The Four Deadliest Mountains on Earth
Mount Everest is sexy. “Tallest mountain in the world”—the phrase has a glamorous ring that the world’s best climbers have found irresistible for generations. Many of these adventurers have paid for their attraction to the 8,850-meter summit with their lives. Still, the numbers say it’s not the world’s deadliest peak to reach—not by a long shot. Several of the other eight thousanders, a mountaineering term for the fourteen independent mountains that tower at least 8,000 meters above sea level, have proven themselves much more lethal over time. The four mountaintops described below are, objectively, the deadliest in the world for those who would try to scale them.
Straddling the Nepalese border with India, Kangchenjunga is hard to even pronounce correctly, let alone climb. This Himalayan beast has claimed more than its share of those brave enough to attempt an ascent. The third highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga has only been summited by 187 climbers. 40 others have died in the attempt. That breaks down to a death rate of nearly 22 percent, the fourth highest figure of any independent mountain on Earth.
Kangchenjunga’s isolation is its defining (and lethal) characteristic. It can take as long as 15 days to even reach basecamp. It wasn’t even first summited until 1955, two years after Everest. This lack of accessibility means that no commercial outfitters even offer summit expeditions. There are also long stretches of the climb that can’t be tackled using fixed ropes. Anyone who wants to reach the top has to risk long stretches entirely self-supported. It’s a dangerous combination that’s reflected in the grim statistics.
3. Nanga Parbat
Ominously dubbed, “the killer mountain,” this Pakistani giant killed 31 climbers before the first full ascent was ever completed in 1953. Coming in at ninth on the tallest mountains list, there’s more to Nanga Parbat’s infamy than height alone. Especially brutal weather can make the ascent treacherous even by the extreme standards of the eight thousanders. Checking in just above Kangchenjunga in terms of deadliness, a full 23% of all successful summits have been accompanied by a death.
Just months ago, an attempt to summit by two of the world’s most experienced mountaineers turned fatal when a sudden snowstorm struck. French climber Elisabeth Revol and her partner, Tomasz Mackiewicz, had to abandon their effort to reach the peak when unexpectedly fierce blizzards began to lash the mountainside. Revol was able to descend to a point where she was able to use a satellite phone to call for help, but Mackiewicz was stranded higher up the mountain.
A team of highly skilled Polish mountaineers abandoned their own concurrent trek to the top of K2 for the rescue mission. They were helicoptered to Nanga Parbat and made it to Revol in time to save her. Unfortunately, the altitude at which she had left Mackiewicz was unreachable in the conditions. Snowblindness and the shockingly low temperatures handicapped the rescuers. Nanga Parbat, which literally translates to “naked mountain,” rises so high above all surrounding terrain that it’s completely exposed to the jet stream. While Mackiewicz is the most recent (and highly publicized) victim of this ruthless topography, the history of Nanga Parbat indicates he surely won’t be the last.
The only mountain on this list with a height proportional to its lethality, K2 is both the second tallest mountain in the world and the second most dangerous in terms of death rate. Towering 8,611 meters above sea level, 24% of those who have set out to complete K2’s ascent never made it back. It’s also the peak that has long regarded as the most technically challenging climb planet Earth has to offer. Only the greatest mountain climbers in the world have historically had a chance to scale K2; it makes sense that many less adept (or just less fortunate) have died in the attempt.
Less than 400 people in history have completed the trip up K2. That’s only a small fraction of the 7500 that have scaled Everest. Vanessa O’Brien, one of the most renowned climbers alive today, says there are several reasons that K2 is so difficult and dangerous. “When you’re on the actual climb,” she emphasizes, “K2 is shaped like a triangle so it’s demanding 110% day one. Everest, there’s twists and turns, so it’s not always climbing steep.” This constant, almost vertical battle against gravity undoubtedly explains why so many have perished on this most demanding of climbs.
The name itself evokes images of icy death for elite mountaineers worldwide. Annapurna has seen less than 200 humans stand in triumph at its summit since it was first made by Maurice Herzog in 1950. In that time, 61 fatalities have been recorded for a summit-to-death ratio of nearly one in three. That bone-chilling figure can be explained in one word: avalanches.
All the eight thousanders are steep, snowy, and slick, a set of conditions that lends itself to avalanche risk. Annapurna, however, is so often blanketed with fresh powder that many who have attempted it regard making it to the top a matter of pure chance. “Annapurna is a life-taking mountain,” writes Mingma Sherpa, who made the summit in 2015. “Climbing [it] depends on luck and hard work.” Sherpa’s 12-man team lost 2 of its number during the descent.
Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie. It’s important to keep in mind that death rates and summit-to-fatality figures are often an understatement of a mountain’s true deadliness. It’s fair to assume that most everyone who reaches the top reports it; who doesn’t want the recognition that accompanies scaling the world’s highest peaks? However, many of those who are killed on the way never make it into the recordbooks. All of these treacherous giants have likely claimed many more lives than anyone can truly know. Everest may represent the pinnacle of climbing achievement in popular culture, but serious climbers know the truth. These four monsters are much more difficult and deadly.