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How To Remove Dead Bodies From Mount Everest?
As a general matter, after yet another tragedy on the slopes of Mount Everest people ask a reasonable question: can these climbers’ dead bodies be removed from the slopes of the highest mountain? Debate is fueled by the press, the journalists calls the situation "the highest open graveyard of the world" and "death in the clouds".
How many are out there?
From 1922 to 2018 nearly 300 people died on the slopes of Mount Everest. Probably the very first known death was related to the missing English mountaineers, George Mallory and Andrew Irwine, in 1924. Mallory's body was accidentally found only in 1999 while there is still no evidence of Irwine's carcass.
Chomolungma, or Mother Mountain, takes away her children. More than a third of the victims are Sherpa People: their death counting started in 1922. According to statistics, Sherpa People have 3.5 times more death chances on Everest than any infantryman during first four years of war in Iraq.
Andrew Irwine and George Mallory (on the right).
Generally people die on Everest because of avalanches and incidences, which are really lethal at high altitudes. Until 2017, 292 people died on slopes, and this number, unfortunately, is likely to grow. During 2017 (which can not be considered fatal year), Chomolungma took 6 victims, including Ueli Steck — professional and experienced climber from Switzerland (two Piolet d'Or award owner).
Climbers call the zone above 8,000 meters the "Red Zone" or "Death Zone". Anyone reaching this point is aware about the fact that there are no rescuers in case they get sick or an accident happens. The first to put this term in circulation was Edouard Wyss-Dunant, the head of the Swiss expedition of 1952.
Atmospheric pressure at altitudes above 8,000 is below 35.6 kPa (267 mm Hg). Air oxygen level is not enough to stay alive (for example, on the Central European Flatlands at a height of 50 to 100 m the pressure is 760 mm Hg or 101 kPa).
To understand what climbers feel on top of the world, imagine yourself on the wing of a flying plane, or try to breathe three times less often. This at least a little will help you to imagine what climbers feel at the top of the world. In these conditions they should go up the complex terrain, sometimes overcoming the vertical rocky areas, and at a temperature of -20 ° to -40 °C ...
Sergey Kofanov, twice Mount Everest climber, mountain guide, participant of Everest rescue missions
Sergey Kofanov on Jannu Peak (Phoktanglungma).
At an altitude of more than 8 thousand meters a person can hardly bear himself. A trained athlete or guide keeps a 10 kg backpack with oxygen and additional things. With all this equipment, you can move at an average speed of one or two steps per minute. It seems unlikely that at the same time someone can lift and drag a man on himself (if we are talking about a spontaneous rescue operation). Particularly as the total weight of the climber in full gear ranges from 70 to 100 kg.
Winds on the Everest can reach up to 78 m/s (175 miles per hour). As a comparison: a 5th hurricane category wind speed (5th category of complexity) is set at 70 m/s (156 miles per hour). Its destructive power is difficult to describe: in 2006, the fifth-grade hurricane "Matthew" in Florida destroyed 3,5 thousand buildings and killed almost 900 people.
Nowadays, also thanks to modern weather forecasts, organizers plan their ascents so that people do not climb during hurricanes: commercial expeditions pay special attention to the forecasting.
But it's not only about wind and cold: besides, there are still earthquakes, failure of the body system in extreme conditions; failure of oxygen equipment, rope breakage, mistakes while gear choosing. As a result, even professional alpinists, Sherpa People, and those who wanted to exceed human limits from the Roof of the World, lose their lives.
No Man's Land
In such inhuman conditions human laws do not apply either. However, people who never visited the high altitudes often do not understand the rules of the "death zone" and are ready to condemn the climber, who passes by the goner on eight thousand meters, behind his back.
One of the vivid examples that stirred up the mountain community was the death of the solo British climber David Sharp in 2006. Nearly 40 people passed him by. At an altitude of 8,500 meters David was exhausted and couldn't move anymore, so he sat next to the well-known "Green Boots" corpse (he is considered to be Tsewang Paljor, an Indian climber died on the Everest in 1996).
Tsewang Paljor body on 8,500 altitude.
Some climbers simply didn't notice David Sharp in the dark. Others assured that they exchanged him for Tsewang, because alpinist was wearing... green boots as well, and Sharp didn’t move at all. Whatever happened, the British died of hypothermia (and became the 199th victim of Chomolungma). One year later, as his family requested, his body was moved and hidden from the route.
The rescue issue on the Everest has many aspects. David Sharp went to the top alone: without guides, without Sherpa People. He put himself in a situation where, in case of emergency, he could be alone on the mountain without help, and, unfortunately, that's what happened.
