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Mountaineering & Expeditions

The Gruesome Truth About The Climbers Who Die on Mount Everest

The world's highest mountain is also the world's highest open grave

The body of an unknown Everest climber who froze solid against a snow drift, which has since melted
The body climber David Sharp which has been left where he died.

The Story Behind Everest

Last week saw the release of Everest, the Hollywood blockbuster telling the tale of the 1996 disaster in which eight climbers tragically lost their lives – the most deadly day on the mountain up until that point.

Scott Fischer, a highly experienced mountain guide played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie, was one of those who lost his life that day. In the movie his friend and fellow guide Anatoli Boukreev tries to rescue Scott and eventually reaches him, only to realise he’s too late. Boukreev’s reaction, covering Scott’s face with his backpack before turning away, might seem odd to some – this was his colleague and climbing partner, surely he could do more?

“Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

But the shocking reality is there’s really very little you can do. The air is so thin that even with supplemental oxygen every minute that you spend above 26,000 feet – in what’s known as the Death Zone – you’re basically dying. The human brain becomes confused and even small movements require Herculean efforts.

As the movie trailer puts it: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.” Recovering a body requires a lot of effort, not to mention risk, and so most of the time they’re just left there.

In fact, Scott Fischer’s is one of around 200 bodies that still remain on Mt Everest, many of them with grimly fascinating stories to tell. The extreme cold preserves them where they fell and keeps them remarkably intact, turning them into grisly landmarks – shocking reminders of the extreme risks climbers face in summiting the world’s highest mountain.

 

Green Boots

The body of 'green boots', thought to be that of Tsewang Poljar, is passed by every climber who attempts the North East route to the summit.
The body of ‘green boots’, thought to be that of Tsewang Poljar, is passed by every climber who attempts the North East route to the summit.

Probably the most famous of the bodies on Mt Everest, “green boots” is thought to be the body of Tsewang Paljor (pictured below), a member of the Indian team who perished along with two of his colleagues in the 1996 Everest disaster.

Three of the members of the six-man summit team from the Indo-Tibetan border police expedition decided to turn back as the weather closed in on May 10th, but Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Paljor pressed on.

“None of the three was seen alive again.”

A Japanese team coming back from the summit passed unidentified climbers who may have been Samanla, Morup and Paljor on the way up and the climbers’ Indian colleagues saw what they believed to be the men’s headlights trying to descend later that evening. But none of the three were seen alive again.

Green Boots-paljor

Green boots’ body has become a landmark, seen by every climber attempting the North East Ridge route to the summit.

 

Mountaineering & Expeditions – Mpora

 

Francys Arsentiev

everest-francys-arsentiev
Francys Arsentiev and her husband Sergei.

Francys Arsentiev’s story is particularly poignant because unlike Scott Fischer or Paljor, she was alive when climbers first found her in distress. She’d become the first American woman to reach the summit without supplementary oxygen on May 22nd 1998, but became separated from her climbing partner and husband, Sergei, as the two descended.

Arriving back into camp on May 23rd to find that Francys wasn’t there, an exhausted Sergei turned around and headed up the mountain to rescue her. On his way up he passed a team of Uzbek climbers who’d abandoned their own summit attempt to help Francys down as far as they could, but they had been forced to give up when their own oxygen ran out.

“‘Don’t leave me,’ Francys murmured to O’Dowd.”

Neither Francys nor Sergei made it back to camp that night. The following morning, climbers Ian Woodall, Cathy O’Dowd and their team were amazed to find what they’d thought was a body still alive. “Don’t leave me,” Francys Arsentiev murmured to O’Dowd. But immobile and slipping in and out of consciousness, she was already beyond rescuing.

Francis Arsentiyiv Descending to Body
Climbers descending towards the body of Francys Arsentiev.

After spending nearly an hour with her in temperatures of minus 30, Woodall and O’Dowd were forced to turn around. In her book Just for the Love of It, O’Dowd writes: “I had never encountered anything like this. I had passed bodies, I had had friends not come back, but I had never watched anyone die. Nor had I had to decide to leave them.”

