I have never climbed a mountain, but the subject of alpine climbing has interested me since I was a kid–probably since it figured so prominently in one of my favorite books, R.A. Montgomery‘s Choose Your Own Adventure novel The Abominable Snowman. Two of my recent works of fiction, Hotel Himalaya: Three Travel Romances and The Valley of Forever, take place partially in the Himalayas, the tallest and most forbidding mountains on Earth. In doing a bit more research on climbing for an upcoming writing project, I stumbled upon a macabre and tragic subject that apparently has attracted the attention of numerous people over the past few decades: the dead of Mt. Everest. But beyond just a particularly ghastly bit of real life horror, the icy graveyard of human corpses on the upper slopes of the Earth’s tallest mountain contains, I think, a sobering lesson on how humans impact fragile environments–and how, quite often, those environments fight back.
Mt. Everest is a deadly mountain. Given its status as the world’s tallest and the natural call to adventure that many climbers can’t resist, it’s not surprising that many people–nearly 300 and counting–have lost their lives in ill-fated attempts to scale the peak, or, actually more commonly, on their way back down from having conquered it. What most people don’t know is that, with very few exceptions, someone who dies on Mt. Everest is destined to stay there pretty much forever. In the ultra-thin air at 28,000 feet, where all but the hardiest climbers must use bottled oxygen, physical exertion is magnified many times–it’s all a human being can do just to keep walking and breathing. Picking up or even dragging a body is, in many cases, impossible. Add to this Everest’s steep slopes which mean people can walk only on tiny razor-thin ridges or must scale near-vertical walls (like the famous Hillary Step) using ropes and pitons, bringing back a fallen compatriot is out of the question. Consequently, a climber who dies will almost always stay right where he or she fell, frozen solid and mummified naturally by Everest’s hostile dry environment. Not only do active climbers often see Everest dead on their expeditions, in many cases they literally have to step over dead bodies as they make their way up the mountain.
Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer the mountain in May 1953. Since then, many thousands of others have followed–and nearly 300 unlucky ones remain.
This horrifying reality has been getting worse–much worse–in recent years. A lot has changed since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first set foot on the summit of Everest in May 1953. Now with the advent of climbing tours offered by for-profit adventure companies, you don’t have to be sponsored by the National Geographic Society to climb Mt. Everest. All you need is cash and lots of it. I read that climbing Mt. Everest costs about $80,000 to do it right, but less comprehensive (and less reputable) tour companies can help you get there for a fraction of the cost. What it means is that not always the most careful or most competent climbers now have a shot at Mt. Everest. With avalanches, blizzards, falls, exposure and the effects of high altitude having claimed the lives of even the hardiest alpinists since the first deaths were recorded on the mountain in 1922, the grim toll of Everest grows higher every year. Six climbers died in 2017, seven in 2016, and dozens in 2014 and 2015. With a few exceptions, they’re all still up there.
Some of the individual stories of Everest’s casualties are tragic and haunting. George Mallory, a Briton who was part of one of the first serious expeditions to climb the mountain, vanished with his companion Andrew Irvine in 1924. In 1999 climbers found Mallory’s body, face-down, his bare exposed back the color of ivory, and with a huge gash in his forehead from where his ice axe apparently pierced his skull. In October 1979 German climber Hannelore Schmatz froze to death at the South Col, 25,000 feet up. Her body was visible for years, and in fact two Nepalese police climbers themselves were killed while trying to recover it in 1984. Eventually Mrs. Schmatz’s remains were blown farther down the mountain by high winds. Her climbing companion, Ray Genet, died on that same expedition; his body was covered by snow.
Two who never returned. George Mallory died in 1924 and his remains were rediscovered in 1999; Hannelore Schmatz perished in 1979 and her body is evidently no longer visible from climbing trails.
The most famous and tragic story of Everest’s dead concerns a man from India named Tsewang Paljor. A member of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Paljor was one of many casualties of the May 1996 blizzard disaster on Mt. Everest, which was chronicled in adventure journalist Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. Paljor, only 28 at the time of his death, was wearing bright green boots when he vanished into the swirling snow on May 11, 1996. Not long after, his frozen body was found beneath a small rock overhang, surrounded by empty oxygen bottles, his green boots still protruding onto the trail. He remained there nearly 20 years, finally moved by persons unknown about 2014. Subsequent climbers who did not know his story cavalierly nicknamed him “Green Boots” and his resting place “Green Boots Cave.” (Compounding the tragedy, another climber, David Sharp, died in Green Boots Cave a decade later). BBC reporter Rachel Nuwer did a touching story in 2015 where she visited Paljor’s home village of Sakti, to interview his family and understand how his death affected them.
I hesitated whether to show a photo of Tsewang Paljor’s remains. I have, very occasionally, included pictures of human corpses on this blog before (most notably here, here and here), but this one was a hard call for me. Ultimately I decided to. The vision is so arresting that it brought home for me how tragic the situation of Everest’s dead really is. Keep in mind that “Green Boots” is the son of a mother who still grieves for him today, a person with dreams, aspirations and failings every bit as real as yours or mine. This is an image you cannot un-see.
What if this was your son, your husband or your brother? It is not known what happened to the remains of Tsewang Paljor; they were moved, but may merely have been pushed down a slope out of sight. He is definitely still up there somewhere.
Is this necessary? On the one hand, it’s clearly true that people like Hannelore Schmatz, George Mallory and Tsewang Paljor consciously chose to climb Mt. Everest, and they clearly did so knowing its dangers. They’re not like innocent victims of a terrorist attack or a ship fire or something. One could also say “they died doing what they loved.” Honestly that wouldn’t be much comfort for me. Curiously that phrase is only ever uttered about risky or dangerous activities. I love writing books, but if I was found slumped face-down over my 1948 Remington Rand typewriter, would people say I “died doing what I loved”? Is Mt. Everest worth a human life, much less 300 of them? Perhaps, if I was an alpine climber–or even the spouse or son of one–I might think yes. But something about it still bothers me.
It may bother me in part because Everest is becoming, like so many other places on our planet, an environmental disaster. Its slopes, trails and campsites are littered with garbage, empty oxygen bottles and human excrement. Chinese officials and international organizations have conducted cleanups on the mountain, but they can only make a dent. There have been been attempts to recover, or at least move, some of the corpses; climber Ian Woodall was on an expedition in 2007 to do something about the body of a friend who had been up there for 9 years, and it seems that somebody finally took care of Tsewang Paljor. These efforts are high-profile, but they can address only a fraction of the problems that exist on the roof of the world–problems created almost entirely by humans. Just as there is human-generated trash and waste on Mt. Everest, there are also human remains. Every climber who “died doing what he/she loved” becomes part of the environmental problem.
Congratulations, guys. You made it. Would your families think it was worth it if you had never returned? It’s hard to answer that question.
In the highest slopes of the mountain, in the high-altitude “Death Zone” where many of Everest’s 290 casualties have been taken, there’s evidently a place nicknamed “Rainbow Ridge.” It’s called that because the brightly-colored coats and clothes of dead climbers often show through the blowing snow in which their frozen corpses lay, unrecovered and unrecoverable. I could not imagine seeing that. Even if I wanted to climb Mt. Everest, and came back alive, I think the image of “Rainbow Ridge” would haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life. To me–and admittedly I’m not a climber–Everest doesn’t seem like a challenge, a triumph or an adventure. It seems more like a graveyard and a tragedy. It’s a terrifying, haunting and forbidding place. I have no desire to go there. Rest in peace to those who did and who remain there still.