By Olivier Schulz
More than three hundred people have died on Mount Everest, and around two hundred are still there today. Some are lost forever in crevasses or fallen off ledges. But many are frozen stiff, as if preserved for eternity, perched on cliffs or lying in a cave, skin bleached by the sun, limbs contorted. And at least within sight of the live climbers passing them.
In the death zone, it’s not always easy to tell who’s an ambitious climber or who’s frozen. The Australian mountaineer Duncan Chessell describes how spooky the scenery is: “You don’t know if the person sitting on the rock needs help or has been dead for five years. It’s dark, you’re cold, you’re tired…”
The American-British alpinist Daniel Mazur reports that the corpses partially blocked the narrow path that leads up the abyss. “It’s one of the most horrible, worst experiences I’ve ever had, stepping over the dead. Often you have to step over their limbs.”
Anyone climbing the main route must pass at least ten bodies, even if the oxygen mask limits visibility. In the eighties and nineties, the skeletal remains of climber Hannelore Schmatz sat within sight of all climbers on the southern route. The corpse was leaning against her backpack, eyes wide open, hair blowing in the wind. Nepali police inspector Yogendra Bahadur Thapa and Sherpa leader Ang Dorje died in 1984 while attempting to recover her body.
Finally, in the late 1990s, strong winter winds blew their remains down into the Kangshung flank. The so-called Rainbow Valley below the summit is littered with corpses wearing brightly colored mountaineering gear. Veteran summiteer David Breashears, who led the IMAX film expedition to the top of Everest during the 1996 disaster season, has referred to the area as “the open graveyard that awaits at the top.”
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Because it’s almost impossible to recover a body from up there. So far, it is said to have succeeded in only about fifty cases. It’s too cumbersome. And it’s very expensive. Thousands of dollars are estimated for it, six to eight Sherpas are needed. Not only have some mountaineers died while trying to do this – the campaigns have been abandoned several times, even after days of work, because the project simply turned out to be impossible.
Last will: stay on the mountain
Many climbers say that you can’t imagine the effort involved in such a job if you haven’t been up there yourself. “Even picking up a candy wrapper high on the mountain is a big effort because it’s completely frozen and you have to dig around,” says Ang Tshering Sherpa, chairman and founder of Kathmandu-based Asian Trekking and longtime president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. “A corpse that normally weighs 180 pounds can weigh 300 pounds when frozen and dug up with the surrounding ice.”
Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director of Asian Trekking and Ang Tshering’s son, has been on the mountain with his for years – to clear it of rubbish. But since 2008, they have not only removed thousands of kilograms of rubbish. Even when a corpse or individual body parts melt out of the ever-dynamic Khumbu Glacier, his team comes into action. They recovered a number of dead bodies, including four Sherpas – one of whom they knew – and an Australian climber who disappeared in 1975. “Human remains should be buried whenever possible,” says Dawa Steven Sherpa.
But many mountaineers also want to stay on a mountain if they don’t survive there – it’s almost a tradition. “Handing them over” to the mountain is therefore more than just the technically simpler alternative. They are covered with stones forming a burial mound. Failing that – they will, with all due respect, be dropped into a crevasse or pushed off a steep slope out of sight.
The first Green Boots video released by French mountaineer Pierre Paperon shows a man widely believed to be Indian Tsewang Paljor in an orange jacket and light blue pants. He’s lying on his side in the snow, his head turned away, under a ledge, with an oxygen tank next to him. You can see his green shoes that gave him his name, Koflach brand.
There’s even a pretty silly electro-pop song about him, you can hear it on YouTube. For a long time it was probably the most famous landmark among the dead on the mountain. “I would say that everyone, especially those who climb the north side, knows something about Green Boots,” says Noel Hanna.
But then it was a shock that Tsewang Paljor had achieved such strange fame, his brother Thinley said. In 2011 he discovered the nickname along with photos: “I was on the internet and found that they call it Green Boots or something. I was really upset and shocked and I didn’t want my family to know about it.
Honestly, it falls to me hard to look at the pictures online,” he told the BBC. “I feel so helpless.” In 2006, English climber David Sharp stopped in the cave next to Green Boots. Suddenly his body froze, Sharp unable to move. Over forty climbers climbed past the man crouched in the shelter, freezing to death.
Only when he gave a small groan did climbers try to give him oxygen to get him to stand up. But by then it was already too late. Green Boots was not seen between 2014 and 2017, it is believed the body had been removed or buried. In 2017, a dead body was discovered dangling from a flank alongside a tent and other items. Some climbers speculated that these were the remains of Tsewang Paljor.
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