Mount Everest. The highest mountain in the world above sea level, and one of the most dangerous and thrilling locations for adventurers. Climbing this mountain is the ultimate challenge for experienced mountaineers and daring rookies, the highest of the seven summits.
For those who accomplish this feat – usually with the help of hired trained Sherpas who know the challenging terrain inside and out – glory among their fellow mountaineers awaits.
Many of these climbers never make it off.
Mount Everest isn’t just one of the most challenging mountains in the world to climb; it’s one of the most dangerous as well. The combination of the extreme height, the brutal weather conditions, and the unpredictable terrain means that many of the climbers wind up breathing their last on the mountain.
In total, at least three hundred and four climbers are known to have perished on Mount Everest between 1922 and the current day – and who knows how many died before records were being kept?
How is Everest claiming its victims?
It doesn’t take a lot to die at 26,000 feet above sea level, as the atmospheric pressure is brutal and the oxygen levels are punishingly low. Strenuous activity at that height can be fatal – there’s a reason this area is known as the death zone.
The body uses oxygen faster than it can replenish it, bodily functions deteriorate, and people pass out and die. And that’s not taking into consideration the constant risk of falls, avalanches, ice collapses, exposure to the brutal cold and wind, or natural causes like cardiac arrest and strokes.
When people die on Everest, that’s not the end of the story.
If you’re planning to climb Mount Everest, don’t be surprised if you see a disturbing sight – a dead body lying in the path of your journey, still clothed in their mountaineering gear. This is because Mount Everest doesn’t just have a few dead bodies still on the mountain – it has over two hundred.
Many of the climbers are still permanent residents of the mountain – in fact, one has even become a landmark of sorts. Known as “Green Boots”, the unfortunate man believed to have been Indian climber Tsewang Paljor has been on the mountain since 1996, when he died in a climbing expedition.
Why has Mount Everest become the final resting place for so many people?
Well, for one thing – it’s really, really high! Every dead person on Mount Everest likely has people on the ground who would love to have their loved ones’ remains brought down and be given a proper burial. But for many reasons, that’s just not feasible.
Just as climbing Mount Everest is a massive undertaking, so is getting anyone down. Rescue missions are notoriously unpredictable and dangerous for the rescuers. While some people have hired teams to bring down their loved ones’ bodies, the cost of such a mission can be around $70,000 – far out of reach for many families.
And one notorious mission to recover a body even cost two more lives in 1984 when the rescuers fell prey to the elements.
Mount Everest’s destiny seems to be, to be one of the world’s biggest open-air graveyards.
Normally, if bodies were left out in the open for any length of time, the place would become pretty much uninhabitable. The elements would lead to the decomposition of the body, causing a horrible smell and attracting parasites, scavengers, and swarms of flies.
But Mount Everest is a very different place. The average temperature on the mountain’s summit ranges from a chilly minus four Fahrenheit to a deadly minus thirty-one Fahrenheit, but one thing is consistent – it is well below freezing for the entire year.
That creates a unique climate for life – and death.
Mount Everest isn’t a hospitable place for living beings, as anything there for a long time will freeze solid. And that’s exactly what happens to all the dead on Everest. The bodies are frozen in place, largely preserved as they were when they died save for the significant cellular damage from the cold.
But while a body almost anywhere else would be little more than a skeleton after years in place, the Everest bodies – seen by climbers every year – are often reported as looking eerily similar to when they fell, given how little skin is left exposed in climbing gear.
This has led to some eerie encounters.
In addition to the famous “Green Boots”, who lies curled in a cave with his boots pointing towards new climbers, climbers never know exactly who they’ll encounter on their trip. That’s what awaited one climber, Lhakpa Sherpa.
She holds the record for most times reaching the summit for any woman, but in 2018, she saw a shocking eight bodies during her climb. More disturbingly, one even looked alive, the hair on his frozen body blowing in the stiff Mount Everest winds.
As the climbers keep coming to Mount Everest, a problem is emerging.
The pristine mountain climate of Mount Everest is quickly becoming littered not just with bodies, but with the trash, they and other climbers leave behind. A record number of climbers came to Mount Everest as recently as 2019, with over a thousand climbing permits being issued.
And as they leave the mountain, they often don’t leave it as they left it. Decades of climbing have left some areas of the mountain looking more like a dirty city streets than a remote and pristine mountain. The China and Nepalese governments are stepping up an effort to remove the trash – but accomplishing everything on Mount Everest has its risks.
