They called her the Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest. She lay on her back, one arm outflung, with her head pillowed on the eternal snow. Her face, now waxy in death, seemed so perfect that the new name suited her well.
Francys Arsentiev reached the summit without oxygen on 22nd May 1998 in company with her husband Sergei Arsentiev. Following the North Ridge route they summited so late in the day they had to spend the night out above 8,600 meters. Over the next two days both of them died.
At some point they became separated the day after summiting. Sergei descended, realised his wife wasn’t behind him, then climbed back up the mountain carrying oxygen and medicine. Neither he nor his wife came back down alive.
I climbed with Sergei Arsentiev in 1990 on the Mount Everest Peace expedition of 1990, using the same North ridge route, so I may be able to shed some light on this tragic story…
The Story of Francys Arsentiev on Everest
Francys Yarbro Distefano-Arsentiev was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1958. Like many of us she was taken climbing at the age of six and fell in love with the mountains. Later she graduated from the University of Louisville, then gained a Master’s degree from the International School of Business Management in Phoenix. She became an accountant in Telluride, Colorado.
Then in 1991 on Annapurna she met the romantic figure of Sergei Arsentiev. It was love at first sight. He was a top Russian climber who had been chosen to represent Russia on the Everest Peace climb of 1990, over such climbers as Anatoli Boukreev.
I remembered him well, as on that expedition I had visited the Russians’ tent at ABC, where they plied us with vodka. It became immediately obvious that Sergei was a highly intelligent man, an electrical engineer who worked on Russian spy satellites. And he wasn’t an ordinary Everest climber. Sergei was also known to be one of the Snow Leopards: the elite who had climbed all the Soviet peaks over 7000 meters; Peak Lenin, Korzhenevskoy, Communism, Khan Tengri and Pobeda.
On our expedition he was chosen to be in the first team to attempt the summit, and was supposed to use oxygen on summit day but decided to attempt an oxygen-free ascent. In this he succeeded.
After Everest in 1990 Sergei traversed three summits of Kangchenjunga and in 1991 climbed the North face of Annapurna I in Alpine style and without oxygen. It was here he met Francys, fell in love and they married in 1992, moving to America as the Cold War ended in December 26 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was a Cold War Romeo and Juliet story: two lovers from either side of an ideological rift.
Francys Arsentiev accompanied her new husband on climbs of Denali’s West Buttress and Elbrus and soon began to harbour a new ambition: to become the first American woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. This ambition was to kill her and her husband. As we have now seen their abilities were mismatched.
On May 17th, 1998 Sergei and Francys Arsentiev waved goodbye to their friends as left ABC and headed for the North Col. The next day, May 18th, they climbed to 7,700 meters as 21 other climbers ahead of them reached the summit of Everest on the same route. It was the biggest crowd of climbers on the North side in the history of the mountain.
On the following day, May 19th, Sergei and Francys climbed up to 8200 meters and arrived at Camp 6. Using his radio Sergei reported down to their friends that the couple were going well and planned to leave the camp at 1.00 on the following day, May 20th. Conditions remained good, as on May 19th several other climbers reached the summit of Everest on the same route.
The couple’s summit attempt began on May 20th after spending the usual unpleasant night at 8200 meters at Camp 6. They set off, but turned around at the first step when a headlamp failed.
This was the beginning of the concatenation of events that would eventually kill them.
They returned to their tent at Camp 6. On the following morning, May 21st the couple started off again on their second summit attempt, but turned around after climbing less than 100 meters. This is when warning bells should have started ringing in their heads: they were spending far too long over 8200 meters.
Would the third time be lucky? Between 2.00 and 3.00 am on May 22nd, 1998 the couple once again set off for the summit. Could Francys become the first American woman to get to the summit of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen? The goal was tantalisingly close.
The couple’s progress was observed from Base Camp. The leader of the Uzbekistan expedition, Anatoli Shabanov was looking out for his own team members on a 60X telescope. He reported the Arsentievs at 10.00 at the First Step and at 14.00 at the Second Step: dangerously slow and late, as Mallory and Irvine had demonstrated at the the same time and place seventy-four years before.
