Death in the clouds: The problem with Everest’s 200+ bodies #Beekhaybee


They lie frozen in time, thousands of metres above sea
level. The grim death toll on Everest is becoming
impossible to ignore, says Rachel Nuwer.
By Rachel Nuwer

“But when I say our sport is a hazardous one, I do not
mean that when we climb mountains there is a large
chance that we shall be killed, but that we are
surrounded by dangers which will kill us if we let
– George Mallory, 1924
No one knows exactly how many bodies remain on
Mount Everest today, but there are certainly more than
200. Climbers and Sherpas lie tucked into crevasses,
buried under avalanche snow and exposed on
catchment basin slopes – their limbs sun-bleached and
distorted. Most are concealed from view, but some are
familiar fixtures on the route to Everest’s summit.
Perhaps most well-known of all are the remains of
Tsewang Paljor, a young Indian climber who lost his life
in the infamous 1996 blizzard. For nearly 20 years,
Paljor’s body – popularly known as Green Boots, for
the neon footwear he was wearing when he died – has
rested near the summit of Everest’s north side. When
snow cover is light, climbers have had to step over
Paljor’s extended legs on their way to and from the
(Read part one of this story, exploring who Paljor was
and how he got there).
Mountaineers largely view such matters as tragic but
unavoidable. For the rest of us, however, the idea that a
corpse could remain in plain sight for nearly 20 years
can seem mind-boggling. Will bodies like Paljor’s
remain in their place forever, or can something be
done? And will we ever decide that Mount Everest
simply is not worth it? As I discovered in this two-part
series, the answer is a story of control, danger, grief
and surprises.
Insatiable draw
Before answering those questions, however, it is worth
asking something more fundamental: when death is all
around, why do people gamble their lives on Everest at
Reaching the highest point on Earth once served as a
symbol of “man’s desire to conquer the Universe,” as
British mountaineer George Mallory put it. When a
reporter once asked him why he wished to climb
Everest’s 8,848m (29,029ft)-high peak, Mallory
snapped “Because it’s there!”
Climbing Everest looks like a big joke today –
Captain MS Kohli
Everest, however, is no longer the romantic,
unconquered place it once was. Since Tenzing Norgay
and Edmund Hillary became the first men to stand on its
summit in 1953, the mountain has been summited more
than 7,000 times by more than 4,000 people, who have
left a trail of garbage, human waste and bodies in their
“Climbing Everest looks like a big joke today,” says
Captain MS Kohli , a mountaineer who in 1965 led
India’s first successful expedition to summit Mount
Everest. “It absolutely does not resemble the old days
when there were adventures, challenges and
exploration. It’s just physically going up with the help
of others.”
It is a challenge, but the bigger challenge would
be to climb it and not tell anybody
For Sherpas and others hired to work on Everest, the
reason they keep coming back is that it’s a high-paying
job. For everyone else, however, motivations are often
difficult to explain, even to oneself. Professional
climbers often insist that their drive differs from that of
the majority of clients who pay to climb Everest, a
group that is frequently accused of the lowliest of
motivations: bagging the world’s highest mountain for
bragging rights. “Somebody once said that climbing
Everest is a challenge, but the bigger challenge would
be to climb it and not tell anybody,” says Billi Bierling , a
Kathmandu-based journalist and climber and personal
assistant for Elizabeth Hawley, a former journalist, now
91, who has been chronicling Himalayan expeditions
since the 1960s.
But few would actually admit that they climb Everest
only so they can boast about it later. Instead, Everest
tends to assume a symbolic importance for those who
set their sights on it, often articulated terms of
transformation, triumph over personal obstacles or the
crown jewel in a bucket list of lifelong goals. “Everyone
has a different motivation,” Bierling says. “Someone
wants to spread the ashes of their dead husband,
another does it for their mother, others want to kill a
personal demon.”
“In some cases, it’s just ego,” Hawley adds. “In fact
you have to have a certain amount of ego to get up the
damn thing.”
