Mount Everest’s Rainbow Valley: Where and What is It?

Rainbow Valley sounds delightful, doesn’t it? But on Mount Everest it is a name that has a macabre meaning. Rainbow Valley is also known as Rainbow Ridge, the Rainbow Trail, the Rainbow Road, or Rainbow Path, but they all refer to the same area.

Rainbow Valley is a section of the route on the North Ridge of Mount Everest. It is above 8000 metres in the so-called Death Zone, and the reason for its name is that it is littered with the dead bodies of climbers wearing brightly coloured clothes.

Rainbow Valley isn’t actually a valley, it refers to the section of the climb where many unfortunate climbers have died. One of the earliest deaths at such an altitute was George Mallory in 1924. Read how Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest in 1999.

Why do people die here? And why are the bodies left out in the open, in plain view of everyone trudging past? Why aren’t they buried or taken down the mountain and repatriated? Read on to find out:

Rainbow Valley is also known as Rainbow Ridge, the Rainbow Trail, the Rainbow Road, or Rainbow Path, but they all refer to the same area.

Where is The Rainbow Valley on Everest?

Mount Everest’s Rainbow Valley is actually a section of sloping ground lying on the North side of the mountain above 8000 metres.

What is the Rainbow Valley on Everest?

Climbers have to face the prospect of violent death, like soldiers. And like soldiers they tend to use dark humour to discuss subjects that are usually taboo: maiming, disfigurement, death. Making light of something you might be frightened of helps to deal with the anxiety. Beck Weathers, is a pathologist in Dallas lost his nose and parts of his hands and feet, and very nearly his life on Everest in 1996, on the expedition immortalised in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” He said:

“If you’re willing to put a round in the chamber of a revolver and put it in your mouth and pull the trigger, then yeah, it’s a pretty good idea to climb Everest.” (Source: BBC)

And that is perhaps why a lighthearted name: Rainbow Valley was used for one of the ugliest aspects of Mount Everest: the appalling way in which dying climbers are ignored by the living, and then their bodies are left out in public view for years afterwards.

climbers ascending in the snow

There are at least ten ways to die on Mount Everest, including drowning, but the most common in Rainbow Valley are the combination of exhaustion and hypothermia brought on by inexperience, summit fever, thin air, insufficient bottled oxygen and high winds.

Climbers such as Tsewang Paljor, an Indian climber who died on Everest in 1996, have attracted names associated with their clothing. He is known as “Green Boots”, and became a notable landmark on the way up to the summit. Then there was the unfortunate David Sharp, who I met at Advanced Base Camp, and who attempted to find shelter in a rudimentary cave next to Green Boots. You can read more about what happened to David Sharp here.

Why are these unfortunate people left out on the mountainside like so much rubbish? Because it takes the efforts of around six Sherpas, a great deal of skill and in the region of $70,000 to repatriate a body from Mount Everest. Not to mention the dangers to the Sherpas and the distaste they feel when handling the deceased.

No wonder, then, that guides on the mountain move bodies away from the route if they can, often by cutting away the ropes that still attach them to the mountainside.

Photos of Everest’s Rainbow Valley

Personally, I find it unacceptable to show pictures of dead bodies on Mount Everest. The reason is this: I have met grieving family members whose pain would only be exacerbated by the thought that people were looking at their beloved with a prurient interest.

Rainbow Valley is somewhere you really don’t want to stay. Up above 8000 metres human morality begins to wear thin and you may find yourself stuck there with no-one to help you.

Let Rainbow Valley be a warning to future climbers: plan, plan, plan. Then train, train, train. And if you come across a dying comrade in the snow, don’t step over them. Help them.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.

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