Everest: ‘The open graveyard waiting above’

Too many adventurers want to scale the world’s highest peak—even if it means their deaths


Binod Joshi/AP Photo

Mount Everest is the world’s highest garbage dump—and graveyard.

It is littered with abandoned tents and tin cans discarded half a century ago and empty oxygen tanks and 150-200 dead bodies.

And every time a climber reaches the summit of Everest and descends to tell the tale, he or she has climbed past those abandoned tents and discarded tin cans and empty oxygen tanks and scores of dead bodies — twice. Once on the way up and once on the way down.

When Toronto climber Shriya Shah-Klorfine died of exhaustion and lack of oxygen last Saturday somewhere above 8,300 metres — in what they call “the death zone” — she was not unique among climbers who have succumbed on the mountain.

She was possibly Everest Death No. 231 or 232 or 233 or 234 or 235 or 236 — or maybe even 237 or 238 or 239 or 240. Nobody knows for sure. Two other climbers are known to have perished on Everest the day Shriya Shah-Klorfine died and three more the following day. More were helped to safety by Sherpa guides and other climbers or the death toll would have been even higher.

As a general rule of thumb, one climber dies on Everest for every 10 who reach the summit.

About 50 of those dead bodies have been recovered and brought down from the mountain — always at extreme cost, sometimes at the expense of others’ lives. The rest are still on the mountain. Some are lost forever in crevasses or blown over sheer drops into space, others are frozen in time, within sight of the desperate living climbers moving past them.

There is an area just below the summit known as Rainbow Valley — because of the number of corpses there still clad in their bright down climbing jackets.

Veteran summiteer David Brashears, who led the IMAX filming expedition to the top of Everest in 1996, has called it “the open graveyard waiting above.”

For all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the skeletal remains of climber Hannelore Schmatz sat within sight of any climber on the southern route, leaning against her backpack with her eyes wide open and hair blowing in the gale-force winds.

Nepalese police inspector Yogendra Bahadur Thapa and Sherpa guide Ang Dorje fell to their deaths in 1984 while trying to recover her body. Eventually, in the late 1990s, high winter winds finally blew her remains over the Kangshung Face.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine will almost certainly not be another Hannelore Schmatz. Reports from Everest say attempts are being made to recover her body from the death zone to be returned to her family in Canada.

Despite the deaths and the ghastly trail of unrecovered bodies, the number of people who want to climb Mount Everest  increases every year.

With a climbing season of about two months, the highest mountain in the world is just not high enough to accommodate everyone who wants to climb it — even at an estimated average cost of $75,000 per climber. Throw in a few weeks of bad weather — as happened this year in early May — and the dozens of expeditions waiting their turn become a traffic jam on the roof of the world.

If climbers are forced into a holding pattern too long anywhere in the death zone, oxygen supplies are soon exhausted and the choice becomes one of admitting defeat or facing a high possibility of death.

Few climbers in pursuit of their ultimate goal believe they will be the ones to die on Everest until it is too late to save themselves. And so the death toll keeps rising.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine died in such a traffic jam. In part, because of the traffic jam. She was one of an estimated 200 climbers attempting to reach the roof of the world on that blustery, dangerous Saturday.

She made it to the top but did not have enough oxygen or strength to make it back down through the death zone.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine was a victim of her ambition to do something exceptional. No more or less than George Mallory or Andrew Irvine or any of the other 200-plus climbers who have died on Mount Everest and whose bodies are mostly still there as ghastly signposts to the highest point on earth.

The majority of those deaths have occurred on the southern, Nepalese side of the mountain because the Chinese government is far more restrictive about allowing climbers to attempt the summit from the northern, Tibetan side of Everest.

In 2011, the government of Nepal issued 23 permits for foreign teams to climb Mount Everest. Those 23 teams were composed of 234 foreign climbers and 259 high-altitude Sherpa guides. Making the summit were 219 Sherpas and 156 foreign climbers.

In addition, three Nepalese expeditions — which do not require the same permits foreign teams do — made up of 17 climbers and 21 Sherpa guides made the ascent.

