Everest: ’The open graveyard waiting above’

Too many adventurers want to scale the world’s highest peak—even if it means their deaths
Alan Parker
FILE - In this May 19, 2010 file photo, clouds hover above the world’s highest peak Mount Everest, as seen from Syangboche, about 125 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Katmandu, Nepal. Mountaineering Department official Gyanendra Shrestha said Monday, May 21, 2012, that a German, a Nepal-born Canadian and a Korean died Saturday while descending from the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit. (AP Photo/ Binod Joshi, File)
Binod Joshi/AP Photo

Mount Everest is the world’s highest garbage dump—and graveyard.

It is littered with abandoned tents and tin cans discarded half a century ago and empty oxygen tanks and 150-200 dead bodies.

And every time a climber reaches the summit of Everest and descends to tell the tale, he or she has climbed past those abandoned tents and discarded tin cans and empty oxygen tanks and scores of dead bodies — twice. Once on the way up and once on the way down.

When Toronto climber Shriya Shah-Klorfine died of exhaustion and lack of oxygen last Saturday somewhere above 8,300 metres — in what they call “the death zone” — she was not unique among climbers who have succumbed on the mountain.

She was possibly Everest Death No. 231 or 232 or 233 or 234 or 235 or 236 — or maybe even 237 or 238 or 239 or 240. Nobody knows for sure. Two other climbers are known to have perished on Everest the day Shriya Shah-Klorfine died and three more the following day. More were helped to safety by Sherpa guides and other climbers or the death toll would have been even higher.

As a general rule of thumb, one climber dies on Everest for every 10 who reach the summit.

About 50 of those dead bodies have been recovered and brought down from the mountain — always at extreme cost, sometimes at the expense of others’ lives. The rest are still on the mountain. Some are lost forever in crevasses or blown over sheer drops into space, others are frozen in time, within sight of the desperate living climbers moving past them.

There is an area just below the summit known as Rainbow Valley — because of the number of corpses there still clad in their bright down climbing jackets.

Veteran summiteer David Brashears, who led the IMAX filming expedition to the top of Everest in 1996, has called it “the open graveyard waiting above.”

For all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the skeletal remains of climber Hannelore Schmatz sat within sight of any climber on the southern route, leaning against her backpack with her eyes wide open and hair blowing in the gale-force winds.

Nepalese police inspector Yogendra Bahadur Thapa and Sherpa guide Ang Dorje fell to their deaths in 1984 while trying to recover her body. Eventually, in the late 1990s, high winter winds finally blew her remains over the Kangshung Face.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine will almost certainly not be another Hannelore Schmatz. Reports from Everest say attempts are being made to recover her body from the death zone to be returned to her family in Canada.

Despite the deaths and the ghastly trail of unrecovered bodies, the number of people who want to climb Mount Everest  increases every year.

With a climbing season of about two months, the highest mountain in the world is just not high enough to accommodate everyone who wants to climb it — even at an estimated average cost of $75,000 per climber. Throw in a few weeks of bad weather — as happened this year in early May — and the dozens of expeditions waiting their turn become a traffic jam on the roof of the world.

If climbers are forced into a holding pattern too long anywhere in the death zone, oxygen supplies are soon exhausted and the choice becomes one of admitting defeat or facing a high possibility of death.

Few climbers in pursuit of their ultimate goal believe they will be the ones to die on Everest until it is too late to save themselves. And so the death toll keeps rising.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine died in such a traffic jam. In part, because of the traffic jam. She was one of an estimated 200 climbers attempting to reach the roof of the world on that blustery, dangerous Saturday.

She made it to the top but did not have enough oxygen or strength to make it back down through the death zone.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine was a victim of her ambition to do something exceptional. No more or less than George Mallory or Andrew Irvine or any of the other 200-plus climbers who have died on Mount Everest and whose bodies are mostly still there as ghastly signposts to the highest point on earth.

The majority of those deaths have occurred on the southern, Nepalese side of the mountain because the Chinese government is far more restrictive about allowing climbers to attempt the summit from the northern, Tibetan side of Everest.

In 2011, the government of Nepal issued 23 permits for foreign teams to climb Mount Everest. Those 23 teams were composed of 234 foreign climbers and 259 high-altitude Sherpa guides. Making the summit were 219 Sherpas and 156 foreign climbers.

In addition, three Nepalese expeditions — which do not require the same permits foreign teams do — made up of 17 climbers and 21 Sherpa guides made the ascent.

Three foreign climbers and one Sherpa guide were known to have died during that 2011 Everest climbing season, a remarkably low death toll. This year seven foreign climbers and three Sherpas have died already — more than double the 2011 toll with more deaths likely still to come.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, called for restrictions on the number of Everest expeditions before his death in 2008.

“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” Hillary said. “The people just want to get to the top. They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress.”

But any severe restrictions are highly unlikely.

Everest expeditions have become far too important to Nepal’s economy and adventurers from around the world are adamant that they be allowed the same opportunity as Hillary to reach the world’s highest peak — even if it means their deaths or the deaths of others.