Community Decisions: In the Death Zone

This story was written by sophomore Greta Little. It is a part a collection of stories written by U-32 sophomores about moral dilemmas members of our community have gone through.


On average, of the 800 people who climb Mt. Everest each year, 5 die. On Mt. Everest, one wrong move or even a bit of bad luck could end your life. 


Kent Harvey could have been one of the 5 people. In May of 2012, Kent for the second time, descended down from camp four, known as the “death zone”. Everything was going fine, until suddenly, Kent became extremely tired and hypoxic; meaning he had low levels of oxygen in his tissue. At this time, Kent was forced to make a decision between two options, both of which could lead to death.


In 2009, Kent Harvey was given the opportunity to climb the largest mountain in the world. Kent is a cameraman, and was asked if he wanted to film an Eddie Bauer Campaign that needed to be shot on Mt. Everest.



Kent started as a ski patroller before he was a cameraman. He had climbed five of the seven highest peaks in the world but never had intentions of climbing the biggest. Harvey had said, “I don’t believe in paying to climb mountains”, but when he was offered the chance to climb it for work, he had a hard time refusing. “It was a chance to do something that I would otherwise never have had a chance to do. I thought, wow, this has kind of fallen in my lap. I’m going to get paid well to go do it, and I was also climbing with a really exceptional team of mountaineers”. 


Additionally, his family was supportive. Kent knew there were obvious dangers, however Kent said, “there’s inherent risks of driving down the freeway every day. I don’t believe in not doing something because of fear.” 


With that mindset, Kent accepted the offer to climb Mt. Everest, and also to film the campaign for Eddie Bauer. It was tricky training. He not only had to train for the climb, practice being in high altitudes with low oxygen levels, and prepare for the unpredictable weather, but he also had to carry up camera equipment. Kent trained hard, knowing that Everest was full of unpleasant surprises.  


When April rolled around, Kent started climbing Mt. Everest, however at the first couple camps, he had a bad respiratory infection. He probably caught it from other climbers at one of the first camps, but it also could have been from stress, he said he was, “very stressed about putting the job together.” Kent didn’t think he would be able to summit, but miraculously, his infection cleared up and he was able to reach the top of Everest with beautiful weather and stunning views. “I even wept a tear.” 



But this wasn’t the end. 


In 2012, while in Manila filming “The Bourne Legacy”, Kent was again offered a chance to climb Everest because of another Eddie Bauer campaign. Kent again, thought it was a no-brainer and was eager to climb it again. “I thought, well, I’ve climbed Everest, I know the deal. Yeah, I’m in pretty good shape.’I’ll just work out a lot in the gym here at the hotel. And, you know, I’ll get home, and I’ll have a month to train. I’ll skin up a [ski] mountain a lot…get in shape for altitude”. This little time for training seemed like it would be fine. He had already climbed up Everest before, would the second time be that much more difficult? 


April of 2012 came quickly, and Kent and his team full of the actors and experienced mountaineers ascended up the mountain. “There’s a process of climbing Everest,” Kent explained. “You arrive at base camp around early April, and you then eat and rest for a week. Then the next week, you go up part way to camp one, and then you hike back down, and you spend three or four days resting, and then three or four days later, you go all the way up to camp one, then you might go touch camp two, and then you go all the way back down to base camp.” You end up repeating this process until the summit push, so it’s a long process. Kent was confident in summiting, even though the weather was frequently troublesome for them. 


The higher they got up, the worse the weather got. “When I went, there were very high winds, it was kind of an erratic weather year. And the weather never really allowed us to acclimatize the way we wanted to.” Many weeks later, they eventually made it to camp four, also known as the “death zone” at 23,000 feet.  It’s when you start using oxygen. They were supposed to summit that night, but again, the weather didn’t cooperate, and you never want to fight the weather at 23,000-29,000 feet. It can lead to many “game over” scenarios. “So our expedition leader said, ‘you know, we’re not going to go for the summit tonight. We’re going to chill out all night. We’re gonna breathe oxygen. We’re gonna breathe oxygen all day tomorrow. And then we’ll go for the summit tomorrow night.’” Kent recalls. 