As for professional climbers, whose love of
mountaineering extends well beyond Everest,
psychologists have tried to weed their motivations out
for decades. Some concluded that high-risk athletes –
mountaineers included – are sensation-seekers who
thrive off thrill. Yet think for a moment about what
climbing a mountain like Everest entails – weeks spent
at various camps, allowing the body to adapt to
altitude; inching up the mountain, step-by-step; using
sheer willpower to push through unrelenting discomfort
and exhaustion – and this explanation makes less
sense. High altitude climbing, in fact, is a slog. As
Matthew Barlow, a postdoctoral researcher in sports
psychology at Bangor University, Wales, puts it:
“Climbing something like Everest is boring, toilsome
and about as far from an adrenaline rush as you can
Compared to other athletes, mountaineers crave
a feeling of control over their lives
A climber himself, Barlow suspected that sensation-
seeking theory has long been misapplied to
mountaineers. His research suggests that, compared to
other athletes, mountaineers tend to possess an
exaggerated “expectancy of agency”. In other words,
they crave a feeling of control over their lives. Because
the complexities of modern life defy such control, they
are forced to seek agency elsewhere. As Barlow
explains: “To demonstrate that I have influence over my
life, I might go into an environment that is incredibly
difficult to control – like the high mountains.”
Flirting with the mortality, in other words, is part of the
appeal. “If you can escape death or dodge fatal
accidents, it allows you the illusion of heroism, even
though I don’t think it’s truly heroic,” says David
Roberts, a mountaineer, journalist and author based in
Massachusetts. “It’s not like playing poker where the
worst that could happen is you lose some money. The
stakes are ultimate ones.”
Barlow and colleagues also found that mountaineers
believe that they struggle emotionally, especially when
it came to loving partner relationships. They may
compensate for this by becoming experts at dealing
with emotions in another, more straightforwardly
terrifying realm. “The emotional anxiety of everyday life
is confusing, ambiguous and diffuse, and you don’t
know the source of it,” Barlow says. “In the mountains,
the emotion is fear, and the source is clear: if I fall, I
In her decades interviewing mountaineers, Hawley, too,
has noticed this tendency. “In some cases, climbers
just want to get away from home and responsibilities,”
she says. “Let the mother take care of the son that’s
sick, or deal with little Johnny who got in trouble at
Many of the climbers Barlow and his colleagues
included in their study – especially professional ones –
also exhibited what psychologists refer to as
counterphobia. Rather than avoid the things they fear,
they feel compelled to face-off with those elements.
“It’s a misnomer that climbers are fearless,” Barlow
says. “Instead, as a climber, I know I will be afraid, but
the key bit is that I approach that fear and try to
overcome it.”
Like a junkie who’s got his fix, mountaineers usually
report a transfer effect from their experience – a feeling
of satiation immediately after returning from a peak.
“For me, coming back from a climb physically
exhausted but mentally relaxed is the dream,” says
Mark Jenkins, a journalist, author and adventurer in
To continue to sate that desire, mountaineers thus set
their sights on increasingly challenging peaks, routes or
circumstances, and as the world’s highest mountain,
Everest has a natural place in that progression. “You
have to up the ante, which over time leads to greater
and greater risk taking,” Barlow says. “If the transfer
effect is never enough for you to stop, then ultimately
you likely die.”
Given all this, climbers must decide for themselves if
their passion is worth potentially losing their lives –
and abandoning their loved ones – for. “On my own
volition, I accept the risk and suffering, and that there is
no external benefit to society,” says Conrad Anker , a
mountaineer, author and leader of the North Face
climbing team. “But as long as one is clear and
transparent with your family and wife, then I don’t think
it’s morally incorrect.”
If you’re willing to put a round in the chamber of
a revolver and put it in your mouth and pull the
trigger, then yeah, it’s a pretty good idea to
climb Everest
Some, however, do get their fill. Seaborn Beck
Weathers, a pathologist in Dallas who lost his nose and
parts of his hands and feet – and very nearly his life –
on Everest in 1996, was originally attracted to climbing
precisely because of a paralysing fear of heights. As he
described in his book, Left for Dead , facing off in the
mountains with that fear proved to be an effective
(albeit temporary) antidote for his severe depression.
Everest was his last mountaineering experience,
though, and that close call with death saved his
marriage by causing him to realise what was truly
important in life. Because of that, he does not regret it.
But at the same time, he would not recommend anyone
to climb Everest.
