After a three-week trek, the California-based couple James Sissom (35) and Ashley Schmieder (32) eloped. On its own, that sentence does not seem interesting enough to be worth publishing. Marriage, while a significant step for any couple, is not news-worthy event in most circumstances. Even when the biggest hullabaloos are made — such as royal or presidential weddings — the fanfare relates only to the titles of the parties involved, not the intrinsic significance of the ceremony.
But Sissom and Schmieder aspired to such significance, not because their wedding vows are more special than anyone else’s, but because they wanted to be the rare couple to get married at the high altitude Base Camp of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. It’s undoubtedly a small club whose members can claim having their nuptials at 17,600 feet, and with their 2017 wedding Sissom and Schmieder joined it. (One Nepalese couple can even claim the ultra-exclusive honor of having been married on the summit.) Of course, they had to put up with a challenging climb and air so thin the uninitiated usually give up before trekking any higher, but based on the stately and gorgeous wedding photography taken by Charleton Churchill, it was all worth it, for them.
More than any other natural landmark in the world, Mount Everest inspires people from around the globe to push their limits. At an unsurpassed 29,029 feet, the peak draws climbers in droves, all of whom put up with some of the most brutal weather and land conditions to simply try to reach the summit of the mountain. Storms move in an out quickly, often unpredictably. The more one pushes into the upper levels of the mountain, the thinner the air gets, making breathing — absent heavy oxygen apparatuses — near impossible. The snow coat of Everest can cause snow blindness if one looks too long into the reflective white radiating the sun’s light. With every step toward the summit, it becomes increasingly clear to any climber that, except for those native to the mountain and some truly talented and unwaveringly adventurous mountaineers, Everest is, past a certain point, not for human life.
Sissom and Schmieder represent a unique kind of Western tourism that flocks to Everest each year, seeking liberation or triumph on the mountain. But they also raise a question that’s brought about any time one looks at the trail of bodies that now litter the slopes of Everest: just how much risk is worth it to experience this mountain? When will the implicit message being sent by the mountain — “Few should tread here” — be heeded? Sissom and Schmieder may have only gone as high as Base Camp, 12,000 feet below the summit, but even that height poses challenges. Base Camp’s 17,600 foot elevation puts it well above most US peaks, save for Denali and Mt. Saint Elias in Alaska. And while all ended up well for Sissom and Schmieder, the wedding nearly didn’t happen when Sissom began experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness, magnified by his asthma. His fate, while unfortunate, pales in comparison to the worst fates suffered by those overpowered by the mountain.
The high-elevation union of Sissom and Schmieder will amount to little more than a headline for those who don’t know the couple. “Did you hear about that couple who got married on Mount Everest?” you’ll most likely hear amidst bristlings of bar banter. Yet this one marriage also serves as synecdoche for how much of the Western world experiences Everest: a site for exploration, difficulty, and self-fulfillment. It is enough, for many, to know that the mountain is high and can be bested. But the punishing weather and paper-thin air past Base Camp, where Sissom and Schmieder tied the not, communicates to Western tourists that the existence of a summit does not demand a climber. Death tolls on Everest have dropped some in recent years; experienced climber Alan Arnette calculates that in 2016 five people died during the climbing season, in contrast to the eight deaths per year average beginning in 2002. Nevertheless, a view from the top is never guaranteed, and in the bluster that enfolds Everest life is never certain. Getting married on Everest, even at Base Camp, requires a lot of know-how about the science of the human body and its limits.
First Solo Summit: Reinhold Messner (Italy), also without supplemental oxygen, 1980
First Summit without Supplemental Oxygen: Reinhold Messner (Italy) and Peter Habeler (Austria), 1978
Youngest Person to Summit: Malavath Purna (India), age 13, 2014; Jordan Romero (USA), age 13, 2010
Oldest Person to Summit: Yuichiro Miura, age 80, 2013
First, a qualifier. Amazingly, even in the face of the obstacles inherent to Everest and the tourist overcrowding of the mountain in recent decades, most people who take to Everest reach the top. Climbing numbers will occasionally dip when severe storms make it impossible even for the most ardent mountaineers to best the circumstances. Zero summits were made in 2015 due to a severe earthquake — nearly an 8 on the Richter scale — an issue that also marred the 2014 climbing season. One woman did climb from the Nepalese side after the 2014 closure, but she did so by using a helicopter to skip over the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, a move that has many questioning whether or not she properly summited at all.
