For centuries, Mount Everest has been a symbol of endurance, an alluring yet potentially fatal challenge to climbers everywhere. Ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to conquer the summit in 1953, hundreds of climbers have attempted to claim their own victory over the mountain, resulting in scores of deaths and many harrowing tales of their struggle to survive. If the climb itself weren't dangerous enough, the history of Everest is peppered with natural disasters that have caused tragedies for climbers and Nepalese Sherpas alike.
One such disaster is the topic of the upcoming Everest movie: the 1996 blizzard that trapped 8 climbers near the peak. The conditions that year were vicious, and 12 people died in total, making this the deadliest year for Everest until the avalanche of 2014 (16 deaths) and earthquake of 2015 (18 deaths). These tragedies catapult the topic of Everest climbing into the public eye, and ironically there is always a massive influx of climbers in subsequent seasons: after the 2014 avalanche closed climbing season for almost a year, a record breaking 359 people purchased climbing visas in 2015.
The idea of conquering Everest is fascinating, so it's no surprise that many films have been made and books published on the subject. Everest is one such film. The movie tells the story of the climbers trapped by a blizzard in 1996, and you can catch it in cinemas starting today. But there are a plethora of stories far more shocking than the 1996 tragedy, and many unsung heroes who risk their lives every day to help people fulfill their dream of climbing the world's highest mountain.
A Foolish Attempt In 1934
An eccentric WWI survivor, Maurice Wilson believed that humanity's problems could be solved by extreme fasting and prayer. His conviction lead him to believe that he could reach the peak alone, using a combination of flight and climbing. His plan was to crash a small aircraft as near to the summit as possible, then climb the rest of the way.
A self taught pilot, Wilson did manage to get into Tibet (ignoring the British Air Ministry, who banned him from flying), though he was forced to land and stay the winter before attempting Everest again. With the help of a few Tibetan Sherpas (his solo ideals abandoned), Wilson managed to get to 22,700 feet in a second attempt, though his hopes were dashed by a 40 foot wall of ice. His guides set off back down the mountain while Wilson remained, determined to reach the peak, and perished in his tent.
Snowboarding Down The Mountain
Merely climbing the mountain was not enough of a challenge for 22 year old Marco Siffredi, who had the lofty goal of achieving the first continuous snowboard journey from Everest's peak. Incredibly, in 2001 Siffredi actually managed to do this, boarding all the way down the North Col Route. But this wasn't enough for Siffredi: his original aim was to conquer the Hornbein Couloir, the steepest slope he considered the true face of the mountain.
He set off again the following year, and managed to reach the summit despite deep snow and losing his radio. Instead of waiting for a replacement to be sent up, the exhausted Siffredi began the long trip down the slope after his Sherpa guides left. Later, the Sherpas thought they spotted a figure falling out of control down the North Col route. This was the wrong way for Siffredi, but as there were no other climbers at that time of year, the Sherpas began to grow concerned.
Sure enough, Siffredi was not there at the camp when the Sherpas arrived, and without a radio to contact him, the guides feared the worst. They searched the Horbein Couloir and the North Col to no avail. We still don't know what happened to Siffredi, though it seems certain he plummeted to his death.
Ghostly Guardians Of The Peak
The paths to the summit are marked by ghostly guardians, deceased climbers who have now become landmarks for new visitors to spot. Hannelore Schmatz is one of the most well known - she perished in 1979 very close to the top, never reaching the summit. One climber described her body...
"It’s not far now. I cannot escape the sinister guard. Approximately 100 meters above Camp IV she sits leaning against her pack, as if taking a short break. A woman with her eyes wide open and her hair waving in each gust of wind…..it feels as if she follows me with her eyes as I pass by."
Another famous body is known only as Green Boots. Supposedly the corpse of Tsewang Paljor, an Indian climber who tried to escape the 1996 blizzard that is featured in the upcoming Everest film. Paljor crawled into a small cave, but still perished in the storm, leaving his green booted feet sticking out of the cave's opening. His death has unwittingly lead to another. In 2006, Dave Sharp clamboured into the cave to escape the element. Desperately in need of help, Sharp died despite many climbers passing him by, as they mistook him for the infamous Green Boots.
Clean-Up Efforts & Retrieving Bodies
We get so caught up in the excitement of survivor stories, or tales of tragic deaths, that we forget the consequences of the many missions to climb Everest. There are scores of Sherpa deaths that go unreported, as the guides set records for reaching the peak multiple times, and try to clean up after visiting mountaineers.
The corpses are a real problem. Retrieving bodies is far more difficult and dangerous than merely climbing the mountain, and many are abandoned. At one point, the much-traversed South Ridge Route was so littered with bodies that it was dubbed the Rainbow Valley, thanks to the bright colours of the dead climbers' clothes. In recent years there have been multiple clean-up efforts and attempts to retrieve bodies, but tragically these missions have their own death toll.
Namgyal Sherpa is one of Everest's saddest deaths: a veteran climber, he went from a Base Camp cook to the owner of a successful guide business, and lead the 2010 Extreme Everest Expedition. The aim was to clear up the Death Zone (above 8,000 metres), and the expedition managed to retrieve 4,000kg of rubbish along with two bodies. Rob Hall, leader of the 1996 expedition (played by Jason Clarke in the movie), was left on the mountain at the request of his widow. Namgyal managed to reach the peak a total of 10 times, but died in 2013 on his tenth journey to the summit.
The True Heroes Of Everest
The fascination with Everest has had a huge impact on Nepal, and whether this is bad or good for the country is really a matter of opinion. With some of the mountaineers making ridiculous requests of their Nepalese Sherpas (like bringing espresso machines to the summit), it's a tough job for guides, and one that puts them in harm's way more than any visitor. The Sherpas really are the unsung heroes of Everest. You can watch their stories here.
Everest is in IMAX 3D September 18 and everywhere else September 25 and will document the expedition that perished in the 1996 blizzard. So which story do you think is the most tragic? Let us know in the comments, or write your own post!