Sunday, December 18, 2016

Death on Everest

As a follow on from an item yesterday, I received a couple of emails asking why the bodies left on Everest are not brought down.

The answer, in short, is that it is tough enough to get up and down as it is, without also trying to take bodies with you.

From Wikipedia:
Due to the difficulties and dangers in bringing bodies down, most of those who die on the mountain remain where they fall, although some are moved by winds and ice. Two Nepalese climbers died on October 24, 1984, while trying to recover the body of Hannelore Schmatz. While searching for George Mallory's body in a "catchment basin" near the peak in 1999, searchers came across multiple bodies in the snow, including Mallory's.

From The Washington Post:
For those who wish for a traditional service, the costs and obstacles of retrieving bodies from the mountain are staggering. “It’s expensive and it’s risky, and it’s incredibly dangerous for the Sherpas,” to whom the task generally falls, Fort Collins, Colo., mountaineer Alan Arnette told CBC. The price tag can reach upward of $30,000 to $70,000 and the quest to reclaim bodies has taken lives in the past.

It takes 8-10 Sherpas to remove a body to a lower level where a helicopter can eventually transport it.   Most of the bodies aewe in areas where the air is too thin for helicopters to operate.

Some facts and comments about death on Everest:
  • Mount Everest, at 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) is the world's highest mountain.
  • Around 280 people have died trying to climb it.
  • In the last few decades, fatalities have occurred every year. The last year without known fatalities on the mountain was 1977, a year in which only two people reached the summit.
  • Most deaths have been attributed to avalanches, injury from fall, ice collapse, exposure, or health problems related to conditions on the mountain. Not all bodies have been located, so details on those fatalities are not available.
  • The upper reaches of the mountain are in what is known as “the death zone”. The death zone is a mountaineering term for altitudes above a certain point – around 8,000 m (26,000 ft), or less than 356 millibars (5.16 psi) of atmospheric pressure – where the oxygen level is not sufficient to sustain human life. 
  • Many deaths in high-altitude mountaineering have been caused by the effects of the death zone, either directly (loss of vital functions) or indirectly (unwise decisions made under stress or physical weakening leading to accidents). In the death zone, the human body cannot acclimatize, as it uses oxygen faster than it can be replenished. An extended stay in the zone without supplementary oxygen will result in deterioration of bodily functions, loss of consciousness and, ultimately, death.
  • The first recorded deaths on the mountain were the seven porters who perished in an avalanche in the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition. 
  • One of the most infamous tragedies on the mountain was the 1996 Mount Everest disaster on May 11, 1996, during which eight people died while making summit attempts. In that entire season, 15 people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest single year in the mountain's history to that point. 
  • In 1998 Francys Arsentiev (who was mentioned in yesterday’s post) and her husband, Sergei Arsentiev, became separated and then died while looking for each other. Francys's frozen body lay next to the main route to the summit for nine years before climber Ian Woodall led an expedition to push her body over an edge and out of view.
  • On April 18, 2014, 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche that struck Base Camp.
  • Just over a year later, on April 25, 2015, 19 people were killed in an avalanche at Base Camp following a powerful 7.8 earthquake, which killed at least 9,000 people and injured at least 23,000. 
  • Sewang Paljor lost his life in the infamous 1996 blizzard. Hs body lies near the summit and has been nicknamed Green Boots for the neon footwear he was wearing when he died.. When snow cover is light, climbers have had to step over Paljor’s extended legs on their way to and from the peak.
  • According to British mountaineer George Mallory, climbing Everest was a symbol of “man’s desire to conquer the Universe.” When a reporter once asked him why he wished to climb Everest’s 8,848m (29,029ft)-high peak, Mallory snapped the famous response “Because it’s there!”
  • Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first men to stand on its summit in 1953, the mountain has been summited more than 7,000 times by more than 4,000 people, who have left a trail of garbage, human waste and bodies in their wake.
  • From a BBC article:
War zones aside, the high mountains are the only places on Earth where it is expected and even normal to encounter exposed human remains. And of all the mountains where climbers have lost their lives, Everest likely carries the highest risk of coming across bodies simply because there are so many. “You’ll be walking along, it’s a beautiful day, and all of a sudden there’s someone there,” says mountaineer Ed Viesturs. “It’s like, wow – it’s a wakeup call.”
  • Also, from the same article:
What to do with bodies on the mountain depends on a number of factors, including the wishes of the deceased and his or her families, and where the death took place.

