The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Scaling Mount Everest is not for the faint-hearted. Located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, with a summit of 29,035 feet. Its extreme elevation not only increases the chances of incurring frostbite for climbers, but also reduces their oxygen intake, which has potentially significant health impacts like pulmonary edema and blood embolisms.

Avalanches and icefalls are also among some of the more life-threatening dangers associated with mountaineering, and these risks may become greater with increased warming. As of May 2017, the official number of fatalities recorded is over 270 according to World Atlas, with avalanches as the leading cause of mortality. Unfortunately not all the bodies of those who perished have been retrieved, due to the harsh environment. Many have vanished amid the ice and snow.

A view of Everest from Base Camp One on the Tibet side of the mountain, where some bodies are appearing. BBC reporting was done mostly from Nepal. (Source: Global Panorama/Flickr)

One of the perverse impacts of climate change, however, is that these corpses, scattered across the Everest slopes and long thought unretrievable, are now seeing the light of day due to rising temperatures and melting ice. Movement of the Khumbu glacier, where many of the dead bodies are appearing, has also contributed to the recent exposures.  Expedition operators and mountaineers have reported coming across more and more dead bodies that are being exposed because of fast glacial melting and reduced levels of ice, according to the BBC.

The discovery of these bodies is good news for families that may have lost a loved one on Everest, but it also presents some challenges for officials when deciding on proper response to the situation. According to the article, dealing with dead bodies, both logistically and emotionally, is not an easy task. Families who learn of recovery are also faced with a formidable series of administrative procedures. For Nepal, handling of the bodies requires government agency involvement, and according to the article, getting that involvement has been a challenge.

Recovering bodies is also very dangerous and costly. Ash Tshering Sherpa, former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said that one of the most difficult recoveries was from nearby the mountain’s summit, where conditions are severe and unsafe for rescue teams. Experts estimate the cost to bring down dead bodies from the mountain, which could be between $40,000 and $80,000.

“Green Boots,” an Indian climber who died on the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1996, has become a famous landmark for climbers. (Source: Maxwelljo40/Wikimedia Commons)

Sherry Ortner, a distinguished professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of Life and Death on Mt. Everest, said mountaineering practices in the Himalayas have changed dramatically over the years. Decades ago, Sherpas never climbed Everest because they believed certain gods lived there, and scaling the mountain was seen as a religious offence. However, mountaineering and assisting climbers has become a part of Sherpa economy today.

She also told us that although finding dead bodies on Everest is nothing new, the issue now is the quantity of bodies, and how to handle the bodies with respect. “On the one hand, recovering bodies is very dangerous and difficult, and Sherpas risk their lives recovering dead bodies,” Ortner said. “On the other hand, the mountaineering practice is important for the economy, and some may be willing to recover a body for the income.”

The families want the bodies back and treated with respect, and the Sherpas would never treat the bodies with disrespect, added Ortner. The article points out that some bodies serve as landmarks for mountaineers, which may be disrespectful to the body and the families. Proper treatment of one who has passed varies from culture to culture. As Buddhists, Sherpas view cremation as the most respectful, and westerners may want to bury their dead.

Mountaineers often climb in groups for safety and support, sometimes accompanied by a member, or members, of the Sherpa community. (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr)

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, affiliated with the South Asia Center of University of Washington, shared similar sentiments. Sherpa also recently commented on the issue on a BBC Sounds program. She said the news was not particularly shocking, as the Sherpas have known about the bodies and melting snow for years. However, it’s starting a fresh conversation about proper management and disposal of the dead bodies from the mountain, and it calls out authorities to act.

Sherpa added that it’s important to remember Mount Everest holds a place in Sherpa religion—the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Miyo Langsangma resides there. “The issue here is that the dead bodies should be handled with care and respect each of them deserves to maintain the sanctity of the mountain,” she said. Sherpa also said that to the mountaineers, the bodies are more than just landmarks, and a serious mountaineer understands the dedication and sacrifice that comes along with the climb.

“For them [mountaineers], dead bodies tell stories of ambitions and accomplishments. They also remind them of the risks involved” said Sherpa.

May this news serve as a reminder to brave mountaineers to prepare and take proper precaution on their journeys to the top of Everest.

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