However, following two years of low to nonexistent climbing, officials in Nepal and China extended the permits for those climbers who purchased permits in 2014-15 only to find the mountain shut down. Everest, as ever, remains a hot ticket.
Another qualification that should be made prior to detailing all the medical risk that goes in to climbing Everest has to do with that “hot ticket.” Anyone who has set foot in an REI knows that sporting equipment is not cheap; unless you’re fashioning your own tools and gear, you’ll pay millions of pretty pennies before you set foot on any mountain you hope to climb. Everest, being the most desirous peak in the world for aspiring climbers — particularly those looking to conquer all of the Seven Summits — magnifies the financial issues that outdoorspeople face.
If you’re looking to climb Mount Everest, expect the following expenses:
- Training: While you’ll do training specific to Everest’s slopes and elevation prior to climbing it, in reality training for Everest begins years, perhaps even a decade prior to any attempt to climb it. Most climbers will tackle smaller peaks, sometimes other mountains in the Seven Summits, prior to traveling to Everest to better acclimate themselves to the thin air above 20,000 feet. This means that whatever it costs to climb those mountains — which includes travel to/from, gear, food, and guides if one chooses to hire them — can be factored in to the specific costs of an Everest expedition. This number will easily run in the tens of thousands, perhaps even into six figures if one climbs a large amount of mountains.
- Permit: There’s no walking up to Everest and climbing it willy-nilly. In order to legally take to the mountain, you must acquire a permit from the governing body of the side of the mountain from which you begin your expedition (either Tibet or Nepal). Those not privy to the facts of commercial climbing might think it odd to charge merely for permission to climb, but Everest is not alone in this practice; the authorities at Denali, the tallest peak in the United States, issue permits that come with a fee as well. Currently, the going rate for a Nepalese permit is $11,000 per person, assuming that person is in a group. Individual permits run a much steeper $25,000. Additionally, as four-time Everest climber Alan Arnette documents, that $11,000 permit — which merely grants permission to climb — is compounded by a team fee ($2,500), a refundable trash deposit ($4,000/team), and fees for a liaison officer ($3,000). On the Tibetan side, climbers pay $9,950 to the Chinese government if traveling with a group of four or more; individual climbers or groups of two to three pay $19,500. That permit includes more than mere permission, including travel to and from base camp, hotel stays, and access to liaison officers.
- Gear: REI may have been mentioned earlier, but suffice it to say that chain retail stores won’t suffice for an Everest expedition. When it comes to climbing gear, Everest demands the best of all its participants, a standard that extends to gear. Arnette estimates that this could run an individual anywhere from $800 – $29,450, though in reality a single climber will spend at least several thousand on gear alone. The overwhelming majority of Everest climbers use supplemental oxygen, which adds up to a lot at $550 a bottle, in addition to $450 each for a specialized mask and regulator. You can carry your gear yourself, or you can outsource that heavy lifting to a Sherpa guide, who comes with her/his own fee in addition to supplemental oxygen if they choose to use it. (Being that they are from the area, Sherpas acclimate to Everest’s punishingly thin air quicker than Western tourists, though this does not mean they will always choose to forgo oxygen.) Katherine Tarbox, who reached Everest’s death zone but did not summit, tallied up her expenses for gear to around $10,000.
- Guides: Some, like the legendarily fearless Italian adventurer Reinhold Messner, willingly take peaks like Everest on their own. In most cases, however, the adage “strength in numbers” is the mantra of Everest hopefuls. Guides can be sourced in Nepal or Tibet, or even Western companies that hire seasoned climbers to guide others to the top of the mountain. Arnette crunched the numbers on a range of guides available and found the following:
- Errata: In addition to all of the above, which easily brings the number of an Everest climb to at or just shy of $100,000 dollars, there are other matters such as (1) flights to/from Kathmandu, which can easily cost $4-6,000 USD, (2) insurance, as this is not always included in certain travel packages, (3) immunizations prior to arriving on the mountain, among others. Unless you receive a sponsorship of some kind, climbing Everest requires a substantial amount of capital, which makes it no surprise that it’s almost always a sport for the super-privileged.
Still interested in flying to Everest for the hardest climb of your life? Understandably, the money involved — not to mention the short supply of permits (with something like 300 issued per year) — turns most people away, even the most eager of climbers. But if money is no object, or at least no barrier, then there’s more to know about the dangers that come along with venturing to the top of the mountain. After all, Everest climbers frequently use the dead bodies of people who either failed to make it to the top or made it to the top but didn’t make it down as signposts in getting to the top. There are reasons why bodies guide the way.