Getting the bodies down is an even bigger challenge.
Not only are the bodies on Everest littering the mountains, but many of them are also in deeply remote locations. While many died of exposure or lack of oxygen and simply lay down to die in a cave or at the side of a path, others died more violently – including those who plummeted to their deaths in steep crevasses. That means some bodies may be wedged deep in a hidden location – impossible to see except for the next person who meets that unfortunate fate.
Even more shockingly – some bodies aren’t staying where they’re supposed to be.
No, we’re not talking about reanimated frozen bodies on Mount Everest, and the odds are good that the Yeti isn’t coming out of his cave to steal some bodies. But nature is powerful up on Mount Everest, and that power is enough to dislodge bodies from their final resting place.
Gale-force winds can easily pick up a human body of a hundred and fifty pounds or so and move it to another location, and shifting glaciers can move bodies into inaccessible locations or crush them behind massive ice blocks. Even the famous “Green Boots” was moved from its original location in 2014, making the morbid landmark much harder to spot.
The mountain keeps a tight grip on those who rest there forever – and it’s a tricky issue in more ways than one.
There is a growing pressure to remove many of the bodies from Mount Everest. Not only is the increasing number of bodies potentially becoming a hazard for climbers, but many families want their loved ones returned to them for closure.
In addition, those who follow the traditional faith of the region, including many of the Sherpas, believe leaving the bodies on the mountain is disrespectful to the Gods. And there are logistical difficulties as well – bodies on Mount Everest that stay in one place often freeze in place.
Not only may they have become brittle over the time they stayed there, but they may be challenging to even detach from the mountain.
The challenge in getting the bodies off the mountain is only starting.
There are two primary ways to get a body off Mount Everest. The first is expensive and risky – using helicopters similar to the ones used for high-altitude rescues. Pulling off a rescue near Mount Everest’s summit is always risky, with the high winds posing a deadly challenge to even the most experienced rescue pilots.
This is an expensive option, but a more affordable option exists – hiring an expedition to climb the mountain, locate the body, and carry it off the mountain using a rigging and a sled-like device. This is a more affordable option to recover a body, but both options carry a significant risk of adding more permanent residents to Mount Everest.
How does it get determined whether a body stays – or goes?
Most of the time, it’s decided by the grieving family. But this is a fraught decision that comes with great financial risk – and risk to the life of the rescuer. That’s why many climbers are actually settling the issue before they set foot on the mountain, by signing body disposal forms.
If the worst happens on the mountain, they can choose to be left on the mountain to rest there, or to contract for the recovery efforts in advance. And if they do choose to have their body recovered, many opt for local cremation – which, for European and American tourists, will definitely cut down on the costs of getting their remains home.
A new wrinkle is turning this frozen graveyard into a more pressing concern.
The world is getting warmer, and with it, many areas that were permanently covered in snow are becoming visible once again – including some areas of Mount Everest. Climbers are reporting that grim finds on the mountain are becoming increasingly common, with the snow melting in the warmer months and exposing long-buried bodies that may not be in great condition.
Finding old bones is pretty common, and even hidden intact bodies are showing up. This may help bring closure to some families that lost their loved ones on the mountain – but it also may ruin Mount Everest’s natural beauty even more. And if the thick ice coating on the mountain continues to melt, it may make climbing the mountain much more difficult.
That’s why some countries are considering drastic steps.
Nepal’s tourism ministry has collected names of long-missing mountaineers and sent up large numbers of volunteers to collect trash and bodies from the mountain, although collecting bodies above 21,000 feet is still a risky operation and rarely attempted.
The higher areas of the mountain are likely to remain frozen for now. In addition, in 2021 they banned climbers from taking pictures of any climbers beyond their own group, which they hope will protect people’s privacy and keep people from taking risky shots while climbing.
Some advocates for the mountain are urging a more drastic step.
A thousand or so foreign climbers are expected to take on the mountain every spring during the peak climbing season, looking to join the more than eight thousand people who have reached the top since 1953. But countless more will fail along the way, some will die, and many of them will leave more trash behind them.
While the Nepalese government charges a levy to each climber that raises money used to preserve the mountain, and many climbers use their mission to raise money for charity, more people are arguing if the ritual of climbing the mountain is doing more harm than good. They argue it might be time to close the summit to foreign tourists to keep it from getting despoiled and damaged more than it is.
And, of course, to keep Mount Everest’s collection of permanent residents, many frozen in time, from getting any larger.