Bodies at altitude

Last night I was catching up on Atlas Obscura and came across an amazing post about the bodies of Mt. Everest. Of course I’ve read that Everest is littered with frozen bodies (it’s too dangerous to try to retrieve them, so most people who die simply lie where they fell), but it was something else altogether to see photos of the bodies. One is of George Mallory, the first man to attempt to summit Everest (spoiler: he didn’t make it). He died during another attempt in 1924, and his body was not identified until 75 years later. Most of his clothing is gone, but the skin of his back is almost perfectly preserved. That’s just…eerie.

Then there’s the photo of a climber who fell and died where he landed, ice axe still in hand…but the squickiest photo for me was of “Green Boots,” otherwise known as Tsewang Paljor. His florescent lime green mountaineering boots gave rise to his new name, and set his body apart from the rest. Because his corpse is so identifiable, it has become incorporated into the visual markers used by climbers. He’s now a waypoint, and the photo shows the climbing lines passing within a meter of his body. I looked at that and imagined hundreds of climbers per season trudging past that body, all of them thinking “It can’t happen to me.” Every year, some of them will be wrong.

The interesting thing is that while Everest gets all the press for being the hardest climb in the world, its slopes littered with the dead, in truth it’s not that hard. (We are of course speaking in relative terms here.) Everest has become a theme park, staffed by Sherpas who fix all the lines and ladders, and do all of the difficult, technical work first, so that western climbers who pay $30,000–$80,000 per person can then follow the lines up. Some experienced climbers still set their own lines and go their own routes, but the vast majority of Everest climbers are essentially very fit tourists, paying for experienced guides. The climb itself is mostly a massive slog, in which the final part takes place in a zone where the human body can’t survive without supplemental oxygen. Most of the fatalities aren’t on the climb up. They’re on the descent, when energy, strength and supplemental oxygen run out.

Meanwhile, west of Mt. Everest is another “eight-thousander,” meaning a peak over 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). This one is called Annapurna, and she gets much less traffic than Everest — but has a much higher fatality rate. According to Wikipedia, as of 2009 there had been only 157 summit attempts on Annapurna, with 60 fatalities. That’s a 38% fatality rate.

There are more people trying to summit Everest in one weekend than have ever attempted Annapurna. Everest may be the highest point on the planet, but by no means is it the hardest to reach. That record belongs to the shorter mountain that most people never heard of.

Everest traffic jam

A traffic jam on Mt. Everest in May 2012. Six climbers died that weekend. (Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.)

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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6 Responses to Bodies at altitude

  1. Arlene Blum wrote a fascinating, and dramatic, account of her (all women) team climb in 1978: “Annapurna: A Woman’s Place”. Thirteen women — two reached the peak (together with two sherpas) and two died.
    Not only the fatality rate is very high, but also the success of reaching the peak is very low.

  2. joanarling says:

    Here’s a related piece of fiction: http://www.ausxip.com/fanfiction/h/high_intensity01.html. It’s also available as a paperback.

  3. Steve Warner says:

    “There were about 300 summits this week alone, well over 600 for the season. ” That represents a major economic influence to the region. And that’s not counting all the people who paid, but didn’t reach the top.

    • oregon expat says:

      That represents a major economic influence to the region.

      It certainly does. The Sherpas are godlike in their communities because they earn far, far more than anybody else in Nepal. But even they are saying “Enough.” As Everest gets more crowded and the traffic jams grow, forcing people to cool their heels for hours in the Death Zone, the Sherpas are in more and more danger. Some of them are now advocating the installation of a ladder at the Hillary Step, in an effort to alleviate the pinch point and move the traffic along. Others are saying that permits should be limited. But the Nepalese government, which profits handsomely from those permits (and doesn’t reinvest much of the profit — if any — in Everest infrastructure or Sherpa protection), is happy to sell as many as people will buy.

  4. Lisa Shaw says:

    What a crazy business. The guides or touring companies or whoever it is who gets paid the big bucks by “very fit tourists” looking to bag the peak should require a $10,000 “body recovery deposit,” fully refundable if the clients makes it back alive. Leaving piles of climbing litter on the mountain is bad enough, but leaving unburied bodies in plain sight because it’s just too hard to recover them (3 feet off the trail!!) is a sin and a shame. Those people had names and homes and families who miss them.

    What goes up must come down. It’s just a matter of money and will.

    • oregon expat says:

      A body recovery deposit is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure $10K would be enough. Retrieving bodies — which are one hell of a lot heavier and more difficult to move than oxygen bottles or tattered tents — is pretty much a suicide mission when those bodies are located in the Death Zone. Which most of them are.

      You might be interested in this article, which includes the story of Hannelore Schmatz.

      On October 2, 1979, after a successful summit, and for reasons unclear, she died of exhaustion 100 meters short of reaching Camp IV. For years, any climber attempting the southern route could see her body, sitting, leaning against her backpack with her eyes open and brown hair blowing in the wind…A Nepalese police inspector and a Sherpa who tried to recover Hannelore’s body in 1984 both fell to their deaths. It was finally high winds that blew her remains over the edge and down the Kangshung face.

      (Note: the article contains some unsettling photographs of frostbite. I must admit that those alone make me never want to try an Everest bid. Or they would if reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air hadn’t already done it.)

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