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!