Three foreign climbers and one Sherpa guide were known to have died during that 2011 Everest climbing season, a remarkably low death toll. This year seven foreign climbers and three Sherpas have died already — more than double the 2011 toll with more deaths likely still to come.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, called for restrictions on the number of Everest expeditions before his death in 2008.

“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” Hillary said. “The people just want to get to the top. They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress.”

But any severe restrictions are highly unlikely.

Everest expeditions have become far too important to Nepal’s economy and adventurers from around the world are adamant that they be allowed the same opportunity as Hillary to reach the world’s highest peak — even if it means their deaths or the deaths of others.

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Everest: ‘The open graveyard waiting above’

  1. No, the majority of the deaths are on the south side is because the north side is more technically demanding, and beyond the majority of Everest tourists who make the climb with outfitters following the ropes on the south side. Despite your good intentions, I don’t think that we can place Ms Shah in the same breath as the pioneer-mountaineers Mallory & Irvine. Unfortunately, Ms. Shah is not known to have climbed even one other peak in her lifetime, or indeed possess any mountain or high altitude climbing experience at all. The worst possible lack of preparation for Everest that one can imagine: Basically, zero. When one thinks of it, it’s criminal. And if her outfitters knew of her lack of experience, then they really are to blame.

    • sure, but how is the hours of delay caused by a bottleneck her own fault? are people warned about that so that they can prepare for it? i get it if she was trapped in the bottleneck on the way UP—then it would be her choice whether to turn back or take the risk that the extra hours in the DZ would kill her, which they did. but what if you hit the summit, don’t linger a dangerously long time, and are ready to get out of there for a prudent descent, only to be trapped in a tourist bottleneck? it’s an outrage. disgusting beyond belief.

      • It’s an outrage and naive that you think it’s an outrage. Ms. Shah and all the climbers know how many climbers and parties are ahead and coming up behind and therefore understand risk, timing, delays and what the possible outcomes are. If having not climbed another peak before Everest is true as the commenter above states however then that is an outrage as it put herself and others at risk. That in itself may have contributed to the decision -possibly ill informed then- to summit. Regardless, it’s a sad result.

        • It’s outrageous that you think it’s an outrage that elizabethbennett thinks its an outrage, not that I remember what the fuss was about. Oh yeah, who cares. If people want to risk their lives, that is their right to do so. Likely they’ve spent a minute or two checking the facts, and they are adults.

  2. It is great that Shriya Shah had such a passion. However, it would have been to her credit to have had some experience under her belt before attempting to summit the highest mountain on earth. Altitude sickness begins anywhere above 8000 feet! I have experienced mild forms of A.S. in Montana and Wyoming. Casting caution to the proverbial wind is obviously not wise when attempting such an expedition. Everest has become something more than what it truly is: a formidable mountain with an environment that is deadly to nearly all humans on earth. To make it something more or less than what it is becomes irresponsible. If your passion is greater than your will to live, that is fine. However, if that puts others at risk it is gross negligence.

    • That’s right, she *had* passion. Now it’s all wasted when she had a very promising life ahead of her. If she was passionate about a dream that was more meaningful and productive she could’ve affected people’s lives for the better. But she gambled it all on vanity and paid the ultimate price. No doubt in her last moments on earth she became disillusioned. Given all the people who die on the mountain every year, it would be better if more became disillusioned before not after. Talk about pie in the sky!

  3. Climbing a 9km-high mountain has to be the most vain and foolish of ambitions. The mystique is nothing more than a superstition. Certainly nothing worth gambling one’s life on. Maybe people contemplating this boneheaded endeavor should first think of what it’d be like to be a trophy on the mountain’s mantelpiece…

    • I totally agree. Nothing — NOTHING — is worth risking the one life you are given in such a foolish gamble. Soldiers MUST do things that might kill them — policemen, firemen etc. but NO ONE has to climb a mountain for anything except vanity and personal glory. What never seems to occur to these chumps is how many they leave behind. In climbing for some charity and then failing, they fail the charity and ruin any chances of working with it for the rest of their now-wasted lives.

      Good job, Shriya, excellent job. You failed. The world should rejoice for having removed one more vainglorious wannabe from the gene pool. And now several people are going to risk THEIR lives getting her body down . . .

