Mount Everest is an inhospitable place for humans, standing at a majestic 29,028 feet, the cruising altitude of a plane.
Yet every year, hundreds try to scale the world’s tallest peak. Dozens die in the attempt.
This has been a particularly deadly week for those seeking adventure on the mountain. Four people died in the span of four days, two others are missing.
On Thursday, crew member Phurba Sherpa fell to his death while working to fix a route about 150 meters near the summit, according to Mingma Sherpa, the Nepal rescue team leader who was at the Everest Base Camp.
Eric Arnold, 36, of the Netherlands, died Friday night of a suspected heart attack while heading back after a successful summit, according to Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, the owner of Seven Summit Treks.
On Saturday, Maria Strydom died after experiencing altitude sickness. The 34-year-old Australian woman was climbing along side her husband, Robert Gropel.
And on Sunday, 44-year-old Subash Paul died at Base Camp II from altitude sickness, according to Wangchu Sherpa, managing director of Trekking Camp Nepal.
The tragedies come as Mount Everest opens for the first time in two years after back-to-back disasters crippled all ascent. In April 2014, a deadly avalanche left at least a dozen dead, in the single deadliest accident on Mount Everest.
Last year nearly 9,000 people died in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its aftershock. The earthquake set off avalanches
that left more than a dozen climbers dead, and others injured or trapped on the mountain.
This week’s deaths may have shaken the mountaineering community, but those who love the sport say they can’t resist the lure of Everest.
Veteran mountaineer Jim Davidson was airlifted to the base camp of Mount Everest last year after the earthquake and subsequent avalanche.
“I was certain we were going to die,” Davidson said. “The glacier was shaking back and forth like a hammock tied between two trees.”
But he is back climbing mountains again in Colorado, and is planning to go back to Everest in 2017.
“It is not a logical choice, it is a passion — it is a way to refine yourself into a better version of you, ” Davidson said. “It’s a place where you can distill yourself into the best version of yourself … what it does helps build personal resilience for the challenges and opportunities that come later in life!”
David Morton has scaled Mount Everest six times. He said the words on his website best sum up his passion for climbing.
“After many years I still think it’s beautiful that people dream of climbing mountains. It’s wide-eyed, childlike and magical.”
“The great thing about the sport of mountaineering is it is open to everyone,” said Kenton Cool, speaking to CNN International from Cotswald, England. Cool has reached the summit of Mount Everest 12 times, including this season.
“However on the flip side, we do hope that most people who go to Everest understand the dangers. … It is not considerably dangerous, it is very, very dangerous. And you do need the depths of experience, you do need the understanding and the skill set to be able to operate and even survive at such altitudes … you can be the fittest Olympic athlete or you can be a so-called couch potato, altitude is a great leveler.”
High altitude cough and acute mountain sickness
are just some of the problems. Besides excessively cold temperatures and the possibility of frostbite, climbers face another extreme: heat. On Everest, the snow and ice act as a giant reflector for the sun’s glare.
A lot is riding on this year’s climbing season. The Nepali government is hoping to revive tourism in a country still reeling from recent disasters. Since the 2016 climbing season opened on Everest, at least 300 people have scaled, according to data from Everest Base Camp as of Saturday.
“Mount Everest is a huge mountain, and it can accommodate a lot of people at one time,” said Alan Arnette, a mountaineer who has attempted to climb Everest four times, reaching the summit in 2011. But he said the mountain is getting too crowded, citing the example of May 19, when about 200 mountaineers tried to scale Everest.
“One of the issues on that particular day was that you had a very large team of about 40 climbers on one team and they were going extremely slowly, and so other climbers got stuck behind them. It’s very difficult to pass somebody on Mount Everest, because you are using a single nylon rope as a safety line and you are clipped into it … so in order to unclip you put yourself at danger,” Arnette said. “So you are kind of stuck behind slow people. And then over time, potentially you run out of oxygen, and you go slow, you develop fatigue, you get cold and frostbite, so certainly crowds are an issue.”
More than 250 climbers have died since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent in 1953.
But that doesn’t phase Jake Norton, climber, photographer, filmmaker, philanthropist and inspirational speaker. He has been to the summit of Mount Everest three times, and on expeditions on all seven continents. He said he finds solace and joy in the mountains.
“For me it’s a place of catharsis,” Norton said, speaking by phone from Evergreen, Colorado.
“Life gets reduced to its most fundamental elements … I’m reminded by the mountains that me, my ambitions and problems are nothing in this great machinery of the universe … any time we step deeply into nature, we are reminded how insignificant we are, and I find that incredibly enriching and uplifting.”