Sherpa who retrieved body from Mount Everest death zone recalls dangerous mission, as peak’s reopening to climbers draws near
- Mount Everest has claimed 300 lives, and 150 bodies remain on its slopes because of the expense and danger of retrieving them; a 2017 recovery cost US$200,000
- Ahead of the opening of the climbing season this autumn, authorities and climbing guides are unsure if or when more bodies will be brought down its slopes
Dawa Finjhok Sherpa and his teammates hashed out a retrieval plan as they stood surrounding a dead body in the Himalayas one early morning in May 2017. It had been around a year since Indian climber Goutam Ghosh, a 50-year-old police officer from Kolkata, died near the summit of Mount Everest. His face had turned pitch black, his body as hard as the rock next to it.
Ghosh’s body was at an altitude of around 27,500 feet (8,400 metres). Climbers call that the “death zone”, an area where people can easily die due to lack of oxygen, frostbite and cold. The altitude was one of the many odds Dawa’s team had to overcome.
“He was around six feet tall (1.83 metres) and over 120kg due to snow. It took us almost an hour just to move the body,” says Dawa.
Five Sherpas hauled the corpse in a stretcher as they trekked downhill along a narrow, treacherous path with the help of snow axes and ropes. The use of a stretcher did prevent the frozen body from falling apart, as they had hoped, but it also slowed them down. To make matters worse, people were still summiting, and they had to intermittently give way to avoid traffic jams.
“Every minute counts at that height because you could easily lose your sense and get killed, even when taking oxygen,” Dawa says.
Exhausted, thirsty, hungry and cold by the time they arrived at camp four, situated at 7,925 metres, Dawa and his friends wished to rest and drink water, but he pressed his colleagues to keep moving out of fear of dying. “I remembered my family members many times, especially my son,” recalls Dawa.
The government of India spent around US$200,000 to retrieve the bodies of Ghosh and two others from Mount Everest that week, according to Mingma Sherpa, also of Seven Summit Treks.
The mission has since stood as a testament to the possibility of recovering all the bodies from Mount Everest, something that was once considered impossible and often cited as an excuse not to bring the dead down. But it has also reignited a debate on whether such missions are worth the risk and money, especially when neither the concerned families nor governments want to bear the expense.
Exact data is unavailable, but government estimates suggest that more than 150 bodies, of the estimated 300 climbers who have died on Mount Everest, remain on the mountain, many deep in snow. It can easily cost up to US$100,000, a fortune even by Everest’s own expensive standard, to retrieve a body, depending on factors including altitude and the number of Sherpas required.
Many climbers and guides think the bodies should be left there out of respect for the dead climbers’ love for mountains and in view of cost.
“Many bodies are there because the family members did not want to take [them],” says Kami Rita Sherpa, a guide who has summited Everest a record 24 times. “Given that the cleaning campaign gets so little budget, the priority should be in cleaning trash that has been destroying the mountain,” says Sherpa.
He is referring to the estimated 20 tons of rubbish that has piled up on Everest, which has been conquered more than 6,500 times since 1953.
Others think the body removal has been indispensable, no matter who bears the expense, as many corpses have started to surface with heavy melting of snow in recent years.
Dandu Raj Ghimire, director general of the Department of Tourism, says that his department still lacks clear plans for the corpses, but adds that it hopes to gradually retrieve dead bodies as part of a larger clean-up campaign.
“We brought four corpses last year,” says Ghimire. “Others would be brought gradually but it would all depend on money and resources.”