Dying to Get to the Top: Awful Ways to Die on Mount Everest

Dec 29, 2022 | Deadly Earth

December 29, 2022
11 min read

Standing at 29,129 feet (8,849 meters or about 5.5 miles) above sea level, Mount Everest is easily the tallest mountain on Earth.

With a title like that, it’s no surprise that so many will do anything for the chance to reach the summit. Anything, including putting themselves in extreme danger.

With temperatures as low as -76° F (-60° C), winds up to 177 mph (285 km/h), and cliffs and crevasses hundreds of feet high, it is unsurprising that Everest holds the record for the mountain with the highest number of deaths.

Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit in 1953, thousands more have followed suit and attempted to reach the top of the world. However, more than 300 have died. With a death rate of about 5% of all who attempted to climb, and an average of 5 deaths a year, attempting this climb is no small feat.

Most Common Ways to Die on Mount Everest

For those brave enough to risk their lives to climb Mount Everest, there are plenty of ways they can meet their demise, though several are more common than others. In one of the most extreme and remote places on Earth, death would certainly be lonely, and unpleasant.


Obviously Mount Everest is cold, but it’s difficult to comprehend just how cold. Temperatures at the summit never get above freezing, even in the summer. Even for the well prepared, a small mistake can spell death.

Mount Everest, Nepal, Himalayas. © Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Lack of coordination
  • Very low energy
  • Confusion
  • Weak pulse
  • Shallow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

A deadly combination in this unforgiving environment.


Avalanches are unfortunately an all too common occurrence on a mountain like Everest. The vast amounts of snow and ice can shift easily and send everything down the mountain.

Avalanche survivors describe the experience as being hit by a truck, then tumbled in a washing machine, while unable to move. Once the snow settles, the consistency becomes similar to concrete.

Avalanche on Everest. May 2006. Chagai at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The snow packs into the body’s openings, and the immense weight keeps the chest from expanding to breathe. Most die from suffocation as they are trapped in their frozen coffin, deprived of air.

For those able to breathe, it’s extremely difficult to dig out of the snow alone. It’s just a matter of time until victims succumb to hypothermia or the significant blunt force trauma they received from being hurled down a mountain.

Altitude Sickness

Humans were not designed to live in extreme altitudes.

At higher altitudes there is simply not enough oxygen to survive on for long periods of time. The body needs enough oxygen to function during daily activities, but under extreme stress like climbing a mountain, even more oxygen is needed.

In the death zone, above 26,000 feet (7,924 meters), the oxygen is drastically lower, and the body begins dying of hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the body). It is critical for climbers to get in and out of the death zone as soon as possible. Climbers usually carry supplemental oxygen, but supplies only last so long.

Early May is when most try to summit, and even then there are only a few days where conditions are good enough to try. Weather can change quickly, and not wanting to miss their chance, most climbers will try on the first good day.

In recent years, more permits have been issued, and with an increase of climbers on the mountain, the already frantic dash through the death zone has seen traffic jams. Climbers can wait hours in line in the death zone, unable to get up or down as quickly as needed. Hoping their oxygen tanks last long enough, many are susceptible to altitude sickness right before the summit.

Everest Base Camp on a Stormy Day. Daniel Oberhaus, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Those with altitude sickness can look forward to symptoms ranging from mild to severe.

Mild Symptoms

  • Mild headache
  • Fatigue

Severe Symptoms

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor coordination
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty walking

Left untreated (treatment consists of getting to a lower altitude), climbers are susceptible to develop High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edemas (HACE), both of which can be fatal.

HAPE – Excess fluid on lungs

  • Extreme weakness
  • Cough
  • Tightness of chest
  • Feeling of suffocation

HACE – Excess fluid on brain

  • Brain swelling
  • Confusion
  • Poor coordination
  • Possibly violent behavior
  • Coma
  • Death

With any of these symptoms, its very easy for a climber to make a mistake and fall to their deaths, or be left behind to await hypothermia.


On Everest, with such a small margin of error, even small falls can be deadly. Seemingly minor injuries at sea level can impede your ability to get down the mountain in a timely manner, and can result in deaths from other causes like hypothermia or altitude sickness if still in the death zone.

However, on a mountain as tall as Everest, there are plenty of opportunities to fall a distance that would kill you instantly.

A climber is crossing a ladder on Khumbhu glacier on The Everest. Malaymukherjee, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not uncommon to find aluminum ladders laid flat across cracks in the ice to be used as a bridge. These crevasses, can be massive and hundreds of feet deep.

In 2012, an experienced Sherpa fell 150 feet, about the height of a 15 story building, into an ice crevasse while crossing a ladder. It’s no surprise that many climbers say these are the most dangerous parts of the climb.

Bodies Left Behind

Morbidly, for the majority of those who die while climbing Everest, their bodies will be left on the mountain. It’s estimated that 200 bodies remain, many within plain sight of other climbers.

This isn’t done to be callous or cruel, it’s simply not practical to remove them.

Depending on where the body is, it may not be logistically possible to get to. If a climber fell into a crevasse or off a cliff, other climbers may not even be able to reach them if they wanted to.

If the body is even accessible, it’s still no small task to collect it. Climbing Everest is a deadly feat for an individual looking after only themselves. Attempting this while carrying the weight of another body could be disastrous.

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet. I, Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

If the body is accessible, and the recovery team is experienced and capable, it can still cost over $40,000 to hire a team and gather supplies to retrieve a body. For many, that may be the most impossible barrier of all.

On occasion, the Nepalese government will send teams to remove bodies to ensure the paths aren’t blocked by the deceased.

Some bodies have become famous as they are regularly passed by climbers on their way up, even being used as guideposts for navigation purposes. More importantly, they can also serve as grim warnings to climbers, reminding them of just how high risk their quest to the top of the world really is.



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