What killed Peter Kinloch, ‘left to die’ on Everest

Jun 2, 2010
Peter Gillman

Blindness suffered by mountaineer is a classic symptom of altitude sickness

Peter Kinloch, the 28-year-old British climber whose death near the 29,035 ft summit of Everest was reported today, had almost certainly been struck by high altitude cerebral oedema – a form of altitude sickness that all too often proves fatal.

The tell-tale symptom, related in press reports, consisted of a sudden blindness that afflicted Kinloch (pictured above at the summit of Russia's Mount Elbrus) soon after he started his descent from the world’s highest summit.

Having been in an elated mood, he started to slip and stumble, early symptoms of HACO, as it is known. Then he told his team leader that he could no longer see – most likely the result of retinal haemorrhaging, caused in turn by the swelling of brain tissue which can occur at very high altitude.

Already in mortal peril, Kinloch probably suffered from further effects of HACO, which include paralysed limbs, hallucinations and coma. The only effective treatment for HACO is to bring the victim to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.

Some press reports have contended that Kinloch had been “left to die”. Strictly speaking, this is correct. But it obscures the fact that Kinloch’s team leader and three Sherpas struggled for 12 hours last Wednesday to bring him down the mountain before being compelled to save themselves, suffering as they were from hypothermia and frostbite.

Their difficulties were compounded by being on Everest’s testing North-East Ridge, with several major obstacles to overcome before they could reach the sanctuary of the top camp 3,000 ft below the summit.

Kinloch was unlucky in the sense that he had not suffered from HACO before. It can affect climbers while they are acclimatising at lower altitudes, where they can be helped and treated with more ease. But occasionally, as with Kinloch, it can strike without prior warning. And when you are in as exposed a location as the summit ridge of Everest, you are utterly vulnerable.

Everest is notorious for punishing those who have reduced their safety margins to the limit in this way – and for putting their companions to the most severe tests. In 1996, the New Zealand professional guide Rob Hall died in a storm after refusing to abandon a client who collapsed near the summit, considered the most selfless sacrifice in the mountain’s history.

In 2006, by contrast, British mountaineer David Sharp died on the North-East Ridge after being passed by other climbers descending from the summit. But he too was judged to be beyond help and impossible to rescue.

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