The next night, they tried to summit again, but they were forced to turn back because of the “crowds and the long lines of people going up to the Hillary Step [a steep rock outcropping near the summit]”. That said, their patience allowed them to have a beautiful summit the following morning. They took pictures and shot some videos for the campaign. “We spent an hour on the summit. It all went great, I was feeling really good,” Kent said. “But then we started going down back to Advanced Base Camp where we’re gonna pack up everything and then go back down to camp at about 21,000 feet.” Kent ran into trouble, with the fact that he previously didn’t have full training due to time.


Kent in the “Death Zone”


It was about a 20 hour day. He was at a very high altitude, so he was extremely tired and “physically taxed”, as Kent had said. Not only did he have to carefully climb down the “death zone”, but he also had to carry down heavy camera gear. “when I got down to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet, and knew that we had to pack up all the gear to continue going down. I was absolutely crushed, exhausted. I mean, just more exhausted than I’ve ever been”. Kent remembered thinking “oh my gosh, I hope I have it in me to get down.” Kent continued to hike down the death zone. Passing dead bodies, he knew he couldn’t stop. “I had a moment where I really realized how people often die up there.” 


Kent was physically worn out. He couldn’t make another move. All he wanted to do was sit down and rest. Because of the lack of altitude training, his body was also having a hard time adjusting to the low oxygen. This caused him to become hypoxic which causes your body to be in extreme pain and exhaustion. Kent said, “All you want to do is sit down and rest [because] you’re hypoxic without enough oxygen and you’re tired.” However, this was not the best option for him. “You think oh, I’m just gonna lay my head down and catch a cat nap. But people do that and never wake up.” 


The only other option he had was to keep pushing on, but this could also just as easily lead to death. When going down the “death zone”, you use ropes and ice axes. One wrong placement could lead you to fall. It was a hard decision for him to make. Both options could put him in danger, which is not only a problem for himself: “If you do anything wrong, you’re not just putting yourself at risk, but also other people”. Kent finally decided that stopping to rest was too risky, and had a higher chance of putting his other group members in danger. He decided to continue to push on. He was so exhausted, and had to move slowly to not misstep. Knowing that he was climbing a part of the mountain that ”if you accidentally unclip from the rope and fall, it’s game over”, all Kent kept thinking was “just every step. Super careful, super careful.” 


No matter how much pain and discomfort he was in, he pushed on knowing that there was no other way to get to the bottom. “I dug as deep as I could,” he said. Passing dead bodies “laying on the fixed ropes. It’s very sobering.” Finally, after all the climbing, possible missteps, and fighting to get to the bottom of the death zone, he had made it to camp 2. “By the time we got down to camp two, I don’t know if I’ve ever been that wasted, tired, exhausted in my life, and my body was in a ton of pain.” Kent was in rough shape. His kidneys ached because he was dehydrated, and he was still hypoxic. “I collapsed into my tent and the Sherpas brought me these thermoses full of hot tea, and I drank it all. All I did was sit there and drink the tea for two hours.”




Kent successfully made it down the rest of Everest. “But why did that happen? Why was I so exhausted? Well, I was exhausted because I was so arrogant. In thinking that, you know, going up Everest again, was not going to be a big deal,” Kent said, “And I didn’t train the way I would have normally trained. And it just taught me a little bit about my limits and what I’m capable of.” 


Top of Everest


One wrong choice could have been game over for Kent. Deciding to not rest, but to push on, saved Kent from the possibility of death, no matter how dangerous his decision could have been. His job to film a campaign could have taken his life, but his assumption that climbing Everest for the second time would be simple. This has changed him forever. “Never take it for granted… to think you can climb it without proper training.” To this day, Kent remembers both his climbs as an achievement, but also a lesson to never assume greatness or an easy way to succeed. 


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