“My view has changed on this fairly dramatically,” he
says. “If you don’t have anyone who cares about you or
is dependent on you, if you have no friends or
colleagues, and if you’re willing to put a single round in
the chamber of a revolver and put it in your mouth and
pull the trigger, then yeah, it’s a pretty good idea to
climb Everest.”
Left behind
War zones aside, the high mountains are the only
places on Earth where it is expected and even normal
to encounter exposed human remains. And of all the
mountains where climbers have lost their lives, Everest
likely carries the highest risk of coming across bodies
simply because there are so many. “You’ll be walking
along, it’s a beautiful day, and all of a sudden there’s
someone there,” says mountaineer Ed Viesturs . “It’s
like, wow – it’s a wakeup call.”
At times, the encounter is personal. Ang Dorjee
Chhuldim Sherpa , a mountaineering guide at Adventure
Consultants who has summited Everest 17 times, was
good friends with Scott Fischer, a mountain guide who
died in the 1996 disaster on Everest’s south side. After
his death, Fischer’s body remained in sight. “When
you’re passing by and you see your friend lying there,
you know exactly who it is,” he says. “I try not to look,
but my eyes always go there.”
“People are somehow able to walk by these bodies and
continue climbing by rationalising to themselves that
whatever happened to this person will not happen to
me,” says Christopher Kayes , chair and professor of
management at the George Washington University in
Washington DC.
Someone had placed a plastic bag over the
man’s face to prevent birds from pecking out his
Some, however, are not able to continue climbing. In
2010, Geert van Hurck, an amateur climber from
Belgium, was making his way up Everest’s north side
when he came across a “coloured mass” on the ground.
Realising it was a climber, Van Hurck quickly
approached, eager to offer any help he could. That was
when he saw the bag. Someone had placed a plastic
bag over the man’s face to prevent birds from pecking
out his eyes. “It just didn’t feel right to climb any
further and celebrate at the summit,” Van Hurck says. “I
think maybe I was seeing myself lying there.” He would
almost certainly have summited, but returned to camp,
shaken and upset.
His decision to turn back, however, is rare. Hundreds of
climbers have passed corpses en-route to their summit,
often without knowing who they are. Indeed, almost
immediately after Paljor died, uncertainty has
surrounded his remains. Some even doubt that the body
belongs to Paljor at all, thinking it more likely to be his
climbing partner, Dorje Morup. But for whatever reason,
Paljor’s identity has largely stuck, even if most
climbers today know the remains only as Green Boots,
and the place where he rests as Green Boots’ Cave.
That enclave, located at about 8,500m high and
sheltered from the wind, is a popular resting point for
climbers on their way back from the summit, who may
sit down there to catch their breath or have a snack.
“It’s pretty grisly that they named that cave after him,”
says amateur mountaineer Bill Burke , the only person to
have climbed the highest mountain on every continent
after age 60. “It’s really become a landmark on the
north side.”
In 2006, the cave – and Green Boots – earned even
more infamous renown when a British climber named
David Sharp was discovered huddled inside, on the
brink of death. The story was widely circulated by the
media, which claimed that some 40 climbers passed
Sharp by, who died later that day, without offering aid.
As is so often the case, however, much of the story’s
nuance was lost in those reports; in fact, most climbers
did not notice Sharp, or assumed that he was simply
resting. Others accused of ignoring his plight were not
informed until it was much too late to help.
Sharp’s body was removed from sight a year later at
the request of his parents, but Paljor, whose moniker
was further solidified by the incident, remained.
What to do with bodies on the mountain depends on a
number of factors, including the wishes of the deceased
and his or her families, and where the death took place.
Some make arrangements for their body to be returned
to their family, if possible. Burke did not discuss those
details with his wife, but he did ensure that his body
would be delivered to her, should the worst happen.
“It’s not something you dwell on,” he says. “I knew I
needed repatriation insurance so I got it, but I didn’t
give it a lot of thought.”