The couple were reported just under the summit ridge at 8,800 metres at around 16.00. Without oxygen Francys was just creeping along. And at 17.45 they were met by a returning member of the Uzbekistan expedition, Rustam Radgapov, just 100 metres from the top, on the easy-angled final slope. He tried to pursuade them to turn back, as darkness was falling but Sergei assured him that they were fine and had a cache of tent and oxygen further down the route.
Radgapov saw the cache at 8,630 metres: all it consisted of was a rucksack with only one cylinder of oxygen but no tent (source: everestnews).
This is where events become unclear. The couple summited and Francys Arsentiev achieved her dream of becoming the first American woman to summit Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. But it was record she would not enjoy for long.
It appears the coupe descended to the cache and sat out in the open at 8,630 meters, presumably breathing some oxygen during what must have been an endless night. The next day, on 23rd May Sergei Arsentiev was met at 8,450 metres at around 09.35 by five members of the Uzbekistan expedition. He asked where his wife was:
“Where is my wife? Didn’t she come down?”Sergei Arsentiev (source: everestnews)
About an hour later these same Uzbekistan climbers said that they came up to Francys just after the First Step, only about 100 metres below their 8,600 metre overnight bivouac. They reported that she was still standing, leaning on a rock and semi-concious. She had no climbing harness.
They said that two climbers stayed with her and gave her oxygen and attempted to warm her legs and hands by massage. Three of the Uzbekistan climbers went to the summit, followed by the remaining two. On their return they tied her off to the rope, gave her the last of the oxygen and left her (source: everestnews).
On their descent, they reported that they met Sergei at 20.40 climbing back up with oxygen and medicine for his wife.
Sergei: “Is Fran here?” Grigoriev: “She is still alive”.Oleg Grigoriev, quoted in EverestNews.com
Sergei Arsentiev never returned to Camp Six that night. He probably died in a fall near his wife, as his body was discovered during our Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition of 1999.
But the next morning, on May 24th Francys Arsentiev was somehow still alive. Two climbers from the South African expedition found her in the same place she had been left. One of them was Cathy O’Dowd, whose account follows:
Why Did She Get the Name ‘Sleeping Beauty of Everest’?
“Don’t leave me,” she said. Her skin was milky white, and totally smooth. It was a sign of severe frostbite and it made her look like a porcelain doll. Her eyes stared up at me, unfocusing, pupils huge dark voids. “Don’t leave me,” she murmured again… “I am an American. I am an American,” the climber suddenly said… The decision to leave Fran came upon us without much discussion.
The Uzbek climbers and Lhakpa had long been of that opinion. What hope I had faded in the face of her incoherence, her physical incapacity. Now Ian and Jangbu straightened up and turned away. She had stopped talking and seemed to have sunk into unconsciousness.
The thought of going on was intolerable. I had lost the will to reach the summit. Besides the physical drain of the cold, I was emotionally shattered. I had never encountered anything like this. I had passed bodies, I had had friends not come back, but I had never watched anyone die. Nor had I had to decide to leave them.
It was harder for me because she was female. It is not that I thought women immune to the risk, but it was such a male-dominated environment. Everywhere you turned, everyone you talked to was male. I climb because I enjoy it. I climb for the pleasure of the activity, of the surroundings. There was no pleasure left. I wanted to be down, to be off the mountain, to have both feet on flat ground.”Cathy O’Dowd, Guardian, 15 Feb 2000
What Were Francys Arsentiev’s Last Words?
Francys Arsentiev was only able to repeat three phrases, “Don’t leave me,” “Why are you doing this to me,” and “I’m an American.” (Source: allthatsinteresting).
Is Francys Arsentiev Still on Mount Everest?
Francys Arsentiev’s body is still on Everest, but it has been moved away from curious eyes (source: cetneva)
The whole story is unpleasantly reminiscent of David Sharpe’s drawn-out death in 2006 (see I Was There When David Sharp Died on Everest: What Happened). An inexperienced climber gets to the summit, descends a few hundred metres but then, exhausted, sits down. Everest has been taking lives like this since 1924, when George Mallory died.
Other passing climbers, intent on reaching the summit, stop to help but feel they have to carry on. Oxygen and fluids may be administered but don’t help: this person’s only chance of survival is to be physically carried down the mountain by half a dozen strong Sherpas.
And that, because of Everest’s toxic mixture of ambition and dollars, just isn’t going to happen.
Meanwhile the Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest still lies on the mountain, a warning to us all.