Why Dead Everest Climbers Have Become Landmarks

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

It seems that Smithsonian Magazine online has gotten into the game of writing content with click-baited headlines. I guess you have to when the website has lots of advertising. Well, this article from 2012 has made it around the social grapevine once more, as something to gawk at: “There Are Over 200 Bodies on Mount Everest and They’re Used as Landmarks.”

The writer, Rachel Nuwer, told the story of three climbers that attempted to climb Everest but never made it down. They’re tragic stories. The stories she doesn’t tell are tragic too. But as Robert MacFarlane wrote in Mountains of the Mind (2003), “What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.” By comparison, it wouldn’t be tragic for a baseball player to die sliding into third base; it would be singularly unique and virtually unthinkable.

While Nuwer introduces some new knowledge and shares some short biographies, she doesn’t provide a complete picture of why there are so many climbers lost and still high on the mountain. It’s complex, but I think the understanding all of reasons and factors in play are important for understanding why they’re landmarks, why the bodies remain in place and do not have a more respectable burial, and that nature of climbing on Everest today.

Why they Remain

According to Elizabeth Hawley’s notes on her Himalayan Database, 282 people have died on Mount Everest through spring 2016. Not all of the climbers that died are high on the mountain and some others were brought home, though on Everest that’s rare. (If you can’t log in to Hawley’s website, Alan Arnette has climbed and has been writing about Everest for decades, and he has a tremendous amount of resources on his website including some related tables that pulls from Hawley’s research.)

On most mountains, if a climbing partner or a member of an expedition dies during a climb, they’re partners and teammates make every attempt to bring the body home or at least down to the valley. In some cases this can be impossible, unreasonable, or plain dangerous to the rest of the party. In 1936, Toni Kurz was injured on the Eiger’s infamous north face and his rescuers were unable to reach him due to the length of their ropes. They combined two ropes but Kurz was unable to climb past the knot due to his lack of strength through the injury. He hung on the side of the mountain until much later when a team better equipped and better health was able to recover him.

Everest is different than the Eiger, of course. It’s at high altitude, where the air is thin and carrying even one’s backpack is a laboring activity. Climbers are subject to degrees of hypoxia and judgment can be impaired. The ridges on the popular routes are narrow and stumbles are to be avoided. Even then, on the south side at least, carrying a body through the dangerous Khumbu ice fall, where house-sized blocks of ice tip, fall and crush without warning, would risk several more climbers lives.

Let’s also contrast Mount Everest to the second-highest mountain in the world, K2. K2 is generally steeper for than Everest’s flanks, and for longer stretches. When a climber dies on K2 and is stranded, without the reasonable ability to recover their partner, the fallen climber is left to the effects of the mountain. Most of the climbing on K2 is on it’s face — a giant sloped wall. K2 avalanches sweep it clean of loose debris, which is why even the remains of Dudley Wolfe, who was died on K2 in 1939 were found years later by author Jennifer Jordan on the Baltoro Glacier at the base of the mountain. Everest isn’t as steep and has many more “pockets” for the things it moves. But along the major routes that most climbers attempting Everest take, the path is usually along ridges, less prone to avalanching. When a climber cannot go on, he or she usually settles into a personal pocket of snow drift or under a rock, in a storm to deal with their frostbite, edema, and/or fatigue to wait. Many climbers are displaced, but not usually swept away. And more often, exposed to the high altitude sun rays, and constant freezing and thawing, the remains become semi-permanent in the landscape.

Herding Paths

Before I moved beyond bouldering into ice climbing, my Uncle Tom would take me to climb the 46ers; these are the 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains that rise above 4,000 feet above sea level. They’re mostly in a cluster in the area known as the High Peaks, have bald treeless summits from the harsh winters, and the landscape is a more rugged and northern version of the Smoky Mountains. While we were usually bushwhacking alone up many trails to the top, sometimes we were clearly on the “beaten path.” Other hikers, sometimes right off big 80-person tour buses, were making a virtual conga line up some of the narrow areas. But the wider areas of the trail they hiked side by side; Uncle Tom pointed out to me how the trail and mud got so terribly mucky: “This is a herding path.”

