Why Climb the Highest Mountain?

“But why, some say, the moon?  Why choose this as our goal?  And they may ask, why climb the highest mountain?  Why thirty five years ago fly the Atlantic?  Why does Rice play Texas?  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.  Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.  Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

This is the anniversary — you know I’m big on anniversaries — of the first ascent of Mt. Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.  Even JFK compared going into space with climbing the highest mountain.  Since a good friend and college, Scott Parazynski, just completed his personal conquest of that mountain, it seems timely to review the comparison.


Not including 2009, over 4,100 successful summits of Mt. Everest have been made by 2,700 different people.  210 fatalities have occurred on the mountain with 120 bodies remaining unrecovered on its upper slopes.  Thus the overall fatality rate is about 5% on the world’s highest mountain.  But Mt. Everest it not the most dangerous high mountain.  Here are the top three:  Annapurna (8,091 m) 130 climbers have summitted Annapurna, while 53 have died. The overall fatality rate is thus 41%. Nanga Parbat (8,125m) 216 climbers have summitted Nanga Parbat and 61 have died. The overall fatality rate thus 28.24%. K2 (8,611 m) 198climbers have summitted the world’s second highest peak. 53 have died. K2’s overall fatality rate is 26.77%.

The total number of people who have been in earth orbit (including those who went to the moon):  465 individuals making just over 1000 total trips.  If suborbital flights are included, this number gets a bit larger.  Fatalities:  including Apollo 1 and the single fatality in the X-15 program, 22 people have lost their lives in space – or an overall fatality rate of just over 2%.

DIFFICULTY:  Both getting to earth orbit and climbing the highest mountains are incredibly difficult, right at limits of what we can do.

TEAMWORK:  Both ventures require large teams to plan, provide and coordinate logistics, and execute the plan — even when just a very few of the team members actually attempt the summit.

EXTREME ENVIRONMENT:  I recommend Ed Vestur’s excellent book “No Shortcuts to the Top” to explain the extreme environments encountered above 8,000 meters. 

SO . . . .that leads us to the question of how space exploration and mountain climbing are different.  That is a question that I would like you to comment on.  So take it away!




15 thoughts on “Why Climb the Highest Mountain?”

  1. As a fan (and employee) of the space program, I’ll point out there’s one very very big difference – one of them takes billions of taxpayer dollars, the other does not.

    Although, hopefully, this will be changing soon, both the amount and the source.

  2. Beeing both, space enthusiast and mountain lover as well, I climbed Everest in 2007 as Nr. 33 from Germany. In my day job I am a professional pilot. So, what are the similarities?

    I found the mental preparation and tactics very similar to what I use in daily business. Checking weather, discontinuing a summit assault as well as going around in the aircraft, when things are not right. The same applies to space flight when a countdown is stopped or a launch is postponed due to weather or technical issues.

    Having the perfect equipment also contributes to a successfull Everest climb, during my 3 expeditions to Everest, I improved the equipment every time a bit more. As it is in spaceflight, even a proved launcher is never really completed, there is always room for improvement. Even Boeing is still issuing bulletins to aircraft which are in service since three decades.

    When it comes to statistics, I have done a thorough assessment of the risks involved with Everest. Through my own risk management, I was able to reduce the inherent risk by 93 percent to a remaining 7 percent, which I found unavoidable. In other words, I doubled my personal risk within my age-group for the year 2007 by climbing Everest. Not bad!

    To sum it up, spaceflight and high altitude mountain climbing is risky, but you can do lots, to reduce the risks to acceptable levels. That way, I handled Everest, the same way I handle flying and every spaceflight operator does it in a similar way.

  3. One difference is teamwork. While spaceflight is dangerous, the risk is minimized. The crew, while at the center of attention, actually has very little to do with the actual event. They did not prepare the boosters, they did not fuel the tanks, they did not prepare the actual navigation path to orbit. The crew totally depends on the team to do their job correctly.

    Climbing is a more physical, personal event. You rely on your own strength to actually go up to the top.

    A ground team monitors your condition in orbit while in climbing, there may direction from a guide, you still have to lift yourself from one rock to the next.

