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Why do mountains like K2, Nanga Parbat and Annapurna (36 successful attempts, 47 failed) have higher fatality rates than, say, Everest or Cho Oyu (79 successful attempts, 28 failed)? (source)

Can I use these statistics to determine what aspect of mountaineering is the most dangerous, between the summit ridge, sudden weather changes or shaky snow bridges?

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2 Answers 2

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I personally had a similar sort of a question when I first went through similar kind of stats about these mountains. Getting introduced with these stats is different than totally understanding the mountain and the pandora box it opens. For getting acquainted with the reasons for so many failed attempts, one needs to read tactical data and expedition reports. Understanding the weather is not a case because many a times bad weather make a walk in a park kind of a summit go horribly wrong.


Logistics and Supplies:

Along with the weather, the location makes it more difficult. These big tough-to-climb mountains are not easily approachable. Consequently, many a times you find the local support (labor would be an inappropriate term to use for these great people) like Sherpas and Porters tough to find, fund and convince to come. So things are too difficult with limited support.

If you compare population of these local services around Mt. Everest with other mountains like K2, Kanchenjunga, etc, you would definitely get higher numbers for Mt. Everest, Lhotse and Cho Oyu. May be that is one of the crucial reasons for higher ratio of successful summit attempts to Failed attempts. It will be reasonably wrong to correlate this ratio with "The Death to Summit Ratio". Many a times at these great mountains, failed attempt is death and vice versa. And there is a significant number of expeditions where people actually made a summit and unfortunately passed away on the way down the mountain. Afterall, its not only about standing humbly on the summit, but its more about being there at the top tip and get down the goddamn mountain.


Some Technical Data

One of the factors that makes K2 so challenging is the sustained technical difficulty. Period! It is like a cone of ice and limestone, and has slopes of 45 degree angles or more. Climbers typically fix up to 2,500 meters of rope on the south side routes, and up to 5,000 meters of rope on the north ridge route. It is a consistently steep pyramid, dropping quickly in almost all directions. Speaking of the weather, the sudden storms are caused in part because the peak is so much higher than the mountains around it, it juts up into the upper layers of the atmosphere and like a rock in a river can create eddies in the jet stream, with good weather on one side of the mountain, and life-threatening conditions on the other. That is not exactly the case for Mt. Everest, it being surrounded by another 2 Eight-Thousanders.

Speaking of technical difficulties:

That said, its a fact that Mt. Everest is not a walk-in-a-park and Any-Rich-Tom-Dick-Harry-can-summit thing either, but apart from void weather and a moderately difficult ice wall before "Hillary's Step", Mt. Everest unarguably put much less challenges to a summit-optimist at higher shoulders of the mountain where rescue is difficult and unlikely, as compared to that of K2, Eiger, etc.
K2 has its own agenda to deny a summit by means of Serac and Bottleneck above Camp IV. There is no need to even comment about how tough it is. Once Chris Bonigton was asked, "What makes K2 such tough mountain to climb, even than Mt. Everest". He had replied, "It's enormous, very high, incredibly steep and much further north than Everest which means it attracts notoriously bad weather,"

On the North face Eiger there is a technical challenge called as "The Traverse of the Gods" . Personally, I had my jaw-dropped when I first watched a documentary on that feature.

I have not read and studied much about Nanga parbat, so it will be inappropriate to comment about the technical difficulties it offer.

For Annapurna the technical difficulty is considered to be graded over Hard Severe for the climbing parts of it. The fact that it is considered as the one of the most sensitive Avalanche-Prone areas, adds more woes to climber's expedition.

Overall, the technical difficulty level, Weather, Local Support altogether make world's few mountains tough ones to scale. The same goes without saying for other mountains in the world which have considerably lower number of successful summits.


TAT : Turn Around Time and Height Gain :: Supply Management?

Its also interesting to compare the height gained from Base Camp to Summit.
Height Gains:

  1. From Everest Base Camp (South) to Summit: 3484 m.
  2. From Nanga Parbat Base Camp to Summit: 3800 m (Approximately)
  3. From Annapurna Base Camp to Summit (Annapurna I): 3961 m
  4. From K2 Base Camp to Summit: 4711 m

Does the height gain and the distance matter? Yes it does! Because these are all tall mountains and located at a higher altitude. The night sinks in so bad. The actual time for summit from the Pre-Summit Camp is a very short window. The Expeditions always have (if not, then should have) agreed upon a TAT (Turn Around Time). This window between Start of the Summit attempt and TAT is substantially favorable for an expedition team in case of Everest as compared to the other mountains.

Once I had gone off-road cycling my nephew in remote regions. The kid asked me, "Why haven't you ever climbed that mountain?", pointing at a mountain I didn't know the name of. I said, "I just may some day. But I haven't because I hadn't seen that before and there is hardly anyone who gets here"

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This answer is really detailed and covers pretty much everything, thanks! –  soph-e Sep 16 at 11:32

Several things kill people on mountains, many of these are within the individuals control (ensuring they have the right kit, etc.) I'm going to ignore these because all things being equal these should be relatively static (i.e. the mountain itself doesn't make a person more or less well prepared)

So here are some factors that affect how dangerous or not a mountain is:

Height

It's kind of obvious that a mountain that is 8000m is much more dangerous than one that is 1000m. Height alters several aspects of a mountain:

  • its terrain: taller mountains have glaciers and crevasses, etc.
  • its weather: it's colder the higher you get
  • the oxygen: there is less oxygen the higher you go
  • time to rescue: it's much harder to rescue someone from height than at lower altitudes, one example of an issue arising from this is at some altitudes helicopters cannot function (because the air is too thin).

Difficulty of terrain

So height can't account for everything. K2 is shorter than Everest but kills far more people! K2 is a good example of this actually; K2's terrain is generally more unstable and difficult to climb than Everest (it has particuilar problems with overhanging glaciers that are unstable and can collapse on climbers). Some mountains geology make this worse too. I remember reading about a particularly dangerous accent of a large peak where the main danger was falling rocks. The geology simply made the mountain more dangerous than an equivalent peak.

Weather

Peaks in different parts of the world have different weather systems. The peaks of Patagonia for example are prone to particularly nasty storms. If a bad weather system can come in quickly and unexpectedly (because that happens on that mountain) people become trapped, freeze or are blown off.

Inaccessibility

Inaccessibility can turn a simple injury into a life threatening event. Height obviously makes a peak inaccessible, but also it's geographic location can be an issue. Can you access emergency services? Where's the nearest hospital? How much kit can you take with you?

Basically if your in a remote difficult to climb mountain prone to bad weather that's high, be careful!

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@liam: Good one Mate, the mountain itself doesn't make a person more or less well prepared +1 ! –  WedaPashi Sep 16 at 13:29

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