      • Nothing is worth risking your life for, what rubbish. I will stay at home and not do anything anymore. Dont put all climbers into the same category. Mountain climbing has huge rewards, but it can be dangerous. If you have never experienced climbing and the rewards it can give then dont make such broad statements. Just because you dont understand doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do. I have 2 kids, PhD, good job and have climbed all over the world and it has given me something you can never taste in life…so dont knock it. As for climbing everest ..its a theme park for rich wanabees.

  4. Nice writing. Very sad state of affairs. The human desire to defy mother nature is always inspiring and frequently tragic. God Bless all Everest Climbers and their families. We are praying for the safe return of those on the mountain. Peace/Love/Blessings

    • I think I would call that cribbing, and that’s pretty serious for a national print publication. Alan Parker, you have some ‘splainin’ to do here — all you have to do is credit, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but plagiarizing is very wrong.

      • It is likely part of the public record….I found it in multiple sources regarding this very public person. I wouldn’t be too quick to suggest someone is “borrowing” without acknowledging a source.

        • The wording was very distinct prose, which caught my eye.

      • Yeah, I’m not sure why the blog wasn’t credited. The wording is too close.

    • The EXACT same information about Hannelore Schmatz, including the quote about her sitting against her backpack, eyes open, hair blowing in the wind is on Wikipedia. This is likely been shared on multiple sources. Does a person credit wikipedia or an enclopedia?

  5. The family is demanding that the Federal Government pay to get her back to Toronto.Sounds fair to me I mean we made her go to the mountian so we should pay to get her home.
    LOOK,I was just diagnosed with a genetic brain disease 5 months ago.I worked 32 years and I can’t work now.I can’t even get the Federal Government to give me my CPP disability.I didn’t volunteer for this mountian I’m climbing and the house I’m losing.
    Sure I’ll gladly pay for a thrill seeker while I become homeless.

    • I wish you the best and hope you get terrific treatement. Moreover, while I understand that woman’s family is grieving, they must have known the situation and risks being taken when she stepped into Base Camp. And we can’t send others up to probable death for a body, it’s just a body now, awful situation.

    • I agree with you and hope our government can do something for you.

      What you need now is a ‘focus group’ who, focussing on you, can do the same thing as Ms Shah’s family – ‘demand’ some ‘special’ treatment. If you aren’t special and you don’t know the ropes, our government will happily see you screwed.

  6. Darwin Award candidates.

    • Most have won!!

  7. As long as these fools are only killing themselves and do not expect me a taxpayer to repatriate their body home, let them have at it.

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  9. The increase in glorification of the climb up Mount Everest is a leading role for all the deaths numbered each year. There is such a hype and idolization in the media for each climber that reaches the summit, yet no restriction is raised when people die alongside those ones that make it to the top. This number will only increase, as the interest in the journey up Everest continues. Its alright to have ambitions and goals in life, but for the people that choose a high risk goal like this one with little to no experience in climbing, it affects their families, friends and other people apart from themselves. Do the people that decide to trek up Everest think about this? And if so, is it not extremely selfish of them to do this? Hillary even remarks himself how “…people just want to get to the top. They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress.” This callous attitude toward others lacks the human empathy toward those that will be directly involved. Droves of inexperienced and ill prepared climbers attempt to reach the summit, not realizing the consequence of a mistake upon such a mountain and dismissing death with a wave of their hand. There are also those that do not fear dying, thinking that to die on Mount Everest is to be preserved and remembered always in a hero’s light. It is not a hero’s death, but instead is a foolish endeavour that can be avoided by staying at home, or through hard rigorous training, education, and experience. It’s very unfortunate that with all of these deaths listed in the hundreds, that still it does not deter others from attempting to reach that little bit of fame associated with reaching the top of the world.

    • nice post. It is a selfish goal, I think they tell themselves, “I can be unselfish the rest of the time, but I’m going to do this one thing for my legacy!” also I don’t think they quite understand the risk even when you tell them. I went up to mountains in nepal, and the altitude sickness was absolutely devastating, of course i’d read about altitude sickness and everything, but i just didn’t take heed.

  10. Big hill.

  11. CRACKED!!!