Everest has become a popular stop for the tour-bus equivalent of climbers, the commercial expedition. Today, you can pay a guide to handle the food preparation, most of your technical gear, and expedition fees paid to Nepal or China (depending on the side of the mountain you’re climbing). Hand over $40 – $50 thousand dollars and you’re set. You just train (because, as they’ll tell you, you cannot train enough for this mountain), and they’ll make you a path up the mountain. K2 by comparison, has a growing expedition “bus” visiting, but it hasn’t had a boom of business the way Everest has since the 1990s.

This has made climbing the world’s tallest mountain — the third pole — very accessible to interested adventurers. This is also another reason why so many have perished, in my opinion. While not everyone that climbs is an amateur, this commercial approach to climbing the mountain sets up different expectations of what is expected (making the summit is often one of them.) I genuinely hope things change so that the next climbers don’t become permanent hosts.

Life and Climbing

Like MacFarlane pointed out, death is part of the deal. But death is always part of the deal. There are more bicycling deaths every year than climbing accidents (400-600:30). So wear your helmet. I am a pedestrian most of the week, so I’m totally cautious crossing the street.

Legendary climbing writer David Roberts is fighting cancer. It hasn’t been pretty. He’s been one of my heroes and I pray for his health, (despite that he might urge me not to waste my time.) It’s made reflect on the 60 or so people he’s known that have died climbing. And yet, he wrote this in Alpinist issue 56 from this past winter, in an essay simply titled, “Death and Climbing”:

It is not climbers alone, of course, but modern Western culture that is hindered by a systematic avoidance of death. We no longer hang self-portraits holding skulls as memento mori, the way seventeenth-century thinkers did. Our poets seldom face the terror of terminal illness as squarely as the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe…

Roberts and other climbers usually avoid the topic of death. I think we need to understand it better. It’s not something to gawk at. It’s something real. It happens to loved ones. It happens on Everest, K2, the Eiger, the Adirondacks, and all around us. I think in puzzling over it, we can understand our draw to climbing and the mystery of things that excite us.

Be safe and be well.

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How to Start Healing Everest

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Everest ought to be a pure temple or iconic symbol of dreams and lofty objectives that only the committed obtain. Unfortunately, it’s been spoiled, and exploited at the expense of the Sherpa.

Last season, I had hopes that Ueli Steck and company would put up a new route to the top, redeeming the pure style of climbing on Everest — done in small teams of experienced climbers, mostly alone and unsupported. But that ended in a dangerous fistfight and appears to be a precursor to the events that we are watching this year.

Since then, over the winter, the Nepali government seized the opportunity to reform how the climbs are run — including who was eligible to make an attempt. However, the government prioritized crowd control and enhancing revenue over everything else. Personally, I hoped that aspirants’ qualifications would be required, regardless whether fee increases were involved. That was unlikely to happen despite its merits.

Here in lies the biggest conflict with the dream of a pure mountain that I want and what Nepal and the Sherpa desire: The Sherpa want respect and Nepal wants foreign income (a very lucrative source). Nepal won’t get it without the Sherpa workforce. The cattle call of climbers can’t come and even make a modest attempt without the Sherpa. And to turn back the clock to the days before Mountain Madness, Adventure Consultants, IMG and Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. and other guides brought their clients wouldn’t help anyone. Except the Everest purist.

With 16 Sherpa dead from preparing the way for climbers, followed by a well-timed strike, I think everyone needs to do some soul searching. Maybe working as a porter is too dangerous. Maybe commercial “expeditions” are inappropriate. Maybe Nepal’s government needs to examine its priorities.

I regularly call the contemporary experience on Everest a circus. Via ferrata and zip lines wouldn’t be out of place. I once believed that there were no real victims on Everest climbs, but the events of the last few years, and even Freddie Wilkinson’s book about similar trends on K2, have shown me that the Sherpa are both super climbers and vulnerable people.

There have been expressions of respect for the Sherpa since the English explored Nepal, but they need more than adoring words. The we have complicated their existence, which was already a difficult one marked by hard conditions and poverty.

New ways to help the Sherpa, particularly the families of the 16 lost, have been emerging. Several artists, like Renan Ozturk, are offering limited edition prints this week only to raise funds to help the people the 16 Sherpa supported. The American Alpine Club is collecting funds for the Sherpa Support Fund. I urge you to give by clicking here.

