Humans are explorers by nature. Something in us seeks to push the limits of experience further and further. This urge has led our species of two-legged apes to spread across every corner of this world. Despite all of our successes, we would all do well to remember that nature is in charge, not us. History is littered with accounts of human ambition being waylaid by nature. One such occurrence occurred in Africa, when two lions halted a construction project commissioned by the mighty British Empire in its tracks. And then there was the time when the American industrialist Henry Ford tried to tame the Amazon rainforest, with dismal results.
Still, even when our attempts to assert ourselves over the natural world fail, we dust ourselves off and try again. Few things in the world call to our natural exploratory instincts like mountains. And no mountain has called more than the tallest one: Mount Everest. Soaring more than five miles into the air, the worlds tallest mountain has tempted many to attempt to conquer it. Many have died in the attempt, leaving their corpses behind as grisly reminders of what can happen to a human being at the top of the world. (Buzzfeed posted images of some of the mummified remains on the mountain. I’ll provide the link here. Images may be disturbing to some readers.)
Grave sites and landmarks
These remains, in many cases, lay in plain sight and are routinely passed by climbers on their way to the summit. Some bodies, like the body of a climber who died in 1996 who has been nicknamed “Green Boots” for his fluorescent green boots, have become veritable landmarks on the trail to the top. One area on the northeast approach to the summit has become dubbed “Rainbow Valley” as it is strewn with bodies wearing brightly colored parkas and jackets. In one area, a climber named George Mallory who fell to his death in 1924 still rests at the site of his demise to this day.
While it may seem shocking that the tallest mountain on Earth is essentially an open graveyard, a brief look at the harsh conditions at the roof of the world reveals why the region near the top of the mountain is called “the Dead Zone”. The topmost reaches of the mountain literally lay in the stratosphere, where oxygen levels are much lower than they are at sea level. This coupled with temperatures so cold that exposed skin can instantly be subject to frostbite leads to circumstances which no human can survive for more than a few days, even with the aid of oxygen reserves.
Oxygen plays a very important role in metabolism in the human body. In the mitochondria, which are basically the power plants of cells, oxygen helps in the production of ATP, which is the cells energy currency and necessary to do work within the cell. Lower oxygen means less mitochondrial function, which translates into exhaustion. Under low oxygen conditions, even simple tasks become difficult to do. This exhaustion is compounded by the cold and the wind at the top of the mountain. Due to this combination of factors, most of the climbers who die on Everest do so descending from the summit. They’re often too exhausted to make the trek back to safety.
These conditions also make natural mummification possible. It is very cold and dry at the summit; most of the bodies seem to be very well preserved, a fact that is no doubt unsettling to those making an ascent to the top.
Recovery is almost impossible
You may be wondering why the bodies of the fallen are simply left where they fell. In some cases, bodies have been recovered. But more often than not, they are left because it is much too dangerous to attempt to recover them. I read about one instance where an attempt to retrieve a body resulted in two men falling to their deaths. As for the body, high winds eventually swept it over a ledge, never to be seen again.
Sadly, it seems the deaths won’t stop anytime soon. Since the eighties, commercialized climbing has come into vogue and now thousands of people paying good money every year for a chance to summit the world’s tallest mountain.
The local people and the government of Nepal both gain great economic benefits from the commercialized climbing. The local people have seen huge improvements in their standard of living since Edmund Hillary made his historic ascent over fifty years ago, all thanks to tourist dollars pouring in from wealthy Westerners who wished to test their mettle against some of the most extreme conditions on the planet.
Commercialization has made the difficult ascent a bit safer, but the roof of the world is still dangerous and it would be foolhardy to become too complacent. Maybe the bodies of the fallen will serve as a warning for those who walk the same path, silent voices screaming to the living to tread lightly, because death lurks in the pristine beauty at the top of the world.
Johnson, Tim. “Everest’s Trail of Corpses.” The Victoria Advocate. May 20, 2007 pB8 http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Q6Y_AAAAIBAJ&sjid=c1YMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1200,2723423&dq=green-boots+everest&hl=en
Levett, Connie. “The Deadly Business of Climbing Everest.” TheAge.com.au. June 3, 2008. The Age. May 24, 2014. http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/the-deadly-business-of-climbing-everest/2006/06/02/1148956544080.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap2
Quinlan, Mark. “Reclaiming the Dead on Mt. Everest.” CBC.ca. May 25, 2012. CNC News. May 24, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/reclaiming-the-dead-on-mt-everest-1.1206082