Warning: This article contains graphic images which may disturb some readers.
Mount Everest once stood as an insurmountable obstacle, somewhere which at first glance seems almost incompatible with human life. At a height of 8,848 meters, Mount Everest's summit is located within the 'death zone,' an area of the mountain which is above 8,000 meters. In the 'death zone' prolonged life is essentially impossible as the lack of oxygen and pressure means the body will eventually shut down over time.
It was only in 1953, and with the help of oxygen bottles, that Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay were able to conquer the summit of the highest point on Earth. However, since then, the mountain has become somewhat of a tourist trap. In 2013, 658 climbers scaled the mountain (often in the same two month period), and indeed, you do not really need to be that experienced of a mountaineer to reach the summit. A rope guide now runs almost the entire length of the ascent, while experienced sherpa guides can be hired to help carry gear and pitch camps. Below is a picture showing one of the 'traffic jams' which has plagued Everest in recent years.
The Bodies on Everest
The commercialization of Everest has led to an impression the mountain is no longer dangerous to climb. However, this is a complete fallacy. Although it is much safer than decades ago, people still die on Everest every year from a variety of causes. This was put into sharp focus when 12 sherpas were killed in a avalanche in 2014.
Around 250 people have died attempting to conquer Mount Everest, and many of them are still up there. Most of the unfortunate perish in the death zone, where rescue and even the removal of the corpse is treacherous and almost impossible, as the air above 8,000 feet is too thin to allow helicopter rescue. Even becoming injured in the death zone can be fatal. There are frequent stories of climbers being left behind by their team, simply because they do not have the time, resources or energy to help them. Indeed, passing dying climbers isn't an infrequent occurrence, as Dean 'Rocket' Hall, a former soldier and current video game developer, mentioned on his recent expedition. His team encountered a dying, semi-conscious climber on an ascent in 2013. He explained:
"We got there, our lead sherpa shook the guy's hand, and its was floppy as anything. I looked at the guy. I'd seen plenty of bodies in the military before. He looked as dead as a doornail to me. At the time, I was like, 'Look, there's no way I'd carry on to the summit if I could be somewhere helping someone.' But I realized that if we didn't — the guy was unconscious, at least. Definitely. And we argued about this back at base camp. Well, what if we'd put oxygen on him? Sure, it would have revived him, if he was actually still alive. But then what? We couldn't bring him down. It's just not physically possible. In which case, we would have revived him so he could be in pain. I just remember realizing how sad it was. And that was the overwhelming feeling: just how sad it was that he died alone."
It is suspected that man was Seo Sung-Ho, a South Korean climber who died shortly after being discovered by Hall and his team. Being so close to the summit, it is extremely likely his body is still in the same location.
This is one of the most haunting elements of Mount Everest, the conditions and impracticality of removing bodies means corpses now litter the higher altitudes of the mountain - many of them frozen in the same position as when they died.
Perhaps the most famous is Green Boots, the body of an identified climber (although it is believed to be Indian climber Tsewang Paljor) who is now frozen into a fetal position in a small limestone cave. Surrounded by spent oxygen tanks and wearing his titular bright green climbing boots, Green Boots now acts as a navigation aid for climbers ascending on the north face of Everest.
Another climber, David Sharp, also died in Green Boots' cave in 2006. The incident was extremely controversial at the time, as around 40 climbers passed the dying Sharp but did not offer assistance. Edmund Hillary himself commented on the incident, stating:
"I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong, if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by."
The incident was covered in a short documentary, using real footage, titled Dying for Everest:
One of the most tragic tales is that of Franvys Arsentiev, an American climber who fell from the path after suffering snow blindness.
In the death zone, and now injured, Arsentiev called out to passersby for assistance. Eventually, two climbers, Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd, risked their own lives to reach Arsentiev, but there was little they could do for her other than offer her comfort. They returned to base camp to report their findings, which led to Arsentiev's husband, Sergei, heading out into the death zone to find her. Eventually, all that would be found of him would be his pickaxe and rope.
Eight years later Woodall and O'Dowd returned to the scene to lay an American flag and note from her family onto her corpse.
The conditions on Everest are so conducive to the preservation of bodies, that some remain identifiable after almost an entire century. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were one of the first mountaineering duos to attempt to scale Everest. However, their 1933 expedition ended in disaster when a storm killed both experienced mountaineers. No one knew the entire circumstances of their deaths until a 1999 special expedition tracked down the remains of Mallory.
Although they had been exposed to the elements for 66 years, Mallory could still be identified by his equipment and clothing. There is debate about whether or not Mallory and Irvine actually did reach the summit before Hillary, however the camera with which they would have used to record their feat is likely with the remains of Irvine whose body has never been found.
Cleaning The Mountain
Although many of the bodies remain, it is still policy of the Nepalese authorities to remove those which they can. The parents and partners of some of the deceased have asked for the bodies of their loved one to remain on the mountain as a kind of memorial to what they tried to achieve. However, Mount Everest is sacred to the Nepalese and they do not wish it to become an open graveyard.
In recent years, attempts have been made to remove or obscure some of the bodies of those left on Everest, as well as generally clean up the surprising amount of litter that accumulates at the various camps. Those which can be bought down are, while others are either pushed into ravines away from the trail or covered in makeshift stone tombs known as "cairns."
The deaths of 12 sherpas last year has reignited debate about the future of Everest. Some have felt the mountain has been taken over by adventure guide companies who are taking on increasing numbers of inexperienced climbers, meaning the native sherpas are taking on more risks and work. What is clear is that those who have already perished on the world's highest mountain are unlikely to be the last.