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Unsung Hero: A Review of Everest, The First Ascent

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No one gave Griffith Pugh much thought. That was true among the climbers too, it seemed. And at first glance he was absent minded, eccentric, and stubborn.

Yet, his daughter, Harriet Pugh Tuckey, introduces her late father in a new light and while he might not have been beautiful, he can be appreciated to a greater degree. She has also made me rethink, to some extent, the reasons that the 1953 Everest expedition was successful. She does this through her award winning book, Everest, The First Ascent: How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Tuckey won the grand prize at the Banff Mountain Book Competition and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, both in 2013.

The Boardman tasker committee gave it this description: “Immensely readable biography of the 1953 expedition doctor and physiologist, the author’s ‘difficult, bad-tempered father’ who she lived with in an ‘uncommunicative co-existence’.” Yep. That’s the brunt of the story, however from a pure climbing history lens, it adds something new or at least brings some formerly obscure factors into focus.

The Golden Age of Himalayan climbing began in 1950 when the first of the 14 mountains over eight kilometers above sea level were climbed. After various failed attempts on the Himalayan giants, including eleven on Mount Everest, Annapurna in Nepal was climbed thanks to improvements in equipment and mostly bullheadness. Most climbs to the Himalayas at that time followed the tradition of ascents from the graceful Alps mixed with a military-style seige; grit and determination and advancing camps along the route to the top.

Before the Golden Age, it was a mystery why the oxygen tanks, brought to make climbing in the thin high altitude air easier, only earned complaints from the climbers about how useless they were. It was also a mystery whether man could adapt to the altitude, and if not what that meant.

Still, in the early 1950s, these mysteries were being settled by expedition leaders and their gut feelings on the matter. That approach seemed the only practical way; there was no one else with the skills or know-how to test the theories.

At the same time, sharing new ideas that ran against convention, like those from Pugh, had to go up against a virtual behemoth. The Everest Expedition was not a simple band of friends. It was institutional and political. The role of Everest Committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society was more akin to Washington, DC calling the shots in a ground war in Vietnam; the climbers with a real stake in the strategy rarely got to weigh in under the hierarchical structure. However, the Expedition Doctor (an official position on the Expedition), Michael Ward, understood this and believed that there were things the whole Expedition didn’t know that it didn’t know. He suspected an expert in physiology in cold might help break new ground.

Dr. Griffith Pugh was a lifelong tinkerer and a man of science in the exploratory sense. He knew more about humans operating in cold climates than almost anyone else because of his work for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Lebanon during World War II. He was also once an Olympic skier and did a bit of climbing himself. If someone can solve the mystery of how to put a man atop Everest (which had become as great a challenge as landing a man on the moon), perhaps Pugh could.

Tuckey summarizes one of the crux problems the expedition faced that Pugh solved:

“Pugh suggested that this common complaint [about the oxygen apparatus required so much energy to carry as to negate the supposed benefits] might be well founded. The oxygen sets used on Everest between the wars had been adapted from equipment developed for high-altitude flying. The supplementary oxygen was given to climbers at the same rate as to airmen — 2 to 2.5 liters a minute. However, unlike pilots sitting in their cockpits, climbers had to carry the oxygen sets on their backs while also expending energy climbing. If pilots needed 2 liters a minute, everything suggested that climbers would need much more.”

Overall, Tuckey doesn’t fundamentally change my concept of what Hillary and Norgay accomplished, but she does give detailed insight into the critical strides Pugh advanced among the Expedition. Sometimes his influence was subtle and sometimes not so subtle, like the climbers’ clothing and oxygen apparatus. As you’ll see in the book, he was often misunderstood, only now we know he shouldn’t be unnoticed.

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Are Guided Everest Expeditions Shortcuts to the Top?

Last month, the Journal of Consumer Research, according to Science Daily, examined guided clients that pay US$50,000 or more to climb Mount Everest.  The study’s findings said that guided clients do not have the “communitarian spirit” that usually defines “transformative experiences.” 

