SAN JOSE, Calif. – Searchers found the body Thursday morning of Kathleen Namphy, a breast cancer survivor and honored Stanford University lecturer last seen Sunday near the summit of Iran’s tallest mountain.
But the location of Namphy’s body, a few thousand feet down the mountain from where she was last seen alive, has only deepened the mystery of her death.
The only people who could explain how she got there – a group of Iranian hikers who promised to stay with the 69-year-old after she fell and hit her head – are nowhere to be found.
Namphy and two other Americans had set out Sunday for the 18,600-foot peak of Mount Damavand. Accompanied by two guides and an interpreter, they hiked a trail up the mountain’s northeast face, and it was there that the fall occurred.
But Cyrus Etemadi, the Iranian travel agency director who arranged the hike, said Namphy’s body was found on the north face, considered the most challenging route up the mountain. Rescuers found the body, badly frostbitten, not too far off the trail, he said.
Namphy, who traveled widely, lived for a time in Iran as a young woman and climbed Damavand then. She arranged this trip to Iran in a break between trips to Iraq, where for the last few years she has volunteered as a human rights observer for a Chicago-based nonprofit.
Namphy and the others in her group left for the final section of the Damavand climb at 5 a.m. local time Sunday. “Kathleen was loving every minute of it,” said Aryn Baker, one of the Americans with Namphy. “She was so happy to be back.”
But she soon fell behind the other two, who were far more experienced climbers and younger by decades.
Namphy and her interpreter reached the summit around 5 p.m., long after the other Americans had turned back due to threatening weather. The interpreter, Mehrdad Etemadi, said Namphy was delighted to have reached the top and collected rocks for friends.
“She was very happy,” said Etemadi. “We hugged each other.”
About 300 feet back down the trail, she fell. Etemadi, who has a decade of experience on Damavand, didn’t see exactly what happened because Namphy was behind him. But they were walking through a jumbled field of rocks, and she crashed into him as she fell. Her head was bleeding, Etemadi said, and for a minute or two she couldn’t talk.
Etemadi covered her with his coat and cried out to another group at the summit. Two of them agreed to stay with Namphy while Etemadi went for help.
But when rescuers returned several hours later, Namphy was not where Etemadi had left her. The rescuers thought the two climbers might have taken Namphy to another shelter, on the north face trail, so with the night growing dark they returned to their shelter and made the climb at first light.
But Namphy was not at that shelter, either. Cyrus Etemadi said his guides were told two different stories by climbers at the north face shelter: that Namphy had gotten up by herself but fell again and died, or that the climbers with her had simply decided it was too dangerous to stay with her amid the worsening weather.
It’s not even clear whether the climbers who told the guides the conflicting stories were the same people who were to stay with Namphy, or just climbers in the same group.
Namphy’s four children are looking for more answers.
“We’re hoping to know exactly where the body was found in relation to where Mehrdad Etemadi left her,” said her oldest son Michael. “And we would like to talk to those climbers.”
But Namphy’s children also are philosophical about the death of a woman who had traversed the world, braved the unknown in search of knowledge and worked to end injustice. “This was a life to celebrate,” Michael Namphy said. “The bottom line is that she lived well and seems to have died well. We’ve been talking about it, and at some point, we’ll try to go up that mountain.”