Scottsdale spine surgeon Ed Dohring realized his dream of summiting Mount Everest last spring – but he also found a nightmarish landscape fraught with deadly overcrowding and aggressive amateur alpinists.
After nearly three weeks of sleeping in tents in freezing temperatures and a treacherous trek through ice and snow, Ed Dohring expected his summit push to the top of Mount Everest to be a spirit-awakening experience.
The 62-year-old Scottsdale spine surgeon planned to reach the summit at sunrise – the ideal time to savor mountaineering’s most hallowed achievement, his guide and other climbers told him. At 29,029 feet, Everest is the highest mountain in the world. The view from the top is breathtaking – countless brilliant white snowcapped peaks jutting into an azure sky surround a summiteer in all directions. The high altitude of the peak also provides views of the curvature of the Earth, and at dawn, climbers at the summit can glimpse vestiges of the night sky to the west as a smattering of stars clings to the horizon.
About 25 days before his final summit push, Dohring and others in his climbing group, which consisted of 40 men and women from around the world, arrived at Everest’s base camp, the Himalayan mountain’s buzzy staging ground, where an international coven of climbers meets to trade stories about their adventures, strategize their final ascents and acclimatize to the thin atmosphere. In the three weeks that followed, Dohring and his companions adjusted by climbing back and forth from base camp and its 17,600-foot elevation to Camp One (19,900 feet), Camp Two (21,300 feet) and Camp Three (24,500 feet). The final march to the summit included trekking more than seven hours a day for four days with overnight stops at Camps One, Two and Three and a day of rest at Camp Four.
At 26,000 feet, Camp Four sits just below what is known as the Death Zone, where supplemental oxygen is needed for survival.
To reach the summit at sunrise, Dohring and his Nepalese guide, Tendi Sherpa, agreed to depart from Camp Four at 10 p.m. on May 23. Equipped with an oxygen tank, Dohring clipped on his crampons and set out on the mile-long trail to the summit, an exhausting 3,000-foot vertical trek that would take him eight hours. He and Sherpa did the majority of the strenuous climb in complete darkness, with only small headlamps to illuminate the way.
Approaching from the mountain’s south face, Dohring expected the summit to be stark and silent. Instead, he found a Starbucks queue from hell. Roughly 200 feet from the top, a serpentine single-file line of climbers snaked down the trail, all waiting their turn to summit. Dohring and Sherpa reluctantly joined them, teetering on a rugged ridge for two hours. Finally, a little after 6 a.m., the duo took their turn on the summit – an area Dohring describes as no larger than two pingpong tables. When he eventually made it, climbers were forcefully elbowing others out of the way to take pictures.
“It was like a three-ring circus,” Dohring recalls three months after the ordeal, on a much milder hike up Camelback Mountain. “You’re thinking about how there’s going to be this great view, and a little bit of a celebration and ‘let’s get some pictures,’ of course, but for me that wasn’t the main thing. It was more to enjoy the view. Instead I was up there going, ‘What the heck is this?’”
Fearing that he’d be pushed and slide off the summit, Dohring left after about 20 minutes.
The journey down the mountain would bring a deeper anguish. Overrun with inexperienced explorers and opportunistic tour operators, Everest would claim several lives that day – a trail of death that confronted Dohring on his descent, including one of his friends back at Camp Four.
All told, 11 people perished on Everest during the 2019 climbing season – the most since an avalanche claimed nearly 20 lives in 2015, and more than the notorious 1996 expedition that killed eight climbers and became the basis of Jon Krakauer’s memoir, Into Thin Air. In his bestselling book, Krakauer details the events that led to the deadly disaster, which include rival tour companies ruthlessly racing to the summit despite dangerous inclement weather.
Similarly, Dohring is haunted by the fact that the deaths he saw were largely avoidable.
Dohring had dreamed of summiting Everest for decades. “I was a little kid when the first American team summited [in 1963] and I just thought, ‘This is the coolest thing in the world. I want to do this someday,’” he says.
His undergrad roommate at Dartmouth College was an active rock climber who introduced him to a life of adventure. “We bicycled across the United States and we started doing more and more climbing and kayaking and just different things,” he says.
During medical school at Yale and his residency at the Spine Institute of New England, Dohring traveled extensively and cultivated a taste for the mountains. One of his first quarries was Washington’s Mount Rainier at 14,411 feet.
Estimated number of successful Everest ascents by year.
*2015 season canceled due to avalanches.
Sources: E. Jurgalski; 8000ers.com; The Washington Post; The Daily Telegraph; alanarnette.com
Then came California’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet. He also climbed “some volcanoes and mountains” in the Alps. “[It was] nothing super hard, but hard enough. Then I started thinking, ‘I wonder if I could climb Everest.’”