It's hard to accuse those commercial tourists who overpassed Sharp.
People for the first time climbed the route under extreme conditions that were new to their bodies; they aren't really aware of the situation.
Perhaps it was normal that a climber sat down for a rest? For another thing, all climbers heard about hundreds of bodies on Everest, perhaps this was one of them?
In addition, Sharp was unconscious during most of the time and did not react, even when climbers talked to him or shone a flashlight in his eye. Unfortunately, his fate was sealed.
The Open Graveyard
Everest has repeatedly witnessed the highest manifestation of the spirit, as well as the depths of human fall. But during the last years the situation with bodies on Everest routes is gradually changing. The "Sleeping Beauty" body — Francis Arsentiev-Distefano— was moved (she was the first American woman alpinist who made an oxygen-free climb but could not go down from an altitude of 8,200 meters in 1998).
The heavy winds blew "Green Boots" corpse away (the body was rediscovered in 2017, but afield from the route). The same happened to the "German Woman" (Hannelore Schmatz died while descending in 1979). In 1984, two Nepalese men died while trying to move her. For many years, the wind blew down the frozen sitting woman with her blowing hair. Today, Hannelore is not visible anymore.
Despite the scaring statistics, the number of ascents to Everest is not decreasing. Periodically in the mountain community as well in the press the waves of publications arise, which call for descent of the dead bodies, past which the climbers passes.
As we already mentioned, some of the bodies were moved, sometimes by forces of nature, sometimes by people. This became possible, in part, because every year the climbers and working Sherpa People quantity are increasing (648 people summited the top of the Everest in Y2017).
There is a lot of talk about the fact that the Everest is "piled up with bodies" and climbers literally "step over" them, and it doesn't go into any moral gates. People ask to "clean up the bodies from the Everest" and states that "they should lie in the ground".
Generally this information is not true. If you consider it from a technical point of view, there are almost 300 bodies on the slopes of Mount Everest, but today, on the way up, one climber may find two or three of them. Bodies are secluded, and you should attempt to see them.
Normally, people encounter the deceased during the descent, because at night, when everyone is climbing the summit, it's still dark. So the idea about "climbers stepping over the dead" cannot be used as a moral justification in order to remove the bodies.
Photo by Mari Partyka on Unsplash.
If a climber dies above 8 thousand meters at a temperature of -35 °C, after a while his or her body turns into ice. In addition, after a few days at altitude, it frozens into the slope: in such conditions it is almost impossible to separate the deceased from the surface. In this regard, the problem of "move down the body" is almost indecisive.
If being completely impartial and cynical, we will formulate it as follows: while separating from the slope some of the iced bodies will need to be broken into pieces, and this is also far from the human notions of a "respectful funeral" and "last goodbye".
Israfil Ashurly — alpinist, Ice Climbing Internationally Certified Judge, UIAA President of the Youth Commission, 2010-2017; former President of Azerbaijan Mountaineering Federation. Completed the "7 Summits" challenge in 2007
Israfil Ashurly on Mount Everest.
People have a lot of power. Everything depends on their willingness. First and foremost, speaking of removing bodies from Everest, everything depends on financing, as this is a very expensive operation. First of all, it requires human resources, because at the altitudes where the bodies are located, the usage of helicopters is limited. Human work is required first of all. It won't be a volunteer operation: Sherpa People will take part, but their service will require serious money.
This problem needs to be solved somehow. Not all the bodies are on the routes, but all dead climbers on Mount Everest, almost 300 deceased, remained in the same place they died (except for those who had been moved by nature or by people).
During the recent years, as indicated by expedition leaders Sherpa People have moved some bodies from the trail, and even this is an extremely difficult process.
Today most of the bodies on the classic North Route (from the Tibet side) lies in the Death Couloir. It is located below the Second Step above 8 thousand meters: approximately where the body of George Mallory was found. If someone dies on this ridge while climbing or descending, the body will find its shelter in this couloir, or on vertical lines of the South Wall. There are no routes and people do not go there.
Climbers on Hillary Step.
While climbing from Nepal, alpinists may die in other places; until 2015, Hillary Step was a particular danger. Just then an earthquake had destroyed a 13-meter vertical ridge of snow and ice, surrounded by steep cliffs. In May 2017, the English climber Tim Mosedale confirmed that there is no more Step, and, according to him, now the ascent and descent will be even more dangerous. Earlier the path lied along the well-fixed ropes, and now the surface of the slope is unstable.
