Mountain climbing is one of the few raw adventures left for mankind. It is an untamed frontier that you can only conquer with dedicated physical and mental effort. However, while many mountaineers desire to reach the summit more than anything, the real challenge is on the way down.

The mountain offers an interesting paradox in that, going up is easier than coming down. At first glance, you may assume that it is easier to climb down the mountain because gravity is on your side. However, most mountaineers attest that descent is significantly more challenging.

In an extensive study on the causes of falls in the Alps, researchers at the Austrian University of Innsbruck analyzed 5,638 cases. The study used reports received by the Austrian Alpine Police for over nine years. One of the study’s main findings was that 75% of the falls occurred during descent. This article sheds some light on why it is more difficult to descend than ascend a mountain.

The Dangers of Moutain Climbing

You cannot ignore the dangers involved when climbing mountains. All mountains whether large or small have an element of risk. In essence, it is that element of risk that drives most climbers to the top. The desire to live life on the edge fuels many mountain climbers. Reaching the summit of a mountain can feel like overcoming a near-death experience. However, the most experienced guides explain that real achievement is getting off the mountain safely.

Standing at 8,848 meters or 29,029 feet above sea level, the summit of Mount Everest is the height of the mountaineer’s dream. Hundreds of climbers have their hearts set and attempt to reach the highest peak in the world every year. While Everest is not the hardest mountain to climb, it has the highest number of fatalities. Mount Everest has one of the lowest death rates of 4% compared to Mount Annapurna I, which has a death rate of 32%. Mount Annapurna I is the 10th highest yet most dangerous mountain peak in the world.

Everest Claims 11 Lives in One Climbing Window

In May 2019, an uproar was heard across the mountain climbing community when 11 fatalities were reported on Mount Everest. The fatalities all occurred within a brief two-week climbing window. The 11 victims brought the number of deaths reported on Mount Everest to 305. Preliminary reactions blamed the tragedy on overcrowding and inexperience. However, many other issues cause mountain climbing accidents.

The challenges involved when descending are further iterated by the fact that 10 of the 11 victims were on their way down the mountain. More than half of the 11 victims had been described as strong experienced climbers. Also, two of the victims, Christopher John Kulish and Donald Cash, joined the 7 Summit Club on this climb to the top of the Everest. The 7 Summit Club refers to the few seasoned mountaineers who have climbed the highest mountain on each continent.

The Challenges of Descending a Mountain

There is an old proverb whose origin is attributed to Julius Caesar that reads, ‘Experience is the teacher of all things’. However, mountain climbers would do well to heed the more recent words of  America’s longest-serving First Lady, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. She is quoted to have said, ‘Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.’

Mountain climbing is risky and you cannot hope to survive without learning from more experienced climbers than yourself. In the same month that 11 climbers lost the fight to Mount Everest, one climber summited it twice. Nepalese Mountain climbing guide, Kami Rita Sherpa now holds the world record for climbing Mount Everest having summited 24 times.

According to Kami Rita Sherpa, the trek down the mountain is more to blame for fatalities than overcrowding.  He has immense respect and dread for the mountain, treating each climb with more care than the last. Before he retires next year, KamiRita Sherpa plans to make one more climb to mark his silver jubilee. He will have summited the world’s highest peak 25 times by his 50th Birthday.

Here are five of the main reasons why descending the mountain is so challenging.

1.  Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness as the name suggests is an illness that affects people who rapidly climb to altitudes above 8,000 feet or 2,500 m above sea level. The lower air pressure above 8,000 feet begins to thin the air. At this altitude, there is less oxygen available in every breath you take. If you are not well acclimatized, your body may begin to suffer the effects of oxygen deprivation.

The leading cause of failure to summit a mountain is altitude sickness. It is also one of the main causes of death for mountaineers both on the mountain and shortly after a descent. Prolonged exposure to high altitudes can lead to lasting damage.

Mountain climbers who seek to summit the eight-thousanders cannot do so without carrying extra oxygen. The eight-thousanders are a group of 14 mountain peaks that are above 8,000 meters above sea level. The region above 8,000 meters above sea level is known as the ‘Death Zone’. The oxygen levels in the death zone are deemed too low to support human life. Very few mountaineers have ventured above 8,000 meters without extra oxygen tanks.

What is AMS?

Altitude sickness primarily manifests as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and is characterized by headaches, vomiting, exhaustion, and dizziness. These symptoms can make your life difficult on an ordinary day let alone the added complexity of descending a mountain.

If it is not addressed quickly, AMS can progress to High altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), followed by High altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). The worst case of altitude sickness is known as Chronic Mountain Sickness. The advanced forms of altitude sickness can result in shortness of breath, confusion, muscle pain, atrophy, and hypoxia.

