Standing at the heart of the Himalayas, Mt. Everest boasts the tallest peak in the world. First summited in the 1950s, around 4,000 people have attempted the ascent since 2010 alone, according to Himalayan Database statistics compiled by The Washington Post. The novelty of the tallest mountain draws people from all over the world to climb it — some experienced adventurers after ascents of the Seven Summits, others who have never so much as worn crampons or a harness.
Inexperienced climbers, often those who have paid their way to a summit bid looking for unconventional bragging rights, impose themselves on the mountain. They leave human waste, used oxygen canisters, and too often, their own corpses, on the mountainside in the name of asserting they summited the world’s highest peak. If these climbers were merely after a high-altitude adventure, K2, the second highest peak in the world, would be just as commercialized as Mt. Everest is.
Everest is divided into five camps, the lowest of which is Everest Base Camp, sitting 17,700 feet above sea level. For perspective, Fayetteville is 1,400 feet above sea level, and the peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States, is 14,505 feet above sea level.
After ascending past Camp II, 21,300 feet above sea level, the air becomes so thin that helicopter rescue of incapacitated climbers is incredibly dangerous. A majority of climbers begin using supplemental oxygen at this point, if they have not begun using it already. Without extensive assistance from fellow guides and climbers, those injured or incapacitated above Camp II face a reduced chance of surviving mountain’s descent.
Once climbers enter the “death zone” of Everest, around 26,000 feet above sea level, incapacitation via frostbite, altitude sickness, or snow-blindness is not only common, but a sure death sentence.
Attempting the rescue of an injured climber at this altitude can be impossible and comes at great risk to the rescuer. Everest’s death zone is home to the infamous “rainbow ridge,” a stretch of the mountain that earned its name from the multicolored down suits of dead climbers who are frozen to the mountain.
While the 2020 closure of Everest amidst the coronavirus pandemic has provided the mountain a much-needed respite from an onslaught of climbers and their waste, all that has previously been doomed to the mountainside remains. The tallest of the Seven Summits and easily the best known mountain in the world is home to over 200 corpses and more than 33,000 lbs of trash.
“Even picking up a candy wrapper high up on (Mt. Everest) is a lot of effort, because it’s totally frozen and you have to dig around it… A dead body that normally weighs (176 lbs) might weigh (330 lbs) when frozen and dug out with the surrounding ice attached,” the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association tells BBC.
The commercialization of Everest in the past two decades has reduced summiting the mountain to a pay-your-way achievement. For the $10,000 climbing permit fee and the $10,000-$35,000 cost of a guide, anyone can risk their life on the tallest peak in the world. Some guide services require climbers to have previous high-altitude experience, but less reputable companies may not. In short, anyone willing to spend a couple thousand dollars can attempt to ascend what was once a lifetime achievement boasted by few.
This comes at a cost to the mountain and those who call it home. Inexperienced climbers contribute to waste on the mountainside and are fairly likely to contribute to the body count. Those who die on Everest often have no choice but to let it be their final resting place, as removing a body costs thousands of dollars, as well as the assistance of six to eight guides, whose lives are put in danger under the burden of a corpse. Further, corpses often must be dealt with, especially those still attached to the fixed rope or in plain sight.
Native guides who work on the mountain, those of Sherpa descent, earn roughly 10 times more than the average Nepali, according to NPR. Guiding on Everest is lucrative and necessary for many Sherpas to make a living, but is a dire, dangerous trade. Sherpas’ lives are at risk every day they’re on the mountain, which can be escalated by their clients’ disregard or mistreatment. One third of those who die on Everest are of Sherpa descent.
For climbers who didn’t purchase repatriation insurance before attempting the ascent, or whose families cannot afford the cost of bringing their body home, their remains will stay on the mountain forever. Other climbers might be so courteous as to cover bodies with rocks, wrap them in flags, or lower them out of sight, but few are so lucky, as even these actions expend a dangerous amount of energy at high altitudes.
Hundreds of climbers may have to pass or even step over a corpse on Everest, especially if a climber succumbed to the elements while attached to the fixed rope, turning the ascent into something inherently morbid and no longer beautiful or momentous.
The piles of spent oxygen and gas canisters detract from the sanctity of a mountain that should be so rarely infringed upon that it is almost untouched.