The rules of life change when you’re climbing Mt. Everest, especially the higher up you go. Mountaineers who’ve been there can attest to this. While facing unrelenting physical and mental stresses, rescuing a friend can mean two deaths instead of one; recovering bodies out of respect is out of the question; ethics change; fallen climbers from past expeditions become like milestones.
“It is difficult to know for sure what really happens during a climbing disaster among teams of ambitious people at 8,000m in howling winds and in a state of hypoxia, dehydration and exhaustion,” Michael Elmes, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, told BBC.
The disaster in question was that of a 1996 expedition of Indian climbers in which only one survived. The most famous body ever to grace the peak was one of these climbers, whose body remains on the mountain to this day. Known for his bright-green footwear, mountaineers call him “Green Boots.”
Crumpled near a rocky alcove (Green Boots’s Cave), jacket pulled up over his face as if still shielding from the wind, Green Boots serves as a popular marker for climbers ascending into the “Death Zone,” on their way to the summit. There are around 200 such body “guideposts” on Everest, becoming indicators of altitude more than anything else. As time passes, they literally freeze to the mountain and become hard to remove.
At heights where even taking a few steps takes great strength, using a pickaxe to free a body seems crazy, let alone hauling one back down.
It is believed that his real name is Tsewang Paljor. At one time, Paljor was an Indo-Tibetan border policeman from a small village called Sakti. He had summitted several other mountains in his career. He hoped to bring benefits to his family by summitting Everest as well, his mother told BBC after his death.
— BBC News India (@BBCIndia) October 14, 2015
Accounts tell of how Paljor and two of his comrades, Tsewang Smanla and Dorje Morup, had either ignored or failed to see the signal from deputy team leader Harbhajan Singh to turn back when they were nearing the summit. Singh had sensed impending danger. Yet his colleagues pressed on.
One of the fatal mistakes that sometimes occurs in the Death Zone (near the summit, above 8,000 meters) is a euphoric “summit fever” that possesses some climbers. They are overcome by a desire to reach the top and disregard vital concerns for safety. This, according to Singh, seems to be what happened to his fellow climbers on that fateful day. Singh had turned back to camp, while they had plowed on. He received a radio call from them announcing that they had reached the summit, and there was momentary celebration. But the victory was short-lived. A blizzard hit during their descent, and they never returned.
For some 20 years, Green Boots remained where he had fallen. Ambitious climbers came to recognize his frozen form, his boots in particular, as a landmark, having to literally step over his legs along their push to the summit.
In 2014, Green Boots’s body was respectfully shoveled up and deposited on the lee-side of the mountain, perhaps out of respect. While retrieving a body is possible for the mountain Sherpas, it is both costly and dangerous. Over the years, the problem of visitors to Everest morbidly encountering bodies has led to some efforts to deal with the issue. Fallen mountaineers have traditionally been “committed” to the mountain, meaning their bodies were ceremoniously dropped into crevasses, pushed down steep slopes, or perhaps placed under a rock.
Meanwhile, the thousands of visitors scaling the tallest mountain in the world has taken its toll over the decades. Aside from bodies, litter and human waste along guided tours have made the journey less of an adventure in the true sense of the word. The trek has become more of an ego booster for those seeking bragging rights, some mountaineers say. Perhaps the annual cleanup efforts (since 2008), led by mountain Sherpa guides, removing 15,000 kilograms (approx. 33,069 pounds) of trash and over 800 kilograms (approx. 1,764 pounds) of human waste, are a more impressive achievement worth bragging about.