The scientists that conducted the study also found that the clients’ individual goals created competition among clients and surpassed any camaraderie that might develop organically from the struggle.  To use Charles Houston’s phrase, the guided clients do not become part of the brotherhood of the rope.  But to elude to Science Daily’s provocative take on the study, it seems paying to climb Everest errs on selfishness rather than nobility. 

The study focused on commercial expeditions to Everest and ignored other popular guided ascents, like those up Mont Blanc, Mount Rainier, Denali, Aconcagua, or others.  It also did not recognize the different ways of approaching Everest, and all but one seems to sidestep one of Malcolm Gladwell’s key concepts in Blink: the 10,000 hours of experience necessary to become an expert. 

Approaching Everest, or any major ,  can be done by being a mountain bum and climbing at the drop of a hat, which requires a means of income that can support it and the willingness for a lower quality of life in other areas.  It can also be approached as a sponsored climber, by making climbing a full-time profession and taking new risks.  The 10,000 hours can also be achieved through becoming a guide or teacher of climbing.  The last way requires proficiency at some level of less than 10,000 hours: the guided client. 

Regardless of the Journal’s findings, it really is a brilliant arrangement.  For someone like you or me, working a professional career you feel committed to (willingly or not) and not willing or able to pursue your mountaineering goal through one of the three other methods, paying a guide service to give you the chance is a breakthrough!  However, short-cutting the 10,000 hours does have the drawback where in some cases the paying client is an expert climber, in many cases the client is not the same caliber as the guides or other independent alpinists on the mountain.  Reading Into Thin Air by Krakauer makes that evident. 

I certainly do not consider climbing Everest or any peak selfish.  Frivolous might be a better word.  And the lack of camaraderie on Everest?  Well, they were not seeking bonding friendship, but rather the top.  That does however make me wonder: If the paying client was simply seeking to try for the top (carefully avoiding summit fever!) would he or she return from the attempt more satisfied than going for the top and failing?  Would he or she have grown closer to the other alpinists?  I may never know…

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Age, National Pride and Everest

Happy Veterans Day and Remembrance Day from the Suburban Mountaineer!  And also, to my friends and family from the U.S. Marines, I want to wish a belated Happy Birthday to the Marine Corps.  Without the service of our veterans and armed forces, the conditions that we as Americans and Canadians hike, climb, explore and travel in general could be very, very different.

You may have already heard that a nine-year old Sherpa, Tseten, may become the youngest person to reach the top of Mount Everest(29,035 ft./8,848 m.).  He would beat Justin Romero of California who sended the mountain earlier this year at age 16.

There is controversy and it is two-fold: 1) Shortly after Romero topped out, age limits were set on both sides of the border on Everest; and 2) Tseten’s attempt would be against the new limit and carry a fine (hence everyone’s use of the word illegal.)

I have written about this before and I still feel that such an adventure, at Tseten’s age — about third grade in the states, that he can climb but not without a great deal of support from the adults on the expedition.  I was a little older when I started backpacking and climbing and I could not have done any of it at that age on my own.

To Tseten’s credit, however, he reportedly did summit on  Mount Ramdung (19,440 ft./5,925 m.) in northern Nepal with his father Pemba Dorje Sherpa.  It is Pemba Dorje that is the instigator in all of this.  Pemba Dorje holds the record for the fastest ascent of Mount Everest and he is quite passionate that all records on this mountain must be held by the Nepalese people.

Pemba Dorje is also confident in the aims of this pursuit of the Nepalese record that the authorities would support an exception — which, we now know, is not the case.

Again, I think Tseten should be allowed to climb Everest, but only once he has put in his time, demonstrated competence and reliability in the mountains.  That may mean he is 12 years old or 16 when he is ready.

My last point is about the policies on climbing Mount Everest or any mountain.  The laws or morality should always govern among the peaks above all else– meaning, take care of yourself, do no harm to your fellow climber and help whenever it is needed.  But in general, while I accept (but not necessarily support) user fees, I am annoyed by restrictions and guides on the principle that the mountains are the last truly wild place on earth.  Perhaps young people and older people should not climb high, but aren’t there always outliars capable of breaking through what we think are limitations for everyone?

I would like to know your thoughts on this topic, so feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me an email at SuburbanMountaineer@yahoo.com.  And remember, you may follow the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook.