Mountaineering is often regarded as a dangerous activity. While it’s true that there are life-threatening situations to deal with and therefore often casualties involved, more often than not these casualties are the result of human error. Unfortunately every year indeed experienced and inexperienced climbers lose their lives during the practice of their passion. But what are the risks in mountaineering?
Anyone who spends time at high altitude risks getting altitude sickness. This is a result of lack of oxygen in the body. How easy you will get altitude sickness depends of altitude, speed of climbing and efforts made.
At first, the symptoms of acute altitude sickness are mild: people complain of headaches, lack of appetite, nausea, insomnia, dizziness and a general feeling of being unwell. This is however not life-threatening. The severity of the symptoms depends mainly on the height and how well they are acclimatized and the efforts that are made there. The symptoms can get worse(vomiting, dry cough and shortness of breath at rest). Sometimes this can evolve into life-threatening states.
When you spend a long time at higher altitudes, there are two types of altitude sickness that are lethal when ignored. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is the condition characterized by fluid accumulation in the lungs, while high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is the condition where the brain swells with fluid.
The weather is a big factor during a climb. Checking the weather forecast is essential before attempting a summit bid. You often start your summit very early in the morning. This is not only because the snow conditions are the best at night, but in many mountains, such as the Alps or the Himalayas, there are storms in the afternoon. During their chase for that well-earned summit climbers often make the wrong decision by returning too late 'because they were so close. To end up in such a storm is therefore a possible cause of death.
Of course, weather is also very unpredictable in the mountains which means sometimes mountaineers can get surprised as well.
Crevasses are deep cracks found in a glacier or ice sheet. In some cases they are well visible. In most, they aren’t. In high altitude mountaineering, crevasses are often covered by snow-bridges and therefore are invisible to the eye. Having the knowledge of roped glacier travel and crevasse self rescue is therefore essential before venturing in the mountains without a guide. For this reason, mountains are only climbed when the snow conditions are ideal and the terrain is frozen. This doesn’t mean that snow-bridges can’t collapse, leading to a potential fatal fall.
An avalanche is, usually, a large snow mass coming down from a slope. This is often the case when fresh snow powder is lying on frozen terrain. Avalanches can reach speeds up to 120 kilometer per hour. Mountaineers that are caught by an avalanche can be buried under meters of snow or even worse, being swept away from the mountain.
Some mountains are prone to having stonefall. This can have a natural cause or being caused by climbers above you. A helmet is always required when mountaineering, but being hit by a rock can lead to losing your balance and resulting in a fatal fall.
Another potential danger of mountaineering is the human error. These are all kinds of shortcomings made by the mountaineer which can lead into death. Whether it’s making the wrong decision, a slip, or overestimating themselves. The latter one is often the case when it comes to the knowledge of climbing in the mountains. A lack of knowledge of materials, field knowledge, technical knowledge, orientation knowledge, notions of meteorology, physical readiness, … can bring potential dangerous situations. Getting lost in bad weather conditions and walking down a cliff is just one of the causes for mountaineers to come to an end.