Mount Everest vs. English Channel – Which Is More Difficult?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Athletes and fans all have their own opinions and perspectives on what sports or athletic endeavors are the most difficult or challenging.  Gymnasts will debate volleyball players, volleyball players will debate with swimmers, swimmers will debate with runners, ultra runners will debate with cyclists, cyclists will debate with basketball players.

And on and on.  The insights and nuances of each sport are fascinating to hear from those who know their own sports best.

Each endeavor requires discipline, dedication and physical skills as well as mental toughness and focus.

When it comes to extreme sports, there are iconic endeavors such as swimming across the English Channel and climbing Mount Everest.   The English Channel is called the Mount Everest of swimming, but Everest is not called the English Channel of climbing. Why is that?

Mount Everest is the well-known standard of mountaineering – massive bigness – on Planet Earth.  To scale its summit is to accomplish a unique achievement in society: “getting to the top” has all kinds of nuances and implications.

The English Channel is the globally-known standard for marathon swimming.  But, as least in the English language, “getting to the top” seems linguistically more exceptional compared to “getting across”.  Reaching the top of the world just seems more majestic and heroic than swimming to the other shore for some reason.  For most people, “getting across” does not have the same level of profound nuances and implications.

Getting to the top implies overcoming obstacles that stand greater than us.  It implies a hard-fought success after a series of literally and figuratively difficult challenges.  In contrast, getting across somehow seems easier requiring somewhat less courage than getting to the top.  Moving horizontally seems logical and methodical, while moving vertically seems daunting and formidable.

While swimmers and climbers can forever argue which is a more difficult goal to achieve: climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel, it is a fact that mankind is clearly a land-based species whose bodies evolved to walk, run and climb rather than kick, pull and swim.

Walking and climbing is a natural act, while swimming is a learned activity.  So from a purely primitive perspective, the act of walking even up to Mount Everest is fundamentally an activity suited for man while swimming non-stop even 1 kilometer is an action incomprehensible to 99% of humanity.

But which activity is more difficult? Climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel?

There are several ways to formulate the debate.

One perspective is simply historical and data-driven. Swimming from England to France across the English Channel predates climbing Mount Everest by 78 years.  Captain Matthew Webb swam the English Channel in 1875 versus Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who climbed the 8,848m high Mount Everest in 1953.  On the women’s side of the equation, the first woman to swim the Channel (Gertrude Ederle in 1926) predated the first woman to scale Everest (Junko Tabei in 1975) by 49 years.

The English Channel authority Julian Critchlow in his website (Cold Water Swimming) describes all kinds of data that is enlightening and educational.  Critchlow writes about the comparison between the English Channel and Mount Everest, “The comparison is flawed on many dimensions…fewer people swim the Channel but Everest is much more dangerous:
  • 1,959 people have swum the English Channel; 4,833 have climbed to the summit of Everest
  • 142 people swam the channel last year; 648 summits were done in 2017 (~5x the rate)
  • The record for multiple channel crossings is 43 (Alison Streeter); the record for Everest summits is 21 (Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi)
  • 10 people have died swimming the channel since 1875; 10 people have lost their lives on Everest (in one recent month – 288 in total since 1953)
  • Average temperature in the channel for a crossing is 17-18°C whilst for Everest summit is -19°C
Critchlow continues, “Everest has a nearly 10x as many people succeeding every year on average over the Channel. This alone would indicate the relative level of difficulty, especially since the cost of mounting an Everest expedition is easily more than 10x the cost of a typical Channel crossing.”

Both feats of endurance require sufficient financing, adequate preparation, ample physical stamina, formidable mental strength, and an abundance of time.  Preparation, physical stamina, mental fortitude, and time are arguably somewhat equal.  That is, it would be difficult to assess which requires more of each for the average person who attempts either feat.  Even if we ask the members of the Peak and Pond Challenge (i.e., those who have completed both an English Channel crossing and a Mount Everest summit like Khoo Swee Chiow), each of these individuals have their own particular strengths and weaknesses – and opinions.

While the average English Channel crossing takes over 13 hours, the range of time to climb Everest is 6 – 9 weeks. Does the longer time means Mount Everest is harder – or easier?  Either is debatable.