Returning a body to a family costs thousands of
Returning a body to a family costs thousands of
dollars, however, and requires the efforts of six to eight
Sherpas – potentially putting those men’s lives in
danger. “Even picking up a candy wrapper high up on
the mountain is a lot of effort, because it’s totally
frozen and you have to dig around it,” says Ang
Tshering Sherpa , chairman and founder of Asian
Trekking , a company based in Kathmandu, and
president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. “A
dead body that normally weights 80kg might weigh
150kg when frozen and dug out with the surrounding ice
Typically, though, mountaineers who die on a mountain
wish to remain there, a tradition co-opted from
seafarers more than a century ago. “But when we have
500 people stepping over a body ever year, that’s no
longer acceptable,” says Jenkins, who had to navigate
four bodies when he was last on Everest. “That’s
When a body does become a well-photographed fixture
of the mountain, families are often the ones who suffer
most. “One day you’re waving goodbye at the airport,
and the next is, ‘Oh, dad’s called Green Boots and
they’re walking past him,’” says Greg Child , a
mountaineer and author in Utah.
I was really upset and shocked, and I really
didn’t want my family to know about this
Paljor’s brother Thinley recalls the moment he
discovered the nickname, along with photos, in 2011: “I
was on the internet, and I found that they’re calling him
Green Boots or something,” he says. “I was really upset
and shocked, and I really didn’t want my family to know
about this.”
“Honestly speaking, it’s really difficult for me to even
look at the pictures on the internet,” he says. “I feel so
Funeral rights
To avoid this, remains are usually “committed” to the
mountain – that is, they are respectfully pushed into a
crevasse or off a steep slope, out of sight. When
possible, they might also be covered with rocks,
forming a burial mound. But Dave Hahn , a mountain
guide at RMI Expeditions who has reached Everest’s
summit 15 times, emphasises “the time to move a body
is when the accident happens.” Afterwards, “not to get
grotesque, but they become attached to the hill.”
But even for a fresh body, those respectful acts can
take hours and require the effort of several fit climbers.
The question remains of whose responsibility that task
should fall to, especially as more bodies have built up
over the years, and glacial melting due to climate
change has caused others to appear.
Some have stepped up. Since 2008, Dawa Steven
Sherpa, managing director of Asian Trekking and Ang
Tshering’s son, and his colleagues have led yearly
clean-up efforts on the mountain, removing more than
15,000kg of old garbage and more than 800kg of human
waste. As such, whenever a body or body parts emerge
from the melting, ever-dynamic Khumbu glacier, his
team is seen as the de facto removal crew. So far, they
have respectfully disposed of several bodies, four
Sherpas – one of whom they knew – and one
Australian climber who had disappeared in 1975. “If at
all possible, human remains should get a burial,” Dawa
Steven says. “That’s not always possible if a body is
frozen into the slope at 8,000m, but we can at least
cover it and give it some dignity so people don’t take
A mother’s end
One particular story of a body’s recovery illustrates
both the human cost, and the lengths that it can take to
show the dead the proper respect.
Francys Distefano-Arsentiev died on Everest in 1998,
and came to be known as “Sleeping Beauty”. Her son,
Paul Distefano recalls just how distressing it was
seeing photographs of his mother’s body online. “It’s
like being really embarrassed, like being called on by
your teacher but not knowing how to read. It’s
When he was 11, Paul’s mother, a world-class climber,
had set her sights on becoming the first American
woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen. “I don’t
know why she decided she had to do it without oxygen,
but I think she felt like she needed to prove something,”
Paul says. “I think she also felt invincible because she
was with Sergei, my stepdad. His nickname was ‘the
snow leopard’ because he was so agile.”
Francys reached her goal and made Everest
history. But on her descent from the peak,
something went wrong
The day before Francys left, she dropped by Paul’s
school in Telluride, Colorado, and told him, “I’m going
to leave this up to you.” In one of the most vivid
memories he has, he remembers telling her, “If I tell you
you can’t go, then at some point you’ll be an old lady in
a rocking chair saying, ‘Dang, I should have done that.’
I don’t want to be the one to take that from you.”
That night, however, Paul had a nightmare: two
mountaineers, a complete whiteout, snow surrounding
them like attacking bees. When he woke up, he phoned
his mother, telling her that he had changed his mind.
“You know Paul,” she replied, “we talked yesterday, and
you’re right: I have to do this.”
“I don’t think science can really explain why people
want to climb these mountains,” he says. “In the end,
the whole reason my mother climbed was because she
had to.”
