause death if left untreated. There is one added challenge for mountaineers who need prior experience. This extra challenge is technical, like using ropes and crampons to ascend steep rocky slopes.
Another great challenge for the Everest climber is the mental one. At high elevations, perhaps above the Death Zone, mountaineers have mentioned experiencing psychosis. So they say Everest is maddeningly stunning, but they can drive mountaineers to madness too. They have further explained that they often feel like someone is calling out to them as they can hear voices up there. So ascending takes mental and physical courage, and with it comes an immense sense of pride after reaching the summit of Everest.
The Dangers of Climbing Through the Death Zone
Every 14 mountains in the world have a Death zone, but as the tallest mountain, Everest’s death zone is very different than others. Many things can go wrong while summiting Everest, but one of the most dangerous is the so-called “death zone.” Death zone generally means the altitude above 8000, where most deaths occur. This being said, Eeverst’s death zone has claimed the lives of 200 + climbers to date. The survival of the mountain in this low is meager, which makes both ascending and descending very challenging.
Why death zone is claiming the lives of so many mountainers? Because at this zone, there is insufficient oxygen for Mountaineers to breathe as the air is too thin. Due to the lack of enough oxygen, the human body cannot survive here without supplemental oxygen and proper acclimation. Sometimes, climbers also get severe altitude sickness here, and if not treated, these conditions immediately lead to death. Besides its insufficient oxygen, high wind and low temperatures are another potential threat to the death zone. The shallow temperature here may lead to frostbite and unconsciousness, and the strong winds make fatal falls more common here. Therefore, climbers aiming to reach the peak must not stay here for at most 16-20 hours. Descending from the Death Zone of Everest is not easy either, as climbers must pass through similar or even worse obstacles.
How Descending Can Be More Dangerous Than Ascending
Reaching the peak of Everest is an accomplishment that only a few have achieved till now. While watching documentary movies of Everest, all viewers pay more attention o the climb. This may surprise you, but descending from Everest is more dangerous than ascend. It’s been said that
“getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,”
and this statement is something you can’t ignore.
If we talk about the facts around deaths between 1921 and 2006, 56 % of them died while they descended. So why is descending claiming more lives than ascending? Here are a few things:
While ascending climbers give everything, they have to reach Everest’s peak. Climbing Mount Everest does require intense physical and emotional energy, but giving all of it while ascending empties your tank for the descent home. After reaching the peak, you are all tired mentally and physically, which causes your body to be in an oxygen and nutrient-deprived state. This fatigue causes weakness and makes the descent more complex than the ascend.
The weather conditions of Everest are very unpredictable as it is characterized by unexpected snowfall or winds. Unpredictable weather creates low visibility and makes the harrowing descent even harder. Spring season in Nepal or March to May, is the most favorable time to climb Everest. But even these flawless seasons cannot guarantee a safe ascend and descend.
Adding people who don’t know how to climb
Climbs who attempt to summit Everest are not all experienced climbers. They hit the top by luck or their fellow mountaineers but may get lost while they descend home. This lack of mountaineering skills and safety knowledge causes risks to themselves and their fellow climbers as they descend their way back from Everest.
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The Increased Risks of Exhaustion and Oxygen Deprivation on Descent
You may have heard many stories about Everest and concluded that climbing up is more demanding than getting down. However, both ascend and descend have their challenges that can be life-threatening. For starters, there is a high risk of exhaustion and lack of oxygen on the descent. Similarly, fatigue and gravity make the descent more deadly; every mountaineer knows that. After all, your body is already tired from all the physical exertion, so there I no energy left while descending. There is less danger on the slope just below the summit, but the white snow makes it more challenging to remain uptight.
Moreover, your oxygen gets thinner as you descend to a lower elevation. Due to the thin oxygen, your body gets weak as it’s challenging to process enough O2. Another reason descending is harder in Everest is navigating through the tricky trails above 8,000 m. At specific points (if no ropes are available), you must be skillful and dins solid footing on the risky trail while maintaining your balance. You are in luck if the weather favors you, but your descent can be exponentially more challenging if the weather conditions worsen.
Navigating Everest’s Technical Climbs and Icefalls on the Way Down
Ascending Everest is indeed challenging, but not as much as descending. Climbers have to navigate the technical climbs and icefalls on their way back, which demands a whole new set of experience, knowledge, and mountaineering skills. The physical challenge at Mount Everest (8,848 meters above sea level) is tremendous as it is the most challenging peak to climb. But the physical challenge is only half the battle as the terrain alone, with steep faces, crevasses, and icy glaciers, makes it difficult enough.
However, despite all the difficulties, many climbs have reached their peak and come back alive. You can also make it to the top and climb back safely if you are an experienced climber prepared for anything that comes your way. If ascending Everest takes all the strength and endurance, climbing back down takes skill and accuracy.
There is not just physical and mental strength while coming down- it’s also about accurate navigation and careful timing. There may be many routes to come down, but the climbers should choose the one with the less dangerous session, like icefalls. If they fail, there will be a greater risk of slipping or falling into a crevasse or even below. This is why climbers must be experienced and have adequate safety knowledge using ropes and harnesses. Experience climbers also must be aware of the potential dangers like avalanches or rock slides while climbing down. The bottom line of all this information is ascending to strength and endurance but descending to safety required skill and nerve.
Why “Summit Fever” Puts Climbers at Risk During Descent
You may have heard of “Summit Fever” in movies, documentaries, or books about Everest. This term defines the climber’s obsession to reach the top regardless of the situation. Many mountaineers eagerly want to get to the top of Everest at any cost. Their obsession with reaching the top creates additional risks while getting down from Mount Everest. Many climbers are believed to neglect the dangers of descent for the joy of reaching Everest’s top. So why is getting down from Everest so tricky?
Conditions at the Summit
The summit’s conditions are unpleasant as the temperature here mainly drops below -20°F. Similarly, there is less oxygen here, and the terrain is difficult to pass through. Plus, not much energy is left in them because they feel tired, weak, and dehydrated due to ascending.
Mental Fatigue and Poor Judgment
Mountainers suffer from a “summit fever,” a mental fatigue caused by long hours of climbing. Likewise, poor conditions due to the lack of oxygen make it even harder to evaluate the risks that eventually lead to summit fever. The mental fatigue built up over the climbing course causes the mountaineers to make bad ad decisions, from ignoring safety protocols to taking wrong turns.
So climbers need to be more skilled and careful because Everest’s mental fatigue and challenging condition make descending more difficult.
Both ascending and descending Everest are challenging and require physical and mental strength. If getting up to the top requires weeks of training, preparation, and strength, then getting down also requires a special set of technical skills.
Both climbing and getting down are the race against time and weather conditions in Everest. It won’t be easy to take on this challenge, but the rewards are immeasurable for the mountaineers who take it.