EVEREST BASE CAMP, Tibet – To reach the summit of Mount Everest, climbers must ascend through a field of corpses – the bodies of climbers who didn’t get off the mountain safely.
Frozen solid, the dead climbers are too heavy to remove easily from the treacherous high slopes. Some perch eerily on rocks; others lie stiff in caves.
“There are a lot of bodies on the mountain,” said Duncan Chessell, an Australian veteran of several attempts on Everest’s summit.
In the “death zone,” above 26,000 feet or so on the 29,035-foot mountain, where exhausted climbers are gasping for air, often climbing in the dark before dawn, it can be difficult to determine whether a figure a few yards from the route is a distressed climber – or one long-frozen stiff.
“You’re not sure if that person sitting on a rock is dying, in need of assistance or has been dead for five years,” Chessell said. “It’s in the dark. You’re cold. You’re tired.”
Daniel Mazur, a U.S. veteran of five expeditions to Everest, said the bodies of a few dead climbers partially block the razor-edge climbing route near the summit.
“It’s one of the most horrible, humbling experiences I’ve ever had, walking over those dead bodies. A lot of times you have to step over their limbs,” Mazur said in a telephone interview from Lakebay, Wash., last month before he departed to guide a new attempt on Everest.
“May God rest their souls. I’ve heard of people taking pictures with them and posing with them,” Mazur said, adding that some climbers have partially stripped the dead of their clothing.
Retrieving dead climbers is no easy feat, and most are left in place.
“It’s such an extreme environment – moving heavy things is very difficult,” said Mark Woodward, a climbing guide from New Zealand.
Woodward recalled how a South Korean national hero succumbed on Everest during a 2004 summit attempt. His expedition later deployed a team of Sherpas, ethnic Nepalese from high-altitude regions, to retrieve his frozen body.
“They spent about five hours trying,” then gave up, Woodward said. “It’s such a heavy, awkward item to move. In places you are walking on a little ledge.”
“The idea of carrying someone at that altitude is laughable,” said David Tait, a British climber who’s attempting this year to traverse Everest from Tibet to Nepal, then back again. “It’s incredibly difficult to describe until you’ve actually experienced it.”
At least 200 climbers have died on Everest since the mountain was first successfully scaled in 1953. Some drop off ledges, their bodies lost forever.
Mazur figures that even if oxygen masks limit their vision, most climbers will spot at least 10 corpses en route to the summit.
Among those still resting on Everest is George Mallory, the 38-year-old Briton who once quipped about his motive for climbing Mount Everest: “Because it is there.”
Mallory took part in the first expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1920s. His body was discovered in 1999.