An hour above high camp on the Southeast Ridge of Everest, Panuru Sherpa and I passed the first body. The dead climber was on his side, as if napping in the snow, his head half covered by the hood of his parka, goose down blowing from holes torn in his insulated pants. Ten minutes later we stepped around another body, her torso shrouded in a Canadian flag, an abandoned oxygen bottle holding down the flapping fabric.
Trudging nose to butt up the ropes that had been fixed to the steep slope, Panuru and I were wedged between strangers above us and below us. The day before, at Camp III, our team had been part of a small group. But when we woke up this morning, we were stunned to see an endless line of climbers passing near our tents.
Now, bumper to bumper at 27,000 feet, we were forced to move at exactly the same speed as everyone else, regardless of strength or ability. In the swirling darkness before midnight, I gazed up at the string of lights, climbers’ headlamps, rising into the black sky. Above me were more than a hundred slow-moving climbers. In one rocky section at least 20 people were attached to a single ratty rope anchored by a single badly bent picket pounded into the ice. If the picket popped, the rope or carabiner would instantly snap from the weight of two dozen falling climbers, and they would all cartwheel down the face to their death.
Panuru, the lead Sherpa of our team, and I unclipped from the lines, swerved out into open ice, and began soloing—for experienced mountaineers, a safer option. Twenty minutes later, another corpse. Still attached to the line of ropes, he was sitting in the snow, frozen solid as stone, his face black, his eyes wide open.
Several hours later, before the Hillary Step, a 40-foot wall of rock and the last obstacle before the summit, we passed yet another corpse. His stubbly face was gray, his mouth open as if moaning from the pain of death.
Later I would learn the names of these four climbers: Chinese Ha Wenyi, who was 55; Nepali-Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33; South Korean Song Won-bin, 44; and German Eberhard Schaaf, 61. As I cramponed past their icy corpses on my own descent from the summit, I thought of the shattering sorrow their families and friends would experience when they heard the news. I too had lost friends to the mountains. Exactly why these individuals died still wasn’t clear. However, many recent deaths on Everest have been attributed to a dangerous lack of experience. Without enough training at high altitude, some climbers are unable to judge their own stamina and don’t know when to turn around and call it quits. “Only half the people here have the experience to climb this mountain,” Panuru told me. “The half without experience are the most likely to die.” Too often, it’s not the mountain’s harshness that kills climbers but their own hubris.
Fewer permits To limit the total number of climbers and Sherpas on the mountain
Smaller teams To reduce dangerous traffic jams on the standard Southeast Ridge route
Certify outfitters To make sure that they meet acceptable standards of safety and mountain knowledge
Require experience To ensure that climbers and Sherpas are prepared for high-altitude challenges
Leave no trace To remove human waste and garbage from the mountain, with penalties for noncompliance
Remove bodies To show respect not only for the dead but also for the living, who encounter corpses on main routes
How different it was 50 years ago when, on May 1, 1963, James Whittaker, accompanied only by Sherpa Nawang Gombu, became the first American to reach the summit of the world. “Big Jim” did it by climbing the Southeast Ridge, the same route pioneered in 1953 by the peerless New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Whittaker had climbed Mount McKinley a few years before, and it was Gombu’s third trip to Everest. Three weeks after Whittaker and Gombu’s ascent, in an unprecedented act of boldness, teammates Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld clawed their way up a completely new route, the West Ridge. (The two men had been teammates on the 1960 American Pakistan Karakoram Expedition.) On that same day Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad made the second American ascent of the Southeast Ridge. The two teams managed to meet below the summit, but by then it was dark, and they were forced to bivouac at 28,000 feet—a risky, last-ditch option never before attempted. Without tents, sleeping bags, stoves, Sherpas, oxygen, water, or food, they weren’t expected to survive.