The Everest Ladder

How to Sustain Health—the Simple, Affordable, Effective Way

In May 1975, a team of Chinese climbers carried a 3-meter aluminum ladder up to the Second Step, a promontory less than 300 meters from Mount Everest’s summit of 8,848 meters. Long considered to be nearly impassable, the Second Step was the site of George Mallory’s death in 19241. But thanks to the courageous service of that team, the approach along the Northeast Ridge from Tibet was opened for the first time. Since that day in 1975, over 1,500 climbers have successfully used that aluminum ladder and experienced the ultimate joy of any mountaineer—to climb the tallest mountain and stand at the top of the world2.


Installed at a “dead vertical,” the Everest Ladder was a game changer. Once impassable, the Tibetan approach was opened—not by an expensive and complex system, but by an aluminum ladder that was simple and effective. Most importantly, the ladder was installed by a team—a team so inspired by the prospect that future climbers could safely overcome the most treacherous portion of the climb that they lugged an aluminum ladder a very long way.

As we face the challenges of sustaining the health of the world’s population, the Everest Ladder provides a powerful reminder that “simple, effective and affordable” may be the best response for societies, rich and poor. When a cancer drug treatment can approach $100,000, or sophisticated devices such as the Gamma Knife can cost millions, it’s worth remembering that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Unfortunately, the American healthcare system devotes 95% of its $2.6 trillion to “cure,” even as the evidence in favor of prevention mounts under the weight of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and the specter of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

I have no doubt that the climbers who carried the Everest Ladder to the Second Step were physically fit. Although climbing Mt. Everest can be a very dangerous act, we know that staying physically active is good medicine for sustaining health. And what’s better than walking? Well, measuring your steps with a pedometer and then joining a team of like-minded walkers who will help you stay on course. I use a Fitbit One that costs $100. It’s not cheap, but it costs less than a cancer drug, MRI, or pacemaker.

Best of all, a pedometer is simple, effective and affordable—just like the Everest Ladder—and it could measure your steps should you choose to climb Mt. Everest…or walk around the block this evening.

  1. George Mallory was a world-renowned mountaineer who died with climbing partner Andrew Irvine in 1924 on the Northeast Ridge, although controversy continues over whether they died on their ascent or descent of Mount Everest.
  2. After being replaced and carried down from the Second Step, the original ladder was installed in the Mount Qomolangma Museum in Tibet on May 27, 2008.

Written by Michael Birt, Director, Center for Sustainable Health.