Everest: The world’s highest graveyard

Deaths on the slopes of Everest cast long shadow over Himalayan peak

Credit: Simon Steinberger

Original Publication: The Week, June 1 2016

Why is Everest back in the news?

May 2016 has seen five people die on Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, with a sixth person missing. Indian climber Sunitra Hazra narrowly avoided becoming Everest’s first victim in June, being rescued near the summit by British ex-serviceman Leslie Binns and his team of Sherpas (Nepalese who act as guides up the mountain).

Last month’s deaths were the first in over a year on the mountain, if only because Everest has only recently seen a return to a regular flow of climbers. 2015 was the first year since 1974 that no-one reached the summit.

This lull was largely due to a 2015 avalanche caused by the Nepal earthquakes that struck base camp and killed 22 people, the worst disaster in the history of climbing Everest.

What is the appeal of climbing Everest?

Standing on the border between Tibet and Nepal, in 1856 Everest was identified by British cartographers as the highest point on the world, now measured at 29,029 feet and rising.

Since then ascending Mount Everest has become an ultimate challenge for mountaineers and entered the public consciousness, including through last year’s film Everest, based on the infamous 1996 blizzard on the mountain that claimed eight lives.

So well known is the achievement of climbing Everest, and so numerous are the climbers, that Billi Bierling, a Kathmandu-based journalist, said: “climbing Everest is a challenge, but the bigger challenge would be to climb it and not tell anybody”.

How Many Have Died On Everest?

The first known attempts to reach the summit were led by George Mallory in 1922, and were curtailed after the deaths of seven Sherpas in an avalanche. These were the first of 282 recorded deaths on Everest, including Mallory himself, who died near the summit after another failed attempt in 1924.

Around 6% of all climbers who have set foot on Everest have died on the mountain. This number is low compared to the main peak in Nepal’s Annapurna massif, which has claimed the lives of 38% of its climbers. However 4000 people have climbed Everest, meaning its sheer number of climbers is a key reason for Everest having such a large death toll.

What makes Everest so deadly?

As climbers approach the summit of Everest they enter what is known as the ‘death zone’; the thinning atmosphere above 8,000 m (26,000ft) where oxygen levels cannot sustain human life beyond a few hours. For many climbers Everest is a first experience on a mountain that enters the ‘death zone’, increasing the risk of physical deterioration or unwise decisions made under stress.

The mountain’s many dangers also beset the most experienced climbers. Sherpa Babu Chiri, who once held the record time of 16 hours and 56 minutes for climbing from base camp to summit, died from a fall in 2001, while Rob Hall, the first non-Sherpa to reach Everest’s summit five times, died in the 1996 blizzard.

What happens to the bodies?

The bodies of Eric Arnold and Maria Strydom, two of the mountaineers to die on Everest this May, have been recovered from the mountain and transported to a hospital in Kathmandu. This is something of an anomaly; due to the extreme risk and physical toll of transporting a body down the mountain only a handful have ever been recovered. In 1984 two Nepalese climbers fell to their deaths while trying to recover the body of climber Hannelore Schmatz.

Over two hundred corpses remain on the mountain, preserved in the extreme cold.

What does this mean for the climbers?

These bodies often remain in full view, and can serve as morbid checkpoints. Perhaps the most prominent of the bodies of Everest was of so called ‘Green Boots’, the Indian climber Tsewang Paljor who died in a cave beside the main northeast ridge route to the summit during the 1996 blizzard. His green boots protruding from the cave served as a marker as climbers approached the peak, until the body was removed sometime in 2014.

Green Boots Cave

In 2006 there was controversy over the death of English climber David Sharp. Suffering from hypothermia and without bottled oxygen, Sharp crawled into Green Boots cave. He was passed by other mountaineers, many of whom mistook Sharp for Paljor and continued their ascent.

New Zealand double-amputee climber Mark Inglis did approach Sharp, but announced him ‘effectively dead’ and continued to the summit, passing Sharp again on the way down. Edmund Hillary, who made the first successful ascent of the mountain in 1953, said of Inglis’ decision:

“All I can say is that in our expedition there was never any likelihood whatsoever if one member of the party was incapacitated that we would just leave him to die”.

Has Everest become too crowded?

Tenzing Norbu, son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who had ascended Everest with Hillary, lashed out in an NBC interview this May at the “circus” the climb has become, claiming that some Sherpas risked their lives to carry coffee machines and TVs up the mountain for high-paying clients.

In May 2012 after coming down from the summit in difficult conditions experienced mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits took a photo of a ‘human snake’ of 600 climbers making the difficult ascent. Four climbers died that weekend, and Dujmovits gave warnings of ‘hobby climbers’ on Everest that have gone largely unheeded.

The Nepalese government are now considering only giving permits to climbers who have already climbed another mountain over 6,500m (21,000 ft), though this would not stop climbers ascending from the Chinese side of the mountain. Kripasur Sherpa, Nepal’s tourism minister, said: “We cannot let everyone go on Everest and die. If they are not physically and mentally fit it will be like a legal suicide.”

human snake
Credit: Ralf Dujmovits

Twitter: @BrianInvincible

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