June 4, 2019
What the Latest Everest Catastrophe Can Teach Us
by Paul Carroll
The dispiriting news that 11 people died this year in efforts to summit Mount Everest brought back memories of my callow youth, when I volunteered to make the attempt for a story for the Wall Street Journal. There may also be a hopeful lesson for how the insurance industry can mature.
The Everest attempt would have been part of an informal series in which I played daredevil. I sailed across the Atlantic in a 42-foot boat, having never even set foot on a sailboat before, and wrote a front-page piece about the adventure (including 70-foot waves). A couple of years later, a friend convinced me that I was just dumb enough to go to a school for professional wrestlers and provide an inside look. After I wrestled a match on cable-TV in 1989 and wrote my article, the WSJ’s managing editor showed the video to the Dow Jones board of directors and won me a corporate award for service above and beyond the call. He told me by summoning me to his office and saying he had good news and bad news. The good news: “I have a $1,000 check for you.” The bad news: “I’m looking for someone to swim around Manhattan.”
I responded that I wasn’t much of a swimmer but that I’d happily climb Mount Everest if he’d put up the fees. His response was incorrect but potentially life-saving: “Nah,” he said, “it’s getting too easy.”
Fast-forward to 1996, and we all learned just how dangerous Everest still was even though Sherpas were installing ropes and ladders for the tourists everywhere they could. 1996 was the year when journalist Jon Krakauer (a veteran climber, unlike neophyte me) summited Everest, then witnessed the series of events that left eight climbers dead.
I got the message and never again considered an attempt, but the number of climbers keeps growing—as does the death toll. Sixteen Sherpas died in an avalanche in April 2014 as they set up base camp. Nineteen people died in an avalanche on the mountain a year later when a 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal, killing more than 9,000. Five people died on Everest in 2018, a year in which more than 250 foreigners summited. And this year, 11 died despite no particular issues with weather.
So, what’s my hope for the insurance industry? Doesn’t Everest just show that people can convince themselves to ignore even deadly risks?
My hope stems from seeing how much more information is available to climbers and guides than was available in 1996, the season that Krakauer chronicled in “Into Thin Air,” and in understanding how much improvement is still possible. The increased “wiring” of the mountain could serve as an example of how technology can head off catastrophes—the sort of thing that insurers increasingly need to do, rather than focusing on pricing the risk and paying claims after a loss.
In 1996, there was barely any communication with those at the top of the mountain — just some occasional connection via a satellite phone—so information about weather was limited for climbers. One who summited that year prepared to bask at the top, only to look out and realize that a major storm was fast approaching. He recognized the cloud formation solely because he was a commercial airline pilot and not, say, a journalist. He hightailed it down from the summit and, through sheer happenstance, survived the whiteout that led to the eight deaths.
By contrast, a doctor saved himself last year through technology. He brought along an oxygen saturation meter, which, when pressed against his skin, told him that a feeling of weakness wasn’t just something to push through: His blood was dangerously low in oxygen, showing that he was headed toward a lung condition that is often fatal at high altitude and that he needed to head down immediately and abandon the ascent.
Many people succumb to what climbers call “summit fever”—you’ve worked so hard, and you’re so close, how can you turn back even if your body feels like it’s shutting down? Ten of the 11 who died this year had summited and were on their way down when they collapsed. Fitbit-like medical technology will increasingly let climbers measure their physical state and understand when their health is at a critical level and that they need to turn back to save themselves.
Information about conditions near the summit will keep getting better, too, and not just for the weather. Many of us have seen the photo showing stop-and-go traffic near the summit on May 22, but few have seen the photos from a Sherpa in the same spot a week earlier, when nary another soul was in sight. As climbing parties become more connected, it’ll be easier to manage traffic. Maybe you move your attempt up a day or back a day if you think you’re just going to sit there for hours in the “death zone” (above 8,000 meters, or roughly 26,000 feet), where the altitude takes a monstrous toll.
Everest will still have its allure—K2 is a much harder ascent, but who brags about climbing the world’s second-highest mountain? And many will enable climbers. Nepal, such a poor country, isn’t going to turn away people willing to pay $11,000 apiece for a climbing permit and to generally pump money into the economy. Guides, charging some $35,000 a pop on top of the permits, aren’t going to turn away clients, either. There will always be something asynchronous about a summit attempt, too—months of training and weeks of adjusting to altitude end up in daily or even hourly decisions about weather and in instantaneous assessments of health.
But there’s still hope that much better information will lead to better decisions about when to take the risk and when to wait for another day. That’s the plan from sea level, anyway.