On May 22, 1998, Francys reached her goal and made
Everest history. But on her descent from the peak,
something went wrong. She and Sergei were forced to
spend the night in the death zone and became
separated. The following morning, Sergei suffered a
fatal fall while attempting to rescue Francys, who had
collapsed at around 8,850m (29,000ft). Climbers Ian
Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd came across Francys at
05:00 and gave up their summit bid, staying with her for
over an hour in subzero temperatures before they were
forced to descend to ensure their own safety. Sometime
later that morning, Francys succumbed to frostbite and
When Paul’s dad sat him down on a sunny afternoon
and delivered the news, Paul felt like he had been hit
with a sledgehammer. Yet he was hardly surprised. “To
be honest, I already knew,” he says. “When someone
that close to you dies, it’s strange and unexplainable,
but you just know.”
Today, Paul harbors no resentment toward his mother.
“I love her and wish she could be a part of my life, but
she’s not,” he says. “Her death is certainly something
I’ll always be dealing with, although in some ways it’s
a blessing that my mom died doing what she loved.”
Years passed, and Francys remained on the mountain.
But Woodall, who had stayed with her in her dying
hours, had become haunted by his inability to save her
and deeply bothered by the fact that her body had
become a landmark.
In 2007, Woodall, with O’Dowd’s support, returned to
Everest specifically to remove Francys’ body from
sight. “It was an opportunity to say goodbye,” he says.
“But most importantly, to get her out of sight.”
After one false start, Woodall and Phuri Sherpa, who
usually works on Everest but who volunteered to help,
hiked up to the spot where he remembered leaving
Francys – a steep slope, set at about a 60-degree
angle and covered by broken shale. The original plan
was to create a rock cairn for her, but to Woodall’s
dismay, he found the area buried in four feet of snow.
“There was no sign of her at all, just a huge, unstable
snow slope,” he says.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, much
than going to the summit – Ian Woodall
The two began to dig. Thanks to a mix of luck and
memory, they found Francys on the second try. A rock
grave was no longer an option, but they had just enough
rope to lower her body over the mountain’s edge. After
wrapping her stiff remains in an American flag and
saying a few words, they sent her on her way – likely to
the same place where Sergei lies. All told, it took them
five hours. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,
much harder than going to the summit,” Woodall says.
“But I felt strongly enough about it to get off my
backside and do something about it.”
Paul, however, only learned of this development through
the media, and at first felt some resentment for not
being informed. “I was like, ‘Dude, that’s my mom!’”
Eventually, though, he realised that Woodall and
O’Dowd, having witnessed the final moments of his
mother’s life, had forged their own special connection
with Francys. “My mother and I are bonded by blood,
and Ian, Cathy and her are bonded by death,” he says. “I
feel that they had just as much a right to move her as
we did, and my family honours their effort.”
“I wish they had asked me, I do, but more so I wish to
make a connection with them and meet them,” he
continues. “Hopefully that time will come.”
After reading about Woodall’s efforts to remove
Francys’ body, Thinley contacted him about the
possibility of doing the same for his brother Paljor.
“What I find a bit odd is that Paljor was with a large
Border Police team in ’96 but then they just packed up
and went home and left him there,” Woodall says.
“What’s more is, subsequently, the Indian Border Police
has done other Everest expeditions and have gotten to
the summit, but still left him there.”
The ITBP, however, says that Paljor’s body is
hopelessly stuck, and that anyway, they can’t guarantee
that it actually belongs to Paljor – or even to an Indian
for that matter. “Some say it’s an ITBP body, some say
it’s Indian and some say it’s a foreigner’s body,” says
Deepak Pandey, an ITBP public relations officer in
Delhi. “Our team saw it but we were not able to confirm
if it’s our body or not.”
Accepting that he would get no help from the ITBP,
Thinley offered to pay for Woodall’s mission to move
Paljor, but had underestimated how much such a trip
costs – in the $70,000 range. Woodall, meanwhile, had
depleted his own funds in his effort to move Francys. “If
I had the opportunity to go back, Paljor would be my
number one priority,” he says. “But I really can’t afford
to do it again on my own.”
“I just pray that my mom will never know about the
Green Boots thing,” Thinley says. “She would be very,
very, very upset. I can’t even imagine.”
Thinley had all but given up hope on putting his
brother’s remains to rest. But last year, without
warning, Paljor vanished.
