An hour above Camp IV on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest, Panuru Sherpa and I passed the first body.
The dead climber was on his side as if napping in the snow, goose down blowing from holes in his insulated pants. Ten minutes later, we stepped around another body, her torso shrouded in a Canadian flag, an abandoned oxygen bottle holding down the flapping fabric.
Trudging nose to butt up the ropes that had been fixed to the steep slope, Panuru and I were wedged between strangers above us and below us. The day before, at Camp III, our team had been part of a small group. But when we woke up this morning, we were stunned to see an endless line of climbers passing near our tents.
Now, bumper-to-bumper at 26,000 feet, we were forced to move at exactly the same speed as everyone else, regardless of individual strength or climbing ability. In the swirling darkness before midnight, I gazed up at the string of lights from climbers’ headlamps rising into the black sky. Above me were more than a hundred slow-moving climbers. In one rocky section, at least 20 people were attached to a tattered rope anchored by a single badly bent picket pounded into the ice. If the picket popped out, the rope would instantly snap from the weight of two dozen falling climbers, and they would all cartwheel down the face of the mountain to their deaths.
Panuru, the lead Sherpa of our team, and I unclipped from the lines, swerved out onto open ice, and began soloing—a safer option for experienced mountaineers. After twenty minutes, we encountered another corpse, sitting in the snow, frozen solid as stone.
Several hours later, before we reached the Hillary Step—a 40-foot wall of rock and the last obstacle before the summit—we passed yet another corpse. His stubbly face was gray, his mouth open as if moaning.
Later I would learn the nationalities and names of these four climbers: Chinese Ha Wenyi, 55; Nepali-Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33; South Korean Song Won-bin, 44; and German Eberhard Schaaf, 61. All four had died just days before—between May 18 and 20, 2012, as had two people on the other side of Everest. Because it’s dangerous and difficult to transport bodies down the mountain, most people who perish there remain where they fall, although some are eventually moved by ice and wind, covered with snow, or pulled to the side of the trail. Some have even been pushed into crevasses by other climbers in a kind of makeshift mountain burial.
April and May 2012 became the third-deadliest season on Everest. As I cramponed past the icy corpses, I thought of the shattering sorrow their families and friends must have felt when they heard the news. I, too, had lost friends to the mountains.
Next: “Exactly why these four individuals died wasn’t clear…”