Whenever Mount Everest appears in the news the story eventually seems to come round to the subject of dead bodies on the mountain.
There are now over 250 dead bodies on Mount Everest. There have been over three hundred deaths on the mountain, and many dead climbers are still there because few dead bodies get recovered, although some have been removed or have moved due to weather or melting glaciers.
When I climbed to the summit on 6 October 1993 I was climbing alone for a while and sat down for a rest near the Balcony at around 8,400 metres (27,500 ft).
I slowly became aware that there was someone else there with me. Curled up under the snow, right next to my knee was a dead body. Known as “sleeping beauties”, these bodies remain there, frozen in time. So why aren’t they moved, and how come there are so many of them?
Why (and How) are There So Many Dead Bodies on Everest?
Climbing Mount Everest has always contained the risk that you will die and your body will become a spectacle for hundreds of climbers tramping past.
There are now over a couple of hundred corpses lying around in the slopes, buried in crevasses, lodged under boulders or tucked into caves. Dozens, lie in plain sight, their brightly-coloured suits contrasting with sun-bleached hair and skulls.
One section on the North Ridge has been named “Rainbow Ridge” for the spectacle. This is unpleasant and almost unique in the world: where else are dead bodies allowed to lie around in public?
George Mallory, who became probably the most famous corpse on the mountain, had this to say:
“When I say our sport is a hazardous one, I do not mean that when we climb mountains there is a large chance that we shall be killed, but that we are surrounded by dangers which will kill us if we let them.”George Mallory, 1924
What did he mean by that?
I suppose he felt he was in control of the objective and subjective risks of climbing a high-altitude mountain. Unfortunately Mallory became obsessed by climbing the mountain and ignored the risks in 1924: exhaustion, a lack of oxygen, an inexperienced companion and finally, the deteriorating weather. All these factors still kill climbers every year.
Like many others, the mountain killed him. He died on Everest in 1924, and wasn’t found until his body was discovered by my expedition in 1999. But even Mallory’s “famous” body wasn’t removed from his resting place at 8200 metres. Why not?
Why Dead Bodies Aren’t Removed from Everest
You’d think that bodies would be taken down from Everest and returned to their families, for a “proper” burial.
One reason dead bodies remain on the mountain is that it would take the work of six to eight Sherpas to unearth and/or move the corpse, and it would put their lives at risk. I have also also noticed that Sherpas as an ethnic group are reluctant to touch corpses: they are regarded as unlucky.
In 1993 a Basque climber fell off the slopes of Everest in front of me. His fall was so great – over a thousand metres – that where it landed, other climbers were able to retrieve the corpse and pull it along and out of there, in a sleeping bag. Usually it would cost many thousands of dollars to repatriate a corpse. And it’s a lot of hard work.
“Even picking up a candy wrapper high up on the mountain is a lot of effort, because it’s totally frozen and you have to dig around it,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, chairman and founder of Asian Trekking, a company based in Kathmandu, and president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. “A dead body that normally weighs 80kg might weigh 150kg when frozen and dug out with the surrounding ice attached.”
Another reason is that many climbers, like sailors, would rather that their remains stayed at the scene of their endeavours. Some feel this is shocking. “You’ll be walking along, it’s a beautiful day, and all of a sudden there’s someone there,” says mountaineer Ed Viesturs. “It’s like, wow – it’s a wakeup call.”
During a 2011 expedition, one of the climbers in our group had lost a friend on Everest, who had died high up, with his body still lying in the snow like so many others. The grieving family had asked if the climber’s diary and other belongings could be retrieved from his pockets, so our friend did just that on his way up to the summit, but found it unpleasant and emotionally difficult.
Some began to think that the presence of so many corpses was a disgrace, and complaints began to be heard. Then, in May 2014 the most famous dead climber on the actual North Ridge route, Green Boots, seemed to have disappeared, along with another ten bodies.
Some think that it could have been the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association and the Chinese Mountaineering Association, which manage Everest’s north side. It had been pointed out at a official dinner that there was a problem. This has no been confirmed, but quietly, the “problem” seems to have been dealt with.