For most mountaineers there is climbing, and then there is Mount Everest. The ultimate bucket list experience for any experienced climber, to reach the summit, or to even attempt it, is more than just a trek -- it is a life-changing experience and one that takes about a year of training to be able to accomplish. Recently, Mount Everest has been cast in a gray light, following the death of 11 people who were trying to reach the summit earlier this year, which was the deadliest climbing season for the peak in four years. It raised questions among the climbing community: Are people preparing well enough to climb this peak, and do they know exactly what is involved?
Even the most seasoned climbers can’t simply show up at the base of this pivotal peak and begin the ascent. But one reason for this tragedy was overcrowding of the mountain, caused in part by the Nepali government granting a record 381 climbing permits. And in reality, at least double that number of people were on the mountain, as the figure doesn't account for guides.
Crowds aside, how doable is this trip? Well, between 1922 and 2006 there were about 11,000 attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Three thousand of those have been successful, making the success rate 29 percent. That said, if you are serious and dedicated to the task of ascending the highest mountain in the world, don’t lose heart. For those who are willing to put in the time and considerable effort, it can be done. It takes special training under the watch of serious professionals. Add to that a touch of patience, and a sizable amount of money, and you’re almost ready to go. If you’ve got the drive, the time, and the savings to do it, ascending the peak of Mount Everest will change you forever.
So what does it actually take to climb Mount Everest? What do you need to know about this ultimate bucket list experience? We share the things Gordan Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents International, a mountaineering company based in Seattle, Washington, says you need to know and do to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
It’s Technically Not The Tallest Mountain In The World
First, let's clear up a myth. Mount Everest isn't actually the tallest mountain in the world. It stands at an elevation of 29,029 feet, straddling the Himalayan border between Tibet and Nepal, which makes it the highest above sea level, but it is almost a mile shy of being the tallest. The tallest mountain in the world is Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii. This dormant volcano rises only 13,796 feet above sea level, but from the base of the Pacific to Mauna Kea's peak it is nearly 33,497 feet, whereas Everest stands at 29,035 feet above sea level.
Mountaineering School Is A Must
Preparing to climb Mount Everest is systematic. It involves a series of steps that must be completed in order to be prepared to climb. "Most people might be attracted to the idea and then dive right into the sport. It's often like someone says they want to ride a bicycle around the world, but have never ridden a bike," Janow told TravelAwaits.
"The first step is to come to a mountaineering school. That's where you're checking out the sport. For people who say they want to climb, they have to know what they're getting into, but also know what the sport is all about."
Practice Makes Perfect
It can’t be stressed enough that to climb Mount Everest takes a considerable amount of training and practice. Following mountaineering school, the next logical step is to start to practice skills out in the field. But it’s not just altitude aspiring climbers should be seeking out. To practice for climbing Mount Everest, climbers need to gain experience on glaciated peaks.
Glaciated peaks have snow terrain, ice, and an environment that is similar to what one would find in the Himalayas. Janow said most North American climbers "come to Mount Rainier or Mount Baker in the North Cascades," and went on to say that "Washington state is the place you go to learn glacier mountaineering." Other popular destinations for training are western British Columbia and Alaska.
You Will Climb Many Peaks Before Everest
Like any other course, after you finish mountaineering school, you will receive feedback from your guide. This can be anything from "Cleared for the next level" to a recommendation to practice on different terrain or continue refining your technical work. Assuming you are cleared to climb, your guide will recommend a more challenging location, usually on a large volcano. The most classic volcano recommendations for Everest training, for North Americans, are the tallest volcanoes in Mexico and Ecuador -- El Pico de Orizaba or Chimborazo, respectively.
These peaks are glaciated mountains that challenge a climber's adjustment to altitude and allow for additional practice time on glaciers. The more experience you have on glaciated peaks, the better your body will react as you ascend Mount Everest.
Sometimes It Doesn’t Matter How Fit You Are
After completing the volcano climb successfully, your guide will likely clear you for expedition training. This means 20 to 23 days climbing up a mountain from camp to camp, carrying your belongings with you, taking care of yourself at altitude, and learning how to deal with everything from blisters on your feet and hydrating properly to knowing when your body is fatigued and what to do.
"It seems trivial, but it is a large skill and one that is lacking," said Janow. "That's the sort of skill that is often overlooked. You can be physically fit, but you haven't faced the cold. You are not able to identify when your body is getting weaker, and that has to be done with time in the mountains."
For this essential experience, most North Americans climb Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 22,841 feet is the tallest mountain in the Americas. Here climbers practice moving up a series of camps over many days, which includes sleeping, packing gear, and moving on to the next camp.
"It's expedition-style climbing, but it's not highly technical. If Aconcagua goes well, we will want to move on to technical terrain."
This would be Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in America. For this trek, travelers are required to carry 85 pounds in a backpack plus a sled. "It's not for everyone, and it's not something you have to do before Everest, but it's [classically] what you would want to do," according to Janow.
If a climber completes all these steps and treks successfully, they will likely get a thumbs up for Mount Everest from their guide. If not, a guide might recommend practice in any areas of weakness that he or she has noticed.
There are, of course, alternatives for any of these peaks. Many people ascend Mont Blanc in Europe or Vinson Massif in Antarctica, for their training experiences.
Emulate Your Training Experience
While the Nepalese government does not require a certain number of training hours or enforce rules in regard to climbers attempting the summit, it is recommended that a prospective Everest climber be as well prepared as possible and to try to emulate their training experience when attempting the real thing. This means tackling the climb with the guide you used for training. In many cases, this person has been with a climber every step of the way and knows how they operate, both physically and psychologically. To climb with someone you already have experience with can add another level of security, camaraderie, and familiarity to the Everest ascent.
It Is Expensive
Let’s say you’ve done all the technical and physical training and you are ready to take on the ultimate bucket list adventure. Climbing Everest is more than just a life-changing trip; it’s a sizable investment. Hundreds of people are granted permission to climb Mount Everest every year, but a permit costs about $11,000. And that's just the permit. This doesn't account for the services of a guide, oxygen, sherpa wages, and more. A safe estimate when planning a trek to Mount Everest is $45,000 on the low end, with expenses adding up to as much as $60,000 or $70,000 on the higher end.
Overcrowding May Continue To Be An Issue
As more and more travelers are broadening their horizons, investing in bucket list trips, and planning itineraries that go beyond traditional destinations, Mount Everest will continue to be at the top of mind for adventurous travelers.
As the allure of Everest grows, the crowds do, as well. That said, Nepali tourism officials have no intention of restricting the number of permits issued. Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, told the Associated Press that instead, Nepal is encouraging more tourists and climbers to come "for both pleasure and fame." The climbing industry brings $300 million each year to Nepal, which is one of the world's poorest countries.
Climbing Mount Everest isn’t going out of style anytime soon, even with the tragic news of the 11 lives lost during ascent attempts so far this year. In fact, trips to Everest seem to be rising in popularity, and the government of Nepal is in full support of the tourism climbers bring. The best way to prepare for a trip to Mount Everest is to make sure you work with an experienced company and guide -- a team of professionals who have scaled the peak themselves and know exactly what you need in all situations in order to do so safely. With the right preparation and training, this bucket list experience will become the most rewarding trip of any climber’s life.