When Prince Siddhartha was born, a prophecy foretold that he would renounce his inheritance and become a great teacher. Terrified of the prophecy coming to pass, his father the king surrounded him with comfort. He arranged for the streets to be filled with healthy people, so that the prince would not be troubled by any unpleasantness.
But Prince Siddhartha was troubled, nonetheless. When he was a young man, he made a trip outside the palace in his chariot, where he encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. The experience changed his life. He reflected upon it, and realised that no matter how fortunate, secure or sheltered our lives are, there is no way of escaping old age, sickness or death.
He left the palace and became a homeless mendicant, eventually achieving enlightenment and becoming the great teacher that was prophesied. He became known as the Buddha. At the heart of his teaching was the concept of impermanence, that we should live our lives as fruitfully as possible for the short time we are here, and not fear death.
Buddhists generally have a mature attitude towards death. Many of them also have a mature attitude towards dead bodies, seeing them for what they are. They make a distinction between the body itself, which once provided temporary accommodation for a life, and the life itself.
Perhaps because we lead more sheltered lives, in the West we seem less comfortable with dead bodies. We tend to be either squeamish or ghoulish about them, unable to make the distinction between the body and the life, or unable to make the connection. Many of us are afraid or offended by dead bodies, but this horror fades as the corpse becomes harder to identify. We might be shocked to learn what a pathologist does when carrying out an autopsy, but have no problem with an archaeologist analysing a skeleton from the long-distant past.
One of the things that shocks and surprises people the most when I tell them about my Everest climb is that I had to walk past dead bodies on my summit day. Why have they not been removed and sent home for burial, people ask?
But before I answer this question, I’m going to debunk a popular media myth: the one that says that Everest is piled high with dead bodies. It’s an important myth to debunk, because it is used to provide evidence that climbing Everest has become inherently unethical. People with a grudge against those of us who have climbed Everest believe it proves that modern-day Everest climbers are bereft of conscience, stopping at nothing to reach the summit and “conquer” the mountain. People use the word hubris in reference to Everest climbers, believing the bad luck or poor judgement that resulted in tragedy must be a result of arrogance.
Leaving aside the non sequiturs, the premise itself is false. Everest is not piled high with corpses, any more than the surface of Antarctica is paved with the corpses of explorers from the Shackleton era.
It’s true that over 200 people have died on Everest, and the bodies of the majority are still on the mountain. But Everest covers a vast area. The majority of the bodies are hidden from view on the North Face and Kangshung Face, or deep in crevasses on the Khumbu Icefall, places so inaccessible that they might just as well be buried hundreds of metres underground, for all the likelihood of anyone ever stumbling across them.
The best example of this is Sandy Irvine, who died with George Mallory on the North-East Ridge in 1924. Some people believe that if they find his body they can retrieve a camera that will prove once and for all whether the pair made the first ascent of Everest. For nearly 100 years they have sent search parties to scour the North Face, studied it with telescopes, aerial photographs and satellite imagery in the hope of finding Irvine’s body. All of these searches have proved fruitless, and in all likelihood the body will never be found.
There are far more corpses, and in much greater density, in my local cemetery. Sure, they are hidden from view, but they are all very evident from the hundreds of headstones that mark where they are buried, and my feet pound not two or three metres from them every time I walk through it. And in any case, that’s not really the point. They’re still dead people like you and I, who once had hopes and dreams.
So let’s start by disregarding the tabloid headlines. Everest is not piled high with corpses. Less than 300 people have died there in 100 years. There are hundreds of places in the world that have borne witness to many more casualties than this. What shocks people about Everest is that the bodies have not been removed and taken to a place considered more suitable. So why is this?
Upsetting as it may be, the simple fact is that in most cases it is logistically impractical to move them. Helicopters cannot operate in the thin air of Everest’s North-East and South-East Ridges, and in the case of the Tibet side they are banned by the Chinese government.
It takes several strong climbers to carry a corpse back to base camp, or to a place where they can be given an adequate burial. Most climbers on the higher slopes of Everest are treading a fine line between life and death. Their first priority is to get themselves down safely. If they are confident enough of that, then their next is to help the living. A dedicated expedition to climb the mountain and bring down a corpse would cost a family tens of thousands of dollars, putting other lives at risk in the process. Insurance policies will generally cover search and rescue for the living, but they stop short of evacuating the dead from inaccessible locations.
The bodies of climbers who died in falls may be unreachable, and those who have been there a long time may be frozen in place. When a research team found George Mallory’s body below the North-East Ridge in 1999 it took five strong climbers over an hour on dangerously steep terrain to chip away the frozen gravel and rock that encased it, and another 45 minutes to gather enough rocks to give him a decent burial.
In many cases families and friends are coming around to the feeling that it’s better to leave bodies where they lie, high above the clouds. There is a story about climbers who recovered the body of Art Gilkey from a glacier in Pakistan in 1993 and took it home to the United States for burial. Gilkey died in a fall on K2 in 1953. When his expedition leader Charles Houston heard about the discovery during a lecture at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, instead of showing gratitude he said without emotion that he wished they had left him there.
The bodies of those who died of exhaustion beside the trail are often moved out of view. This usually means pushing them down the North or South-West Faces, or over the Kangshung Face into Tibet. This happened with David Sharp, the British climber who died on the North-East Ridge in 2006, whose body was removed the following year at the request of his family. It should have happened with an Indian climber called Tsewang Paljor, who died in 1996. His body remained in an alcove on the North-East Ridge for nearly 20 years, though I understand it has now finally been removed.
Nevertheless, people die on Everest every year, and in many cases their bodies still remain the following season. If you get as far as summit day on Everest, you will find yourself in one of those rare environments where you are almost certain to see corpses.
If you have read my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, you will know that I had to pass several on my Everest summit day, but I did not get fixated on them. Walking past corpses formed only a tiny part of a ten-year adventure.
I saw the bodies for what they were. Most that were on the trail looked like they had died from exhaustion, and I could understand only too well how they came to that end. I felt deeply for them; I understood how they had suffered. If anything they focused my mind and ensured I returned safely, so that my friends and family would not have to bear the loss theirs had.
I ask that you view the photograph below in this context.
Some people who hear about the bodies lying on Everest say that the mountain should be closed to climbing, and left as a memorial to those who died. I don’t fully understand this attitude, but I believe it arises from a lack of empathy with those who climb. People who climb Everest are aware of the risks they are taking. They choose to accept the risk because the activity and the achievement enriches their lives. Not everybody believes the risk is worth the reward, but that’s their choice too. It’s not their place to interfere with the choices of others. I don’t know a single climber who would want to see a mountain closed to others and left as a memorial to their memory, simply because they took the risk and their number came up.
Perhaps it would help if people saw climbing Everest as a metaphor for life. If you want to experience it, you have to accept that you are going to see dead bodies sometime during your life, because death is a part of life’s fabric. It helps to have a more mature attitude, and see the bodies for what they are. Every death is a tragedy for someone, but death is also a part of our existence. It touches us all throughout our lives, and each time it does we can learn to be more compassionate and become a better person.
There are no jokes in this week’s blog post. I am sorry about that, but I hope you understand.