Returning to the conversation about the full descent of the deceased, it's not just difficult, but very difficult. As we have already mentioned, we are talking about a frozen as ice body about 100 kg weight. If it is possible to separate it from the slope, it will be necessary not only to drag the carcasse down by forces of 10-15 Sherpa People, but also to go down through steep rocks, and there are many on the route. This will require a whole system of fixed ropes and at least a dozen of experienced climbers. Which, unfortunately, go under risk as well, as happened to the Nepalese people, who tried to evacuate the body of Hannelore Schmatz.
You can calculate an approximate body removal expedition costs by taking into account the fact that the Everest climbing cost per one person goes from 40 to 100 thousand dollars. Do not forget to add helicopter rent: from $ 5,000 to $ 20,000 per flight (but they don't go higher than the Everest Base Camp, 5364 m). And the flights from Tibetan territory are completely banned by the Chinese government (except for single event cases).
Of course, there were cases when helicopter flew up to 12,000 meters or landed on the top of Chomolungma, but these were the unique occurrences that can be classified as "bravery" (or "marketing" — depending on point of view). It is not possible to repeat them regularly.
When I was getting ready to climb Mount Everest (MP: Israfil Ashurly made the ascent in 2007 by Northern Route) there were a lot of rumours such as "you will walk over the bodies", "you will move through the deceased" — and you will definitely see those who have already died. Those who have long since left, for example, the Indian climber Tsewang Paljor, who was perished in 1996, better known as Mr. Green Boots; and those who died recently, for example, Marko Lihteneker from Slovenia, who died in 2005. Also the body of George Mallory, who had been discovered in 1999.
The prospect that I will have to see abandoned bodies in a certain sense overshadowed the upcoming expedition. I still don't feel well when I think about it. But by a lucky coincidence, on the night of my assent the snow fell. And during climbing and descent I did not see a single body. The group that went the next day found better weather, the snow melted, and its participants saw some carcasses. Perhaps, supreme forces made it this way because I was so worried...
Of course, it would be good to clean the bodies from Everest, or, perhaps, to cover some with rocks? In my understanding, dead people must be committed to the earth. I proceed from the traditions of the old school: people need to be saved, and bodies go in the ground. If they can't be moved down, they should have some kind of a funeral. I think that leaving them outdoor is wrong: if someone left this earth, the body shouldn't remind of a tragedy.
Are there other ways?
In 2017, a project to cover some bodies, permanently abandoned on Everest, with special non-woven material, was undertaken. The question remains open: how long can this tissue will resist?
Because the wind and snow above 8 thousand meters are so strong that it can easily cope with any matter. It is also impossible to wrap a frozen body on a slope. How to secure the fabric? With ice screws or snow stakes?
The covered body of Marko Lihteneker on Mount Everest. Photo: 7vershin.ru
Cover it with stones? The smaller ones will also can be blown away by the wind, and how many stones can one person carry at a speed of one or two steps per minute and on last legs?
I was trying to solve this problem while working at the UIAA and bring the argument up during the meetings; and many times thought about how to come back to the argument properly. So, while trying to think I was coming to the conclusion that all this will depend on some means, which, perhaps, will have to be received as grants. At that time, I wasn't aware about which organization or fund we need to appeal and who will allocate the UIAA money for these purposes? Where to go?
Unfortunately, for the period of my work in the UIAA we didn't progress in this matter. My idea did not manage to fit in some project. Perhaps in the future I will be back with the UIAA and will put the issue on table again. And maybe someone else will do something soon.
Crashed tent on Mountain Everest slope.
Therefore, the question of the "descent" or "burial" of bodies on Mount Everest, with all respect, most likely, will not be solved in the near future. Why?
Let's try to draw the following parallel: for many centuries of navigation, a lot of people died in the depth, but no one is engaged in lifting their remains (including, for example, "Titanic"). Sometimes divers find the bodies in the sea, but they do not call for elevating and funerals.
At the same time, the mountaineering community doesn't agree on the same while trying to do something with the dead bodies on Mount Everest. Some want to try to remove all the bodies; others want to make sure everything remains as it is. However, even if the dead rate remains at the level of 2017 (hopefully not to reach that number), by adding six dead bodies every year, then after a while, the highest peak of the world will have no place to spread... So sooner or later the problem will have to be solved. It would be helpful if experts from the UIAA or other international mountaineering organizations will take the initiative.
In any case, it is worth remembering that alpinists who go to ascent the highest peaks of the world have chosen their own way, and we have to respect it. We must try to make the mountains closer and safer for those who are just starting their way to the peaks.