A tragic expedition: five dead bodies found during clean-up

/ 2010.06.08., kedd 14:07 /
A tragic expedition: five dead bodies found during clean-up

During a "clean-up operation" in April on the peak of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, a Nepalese sherpa team found five dead bodies and 2.5 tonnes of accumulated refuse.

What sets apart the present clean-up from previous operations is that refuse was collected from above eight thousand metres. None of the earlier expeditions operated in the so-called "zone of death," said expedition leader, Sherpa Namdjal, who has been to the peak seven times.

In this region climbing itself is risky since the oxygen is too thin and the freezing temperatures and strong winds also put climbers to the test. Out of the team of 31 people - which includes cooks and bearers - only the twenty most experienced climbers had previously been higher than seven thousand metres. All of them have already made several journeys to the zone of death and on each occasion brought down fifteen kilos of refuse. 

They found huge quantities of oxygen cylinders, old prayer flags, ropes, rucksacks and tents. Also to be found are securing ropes that date back to the fifties, which not only deface the landscape but present a serious danger too. Climbers often find it difficult to decide which ropes are safe and which are not. If they accidentally attach themselves to an old rope of poor quality, it can easily lead to a fatal accident.

Although the sherpas originally planned to only bring refuse down from above eight thousand metres, they have already collected a lot from a height of six thousand metres. No estimates have been made of the quantity of refuse left on the mountain, but during the sixty years of expeditions Mount Chomolangma has earned the name of "the biggest rubbish dump in the world".

During their exhausting climb to reach the peak many mountain climbers ditch most of their equipment because of the deep snow, the altitude and the lack of oxygen. However, the extremely cold climate means that the abandoned packs are outstandingly well preserved. An exhibition in the valley will showcase some of the objects that have accumulated over the last fifty years. The clean-up brigade would like to collect at least three tonnes of refuse and bring it to the base camp by 29 May, the anniversary of the first Himalaya expedition by sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the New Zealand mountain climber, Edmund Hilary.    

In addition to the abandoned refuse and mountain climbing equipment, the present clean-up expedition will also bring down the dead bodies of climbers who lost their lives attempting to scale the mountain. Chakra Karki, the coordinator of the operation, said that the body of the American Scott Fischer, the leader of an expedition in 1996, was found among the dead, as well as the remains of a Swiss climber, Gianni Goltz, and a Russian climber, Sergei Duganov.  

Scott Fischer lost his life on 10 May 1996: the darkest day in the history of Everest. A combination of congestion around the summit and the sudden onset of a snow storm led to eight climbers losing their lives in a single night. Among them was the leader of two ill-fated commercial expeditions, Rob Hall, and Scott Fischer. However, Fischer's body was not brought down from the mountain as his family had not consented to it being moved, and so only a photograph was taken of his remains.  

The bodies of Goltz and Duganov were brought down from the mountain. In 2008 Goltz reached the highest peak in the world without an oxygen cylinder only to collapse and die on the way down. Duganov died last year. At the same time, the Tibetan mountain climbers' association states that an earlier report - released by the Hsinhua News Agency claiming that the remains were found of the Hungarian alpinist, László Várkonyi, who was carried off in an avalanche last year - turned out to be unfounded.   

Nepal has been struggling for years to deal with the refuse left in the environs of the mountain by tourists and mountaineers, while at the same time clean-up expeditions and local sherpas have for a long time been paid to carry refuse down from the lowest region. In 2007 over 40 thousand people visited Everest on the Chinese side alone (of course just a fraction of them try to climb up it), but this is a mere tenth of the number of those who visit the mountain and its environs from Nepal.   

According to estimates, the tourists have so far left behind some 120 tonnes of refuse, which represent 2.7 kilos per person. The Chinese were the first to launch a clean-up expedition to the mountain and the volunteer participants managed to collect some eight tonnes of refuse between the altitudes of 5,100 and 6,500 metres. In 2005 100 mountain climbers took part in the project and brought down discarded tents, oxygen cylinders, bottles and plastic refuse from the mountain. Climbing was restricted during the clean-up in the spring of 2009.

The conditions prevailing on Everest were brought to the public's attention when a photo taken in 1989 by the Belgian mountain climber, Karl Huyberechts, was published in a British mountaineering magazine in 1993. In addition to Everest's Southern saddle at 8,000 metres looking like a rubbish dump full of used tents and discarded oxygen cylinders, the picture also shows a dead body in a red anorak that looks as if it was just dumped by someone.

The idea persisted for a long time that it was impossible to recover the remains of dead climbers from the "zone of death". Russian and Korean climbers were the first to prove this wrong in 1993. They worked together to bring down the dead body of  Pasang Lhamu, the first Nepalese woman to climb Everest, three weeks after her death near the Southern peak.

It is not known if they were offered a financial incentive to bring down the dead body of this female mountain climber, revered as a hero in Nepal, or if the Russian and Korean sportsmen undertook the dangerous task as a tribute to her memory, but in any case it proved that it is possible to recover dead bodies safely from high altitudes. 

Despite all of this, it is estimated that in addition to the tonnes of refuse there are some 120 dead bodies strewn around the peak. Some of these bodies are visible from the normal routes but many of them are in inaccessible places. Moreover, because of the climate and atmospheric conditions that prevail at high altitudes - dry air and permanently sub-zero temperatures - the dead bodies are preserved in the same condition in which they died. The best example of this is the dead body of the British mountaineer, George Mallory (he was one of the first mountaineers who made an attempt to scale Everest in the 1920s), which was found in 1995 in fairly good condition, 75 years after his disappearance. 

For a long time it was the local environmental protection laws that allowed the accumulation of so many dead bodies near the peak. When a list was compiled of the refuse regulations pertaining to the mountain the category of "disposable" items included paper, wrapping material, tin cans, clothes and dead bodies. The official regulations are much tighter nowadays however: the Nepalese authorities require a deposit of 4,000 dollars from expeditions when they apply to make a climb and retain this sum if the team leaves any refuse on the mountain.       

For the time being there are no such similar regulations in China but the local authorities there have introduced some stricter measures. For example, they have prohibited climbers from driving up to the base camp on the Tibetan side, which lies at an altitude of 5,180 metres. However, at high altitudes it is impossible to monitor refuse regulations, and thus large quantities of tents, tin cans, empty oxygen cylinders and other pieces of equipment continue to litter the summit.


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