Living & Dying on the Glaciers of Everest

The formidable Mount Everest— the tallest mountain and home to a number of the world’s highest glaciers— has long been a source of wonder and the pinnacle test of human strength and capability. For many mountaineers, it’s their ultimate crown of accomplishment. And for others, it’s their ultimate grave.

The formidable Mt. Everest (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Flickr).

A recent collection of essays published in the Minnesota Review explores the theme of climbing and dying on Everest. The series includes articles from anthropologist Young Hoon Oh’s “Dying Differently: Sherpa and Korean Mountaineers on Everest,” and philosopher Margret Grebowicz’s “The Problem of Everest: Upward Mobility and the Time of Climbing.” As Nicola Masciandaro, the editor of the collection, describes in her brief introduction, “life and climbing are vitally linked in ways that demand our fresh attention.”

These two essays offer distinct yet complementary approaches to what is essentially a question of the meaning of life and death through the perspective of climbing. By analyzing how the human pursuit of climbing the world’s tallest mountain reflects upon life itself, Oh and Grebowicz contemplate the quintessential question of life through the context of mountaineering.

As Grebowicz contextualizes in her essay, Western fascination with Everest began in the late 1910s, but failure after failure marked the earliest attempts at summiting the peak until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s legendary ascent in 1953. Sir John Hunt, leader of that infamous expedition, wrote in his memoir of the mountain and the “possibility of entering the unknown.”

View of Everest from the Tibetan side (Source: Kartläsarn/Flickr).

Advances in technology have enabled more people to attempt the perilous Everest trek than ever before. Last year, over 650 people climbed the mountain, with 61 percent of those leaving the base camp reaching the summit. Even so, death on the glacierized peaks remains all too common with a recorded 288 total people having died on the mountain between 1921 and 2017. According to a Washington Post article from 2016, over 200 bodies are scattered across the glaciers of Mt. Everest.

These fatalities have not deterred adventurers; the busy spring season at Everest has been littered with expeditions large and small in recent years, as noted in Oh’s article. And what was previously considered unknown is now heavily commercialized, notes Grebowicz. In her essay, she describes how Everest has “become symbolic of a world used up by humans: crawling with amateur adventurers who can afford it and littered with the corpses of those who do not make it down.”

Many of these bodies remain in plain sight. But even those in plain sight often can’t be safely retrieved. Removing the bodies for a proper burial is dangerous and expensive, ranging from $30,000 to $70,000, as Grebowicz points out. And then there are the bodies of those who went missing climbing Everest that have yet to be found. These abandoned, buried bodies harken back to Hunt’s mystical Everest that will gladly remind the climber that they are at the mercy of the mountain’s brutal altitude and wildness.

Image of Mt. Everest (Source: Satori Experience/Flickr).

Through a philosopher’s lens, Grebowicz discusses in her essay how these deaths often happen out of a desire to reach the summit, which blinds people to their surroundings and others around them. She shares an interesting distinction between the mountaineers and the summiteers, just as sports philosopher Pam Sailors proposed in her 2010 article: While summiteers are goal-driven, self-knowledge seeking, and demonstrative of self-indulgence to the point of disregard for others, mountaineers are more process-oriented, find knowledge through the journey, and often forfeit their bid in order to help others.

Turning to Oh’s essay, he reflects on his personal summit attempt of Everest in 2015. During his two-year ethnographic study of Sherpa communities in northeastern Nepal, Oh participated in nine mountaineering expeditions in total, including three on Everest. His prolonged stay in the region and expertise in mountaineering dictates his familiarity with the climbing cultures and mountains.

Oh had nine friends who died on Himalayan peaks during his research period, some of whom died on expeditions in which Oh was a fellow climbing member. In his essay, he highlights the deaths of a Sherpa and a Korean colleague through the different cultural perceptions of death on the mountain with his combined perspective of cultural anthropology and mountaineering. Of particular interest to Oh is the jovial response of Sherpas towards the death of Temba and its stark contrast to the more meditative reaction his fellow Korean expedition experienced regarding the sudden death of their colleague, Seong-Ho Seo. In addition to a fascinating comparison between Korean and Sherpa perspectives of death and climbing, one of the primary questions he asks is “If reactions to death differ so starkly, what do we know of death, and how does the knowing of death affect climbing?”

His answer lies in the exploration of climbing as a metaphor for life. Similar to Grebowicz’s essay, Oh touches on the parallels between climbing as sport and the game of life, which he calls “the existential irony of mountaineering.” People go up against death in order to survive the mountain. As he articulates in his essay, “Though no Sherpa or Korean would climb to die, the reality of death, magnified and elaborated by the concrete realities of mountain landscapes, inspires both Sherpas and Koreans to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks.”

The danger associated with Everest is what, in many ways, appeals to climbing. As a by-chance observer of death, Oh shared with GlacierHub in an interview how his own views of death and climbing transformed during his research. “Climbers stronger and more experienced than me died, while climbing the same mountain. This made me realize, among others, the vicinity of death to life and the hollow barrier between the two,” Oh said. “But I still found myself wishing to climb.”

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Photo by @jongriffithphotography Sunrise high up on Mt Everest. What an incredible adventure it has been trying to capture this Everest-Lhotse link up. We waited until the end of the season to have the mountain to ourselves at the expense of more stable weather windows – I didnt fancy either climbing nor shooting in a line of people. Ultimately it was our undoing as the winds were so strong at Camp 4 that I wasn't even sure we would make the summit of Everest even on bottled oxygen. Tenji made it as far as the South Summit without bottled oxygen until I put him on my spare bottle so we could summit 'safely'- the weather threw everything at us this day; strong winds, thunderstorms, and snow. This is a brief clearing in the clouds for sunrise, looming over Makalu is an incredibly active thunderstorm system- one of three that surrounded us during the night. Whilst we had very few breaks in the clouds during our ascent they do make for very moody captures. I've never been surrounded by such active thunderstorm cells in my life before, it was quite surreal being the only ones up on the roof of the world in such wild weather. I'm not sure how Tenji made it as far as the South Summit without oxygen, it was so cold that the internal battery on my Sony A7 broke (!). The Everest-Lhotse link up will have to wait for another year, but it was a real pleasure to capture this no-O2 attempt on Everest in Virtual Reality and really excited to start the edit process. The shots are just incredible in this kind of weather – we didnt get many breaks in the clouds but when we did it was pretty intense.

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Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.