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The Irony of Everest

This remote peak is a site to celebrate the pinnacle of one's climbing skills. But it's also the final resting place for hundreds of corpses, heaps of garbage, and more than a few dashed dreams.
Illustration by Jon Parris

In 1923, mountaineer George Mallory was asked by a New York Times reporter why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. His famous answer has echoed through the decades and continues to challenge mountaineers: "Because it's there. No man has reached its summit, its existence is a challenge."  

Mallory failed twice and his third attempt marked the end of his life, with no evidence that he ever summited the peak. He was last seen in 1924 en route to the summit — and his frozen body was not discovered until 1999 on Everest's north ridge by climbing icon Conrad Anker.

Since New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary first conquered the peak in 1953, more than 4,000 climbers have scaled it.

Everest is the highest mountain on Earth at 8,848 metres or 29,029 feet above sea level. One doesn't need to be a scientist to know that human beings are not designed to survive in that environment, unless it's aboard a 747 jet.

Nevertheless, thousands of people have tried to climb this juggernaut simply to conquer it. Many have been successful, many have not, and some have paid the ultimate price.

Body count

The approximate number of people who have died attempting to climb to the summit is 280, and most of them remain on the mountain frozen in time. That makes the majestic Mount Everest the highest open-air graveyard in the world.

Sandra Leduc is a well-known Canadian climber from Quebec who made it to the summit of Mount Everest in May of 2012.  She is now 39 years old and when she's not scaling mountains, she is a lawyer for the federal government.

When Leduc was 15, she'd made a list of everything she wanted to accomplish, including a sort of pie-in-the-sky goal of climbing Everest.  

"I have nothing but respect for the mountain.  I loved climbing it and the experience," said Luduc.  "I went to Everest base camp in 2000 and, at the time, it wasn't a mountain that had a lot of climbers."

Leduc made the trek alone to Nepal, hired a guide to climb Everest to base camp, which itself is an incredible journey at an elevation of 5,545 metres that takes trekkers several days to complete.

Upon her successful arrival at base camp, she saw a sole female climber on a male team — an observation that inspired Leduc to pursue climbing further. Over the next 12 years, she scaled many peaks and in 2012, she believed she had the required skills to climb Everest.

That year was a particularly deadly year for climbers on the mountain, as too many were making attempts to reach the top, which created an odd vertical traffic-jam. Eleven people perished, including Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine, whose death garnered national and international attention when it was revealed neither she nor the guiding company she used had much climbing experience.

Leduc for her climb that year went solo, but fully prepared. "I went on an unguided expedition because at that time I was confident enough in my own abilities." Unguided — to those who cannot fathom climbing a mountain by themselves — means exactly that. You are alone, climbing the highest mountain on Earth.

"What (the company does) is they prepare all the food for you, the tents, everything. But then you're doing everything yourself in terms of actually climbing it," said Leduc.

It takes about two months in total to reach the summit of Everest, simply because climbers need to hike up and down numerous times at different altitudes in order to acclimatize themselves to the change in oxygen levels.

"You keep going up and down and up and down, and each time you go up you go a bit higher to speed up your acclimatization process."

The exercise of altitude adjustment is crucial because if you are one of the select few to make it to the summit of Everest, you do so at an altitude where your body is slowly dying in the process. That's why near the top, the area has its own special name.

"At 8,000 metres that's when you enter the Death Zone, so your body is dying really rapidly because the oxygen level is so low that all non-essential organs shut down," said Leduc.

she is one of the fortunate few to have made it to the top, but to describe the act of reaching the summit is like a foggy memory. The reason for that is because of the intense exposure to the elements at that altitude. "Everybody when they reach the summit is hypoxic (deprived of oxygen). Your brain is functioning very slowly," she said.

Aside from the lack of brain function, Leduc remembers what the summit of Everest actually looks like: "It was bigger than I thought. It's not this small, little mound that only one person can stand on at a time. You could definitely have 40 people on it."

