Is high-altitude mountaineering Russian roulette?

  • 1 Vanderbilt University Law School, Nashville, TN 37203, USA; and Department of Statistics, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA
  • 2 Thanks to Jim Albert, Andreas Buja, Andrew Gelman, Ray Huey, David Madigan, Zach Shahn, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and conversations. Research was conducted under Columbia University IRB protocol IRB-AAAF3302 (exempt) and supported by a Bedayn Research Grant from the American Alpine Club.
Edward K. Cheng


Whether the nature of the risks associated with climbing high-altitude (8000 m) peaks is in some sense “controllable” is a longstanding debate in the mountaineering community. Well-known mountaineers David Roberts and Ed Viesturs explore this issue in their recent memoirs. Roberts views the primary risks as “objective” or uncontrollable, whereas Viesturs maintains that experience and attention to safety can make a significant difference. This study sheds light on the Roberts-Viesturs debate using a comprehensive dataset of climbing on Nepalese Himalayan peaks. To test whether the data is consistent with a constant failure rate model (Roberts) or a decreasing failure rate model (Viesturs), it draws on Total Time on Test (TTT) plots from the reliability engineering literature and applies graphical inference techniques to them.

  • Andersen, P. K., O. Borgan, R. D. Gill, and N. Keiding. 1993. Statistical Models Based on Counting Processes. New York: Springer.

    • Crossref
  • Barlow, R. and R. Campo. 1975. “Total time on test processes and applications to failure data analysis.” In: (R. Barlow, et al., eds.) Reliability and Fault Tree Analysis. Philadelphia: SIAM, 451–481.

  • Bender, R., T. Augustin, and M. Blettner. 2005. “Generating Survival Times to Simulate Cox Proportional Hazards Models.” Statistics in Medicine 24: 1713–1723. (URL

    • Crossref
  • Boyce, J. R. and D. P. Bischak. 2010. “Learning by Doing, Knowledge Spillovers, and Technological and Organizational Change in Highaltitude Mountaineering.” Journal of Sports Economics, 11: 496–532 (URL

    • Crossref
  • Brillinger, D. R. 2008. “The 2005 Neyman Lecture: Dynamic Indeterminism.” Science 23: 48–64.

  • Buja, A., D. Cook, H. Hofmann, M. Lawrence, E.-K. Lee, D. F. Swayne, and H.Wickham. 2009. “Statistical Inference for Exploratory Data Analysis and Model Diagnostics.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences 367: 4361–4383.

    • Crossref
  • Burtscher, M., M. Philadelphy, W. Nachbauer, and R. Likar. 1995. “The Risk of Death to Trekkers and Hikers in the Mountains.” Journal of the American Medical Association 273: 460.

    • Crossref
  • Davies, P. 2008. “Approximating Data.” Journal of the Korean Statistical Society 37: 199–200.

    • Crossref
  • Firth, P. G., H. Zheng, J. S. Windsor, A. I. Sutherland, C. H. Imray, G. W. K. Moore, J. L. Semple, R. C. Roach, and R. A. Salisbury. 2008. “Mortality on Mount Everest, 1921–2006: Descriptive Study.” British Medical Journal 337: a2654.

  • Hoyland, A. and M. Rausand. 1994. System Reliability Theory: Models and Statistical Methods. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience.

  • Huey, R. B. 2001. “Mountaineering in thin air.” In: (R. C. Roach, ed.) Hypoxia: From Genes to the Bedsite. New York: Kluwer Academic. p. 225.

    • Crossref
  • Huey, R.B. and X. Eguskitza. 2000. “Supplemental Oxygen and Mountaineer Death Rates on Everest and k2.” Journal of the American Medical Association 284: 181.

    • Crossref
  • Huey, R. B. and X. Eguskitza. 2001. “Limits to Human Performance: Elevated Risks on High Mountains.” Journal of Experimental Biology 204: 3115–3119. (URL

  • Huey, R. B., R. Salisbury, J.-L. Wang, and M. Mao. 2007. “Effects of Age and Gender on Success and Death of Mountaineers on Mount Everest.” Biology Letters 3: 498–500 (URL

    • Crossref
  • Ilgner, A. 2003. The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers. La Vergne, TN: Desiderata.

  • Jolly, J. 2010. “Elizabeth Hawley, unrivalled Himalayan record keeper,” (URL Accessed on March 6, 2013.

  • Pollard, A. and C. Clarke. 1988. Deaths During mountaineering at extreme altitude, The Lancet, 331, 1277.

  • Roberts, D. 2005. On the Ridge Between Life and Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  • Salisbury, R. 2003. The Himalayan Database: The Expedition Archives of Elizabeth Hawley. Golden, CO: American Alpine Club.

  • Salisbury, R. and E. Hawley. 2007. The Himalaya by the numbers: A statistical analysis of mountaineering in the Nepal Himalaya, (URL Accessed on March 6, 2013.

  • Singer J. D. and J. B. Willett. 2003. Applied Longitudinal Data Analysis: Modeling Change and Event Occurrence. New York: Oxford.

  • Viesturs, E. and D. Roberts. 2006. No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks. New York: Broadway.

  • Westhoff, J. L., T. D. Koepsell, and C. T. Littell. 2012. “Effects of Experience and Commercialisation on Survival in Himalayan Mountaineering: Retrospective Cohort Study.” British Medical Journal 344: e3782.

    • Crossref
  • Windsor, J. S., P. G. Firth, M. P. Grocott, G. W. Rodway, and H. E. Montgomery. 2009. “Mountain mortality: a review of deaths that occur during recreational activities in the mountains.” Postgraduate Medical Journal 85: 316–321, (URL

    • Crossref
Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.

Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues

JQAS, an official journal of the American Statistical Association, publishes research on the quantitative aspects of professional and collegiate sports. Articles deal with subjects as measurements of player performance, tournament structure, and the frequency and occurrence of records. Additionally, the journal serves as an outlet for professionals in the sports world to raise issues and ask questions that relate to quantitative sports analysis.