Dohring’s career and family put things on hold. “But as my kids got older, we started climbing together,” he says. When Dohring’s son, EJ, was 9, he became one of the youngest people to climb Kilimanjaro. In 2013, Dohring and his then-21-year-old daughter, Erica, set out to climb Everest together, but bad weather turned them around.
By the time Dohring resolved to give Everest another shot, he’d amassed an impressive collection of high-elevation pelts, including Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America, and Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain outside of Asia. Monster climbs both, but Everest is another beast entirely.
To prepare, he climbed Camelback Mountain twice a week and Humphreys Peak in Flagstaff every other weekend. He acclimatized by sleeping in a tent at home and using a machine that mimicked the low oxygen levels on the mountain.
The higher a climber goes, the more they’re at risk for High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which is when the lungs and brain fill up with fluid. The results can be fatal. “This can happen at high altitude because of a lack of oxygen. You are predisposed to these conditions if you go too high too fast without proper acclimatization,” says Buddha Basnyat, a high altitude medicine expert who has written about altitude illness for prestigious medical journals like The Lancet. “The single most important risk factor for altitude sickness is gaining altitude without letting your body acclimatize. You have to listen to your body.”
The absence of oxygen also results in cloudy thinking, Dohring says. “Your body does not acclimatize above about 23,000 feet unless you’re like a super Sherpa with the right DNA. It feels like you’ve had four margaritas. Your brain is just slow; it’s not working right. It’s hazy and your reflexes aren’t the same. You’re moving slowly.”
On risky, highly technical climbs like Everest, climbers are protected somewhat from impaired decision-making by attaching themselves via a short rope or tether on a carabiner to a main safety line. “You’ll come to places where you have to unclip that and clip it back in around an anchor that’s holding it in place, or if you’re passing someone you have to bring it around them,” Dohring says. “If you’re not thinking well, you may not clip correctly. People literally have died that way.”
Focus is key when it comes to climbing the most challenging parts of the mountain, Dohring says. Everest is known for its sheer cliffs, narrow ascents and precarious crevasses. Dohring took the South Col route from Nepal, which lays claim to the infamous Khumbu Icefall, a giant glacier known to collapse suddenly and create large chasms. “As you’re moving up, you’re finding it harder and harder to feel like yourself,” he says.
“Everybody knows that there are dead bodies on Everest,” Dohring says matter-of-factly. More than 300 people have died on the mountain since 1922. It’s estimated that nearly 200 of the corpses still reside there – mummified by the year-round frozen chill.
Unfortunately, that number increased by almost a dozen in 2019. Ultimately, Dohring pins the blame on mercenary tour companies that promise to get anyone to the top, even if they don’t have mountaineering experience. Two decades ago, summiting Everest was a feat exclusively achieved by professional mountaineers with specialized skills. Now, he says, it’s become a commercial enterprise with perilous repercussions.
The number of Everest tour agencies has skyrocketed in recent years, many charging half the price – around $35,000 – of established companies, Dohring says. According to Reuters, these fly-by-night firms often cater to the exploding popularity of climbing in India, where the promise of a quick, cheap, hassle-free Everest ascent holds appeal. For the first time in 2019, Indians made up the largest group of climbers holding permits from the Nepalese government (78 out of 381 total permits) and also suffered the most fatalities (four).
A single, low-budget Nepalese climbing company, Seven Summit Treks, lost seven clients on Himalayan peaks in 2019 – almost a third of the overall total.
“There are still a ton of people that are there because they love climbing, and the guide companies are filled with professionals that want to do everything right,” Dohring says. “It’s just that there has been this creeping, increasing number of groups of people wanting to climb that shouldn’t be there… They don’t have experience. These companies are willing to take their money, and basically it’s Russian roulette.
The company that Dohring booked, Climbing the Seven Summits, requests a climbing résumé to document that a climber is capable of enduring the harsh climates and physical demands of conquering Everest. The physician did extensive research to make sure he was in good hands. Dohring says his guide, Sherpa, who has summitted Everest 13 times, is “famous on the mountain” for his charisma and climbing acumen.
“I love guiding on Everest because I know the route well, know the mountains well and know the friends that I have seen from the beginning of my Everest climb,” Sherpa told PHOENIX in an email.
During their climb up the mountain, Dohring and Sherpa came across a woman and her guide screaming at each other in Hindi. Initially, Dohring thought the guide was encouraging her to keep climbing to the top. When he asked Sherpa to translate, he told him that the guide was telling her to go back down or she would die. They were hours from the summit.
“I don’t know the fate of that individual,” he says, “but if they didn’t turn around, they would have probably passed away.”
