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