This is long, but I have been reading and watching alot about Everest lately, so I gathered what I had learned and wrote this presentation, for those interested, on some of the history and controversy surrounding the world’s highest peak.
More than 2500 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first in 1953, but many will argue that his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norjay, could have just as easily been the first. Norjay could have made the climb by himself, but Hillary surely would not have made it without Norjay, but that is another matter. However, in spite of increased success in climbing the mountain, and numbers vary, over 200 people have died trying, and at least 150 bodies still sit on Everest, many frozen where they died and preserved in almost perfect condition.
I am not a mountain climber or interested in being one, but I have a curiosity surrounding mountain climbing, the people, the danger, and those that step over the dead or dying to reach the summit. It is controversial, even in the climbing community, but I will go over some of the bigger stories and controversies here.
First, the peak of Mount Everest is just over 29000 feet. That is nearly at commercial jet cruising altitude, and the atmosphere over 26000 feet is simply not conducive to human beings. It is frigid, with temperatures nearly always below zero, low atmospheric pressure severely hinders breathing, winds are strong, and the mountain is covered with ice . Throw in a dangerous and exhausting climb, and the recipe for death is perfected. A fact many may not know, is that most die on the descent after they have reached the summit.
To understand the deaths, one has to understand how the climb and climbers have changed. The first attempt at the summit was by George Mallory and Andrew Levine in 1924. They disappeared off the second step on the Northeast ridge, and were not seen again until Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999. The photo is below.
Levine has still not been found, but lost bodies on Everest are not unusual. After Hillary reached the top in 1953, many climbers followed, but through the 1980s, most attempts were made by mountain climbers. Real mountain climbers who had experience. Many of those died as well from falls and exposure and high altitude edemas, but they completely understood the risk. The climbing changed in the 1990s when commercial expeditions began to guide people to the top. This opened climbing Everest to amateur climbers and even those with no climbing experience at all.
Sherpas, the people who live on or around the mountains, do the dirty work. They are probably the best mountain climbers in the world, and their bodies have adapted somewhat to the conditions of the mountain. They are vastly underappreciated, but they are the ones to first break the trails, fasten guide ropes, and hired to help lead people up the mountain. They do rescues, when possible, and basically are the ones who do the work for the expeditions. They are important, because even the best American or European or Korean climber, needs and uses Sherpas to scale Everest and K2, and the fact is, mountain climbing has become the Sherpas livelihood.
With Sherpas and commercial expeditions, this made climbing Everest seem easier, yet it is still deadly. People pay $40,000- $60,000 dollars to be led up the mountain, but before one thinks just the wealthy do this, please know that people mortgage their houses, save for years, or out take loans for this excursion. There are the wealthy, but there are also people like a United States postal worker. This, however, is a contributing factor to deaths.
As the climbing industry pushed the idea of an easy climb, more and more have tried. Some expeditions even state you need no climbing experience, that to me, is just irresponsible, but people keep coming. The sheer numbers of people have increased the danger.
The climb is hard, so those with little or no experience, are slow climbers. Even top climbers can run into trouble in the death zone, but slow climbers can cause a ripple effect of death by stretching the amount of time spent above 26000 feet for themselves and others. The slow climb is exacerbated by lines to reach the summit. The volume of people causes a back up at the Hillary Step, the last and most difficult part of the climb. It is narrow and has one rope that many, even hundreds of people have to go up and then back down again, one at a time. The wait here can be hours, but they are precious hours. A climb from camp four, the launching pad to the summit, and back down can take up to 24 hours. This is twice as long as recommended.
The extended climbs lead to exhaustion, longer exposure to frigid temps, and using up supplemental oxygen. Running out of oxygen leads to either high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. Both are fatal, and the climber needs to quickly get to a lower altitude. Moving quickly, however, is what one cannot not do in this condition, because the first symptoms are headache and disorientation, which can cause a deadly fall. As the conditions progress, the climber becomes immobile and then unconscious. A person in this state is much more vulnerable to the cold which will quickly bring death.
