Mount Everest

Mount Everest climbers spend substantial time within the death zone

At the higher regions of Mount Everest, climbers seeking the summit typically spend substantial time within the death zone (altitudes higher than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft)), and face significant challenges to survival. Temperatures can dip to very low levels, resulting in frostbite of any body part exposed to the air. Since temperatures are so low, snow is well-frozen in certain areas and death or injury by slipping and falling can occur. High winds at these altitudes on Everest are also a potential threat to climbers.

Another significant threat to climbers is low atmospheric pressure. The atmospheric pressure at the top of Everest is about a third of sea level pressure or 0.333 standard atmospheres (337 mbar), resulting in the availability of only about a third as much oxygen to breathe.

Debilitating effects of the death zone are so great that it takes most climbers up to 12 hours to walk the distance of 1.72 kilometres (1.07 mi) from South Col to the summit. Achieving even this level of performance requires prolonged altitude acclimatization, which takes 40–60 days for a typical expedition. A sea-level dweller exposed to the atmospheric conditions at the altitude above 8,500 m (27,900 ft) without acclimatization would likely lose consciousness within 2 to 3 minutes.

In May 2007, the Caudwell Xtreme Everest undertook a medical study of oxygen levels in human blood at extreme altitude. Over 200 volunteers climbed to Everest Base Camp where various medical tests were performed to examine blood oxygen levels. A small team also performed tests on the way to the summit.

Mount Everest

Even at base camp, the low partial pressure of oxygen had direct effect on blood oxygen saturation levels. At sea level, blood oxygen saturation is generally 98–99%. At base camp, blood saturation fell to between 85–87%. Blood samples taken at the summit indicated very low oxygen levels in the blood. A side effect of low blood oxygen is a vastly increased breathing rate, often 80–90 breaths per minute as opposed to a more typical 20–30. Exhaustion can occur merely attempting to breathe.

Lack of oxygen, exhaustion, extreme cold, and climbing hazards all contribute to the death toll. An injured person who cannot walk is in serious trouble, since rescue by helicopter is generally impractical and carrying the person off the mountain is very risky. People who die during the climb are typically left behind. About 150 bodies have never been recovered. It is not uncommon to find corpses near the standard climbing routes.