One of the most memorable moments for Leduc was to see the enormous pile of prayer flags at the top.

"The Nepalis are Buddhists, it's very important for them to put prayer flags in the highest possible place, wherever that is in their lives.  So each Nepali that hits the summit of Everest, they put a prayer flag up there," said Leduc.

She had heard the stories about the bodies on the mountain but believes the number may be exaggerated. She said she would dispute the total purely on the basis that she saw only one — that of Shah-Klorfine.

 Some bodies likely have been there for decades, said Leduc. She suspects that people move the bodies, and even give them a proper burial. Snow then accumulates over the gravesites. Those that aren't buried remain on the mountain because of the difficulty and risk of bringing them down.

"You've got one-third of the oxygen or less at that altitude, the oxygen masks don't help you that much. It's like having more alcohol than you've ever had in your life, your head is spinning and it takes all your energy just to put one foot in front of the other," said Leduc.

She added that one person transporting a body down the mountain is too difficult and dangerous. Although it may be easier with two or three hikers, the risk to those climbers would be too great to move one body.

Regardless of the uncertainty involved with climbing Everest, Leduc said that those who are drawn to it just do it.

"If you have no desire to climb mountains, you can't understand. When you have succeeded, it is like winning the lottery.  When I summited Everest, I didn't feel this incredible joy but when I came down to base camp and my senses had come back, I felt this incredible rush," she said.

Tragedy at 8,000 metres

There are numerous cases where climbers have been left on Everest.

One of the most famous is of Sergei and Francys Distefano-Arsentiev. The married couple and seasoned mountaineers tried to climb the mountain in May of 1998.

After two failed attempts to reach the summit in two days, the oxygen depletion was taking its toll on both of them. But on May 22, the couple completed the push to the summit, making Francys the first North American woman to summit without bottled oxygen. But it was late in the day, and the couple was forced to spend another night above 8,000 metres in the Death Zone. During the night they became separated and the following morning, Francys was nowhere to be found. Sergei went to find her, taking oxygen and medicine with him.

Some members from a Uzbek team apparently came across Francys as they headed to the summit. And while Sergei's ice axe and rope were found nearby, he was not. Francys was observed to be half conscious and frozen, and the climbers tried to carry her down the mountain until their own oxygen depletion interfered. They left her with an oxygen canister and made their way down to camp. They crossed paths with Sergei, who likely was on his way back up to where his wife was. It was the last time he was seen alive.

On the morning of May 24, climbers Ian Woodall and Cathy O'Dowd came across Francys while on their way to the summit. Woodall and O'Dowd had been members of one of several Everest expeditions in 1996 — the year of the mountain's most famous tragedy in which eight climbers died and which was chronicled in Jon Krakauer's bestselling book Into Thin Air.

As Woodall and O'Dowd encountered Francys on their climb that day, she was exactly where she had been left the night before. Woodall and O'Dowd tried to help her, but she was in poor condition, in a dangerous location, and in freezing weather.

She was left there, and found later lying on her side and still clipped onto the guide rope.

In an article written in 2000 for The Guardian, O'Dowd recalled that Francys looked at her and said: "Don't leave me."

Describing what followed, O'Dowd wrote:

"Her skin was milky white, and totally smooth. It was a sign of severe frostbite and it made her look like a porcelain doll. Her eyes stared up at me, unfocusing, pupils huge dark voids. "Don't leave me," she murmured again... "I am an American. I am an American," the climber suddenly said... The decision to leave Fran came upon us without much discussion... What hope I had faded in the face of her incoherence, her physical incapacity.... She had stopped talking and seemed to have sunk into unconsciousness. The thought of going on was intolerable. I had lost the will to reach the summit. Besides the physical drain of the cold, I was emotionally shattered. 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."

Francys corpse was nicknamed Sleeping Beauty.

The mysterious disappearance of Sergei was solved the following year when Jake Norton, a member of the 1999 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine expedition discovered the body lower on the mountain face. It appeared he had fallen while attempting to rescue his wife.