It is many times at this point, with summit in sight, that many climbers are told to turn back by their guides or Sherpas. Once high altitude sickness appears, the chances for survival are greatly reduced, so the guides or Sherpas try to turn around clients who appear exhausted or maybe even displaying early signs of high altitude sickness. The problem is, what they call summit fever sets in. A person sees the summit and just cannot turn back despite physical deterioration. Pure motivation and adrenaline will get these people to the top, but that is where the trouble really begins. The motivation and adrenaline fade, the exhaustion becomes apparent, many run out of oxygen, and they become physically unable to walk or become unconscious. At 29000 feet it is literally every man for himself. The guides and Sherpas can help a climber as long as they can walk, but once they are immobile, the hard truth is they will be left for dead. Guides and Sherpas are also in a deteriorating physical condition, so carrying anyone is impossible and will only lead to one’s own death. The south summit, just below the peak, has an area they call rainbow valley because of all the dead bodies with multi colored climbing gear that litter the ground.
The key is to get up to the summit and back down to a safe altitude quickly. A good climber, with no people in his way, can summit and get back down to the safe altitude of camp 2 within twelve hours. Most climbers in commercial expeditions are still trying to reach the summit at twelve hours. The combination of Exhaustion, exposure and lack of oxygen will cause one to be left for dead just after reaching their dream.
Abandoning those that are dying is unconscionable under normal circumstances, but it is the norm for Everest. It is just too dangerous. Rob Hall, a New Zealand mountain climber and expedition leader, died while trying to help a postal worker in the Everest Disaster of 1996. Henson had ignored Hall’s orders to turn around, and Hall felt compelled to stay with him to the summit. When altitude sickness rendered Hansen unable to move, and despite being advised to leave Hansen, Hall stayed. A blizzard then moved in, and Hall was trapped and died. His body is still up there somewhere.
Many bodies are still there. It is just impossible to retrieve them and many lay where they died. This one story, copied from the internet, is particularly eerie and interesting.
I have a morbid curiosity about such things, but climbers walking past, sometimes over, dead bodies to reach the summit, is not the biggest controversy. It is climbers walking passed the dying to reach the summit. The story of British climber David Sharp is hard for many of us who do not climb to understand. In 2006, Sharp climbed the mountain on his own. No expedition, no sherpas, no partner, he was alone. He was above 26000 feet for over 24 hours until exhaustion, frigid temperatures, and altitude sickness took their toll, and he sat in Green Boots cave. The cave is so named for the dead climber who lays there wearing green climbing boots. He is an Indian climber who also died in the 1996 Everest disaster, but sitting or lying down is not ever advised. Once one goes to sleep, they usually do not wake up.
This photo is David Sharp, probably dead.
Anyways, Sharp was sitting next to Green Boots, and up to 40 climbers passed him. Many thought he was a corpse, but one crew, with a camera, found he was still alive. Sharp could not talk. His face was frost bitten and he was nearly frozen. The group figured he was just about dead and continued their track to the summit. When they came back down nine hours later, they checked on Sharp again, and he was still alive, barely, but alive. Sherpas were sent for, and they pulled Sharp out of the hole. When they pulled him out, he stayed in the sitting position. He was frozen nearly solid, but somehow alive. They tried to give him oxygen, but it was way too late. He died within a few hours. Many wonder if such help had been sent nine hours earlier, what might have been done. It should be mentioned, he could not walk. It is dangerous and even Sharp's parents stated David would not want anyone risking their lives to save him. He understood the risks, especially going alone, though it is hard for many of us to understand, but we are also not 26000 feet up in minus 40 degree temperature.
The highest mountains, like Everest and K2, have an odd understanding among those who climb. If you get in trouble up there, you are likely to become a frozen land mark. Most bodies lay where they died, but if near an edge or hanging, they are usually cut loose and pushed over the edge to join the others in the frozen mass graves at the bottom of the Kangshung face or the North Face of the mountain.
In 1998, Francis Arsentiev climbed Everest with her husband. A storm hit, they got seperated, but he made it to camp. After he was told she was not back, he went looking for her. She was found later by a climber stuck on the North face attached to her rope. Her husband's axe was there but he was gone. She was begging for help, but she was near death and in a very dangerous area, probably after a fall, and like many others, was left for dead. Her corpse layed on that face, unreachable but in plain sight for nine years. They called her sleeping beauty. In 2007, the climber that had to leave her, felt guilt, but made a special trip, and risked his life, to cut her down and let her roll down the face to join her husband who had been found at the bottom in 2000.
There are many stories and photos easily found in an internet search. I have read much on the 1996 disaster, and I hope people enjoy this little introduction to the dark side of Mount Everest.