Of Sergei, they had seen nothing but it later emerged he’d fallen to his death trying to reach his wife. Like green boots, Francys Arsentiev’ body lay right next to main North Col route for years, passed by hundreds of climbers going to and from the summit.

Francys Arsentiyev's body shrouded by an American flag
Francys Arsentiyev’s body shrouded by an American flag

In 2007 Woodall returned with the express intention of moving Francys’ body out of sight, covering it with an American flag and placing a note from her family on the corpse.

 

David Sharp

The body of British climber David Sharp, frozen in a sitting position in "green boots cave".
The body of British climber David Sharp, frozen in a sitting position in “green boots cave”.

Like Francys and Sergei, David Sharp was climbing Mt Everest without a support team and without the aid of bottled oxygen. It’s believed he made it to the summit on May 14th 2006, but on his way down fatigued and confused he stopped and sat down in what, since 1996, has been known as “green boots cave”.

Around 40 climbers from several expeditions are reckoned to have passed Sharp on their way up the mountain on the 15th. Kiwi double amputee Mark Inglis’ climbing party stopped and realised Sharp was in trouble. Yet no significant attempt was made to rescue him until the climbers passed him again on the way down some nine hours later.

“They don’t give a damn for anybody else.”

By this point Sharp was beyond help, and he died frozen in the position he’d sat down in, arms huddled around his knees.

David Sharp in happier times David Sharp in happier times

Inglis and the other climbers maintained that they believed Sharp was beyond help on the way up, which may have been true, but controversy surrounds the incident. Sir Edmund Hillary himself criticised his fellow kiwi, telling the New Zealand Herald: “If you have someone who is in great need and you are still strong and energetic, then you have a duty, really, to give all you can to get the man down and getting to the summit becomes very secondary.

“You can try, can’t you?”

He added: “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top.

“They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn’t impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die.”

 

George Mallory

George Mallory Dead
George Mallory’s body, which was discovered in 1999.

One of the oldest bodies on the mountain wasn’t discovered until 1999 – nearly 75 years after he died. George Leigh Mallory was the most famous mountaineer of his time – and arguably of any time.

To this day, no-one is sure whether he and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine reached the summit of the mountain on 8th June 1924. They were climbing dressed in tweed, using incredibly primitive equipment by today’s standards, including very clunky oxygen bottles. And yet when they were last sighted, they were just a few hundred vertical feet short of the summit and, according to fellow expedition member Noel Odell, “going strongly for the top.”

“when they were last sighted, they were just a few hundred vertical feet short of the summit and apparently climbing well.”

Neither man returned however, and the question of whether or not they made it remains one of mountaineering’s greatest mysteries. An expedition was launched in 1999 to try and find Mallory’s body and perhaps solve the issue.

1924 Everest Expedition Mallory and Irvine
The 1924 British Everest Expedition. Back row, left to right: Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edward Norton, Noel Odell, and John Macdonald.

Yet when they found Mallory his mummified corpse revealed little. He appears to have fallen to his death and from the rope injury around his waist it has been deduced that he and Irvine were still roped together when they fell.

Andrew Irvine (left) and George Mallory (right) wwho may have been the first men to set foot on the summit of Everest.
Andrew Irvine (left) and George Mallory (right) wwho may have been the first men to set foot on the summit of Everest.

Two pieces of circumstantial evidence suggest that they may have made it. Mallory was found with a pair of snow goggles in his pocket. Had he taken them off to see better because the sun had gone down? That would imply it was late when he fell, suggesting that they’d summited and were making their way back down.

He also carried a photo of his wife Ruth with him, which he promised her he would leave on the top of the mountain – but despite the documents in his wallet being well preserved, no photo was found.

However the main hope of the 1999 expedition, that they would find the camera Mallory and Irvine carried and conclusive photographic evidence either way, was dashed. The Vest Pocket Kodak was nowhere to be found.

When asked why he wanted to climb the (as then unconquered) mount Everest, Mallory famously replied: “Because it’s there”. Whether or not that is a reason worth dying for is open for debate. But it’s one that has driven thousands of climbers to follow in his footsteps ever since – with many, like Mallory, failing to return.

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