Returning a body to a family costs thousands of dollars, however, and requires the efforts of six to eight Sherpas – potentially putting those men’s lives in danger. “Even picking up a candy wrapper high up on the mountain is a lot of effort, because it’s totally frozen and you have to dig around it,” says Ang Tshering Sherpa, chairman and founder of Asian Trekking, a company based in Kathmandu, and president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. “A dead body that normally weighs 80kg might weigh 150kg when frozen and dug out with the surrounding ice attached.”

Typically, though, mountaineers who die on a mountain wish to remain there, a tradition co-opted from seafarers more than a century ago. “But when we have 500 people stepping over a body ever year, that’s no longer acceptable,” says Jenkins, who had to navigate four bodies when he was last on Everest. “That’s disgraceful.”

When a body does become a well-photographed fixture of the mountain, families are often the ones who suffer most. “One day you’re waving goodbye at the airport, and the next is, ‘Oh, dad’s called Green Boots and they’re walking past him,’” says Greg Child, a mountaineer and author in Utah.

Paljor’s brother Thinley recalls the moment he discovered the nickname, along with photos, in 2011: “I was on the internet, and I found that they’re calling him Green Boots or something,” he says. “I was really upset and shocked, and I really didn’t want my family to know about this.”
“Honestly speaking, it’s really difficult for me to even look at the pictures on the internet,” he says. “I feel so helpless.”

To avoid this, remains are usually “committed” to the mountain – that is, they are respectfully pushed into a crevasse or off a steep slope, out of sight. When possible, they might also be covered with rocks, forming a burial mound. But Dave Hahn, a mountain guide at RMI Expeditions who has reached Everest’s summit 15 times, emphasises “the time to move a body is when the accident happens.” Afterwards, “not to get grotesque, but they become attached to the hill.”

But even for a fresh body, those respectful acts can take hours and require the effort of several fit climbers. The question remains of whose responsibility that task should fall to, especially as more bodies have built up over the years, and glacial melting due to climate change has caused others to appear.

Some have stepped up. Since 2008, Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director of Asian Trekking and Ang Tshering’s son, and his colleagues have led yearly clean-up efforts on the mountain, removing more than 15,000kg of old garbage and more than 800kg of human waste. As such, whenever a body or body parts emerge from the melting, ever-dynamic Khumbu glacier, his team is seen as the de facto removal crew. So far, they have respectfully disposed of several bodies, four Sherpas – one of whom they knew – and one Australian climber who had disappeared in 1975. “If at all possible, human remains should get a burial,” Dawa Steven says. “That’s not always possible if a body is frozen into the slope at 8,000m, but we can at least cover it and give it some dignity so people don’t take pictures.”
  • Francys Arsentiev, who died on Everest in 1998, came to be known as “Sleeping Beauty”. The first American woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen. On her descent, she and her husband i were forced to spend the night in the death zone and became separated. The following morning, Sergei suffered a fatal fall while attempting to rescue Francys, who had collapsed, at around 8,850m (29,000ft). Climbers Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd came across Francys and stayed with her for an hour in subzero temperatures, giving up their own summit bid to do so. They were eventually forced to descend to ensure their own safety. Later that morning, Francys died of frostbite and exhaustion.

  • Sleeping Beauty’s body became a landmark, a fact which bothered Ian Woodall. In 2007 he headed back, intending to build a rock cairn for her, but found the area to be covered in snow. He was able to locate her body from where he had recalled it to be, wrapped it in an American flag and lowered it over the side into a crevasse. It took him 5 hours and he described it as the hardest thing he had ever done, tougher than going to the summit.
  • Francys’ son Paul found out about the movement of the body through the media and was irate at not being informed. “I was like, ‘Dude, that’s my mom!’” Eventually he reconciled himself to the fact that Ian Woodall, who had spent the last moments of Francys’ life with her, also had a connection to Francys: “My mother and I are bonded by blood, and Ian, Cathy and her are bonded by death. I feel that they had just as much a right to move her as we did, and my family honours their effort.”
  • The 2015 Jake Gyllenhaal film Everest tells the story of the ill-fated 1996 expedition:


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