The Science of Extreme Altitude
If thin air were not an issue for Everest climbers, the challenge of reaching the top might not have the reputation it presently does. Because of its height Everest ranks highly on the list of the world’s most difficult mountains to summit, but most experienced climbers wouldn’t list Everest as the most taxing climb. Nearby K2 and Annapurna have worse reputations when it comes to killing climbers. But 29,029 feet can bring even the most grizzled of climbers to their knees. Once you cross the threshold of 25,000 feet, the level above which is called “The Dead Zone,” even supplemental oxygen won’t fully halt the challenges of increasingly nonexistent, breathable air.
If you’ve ever wondered why, in an age of commercialized adventure tours, there isn’t a trip that people can take wherein they jet to the top of Everest by plane or helicopter. The former could reach 29,029 feet without a problem — this is well below the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners — but the latter would be forced to descend well before the summit, as the air is not thick enough to support the blades of a helicopter. More importantly, however, a human would die within minutes if she was transported from sea level, or even a few thousand feet above sea level, to the inhospitable peak of Everest. Such a shock to the system would be irrecoverable.
The higher you go, the less air you’ll get. Even a trip from, say, sea level to 10,000 feet — just over halfway to Everest’s main Base Camp — can leave a healthy person gasping for air. When it comes to mountain climbing of Everest’s caliber, that problem magnifies exponentially. In addition to feeling short of breath generally, Everest climbers must reckon with these potentially lethal illnesses:
- High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid builds up in the lungs; HAPE is an iteration of that disease brought about by exposure to high altitudes. This disease, the most common cause of of high altitude-induced death, is pernicious for how it can afflict even those who appear to be healthy, or even have experience climbing at higher altitudes. The journal Circulation reports that the disease can be explained by increased pressure in an individual’s pulmonary capillaries.
- High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): Like HAPE, HACE occurs when one rushes too quickly in ascending to higher altitudes, though instead of fluid collecting in the lungs it instead collects in the brain, which causes swelling and increased intercranial pressure. Both HACE and HAPE can be difficult to prepare for, even if one is in good health, because bodies adjust to altitude in different ways, meaning there’s no one agreed-upon pace for summiting a mountain like Everest, apart from slowly and carefully. If left untreated, HACE can kill an individual within a day.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Jon Krakauer made it to the peak of Everest, and survived the 1996 Everest disaster to tell the tale of that harrowing experience in his popular book Into Thin Air. But despite Everest’s significance to his life, he has since announced that climbing the mountain was a mistake. One reason for his change of heart has to do with PTSD, a psychological disease brought about after experiencing a highly traumatic event. The disease is most known as an affliction experienced by soldiers who have returned home from combat. Symptoms of the disease include aggressive behavior that only appeared after the experience of a traumatic event, difficulty maintaining focus, hypervigilance, and loss of normal sleeping patterns. The debate over what constitutes “trauma” is ongoing, but when it comes to Everest it’s not hard to imagine numerous PTSD-triggering incidents: seeing death happen, nearly experiencing death, and destructive events like avalanches.
All of this is to say: when thinking about climbing Everest, one must understand it not just as a highly difficult physical challenge — in the way that, say, one would conceptualize running a full marathon — but as a test of the limits of the human body as a whole. The only reason more people continue to summit Everest in droves (there have been cases of over 100 people summiting on a single day) is because of all that is done to thwart the natural circumstances that might otherwise undo even the best of climbers. So many scientists and adventurers have invested time and capital into researching how to overcome Everest, such that technology has advanced in ways that make it easier — though, of course, not easy — for people to climb Everest. To understand how to summit Everest, one must understand how to summit the human body.
Sissom and Schmieder were wise to marry at Base Camp, all the risks involved at even that lower elevation notwithstanding. Any higher and their nuptials might not have been able to come to fruition at all. An Everest wedding will garner publicity like no other ceremony, and certainly the newlyweds have a story to tell that will be the envy of future cocktail party attendees. But the real feat is that they got married on Everest, and lived. The death rate on Everest may have improved from one death/four summits to one death/six summits, but those are still grim odds. Everest provides a pristine view of the world; even as it is limited to the regions of Tibet and Nepal, it feels like a panorama of the globe just based on the pictures taken from the summit. To actually see from that vantage point must feel incredible. But no view is worth a human life, which is why only serious climbers — not, as it too often is, the richest climbers with the most free time — should take to the world’s tallest peak.
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