Certainly risks are greater on the Mount Everest side if we consider the number of injuries and deaths that occur on the mountain.  Both injuries and deaths are significantly more prevalent when comparing climbers versus swimmers.  So if risk is one element of difficulty, climbers easily win this debate.

Regarding the solitary nature of both endeavors, it is clear that both climbers and swimmers are aided both directly and indirectly by others.  While the swimmer has an escort pilot and crew alongside of them, the crew is present for safety and navigation.  They are indispensable, but no one is aiding the swimmer go from shore to shore.  Every stroke is done alone.  While the climber is also committing a solitary act of carrying his or her own body up the slopes, they are also aided by sherpas carrying their gear and an entire series of ropes, ladders, all kinds of gear and equipment including oxygen tanks.  In terms of support, it would seem that the level of difficulty faced by swimmers outweighs that of climbers.

And there are many other issues that seem to indicate swimmers have the harder road to hoe.

Regarding the most common ailments faced by the athletes – altitude sickness on the part of climbers versus seasickness on the part of swimmers, there are more solutions available to combat altitude sickness than there is seasickness.  Climbers can ascend more slowly, they can take the drug acetzolamide, dexamethasone, Nifedipine or sumatriptan, or undergo oxygen enrichment. Swimmers simply suffer, not only in the water swimming over to France, but also on the way back across the Channel in the boat. Medicine and oxygen seem to fall on the side of climbers over swimmers regarding ailments.

Although fate and good luck play an important role for both climbers and swimmers, if weather or conditions worsen on a climb, time is on the side of the climber.  They can wait it out (to a certain extent).  Conversely, if conditions turn for the worse in a Channel swim, the swimmer either stops or is pulled out by the pilot for safety reasons.  Swimmers most definitely face a much smaller window of opportunity – sometimes measured in minutes – when tides turn or winds pick up.

Hypothermia is an issue for both climbers and swimmers, but swimmers are unclothed and exposed to the elements unlike any other endurance athlete. The mere nakedness of the swimmer seems to tip the hat of difficulty in their direction.

Simply put, both the English Channel and Mount Everest are beasts. They are just all-around butt-kicking challenges.  But beasts and creatures do not hamper, sting, or bite humans above a certain altitude while jellyfish and sharks are an ever-present reality for swimmers whether or not they physically encounter them.  Tentacles and teeth are two issues climbers do not face – and there may not be those wildlife equivalents on Mount Everest.

Mountaineers can talk and tweet and take pictures while climbing.  They can see, hear, write and commiserate with their fellow climbers.  They can rest and sleep as required.  Conversely, swimmers are alone in their own minds.  Their visual, auditory, and verbal abilities are hampered until the swim is over.  They cannot sleep and resting still requires them to tread and stay afloat in cold water. The normal human functions of communications – so vital for climbers – is out of the question for swimmers.

But talk to the men and women in the streets – at least in Great Britain – and most of them believe that climbing Mount Everest is more difficult than swimming across the English Channel (see results of the poll by Bonnie Gardiner here).

But in either case, people most definitely derive a great satisfaction from these experiences rather than a purchase decision regarding possessions. In other words, both are priceless.

In a recent discussion among climbers and swimmers, the debate was not resolved:

One swimmer said, “Comparing Everest to the English Channel is like comparing a marathon to a sprint.  Which is harder– doing 1000 push-ups or running 100 miles?  I think an interesting stat though would be the percentage of people who have tried and not succeeded, and the average number of tries before succeeding.”

Critchlow writes that 66% of English Channel attempts result in success.  Elizabeth Hawley, Director Emeritus of the Himalayan Database, reports about the success rate of the 8,306 summits of Everest through 2017.   “Between 2000 – 2016, there is a non-sherpa summit success rate of 50% with men and women at 52% and about 60% of expeditions put at least one person on the summit.”

Another swimmer stated, “People have climbed Everest without training.  Try that with the English Channel and see how far you get.”

A mountaineer was in complete disagreement, “Is this [question] a joke?  Everest is so much harder.”

Upper photo shows English Channel swimmer Antonio Argüelles of Mexico who is planning to climb Mount Everest.



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