    Two similarities though, one is that the outcome is never guaranteed. One missed item in a checklist as well as one misplaced foot could result in a bad day for both. The second is the adventure is in the attempt. We experiment, we test, we climb. It’s like spoiling a movie ending, why keep doing it if we know the final outcome. Where’s the adventure?

  4. Great Post Wayne. Really got me thinking. I love to find NASA blogging on all these great topics.

  5. Freefall is the “norm” in space exploration. If you experience freefall while mountain climbing, you’re probably in deep trouble.

  6. Space exploration is done by governments. Mountain climbing is done by individuals.

  7. I can think of one similarity. While I love the mountains and am in total awe of all things space related, I have not felt the overwhelming drive to make either pursuit the driving effort of my own life.

    That being the case, I love that other human beings, the race I just happen to belong to, have done and are doing both. Makes me proud.

  8. Almost every human who ever went into space did it from Baikonur, 1800 miles away from Mt. Everest. The limits of human ability are all being reached from 1 place: central Asia.

  9. The first time you climb Everest you do it “because its there”. The sherpa who dragged your butt up there has done it many times because he makes good money doing it. I.e. there’s money to be made at it…

  10. I wrote the following in 2007 on a NASA Day of Remembrance, commemmorating the sacrifice of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia (and all who have given thier lives in the pursuit of spaceflight). I find the analogy between climbing and spaceflight compelling.

    I like to climb. I enjoy the challenge of a high mountain and the environment of snow and ice. The whole experience of climbing can be exhilarating. You would be surprised how alive it makes you feel while trying to tie frozen bootlaces with cold hands as you prepare to set out of the tent at 1:00 am for an alpine start to the summit. There is a resonant, distinctive sound that crampons make as they crunch into snow and ice beneath your boots, and upon hearing that sound one thinks to themselves, “I’m here”.

    Certainly, climbing is hard, physically and mentally. It’s cold, windy, your appetite is suppressed at altitude, breathing can be difficult, there’s isolation and hardship and monotony. And, yet, it’s something I love to do and, for reasons yet undiscovered by myself, I continue to return to the mountains again and again.

    In August of 2005 I ventured to Tibet with an expedition to climb Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. I traveled with the team across Tibet, settled at Base Camp, climbed with them to Advance Base Camp (ABC) and spent a week with the team there at the foot of Cho Oyu at 18,500 feet. I further climbed with the team as far as Camp 1 above 20,000 feet, and then had to return home (the team was successful in their bid to summit, putting five client, one guide and two Sherpa’ s on the top).

    A few hundred yards above ABC, along the rim of a glacier and on the path to Camp 1, are two rock cairn memorials. On each cairn are secured tin plates with carved writing – one is in Cyrillic and the other in English. Carved with a sharp tool as a craftsman would form an image out of copper, are the names, birth dates and death dates of two climbers who had lost their lives on Cho Oyu. They are almost innocuous in presence, simple and nondescript, and easy to miss as you’re climbing above ABC. But once noticed they are impossible to ignore – a sobering reminder of the dangers of climbing.

    Earlier this year the Discovery Channel played a six episode series on a team climbing the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Everest in 2006. In one of the last episodes, as the first summit team is descending from the summit after attaining their goal, still above 28,000 feet, the team passes a climber overcome by exhaustion, fatigue and altitude. With no idea of who he is or with what expedition he is from, the climbers attempt to provide him oxygen from their own bottles (the debilitated climber’s oxygen has run out). With blue lips, frostbitten hands and in a state of extreme delirium, there was little the climbers could do for him. There is no rescue at 28,000 feet. Ultimately, they had to leave him, and he died shortly thereafter.

    Meanwhile, on the south (Nepal) side of the mountain, a team of Sherpa’s were climbing through the Khumbu icefall between Base Camp and Camp 1, paving the road of fixed ropes, crevasse spanning ladders and steps cut into the ice that the climbing teams would follow over the course of the next six weeks. On the mountain was our guide from Cho Oyu, a bright 26 year old Seattleite named Justin Merle, who was on his first Everest expedition. As suddenly as a finger snap, a towering serac of frozen ice broke within the icefall, burying three of the climbing Sherpa’s under tons of ice. One of those Sherpa’s was assigned to Justin’s team.

