This past weekend I rented Everest, a movie based on the 1996 true story about eight people who died while on their quest to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. An unexpected storm made conditions for the climbers of this already dangerous journey, completely unbearable.
Professionally experienced Lead Guides for two of the expeditions, Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, were among the eight who lost their lives to exposure. Their bodies, along with the bodies of over 150 other people who have attempted to climb Mt. Everest, but succumbed to the elements, still lie, scattered, among the famous mountain.
It is not uncommon for climbers to pass corpses as they embark on the same journey that killed their fellow climbers. According to HistoryVsHollywood.com, an unidentified corpse known as Green Boots, because his green boots and brightly colored climbing jacket are still tugged tightly onto his body as he lay frozen in the same spot he died, is commonly seen by other climbers.
Recovering dead bodies off the mountain is so dangerous for the conditions that it is considered to be a suicide mission. According to Macleans.ca, a woman named Hannelore Schmatz died of exhaustion in 1979 near one of the camps, and for many years climbers could see Schmatz’s body from their route “sitting upright against her backpack, her eyes open and her brown hair blowing in the wind.”
In 1984, two people tried to retrieve Schmatz’s body, but fell off the mountain. Schmatz’s body remained where she died, frozen in time (like the others), until the late nineties when strong winter winds finally swept her remains over the edge. (Macleans.ca)
There is an area of the mountain, just below the summit, known as Rainbow Valley “due to the number of corpses still there clad in their colorful climbing jackets.” (Gizmodo.com) The highest point of Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet. The section between camp IV (26,000 ft) and the summit is considered the Death Zone because it is the place where most climbers lose their life.
At 26,000 feet the human body can no longer function on its own and it slowly begins to break down. The air is near oxygen-free. A person will not survive more than two days without extra oxygen. “Mental and physical states are affected, leading climbers to experience hallucination, deteriorations of bodily functions, loss of consciousness, the feeling of slowly being choked, and finally, death.” (Gizmodo.com)
There are a few weeks in May that are considered to be the best time to climb Everest because conditions are the most tolerable. Instead of having to endure normal temps of -31 degrees Fahrenheit, the temps can reach -4 degrees Fahrenheit during this temporary time. The winds near the top of Mt. Everest can be stronger than a Category 5 hurricane. A record wind speed of 175mph was recorded in 2004 at the summit. “Mt. Everest is so high that the summit actually protrudes into the stratosphere, where jet streams create 100+ winds during most months and temperatures can plummet as low as -76 degrees Fahrenheit. The winds alone can easily send climbers hurtling off the mountain to their deaths.” (PopularMechanics.com)
Only a climber can tell you why he or she acknowledges the risks in climbing the highest mountain in the world, and accepts those risks as they slip on their boots and bundle into their climbing jackets. One could guess maybe these people have nothing to lose, nothing to live for. But Rob Hall had everything to lose, and everything to live for. His wife was pregnant when he led his expedition up to the top of the mountain.
The movie captures a tender and tragic moment when Hall speaks to his wife (via satellite phone connection patched through to his radio) as he is trapped near the top of the summit, after having just spent the night in the blizzard on an overhang. He was so high up, the air was near oxygen-free, and all oxygen tanks were empty. Rob Hall was aware of his doomed fate when he spoke to his pregnant wife for the last time. “…After naming their unborn baby ‘Sarah,’ he told his wife Jan, ‘I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.’ That was the last time anyone heard from Hall.” (TIME.com)
There is a chance that if not for the unexpected brutal storm in the 1996 expeditions, no one would have lost their lives. There’s risk in climbing any mountain, even the smallest one, because there are elements that can not be controlled, such as weather, a sudden avalanche, body response.
When I first read about the corpses lying all across the mountain, I asked myself how a person can continue to ascend a mountain scattered with dead bodies along their route. Dead bodies clothed in similar dress as their own gear, and lying in the same position they died as if no time had passed, without turning back, scared to death they would meet the same fate.
And then I imagined driving down a road I’ve driven a thousand times before, but now littered with the corpses of every person who perished in accidents along that highway, and suddenly that innocuous and familiar road becomes an ominous warning of what could happen to me.
Do I turn back? Try to find another route, clear of corpses, where nothing bad has ever happened?
Does such a path even exist?
In life, do we keep going despite the horrific events and tragedies that already have happened along the same path we’re headed?
Or do we use them as warning signs and find another way?
What would you do?
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