I’m back! Did you miss me?
Yeah, okay. I had an extremely hectic March, so Erik was kind enough to give me a small vacation from the Show. I’m sure you all found *something* to do with your Saturdays in the meantime. Or Mondays. Or whatever days you might randomly find my articles by way of our almighty Google overlords.
In the case of this article, let’s see how many of you I can snag because you’re innocently searching for pictures of Mount Everest.
Horror takes many forms, but perhaps one of its most effective forms is when you suddenly see what you thought was familiar in a new light. A dark light. Like there’s a hotel room you’ve been staying at for weeks, and without warning there’s a man with an ultraviolet wand stepping forth and showing you all the hidden blood and piss and semen stains spattering the walls and furniture, including the bed you’ve been sleeping in. Bonus points if he looks like Stephen King. Or Justin.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not fond of the Great Outdoors. Get me over a fifteen minute drive from the nearest convenience store and I start to get antsy. Suggest hiking a canyon for fun or camping in the wilderness and I’ll wish you bon voyage as I load up my latest acquisition from GameFly. I have a lovely combination of structurally weak feet and allergies to just about every form of pollinating plant life, plus I’m just addicted to the amenities of civilization. I just finished a trip to downtown Seattle where I was nervous because I wasn’t sure where to find pre-packaged food at decent prices.
Naturally, all this leaves mountain climbing waaaay off my list of voluntary leisure activities. I do not take their jutting peaks as an affront to my manhood that must needs be conquered before I die. Mountains really don’t give a fuck about you. I consider them akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, completely indifferent to your presence. But until a few weeks ago I never quite considered just how apt a comparison that could be, in terms of the sheer threat to life and sanity they can represent — especially that massive motherfucker lurking in the Himalayas.
We all learned about Mount Everest at an early age, because it’s a Number One. At approximately 29,029 feet (or 8,848 meters, should we have a reader from a non-metrically crippled country) above sea level at its summit, it represents the highest point on Earth. It is, thus, the biggest dick on the planet for anyone with something to prove by straddling it. Not that our teachers put it that way. They rattled off the facts and moved on, leaving us quite short on the details — oh gruesome, gruesome details.
For instance, there’s that bit about the oxygen bottles most climbers have to take with them for their final ascent. I never properly carried through in my head that this is because for the last 3000 feet or so the air on the slopes of Everest is too thin to adequately support human life, even if you’re not exerting yourself. It just can’t. Above 26,000 feet is the Death Zone, a place where human adaptation ceases to function, and human beings cease to function shortly thereafter. I’m not talking average schmoes, either, I’m talking people like professional athletes in their primes or even the native Sherpas that have lived on the slopes of Himalayas for the generations.
Any pictures I ever remember seeing of the summit of Everest were those of smiling people, tired but victorious as they stood upon “the roof of the world”. Standing in unblemished air and sunshine, admiring a wonderful view… considerations of agoraphobia and acrophobia aside, this was hardly the fuel of nightmares. It certainly seemed a lot less foreboding than the idea of the Challenger Deep. You don’t see smiling people in the Deep. They’re cramped into tiny, specially made submersibles, and since its discovery only two manned expeditions have reached the bottom, the latest a solo dive bearing James Cameron, who is rumored to have used his Avatar profits as ballast.
Challenger Deep is pure darkness and crushing pressure and claustrophobia. In our imaginations it’s like a descent into hell, a watery tomb, and this is certainly reflected by its bodycount of… oh… no one’s died?
Yes, for all its ominous nature, the Challenger Deep has claimed not one recorded life.
Maybe if it had the sort of tourist traffic Everest does, that would change. Again, I think it’s just naturally a scarier idea to most people, not to mention we’re conditioned from birth that Up = Good. Heaven is up. Stocks are up. Upward mobility. Top of the heap = success. You might have to bring oxygen bottles with you for part of the trip, but look at all the people and guides and climbing assists that are present on Everest in modern times! And you can still take your mask off to smile and talk and make your home movies at the top. It’s like a theme park. Everestland!
