When I climbed Mount Everest in 1993 I saw five dead bodies in the snow along the route. And on my descent, a fellow climber fell to his death. Dead bodies on the mountain are sadly nothing new. But whose was the oldest body on Everest?
Norbu Sherpa was the first climber to be killed on Mount Everest, and is the oldest body there. He died in an avalanche in 1922 along with six other Sherpas. His body was buried in the East Rongbuk Glacier in Tibet.
Oddly enough, my relative was involved in the accident and Norbu Sherpa was his personal servant. Being a doctor he pronounced Norbu dead at the scene and buried him. Here’s the full story.
The Story of the Oldest Body on Everest
My cousin Howard Somervell was an amazing man. He was known as Uncle Hunch in my family, and I met him when I was 13 and he was 81 years old. He told me about the camera he had lent to his friend George Mallory, and told me to go and find it (well, I did, but that’s another story).
He was climbing Everest in one of the earliest expeditions in the 1920s when the first death – that of his assistant Norbu Sherpa, happened.
Along with George Mallory and several others, Somervell was making a third and last desperate attempt to climb the mountain in bad snow conditions, with the slopes leading up to the North Col laden with fresh snow. They were obviously nervous:
“At 10.15 we started the ascent of the snowy slopes of the North Col, which are steepest near their lowest part. Here we considered it most likely that an avalanche would occur.
We tried to start one by stamping and jerking and treading out long trenches across the slope. But the snow would not budge, and we put all thoughts of such a possibility from our minds.”Howard Somervell, 1922
Somervell went first, unroped and kicking steps in the heavy soft snow. He was followed by Mallory, then a porter, then Crawford, and behind him thirteen more porters, all heavily laden.
This was a huge load for an avalanche-prone slope. Then it happened:
“I had reached a point only 600 feet below our objective, the camp on the Col, when, with a subdued report ominous in the softness of its violence, a crack suddenly appeared about 20 feet above me. The snow on which I was standing began to move, slowly at first then faster.
I was rolled over, and slid down under the snow on a swift journey which I was convinced was my last. So utterly certain of this was I that I felt no conscious fear. To my intense relief, however, the sliding mass began to slow up and, after a short time, stopped.”
Quite extraordinarily there was a photograph taken from Advanced Base Camp at the very moment of the avalanche. You can clearly see a long crack in the snow above the climbers.
To Somervell’s horror, he saw that some of the porters had been swept over an ice-cliff. He down-climbed with Mallory and Crawford and frantically dug for the men, knowing that freshly-avalanched snow freezes solid around a body, locking it in like concrete:
“The first to be dug out was my servant, Norbu. He was dead, poor fellow; with four cylinders of oxygen still tied to his back … I remember well the thought gnawing at my brain. ‘Only Sherpas and Bhotia killed – why, oh why could not one of us Britishers have shared their fate?’
I would gladly at that moment have been lying there dead in the snow, if only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk.”
The Sherpas killed in the avalanche were:
- Norbu Sherpa
- Lhakpa Sherpa
- Pasang Sherpa
- Pemba Sherpa
- Dorje Sherpa
- Temba Sherpa
- Sange Sherpa.
These, sadly, are therefore the oldest bodies on Everest.
All of them were awarded Olympic Medals at the first Winter Olympics which opened at Chamonix on 25 January 1924. Medals were awarded for the 1922 Mount Everest expedition, and Colonel Strutt accepted them on behalf of the Sherpas.
The medals were awarded posthumously, of course as they had been killed in the avalanche. It is very unusual to award Olympic medals posthumously, even for ‘the greatest feat of alpinism in the preceding four years’.
Norbu Sherpa wasn’t the first person to die on a Mount Everest expedition, though. That was Alexander Kellas, and he was an extraordinary man who deserves a book to himself.
The First Death on an Everest Expedition
Alexander Kellas was the first death on an Everest Expedition, but he didn’t die on the mountain itself.
He was a Scottish scientist who worked on high-altitude aviation during the First World War, becoming fascinated by the problems of hypoxia (shortage of oxygen).
He studied human acclimatisation to altuitude in the field, climbing many Himalayan mountains and discovering that the Sherpa ethnic group was uniquely adapted to living at high altitudes. He hired Sherpas to carry his instruments up high mountains such as Pauhunri at 7,128m (23,386ft), and by 1921 Kellas had spent more time at 7,000m than anyone else on earth.
In 1922 he joined the Mount Everest but he was exhausted by his researches. Unfortunately he contracted dysentery in Sikkim. He was so weak he had to be carried on a stretcher over the pass into Tibet by his friends the Sherpas.
He died on 5 June 1922 as he was carried into Khampa Dzong. The other members of the expedition were shocked at the news. Mallory was mortified, saying:”He died without one of us anywhere near him.”
They buried him in a grave on a stony hillside looking south over the border into Sikkim at the great mountains he had climbed. Mallory described the scene:
“It was an extraordinarily affecting little ceremony burying Kellas on a stony hillside … I shan’t easily forget the four boys, his own trained mountain men, children of nature, seated in wonder on a great stone near the grave while Bury read out the passage from Corinthians.”
So although his body lies far from Mount Everest, Kellas’s pioneering use of Sherpas and his discovery of the value of bottled oxygen led directly to the mountain being climbed by the British in 1953.
May he and the Sherpas who died that year rest in peace.