Sun, May 29, 2016 - Page 19 News List

Everest deaths lead to risky body recoveries

AP, KATHMANDU

Yellow and orange tents are pictured next to the Khumbu Icefall at Everest Base Camp in Khumjung, Nepal, on April 10.

Photo: AP

The mountain is speckled with corpses. Nearly 300 people have died on Mount Everest in the century or so since climbers have been trying to reach its summit. At least 100 of them are still on the mountain, perhaps 200.

Most of the bodies are hidden in deep crevasses or covered by snow and ice, but some are visible to every climber who passes by, landmarks in heavy plastic climbing boots and colorful parkas that fade a little more every year.

The most famous corpses get nicknames — “Green Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The German” — becoming warnings of what can go wrong on the 8,850m peak, even as they become part of the mountain’s gallows humor.

No mountaineer wants to end up a nicknamed body. No grieving family wants their loved one to become a punchline. However, in one of the most unforgiving places on Earth, where low oxygen, frigid temperatures and strong winds mean any effort can seem impossible, taking down the dead is no simple thing.

So when four people died on the upper reaches of Everest in recent days, and with a fifth missing and presumed dead, climbing teams and climbers’ families scattered around the world had to face the question of whether the bodies would be brought down.

“For the loved ones back home and family members of those fallen and died on Mount Everest, it is worth it,” said Ben Jones, a guide from Jackson, Wyoming, who made his third successful Everest ascent this year.

However, the equation is not simple.

“It’s extremely difficult and extremely dangerous,” said Arnold Coster, expedition leader for Seven Summit Treks, which lost two climbers this year on Everest and spent days getting them off the mountain.

“The terrain is steep and the weather is bad. It’s been snowing, and been very windy the past couple days,’’ he said on Thursday, as a team of Sherpas struggled to get the body of one climber, Maria Strydom, low enough to be picked up by helicopter.

It can take 10 Sherpas more than three days to move a body from Everest’s South Col, at 8,000m, to Camp 2, a rocky expanse at 6,400m where helicopters can take over. It is a painful, exhausting process, with the bodies, which are normally carried in sleeping bags or wrapped in tents, often much heavier because they are covered in ice.

Given the risks involved in spending so much time at high altitudes, many climbing teams decide not to bring down their dead, sometimes lowering them into crevasses or covering them with rocks so they are not gawked at.

Coster said that Strydom’s body was just off a main climbing route, in an area where it was easily visible, and that her family wanted it brought down.

He said that he first discussed the situation with a Sherpa team, evaluating the potential dangers involved, before deciding they could safely get down the mountain with the corpse.

Coster described Strydom as a strong climber who had weakened as she neared the summit. She turned back, but later collapsed and died. After being carried down the mountain, her body was flown to Kathmandu on Friday.

A recovery like that does not come cheap.

Dan Richards of Global Rescue, a Boston-based agency, said retrieving a body from Everest is a massive logistical operation that can cost between US$10,000 and US$40,000, depending on the difficulty and helicopter flights.

“However, we do not take the risk for mortal remains unless it is in a safe location,” he said.

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