Altitude sickness can be treated using oxygen therapy, hydration, and returning to lower altitudes. Experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness is a major cause for climbers to turn back before summiting the mountain. The effects of altitude sickness can make you lose your footing and fall while descending the mountain. Many of the falls are dangerous but not fatal because friends or guides usually assist climbers.

2.  Exhaustion

It takes a great deal of mental and physical energy to summit a mountain. In many cases, the strength to move your limbs is purely based on will power. However, many climbers burn out their energy reserves while ascending and leave nothing in the tank for the descent.

Unfortunately, the summit is only half the journey. Also, the conditions at the summit may not allow you to stop long enough to catch your breath. On many mountains, you need to start descending moments after reaching the summit. This is because lingering at the summit increases the risk of developing altitude sickness.

Descending the mountain is torture for many climbers who burn out on the ascent. Exhaustion can impair your mental acuity. It can be difficult to think straight or focus when you are exhausted. This impairment is comparable to being drunk. If you feel exhausted, you should let your guides know and possibly take longer breaks at the mountain camps.

3.   Muscle Fatigue

Muscle fatigue is a condition that reduces the performance of your muscles. It usually happens after you have been exposed to prolonged strenuous activity. Muscle fatigue can make it more dangerous to climb down a mountain.

Muscle fatigue can cause your legs to suddenly lose strength or wobble under your weight. This can make you lose your footing and fall. Also, muscle fatigue has been associated with involuntary twitching or muscle tremors.

When you are descending a mountain with heavy equipment on your back, you need all your muscles to work in concert with each other. Wobbly knees and muscle failure can cause injuries to youand members of your team.

The best way to remedy muscle fatigue is to take a break and rest, wrap the affected muscles with compression bandages and stay hydrated.

4.   Summit Fever

Summit Fever’ is a condition in which climbers seek to reach the top of the mountain at any cost. Dr. Christopher Kayes, of the George Washington University, studied a disaster in 1996 where 8 climbers died on Mount Everest. The study, published in 2004, showed how the drive to reach the summit caused the climbers to make poor decisions that resulted in fatalities.

Mountain climbing has been compared to running a marathon. The endurance, pace, and presence of mind necessary to finish a marathon is an integral part of climbing mountains. Marathoners can afford to ignore the pain and keep pushing on to the climax. This is because, for marathoners, the finish line is the climax.

However, for mountaineers, the climax is the summit of the mountain, which is only half the climb. A mountain climbing expedition ends when you safely return to the base of the mountain. Ignoring energy loss, fatigue, injury and symptoms of illness, to summit the mountain can make the climb down deadly. When descending, you have less motivation to push through the pain and inadequacies of your body. 

5.   Distracting Views

When climbing a mountain, you may have Tunnel Vision. You are religiously focused on the next ridge and eventual summit. Your focus can prevent you from noticing the unique sights and sounds of the mountain. However, on the way down, the summit is behind you and you have a wider view.

Many climbers don’t think of taking their cameras out until they summit the mountain. However, once the cameras come out, many climbers cannot stop taking pictures. Taking selfies on the way down a mountain can be extremely dangerous.

Shrewd guides can help you find safe places to take pictures where you will not interfere with other climbers. It is valuable to document your experience and collect pictorial evidence of the climb. However, for your safety and others, you should limit the number of photos you take.

As you come down the mountain, you will experience many breathtaking views. The views are part of the rewards the mountain offers you depending on the height you conquered. You need to have the presence of mind to remain sober while enjoying the view. This means that you should always be focused and aware of your surroundings on the mountain.

You should make sure you have a stable footing every time you stop. Your entire team should also be aware when you stop so that they don’t bump into you or let you fall too far back. Making sudden stops can cause other climbers to bump into you and fall.

Round-up

Several factors make it more difficult to descend a mountain than to ascend such as experience, overcrowding, and slippery terrain. However, most seasoned experts advise that you should pace yourself when climbing mountains. A mountain is first conquered mentally before physically.

When climbing mountains, you should always have the end in sight and reserve energy for descending. More importantly, you should always be ready to walk away and fight another day. One of the main causes of injuries and fatalities on the mountain is your will to reach the summit. On the mountain, will power can work both for and against you.

Many seasoned mountaineers did not summit the mountain in one try. In 2007, the New York Times published an article that said only 31% of climbers who attempt to summit Mount Everest are successful. The article added that 1.5% of the climbers died trying.  The rest of the climbers got the chance to walk away and prepare for another attempt.

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