Yes, nowadays Mount Everest has become a big tourist attraction to the point people have grown concerned over all the litter strewing its slopes. I mean all those tents, spent oxygen bottles, dead bodies…
Now there’s a picture we didn’t see in grade school. Everest, it turns out, has claimed over 200 lives since people first started keeping track in the 1920s. And while you might think that most of those deaths occurred in the earlier years before all the guides and ropes and ladders and permits and tiered camps, the deadliest year on record is 1996. That was the year Indo-Tibetan border constable Tsewang Paljor, now colloquially known as “Green Boots”, was one of eight men to die on a single stormy night.
Constable Paljor’s body has been lying just as you see in the picture above for 15 years. You see those guide ropes in the foreground? That’s how close one of the main climbing routes passes the corpse. The tiny cave that was his last refuge is a convenient discard point, filled with empty oxygen bottles. For all the people ascending and descending in over a decade since his demise, this is no longer a man, but a landmark.
And that’s fucking creepy to me to think about. There are over 200 dead human beings up on that mountain that lie wherever they fell, in a place where the exertion of trying to recover or even get to them is all but impossible. Entire expeditions have formed just for the purpose of retrieving a single body from the Death Zone, and they have failed. Also consider that many of these corpses are so high up they will never properly decay, as you can witness by this 1999 picture of the former George Mallory , an early challenger of Everest who fell to his death in 1924.
Yes, that’s his skin, still unblemished decades after his heart stopped beating. He’s as perfectly preserved as one of those mammoths they occasionally pull out of the Siberian ice.
Where possible, the Sherpas do try to recover bodies, or build cairns around them, or even just roll them away from the main routes to hopefully be covered by snow. Snow which, of course, can shift, and so every so often brings gruesome resurfacings. But up in the Death Zone of Everest, one missed step or even just sitting in one place for too long can be the last thing you do. It’s a place where no one else has the energy to help you if you’re unable to move under your own power, which has led to several tragic controversies where dying people were passed by or left behind despite their croaked pleas for aid. http://sometimes-interesting.com/2011/06/29/over-200-dead-bodies-on-mount-everest/
Climbing Everest is no day trip. Prospective mountaineers have to obtain permits costing thousands of dollars, and spend several weeks acclimating themselves to higher altitude before any attempt at a summit is made. The Death Zone will kill anyone given enough time, but a person adjusted to sea level would lose consciousness within a few minutes as the blood vessels in their lungs and brain started bursting open. “Summit Fever” is also a very real danger as people finally get in sight of the top after all the time and money and need to prove themselves, not realizing that the pace they’re making means they won’t have enough oxygen to get back to safety. The leaders of expeditions remain at lower base camps and communicate by radio because one of the first casualties of exhaustion and lack of oxygen is the ability to make wise decisions. They often have to argue with their clients to please, for the love of mercy, turn around before it’s too late.
Ever been frustrated waiting in a line? Try this one. You’ve reached the summit, you start your descent, and now find yourself stuck behind 20 other climbers who one by one have to slowly traverse a bottleneck. Depending on the experience of those involved, you might be waiting there for hours… except at the local DMV you’re not thousands of feet up in the Death Zone feeling your extremities go numb and watching your limited oxygen supply slowly run out.
The Death Zone of Everest can at the same time be one of the most crowded and the most isolated places on Earth. And that’s a problem, because the crowding is regarded as one of the major reasons so many people like Green Boots lost their lives in 1996: too many people up top with too few safe ways to climb and descend.
The statistic is that 80% of Everest’s fatalities happen on the way down, as exhausted and oxygen-starved climbers have reached their “goal” and so feel like it’s time to be able to rest, rather than go straight to hours more of grueling descent. But if they don’t, they die. There’s no napping on top of Everest, unless you never want to wake up again. I watched a documentary where the Sherpa guide literally pointed to one of the visible corpses up the ridge as a last-ditch effort to get his client moving again: “You see him? He sat down. You get up!”
Even if they make it back, climbers often end up sacrificing their fingers and toes (or worse) to frostbite. This is the nightmarish stuff of Jack London stories, not tourist spots. Yet there people willingly go, year after year, adding more bodies to the slopes of the mountain. It may have been named after a Surveyor-General of India, but his name was morbidly fitting for a place you may just end up resting on forever. Perhaps known only by your colorful footwear.
Despite all the sunshine and blue skies, the Sherpas and ladders, Everest to this day is still claiming the lives of professional climbers, much less the ones who have never mountaineered before and are there just because it’s on their bucket list. Hopefully the last item on it.