    Climbing is dangerous. And yet, people return to the mountains. They return because of the personal challenge, the desire to attain new heights, or because it’s their job. But for everyone, ultimately they return because they love the mountains and the experience, and are willing to risk harm because they love doing it.

    Every year, I personally reflect on this period of four days which, over the course of thirty six years, seventeen people have died in US spacecraft. Their sacrifice is not lost on me or anyone else. But I also reflect on why they were willing to risk their lives for this pursuit. In the grand scheme of human achievement, spaceflight to me is more important than climbing mountains. But I suspect that those that lose their lives, whether in space or in the mountains, are content with being on the edge or risk because of the love of what they do. For many of us, it’s enough.

  11. Because we are humans – we ask why. It starts when we are young: “Why is the sky blue?” Our inherent curiosity will always keep us challenged. We always want to know what is before and beyond us – human intelligence is our gift, and the curiosity that stems from it is the icing on the cake. We should not take for granted our minds and souls and our abilities to overcome great challenges. For some, it can be as simple as learning to overcome a fear of driving on a freeway – for others, being able to overcome a mountain, or space, or some other unforgiving environment. Because it challenges us to learn and see and do. It satisfies us on primal levels.

  12. People continue climbing Everest, as noted below, for purposes of personal achievement. They want to put their names on the list of those amazing individuals who have, through hard work and determination, triumphed over, arguably, the most extreme test of human physical endurance that nature has to offer. However, beyond that…it’s difficult to justify it as anything BUT personal accomplishment. We know Everest. Sure, there’s a little terrain that we could map a little more accurately, but for the most part, Everest-climbing is mainly for the purpose of patting yourself on the back. A well-deserved testament-to-all-that-the-human-race-stands-for incredible pat on the back, to be sure, but still just a pat on the back.

    Space is different.

    Every time we launch ourselves into space, we bring tons and tons of scientific apparatus with us. Whether they’re testing rigs to determine how flames burn in zero G or space telescopes, we cram as much stuff as we can fit into every available nook & cranny on the spacecraft. We bring back rocks from the moon, we dump spiders into cages to see if they can figure out how to weave webs weightless, we bore holes into Mars to see if it’s red all the way down…

    Why? Because there’s so much left to figure out.

    Every time we rotate the Hubble a tenth of a degree, we see untold wonders of cosmic phenomena that reveal one or two things about the universe in which we live, and simultaneously introduce hundreds of questions that we never even thought to ask. Why’s this pulsar green? Why’s that nebula got a hole in it? What happened to this star?!? (I swear, leave you guys alone for FIVE MINUTES, & a star goes missing…) The physicists, astronomers & cosmologists have only so much they can do before they’re forced to come to NASA’s door & politely ask to have some delicate test apparatus strapped to a giant rocket & exploded out of Earth’s atmosphere, in order to confirm or deny a hypothesis that gives us one more step toward understanding anything & everything that the universe throws at us.

    Space exploration isn’t purely about the achievement of “getting there,” it’s about figuring everything out on the way up, too.

  13. How space exploration and mountain climbing are different?

    The cost! I am no expert on ‘Space’ but we all know that it cost a lot of money to get even just one person up in space.

    Climbing Mount Everest can be done for about �20.000 Dont get me wrong, its not as simple as that, but surely a lot cheaper and easier than going into space.

    Mount Everest The British Story

  14. I think there are many obvious differences between the two but there is one major similarity, and that is the mindset that is involved. Both are seen as an extremely difficult challenge and that is why so few people actually attempt these things. It's that curiosity of “how far can we go” that drive us humans to do many of the things we do. Even when we come across what seem to be limitations, we find ways to compensate. We can't fly with our limbs so we build machines that serve as our extensions to help us overcome that challenge. It's the thrill and excitement of pushing against our limits that excites us and gives us the to do what we do.

    Going back to the differences, it seems that with space exploration, the difficulty is in the planning and construction of the mission. Once the planning is solid, the execution is just a matter of doing it. With climbing a mountain, the difficulty isn't in the planning, it's in the execution. Another difference is the qualifications to even be allowed to attempt the two challenges are greatly different. Going into space isn't just something anyone in good shape is allowed to do. Great post.

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