Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air The World's Deadliest Mountain

Despite Mt. Everest's fame as the world's highest peak and its starring role in many infamous mountaineering tragedies, it is not the world's deadliest mountain. In the elite club of 14 peaks that rise above 8,000 meters (roughly 26,000 feet, the so-called "death zone" above which oxygen levels are insufficient to sustain human life), that dubious honor belongs to Annapurna I, a 26,545-foot mountain in Nepal that is only the world's 10th tallest. Even though Annapurna I is significantly shorter than Mt. Everest's 29,029 feet, it has only been successfully summited 255 times as of 2016, the lowest number of any 8,000-meter mountain. Mt. Everest, on the other hand, regularly exceeds that number of ascents in a single season, with 2016 reaching a near record 641 ascents. The far more alarming statistic, however, is that the fatality rate for all attempts at summiting Annapurna I stands at 28 percent, compared to just 3.8 percent for Mt. Everest.

Ironically, Annapurna I was the first of the world's 8,000-meter peaks to be successfully summited, when French climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal reached the top in 1950, three years before Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mt. Everest. Herzog's 1951 account of the climb, Annapurna, has since gone on to be one of the most influential and widely read works of mountaineering literature ever written. In a story that echoes Krakauer's experience, Herzog and his team endured a harrowing descent from the summit in blizzard conditions, suffering from serious oxygen deprivation and being forced to spend a night high on the mountain. Although they survived, severe frostbite left them permanently maimed.

The primary reasons Annapurna I has proven so difficult to conquer have to do with its exposure to severe snowstorms and steep topography that leaves it prone to frequent avalanches. A series of avalanches killed a total of 39 people in a single month in 2014, ranking as Nepal's worst ever mountaineering disaster. In 1997, an avalanche was also responsible for the death of Anatoli Bourkeev, the controversial guide for Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team, who had survived the events of Into Thin Air just a year earlier. The mountain has similarly claimed many experienced, professional climbers, underscoring the limits of even the best technical skill and ability against the unforgiving forces of nature that exist at high altitudes.

Although Annapurna I has the highest fatality rate of any mountain, the peak with the greatest number of deaths overall is actually Mont Blanc, the tallest summit of the Alps. Located on the border of France, Italy, and Switzerland, Mont Blanc stands at just 15,782 feet, but has claimed between 6,000 and 8,000 lives. This is due to its extreme popularity among amateur climbers and its relative accessibility, leading to dozens of fatal accidents each year. The deadly histories of both Annapurna I and Mont Blanc, two starkly different mountains, offer the same cautionary lesson: mountaineering always carries a certain degree of unpredictable risk, regardless of a climber's skill or a mountain's precise rank among the world's tallest. Sobering statistics from mountains around the world suggest that tragedies like that of Into Thin Air will sadly recur, so long as the world's peaks continue to hold an irresistible allure.