Today I Learned: Dead Bodies of Previous Climbers Serve as Guideposts on Mount Everest

If there’s one thing that I love more than running, it’s a classic Google deep dive.  The weirder my find, the better.  Today, I found out the unfortunate fate of mountain climbers that perish on Mount Everest.

I consider mountain climbers a distant cousin of the marathon runner.  Both set their sights on lofty goals, both are considered insane by the general public.  That’s why I find this story so interesting.

Firstly, we have to have a little geography lesson about Mount Everest.  At the summit, the mountain is 29,029 feet.  Although it’s not the tallest mountain in the world, it’s the highest in terms of altitude.  Once a person hits above 12,000 feet, severe forms of altitude sickness occur.

To gain some perspective on the experience, let’s quote Mount Everest expert Sean Swarner:

When you’re up above, in the death realm, above 26,000 feet, your brain’s not even functioning very well. Your body is deteriorating and you just can’t even think at that level. What would be simple down here in New York, like tying my shoes, up there would take a half an hour just because your brain can’t even process things that well. You really have to push yourself and be very cognizant of how your body feels and what’s going on, because being hypoxic, often times you don’t even know you’re hypoxic, and that’s one of those things… Bad things happen.

The most infamous portion of the mountain is the “death zone”.  It’s located at about 26,000 feet.  At this height, our lungs breathe about 30% of the air that they would at sea level.  It causes confusion, hallucinations, and extreme weakness.  Of the 200 bodies stuck on Mount Everest, most of the fatalities occur here.

So, why do the bodies stay there?

Just imagine the effort required to help another human being, alive or dead, at this height.  Staying too long in the Death Zone is essentially a suicide mission.  Thus, the bodies are left, mummified and frozen in time to contemplate their failures as other climbers press on.

The fascinating part of my deep dive was, of course, seeing the perfectly preserved climbers (in gear that looks straight out of Saved By the Bell) and hearing their stories.  There were a few that really stuck out to me.

Green Boots

His body has since been removed.  But for a long time, Green Boots marked a cave near the summit where many climbers took shelter.  Nobody knows exactly who he is, but most believe he is Tsewang Paljor, a climber that died in 1996.  It’s safe to say that we can figure out how he got his nickname.  Ten years later, he received a new neighbor.  His name was…

David Sharp

To me, this is the most disturbing story of the bunch.  Sharp was attempting to scale the peak alone, which seems idiotic even to me.  While Green Boots went largely unnoticed when he died, over 40 climbers witnessed Sharp frozen solid in the cave.  He was still alive, but his limbs had frozen stiff.  The extreme conditions forced the climbers to leave him for dead (or assume he was already dead).  This is a common occurrence on the peak.  It sparked a moral debate about leaving climbers, however, the physical efforts required to move a distressed person won the day.

George Mallory

Famous mountaineer George Mallory was found in 1999, but he died way back in 1924.  He was essentially a real-life Indiana Jones.  The 75-year difference in his discovery revealed a perfectly mummified body complete with “primitive” artifacts from back in the early days of climbing.  Mallory was wearing long underwear, a sweatshirt with his name embroidered, and a rope tied around his waist.  Many speculate he died from falling off of a cliff, most likely while tied to another climber.

Hannelore Schmatz

Schmatz was both the first woman and first German to die on Mount Everest.  Not exactly something you’d want to win.  She reached the summit but died of exhaustion on her descent.  Against her guide’s warning, she had set up camp in the Death Zone.  Although she survived a snowstorm that night, she ultimately collapsed from the lack of oxygen.  She was only 330 feet from camp.  Her body’s strange position is due to a backpack that has long since blown away.


There’s plenty more where that came from.  If you ever have time, I definitely recommend taking a look.  I’m a marathon runner, and even I can’t contemplate someone trying to do this “for fun”.




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