In 2007, Woodall himself apparently wanted to give Francys a proper burial, and lowered her body to a spot where she would no longer be viewed by passing climbers.

Another tragic incident involved one man's remains that for several years acted as a macabre marker for other climbers. The man is known as Green Boots, a nickname due to the neon-green boots that remained on his feet. His name is Tsewang Paljor and he became the most famous deceased person on Everest because his body was in complete view of a rest camp near the summit.

Paljor was selected to be part of the first Indian team to summit Everest from the north side. He and his team of two other climbers died in a rogue storm in 1996. This was the same storm that was the subject of Into Thin Air. Paljor was 28 and a member of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

There is an incredible demand to climb Everest.

Bill Allen is an experienced guide and mountaineer who has climbed all the Seven Summits — twice. (Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Puncak Jaya, Vinson and of course Everest.) Allen has been to the top of Mount Everest three times.

As one of the owners of Mountain Trip Expeditions, he said getting to the summit never gets old.

"To some extent you appreciate it more after being up there a couple of times, because there's less emotion and apprehension. You're able to just appreciate where you are."

Allen has seen the bodies on Everest and describes the profound experience of witnessing a death.

"We watched a sherpa fall from the Lhotse Face. By the time he crossed the face where we were, I'm confident he was dead because he fell from nearly the top of Lhotse," he said.

When Allen describes watching this experience, even though he is a seasoned mountaineer, it's obvious that witnessing the accident had a profound effect on him.

"I believe that they recovered him from the bottom of the Lhotse Face, which is just above Camp 2 where there's a lot of resources," said Allen.

Climbers are willing to risk their lives, but it's a complicated decision to make.

"It definitely makes you question the value of what you are doing compared to the cost. For me, it's my profession and I go into it with the understanding that it's hazardous, but I certainly wouldn't say that I'm willing to give my life to go to the summit of Mount Everest," said Allen.

The highest open-air garbage dump

In a disturbing — and ironic — corollary, Everest not only lays claim to the title of highest open-air graveyard, but also to that of highest open-air garbage dump.

Previous to the early 1990s, expeditions to the top of Everest would leave behind used oxygen bottles, ripped tents, cans and various other garbage.

But in 1994, mountaineer Brent Bishop decided to change that with the Sagamartha Environmental Expedition.

Before his first climb on Everest in 1994, Bishop received a Masters of Environmental Management at the University of Washington.

"I remember a professor saying you can't rewire a culture's value systems but you can change incentives. So how do you change incentives to get trash down in an environment that you can barely survive yourself?" said Bishop.

Bishop says the Sherpas who work on the mountain earn load-carrying bonuses, which are calculated based on how many loads are carried and the distance travelled.

"There was all this manpower going up the mountain, why not tap into this manpower coming down?" he said.

Bishop's group and two other commercial teams funded the efforts and with that the Sagamartha Environmental Expedition was born.

The framework of the payment system is similar to an aluminum-can exchange where people collect cans and turn them in for money, except in this case sherpas bring down the trash and get paid for everything they turn in. The program ran from 1994 until the year 2000 and more than 11,340 kilograms of trash was taken off of Everest during that time.

Since then, Bishop said that expeditions have changed to a leave-no-trace policy. As well, the Nepalese government has instituted a $4,000 environmental deposit, which is not refunded unless each climber brings eight kilograms of trash back down the mountain — the amount of trash estimated that each climber discards during a summit attempt.

"The real problem now is fecal-waste disposal. Up higher on the mountain, there needs to be a more organized and enforced manner of bringing waste down off," Bishop said.

Everest as a dumping ground may have changed, but the bodies will remain.

"I've been on trips where I've seen them and had to walk close to them. And now I've been around up there enough that I have friends that have perished and their bodies are up there," Bishop said.

"They're certainly a reminder of the seriousness of the endeavour."

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