Adventurer Noel Hanna made this discovery in May
2014, when he was surprised to find not only that Green
Boots’ cave was devoid of its familiar resident, but also
that many of the bodies on the north side – one stretch
of which is sometimes referred to as “rainbow ridge,”
for the colourful down suits of its many fallen climbers
– seemed to have vanished. Hanna estimates that,
previously, up to 10 bodies were visible on the push to
the summit, but in 2014 he only counted two or three. “I
would be 95% certain that [Paljor] has been moved or
covered with stones,” Hanna says.
In keeping with Everest tradition, however, the
circumstances surrounding the removal of the remains
are not entirely clear. Hanna suspects that it could have
been the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association
and the Chinese Mountaineering Association , which
manage Everest’s north side. Five weeks prior to
undertaking his climb, he had suggested to officials at a
dinner that they move the bodies. “Apparently nobody
had pointed that out to the person in charge before,” he
I asked Li Guowei, the deputy director of the foreign
exchange department at the Chinese Mountaineering
Association for more details. He said that he was eager
to provide answers to questions about the efforts, but
that any media communications must be conducted
through official channels. After more than a month of
trying, however, he conceded that he did not think the
request would receive approval from officials in Tibet
any time in the near future.
“Their approach is very Chinese,” says Dawa Steven,
who regularly works with them. “They don’t tell us what
they’re doing and they don’t want the publicity.” The
Chinese also do not like private teams to conduct their
own clean-ups, he says. “From my perspective, it
seems like it’s a matter of national pride.”
Relatives, however, do not seem to have been informed,
as this news came as a surprise to Thinley. When I told
him what I had heard, he paused for moment. “That’s a
relief,” he finally said. “Thank you for telling me.”
Return to the mountain
Amid all the death, the pollution, the overcrowding and
the increasingly questionable merit of reaching the
summit, will people ever decide the mountain simply is
not worth it anymore?
Not likely, if the past is anything to go on.
Just as the 1996 tragedy did nothing to quell people’s
interest in Everest, the back-to-back horrors of the past
two years seem to have had little effect. After the 2014
avalanche, many Sherpas vowed not to return to
Everest until working conditions – including life
insurance policies – were improved. For most, either
out of economic necessity or choice, the sentiment to
stay away from the mountain seems to have been short
Ang Dorjee, for example, opted out of the 2015 season
after losing three lifelong friends in the avalanche, but
he now plans to return in 2016. “I was a bit scared, so I
skipped the season,” he says. “But time passes, and
I’ve been doing this all my life.”
“Nobody’s ok with what happened,” adds Dawa Steven.
“The last few years have been very traumatising for a
lot of the Sherpas.” But of the 63 Sherpas he has on
payroll, none have tendered their resignation. “No one
has said ‘I don’t want to climb anymore,’ although
some have gotten pressure from their wives and parents
to stop,” he says.
The last two years have brought such a huge
loss of life that it’s become hard for me to
continue to say my mountain is not about death
The same dynamic is playing out among Western
guiding companies and leaders. Hahn has always
defended Everest, but is now considering a break from
the mountain. “I used to see the media stories that
came out and they’d be only about death and
destruction, and I’d say, ‘Well, my mountain is not
about death,’” he says. “But the last two years have
brought such a huge loss of life that it’s become hard
for me to continue to make that argument.”
Yet Everest has a way of drawing people back in. Seven
years ago, Mountain Madness , a company based in
Seattle, suspended its guided climbs on Everest for an
indefinite period of time, citing overcrowding and a
surplus of inexperienced mountaineers. “We were trying
to decide if we wanted to take a stance and say, ‘Hey,
look, we just don’t support what’s happening on
Everest,’” says Mark Gunlogson, the company’s
president. Next year, however, Mountain Madness plans
to return. “It’s more due to client demand as opposed to
us trying to get back into the game,” Gunlogson says.
“Everest hasn’t lost its mystique for me, or for many
others who go back year after year,” Burke says. “Even
having been there six times, I love climbing that
mountain. I love going there. I’m almost addicted to it.”
For years to come – perhaps forever – Everest will no
doubt continue to do what it has for decades: capture
the imagination, provide the backdrop for dreams and
personal triumphs, and take a few lives in the process.
Green Boots may at last be at rest, but there is no
guarantee that his cave will remain empty for long.
Read part one of this story , exploring who Paljor was
and how he got there.