The team trekked a few yards farther and found a man standing in the middle of the trail on a steep, icy slope without his climbing harness. “If you don’t have a climbing harness on and you take one or two bad steps, you’re going to fall,” Dohring says. “This isn’t something you would see on a professionally guided mountaineering trip.”
High-altitude expert Basnyat agrees. “The higher up in the Everest region you are, [particularly] in the Death Zone, you have a significant challenge to survival, even with adequate supplemental oxygen. But as you wait in line, you could run out of your supplemental oxygen and that could be catastrophic.”
Dohring and Sherpa stopped to help the man and then kept going another 30 yards to find the body of a woman lying facedown in the middle of the path. After checking for vital signs, Dohring had no choice but to keep climbing. He reached down and unhooked her safety line, hooked it around her lifeless body and hooked again. He says his inability to help her gave him a “profound sadness.”
“As a physician and just a caring human being, you’re looking at these people like, ‘Can I help them?’ No, there’s nothing I can do for them in their circumstance.”
On the way down, Dohring and his guide passed yet another person who had died near the summit. “He was basically hanging from the safety line about 10 feet down,” he recalls. “He was still in his harness hanging upside down.”
“We just continued climbing right next to the body because there is really nothing we could do except for feel sorry for him,” Sherpa says. “When we see the dead bodies, we take it as a caution and be more careful.”
When Dohring and his guide got to Camp Four, they were astounded at what they discovered. Dohring says each camp is typically stocked by porters who carry 50 to 70 pounds of food, oxygen and other supplies for the climbers. Since hundreds of pounds of gear have to be carried to each camp, Sherpas will make multiple trips up and down. Camp Four is where each team stockpiles their oxygen for the summit.
The day before Dohring went to the summit, his team was split into two groups. The first group, including Dohring, got their oxygen and summited safely. “The guides are saying, ‘OK, the next group’s coming up, let me check the oxygen’ and they start counting and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s 70 bottles missing,’” he says.
Dohring has a theory. The day before his ascent, only three teams tried to summit. Two of them were well-known, experienced teams. “The third team is the team that has taken all these people with no experience and they’re doing it really cheaply and probably just figured, ‘Here’s our business model. We know people stockpile oxygen, we won’t bother to buy it because it costs $600 a bottle, we’ll just steal it.’”
Sherpa’s renown on the mountain came in handy. He was able to ask other teams at Camp Four for their emergency bottles so that the other group in Dohring’s team could have enough oxygen to summit. “It was a big shock when I found out a lot of the bottles of oxygen [went] missing but the important thing for me was how to solve the problem quickly,” Sherpa says.
Dohring had mixed emotions when he made it back to base camp and had time to reflect. “You finally get back to base camp and you think, ‘OK, now I’m safe, now I made it.’ But at the same time, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I had to step over a dead person,’” he says. “It’s like now you’re almost reliving what you saw because then you’re just so focused on survival.”
Dohring was hit with yet another tragedy when he returned. A friend on his team, and an experienced climber named Christopher Kulish, didn’t make it off the mountain, succumbing to a “cardiac event,” according to the official account.
“He was part of that team that got held up because they didn’t have oxygen,” he says. “They went up, they summited, they went to Camp Four, everybody was high-fiving, telling jokes and everybody took a little nap and when they went back to wake him up, he was gone.”
If a climber dies above a certain altitude, it’s nearly impossible to recover the body. “If somebody passes away and the family says I want that body and it’s above 27,000 feet, you would literally have to pay between $30,000 and $40,000 to hire 12 Sherpas who will go up as a team and try to bring the body down,” Dohring explains. “There’ve been times where that group of Sherpas has gone up and one of them has died trying to bring the body down.”
The chaos of the 2019 climbing season made headlines across the globe, and Dohring was interviewed by ABC News and the New York Times – both of which gave accounts of the tragedy that he feels misrepresented his actions and feelings while encountering dead and dying climbers.
The sad but unavoidable fact is: Dohring could not reasonably function as a doctor on Mount Everest. He was just another climber fighting for his own survival, his tether to mortal safety stretched ever thinner as he plunged in a frozen and pitiless near-vacuum.
Though Dohring says he wouldn’t scale Everest again, his experience didn’t deter him from mountaineering. His next endeavor is to summit Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Once he conquers the 16,050-foot mountain, he will have climbed the tallest peak on all seven continents.
“Despite my experiences on summit night, I love the outdoors, I love the physical and technical challenge of climbing mountains, and I especially love the camaraderie of the climbing team, all of which we had in abundance on Everest,” he says. “So I will continue to climb, but maybe seek out adventures that are a little more peaceful.”