A Warming Mount Everest Is Giving Up Its Dead

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Sunset lights up the peak of Everest's North face. Nearly 300 people have lost their lives there, trying to conquer Earth's highest mountain. (Photo: Thomas.fanghaenel/Wikimedia Commons)

The dangers of summiting Mount Everest are reflected in the famous remains of those left frozen in time along its snow-swept face, but many more of those lost over a century of climbing have simply vanished. Scrolling down the Cause of Death column on the Wikipedia entry for the 308 who have perished since 1922 includes a depressing repetition of words like "fall," "avalanche," "exposure" and "crushed under serac."

Owing to the tremendous cost, risk and effort necessary to retrieve bodies on Everest, most families decide to "commit" their loved ones to the mountain. As the BBC reported in 2015, this includes pushing remains into a crevasse or down a steep slope and out of sight of the hundreds who attempt the summit each year.

"If at all possible, human remains should get a burial," Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director of Asian Trekking, told the BBC. "That’s not always possible if a body is frozen into the slope at 8,000m, but we can at least cover it and give it some dignity so people don’t take pictures."

Like other constants disrupted by climate change around the world, burial under snow and ice on Everest is no longer a final resting place with any certainty. According to Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, the mountain is increasingly giving up its dead.

"Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed," Tshering told the BBC. "We have brought down dead bodies of some mountaineers who died in recent years, but the old ones that remained buried are now coming out."

In early June 2019, for instance, Nepali climbers retrieved four dead bodies from Everest, along with 11 metric tons of decades-old garbage, as part of an effort to clean up the mountain. Two of the bodies were found at the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, and two at a campsite on the Western Cwm, but none were identified and it remains unclear when they died, Reuters reports.

A region of warm ice

The Khumbu Icefall (center), an area of dangerous crevasses and shifting ice, has revealed the most bodies in recent years.
The Khumbu Icefall (center), an area of dangerous crevasses and shifting ice, has revealed the most bodies in recent years. (Photo: Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock)

Many of the new bodies discovered in recent years are emerging from the treacherous Khumbu Icefall at the head of the eponymous glacier that wraps around Everest.

In 2018, scientists from the EverDrill research team became the first to probe the internal temperatures of the underlaying layers of the Khumbu and discovered something odd: warm ice. Even at depths exceeding 500 feet, the probes detected a minimum ice temperature of only minus 3.3 degrees Celsius (26.06 Fahrenheit) –– a full 2 degrees C warmer than the mean annual air temperature.

"The temperature range we measured from drill sites across the Khumbu Glacier was warmer than we expected — and hoped — to find," study co-author Dr. Duncan Quincey from the School of Geography at Leeds, said in a university release. "Warm ice is particularly vulnerable to climate change because even small increases in temperature can trigger melting."

The situation is so precarious that a recent report estimated a full two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2100 at present rates of warming.

"Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks ... to bare rocks in a little less than a century," Philippus Wester, a scientist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said in a statement.

The perils of closure

Sherpas, often in teams of 10, are generally hired to bring bodies down from Everest's death zone.
Sherpas, often in teams of 10, are generally hired to bring bodies down from Everest's death zone. (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images)

For the bodies emerging on Everest, officials say the red tape surrounding removal –– particularly those laws necessitating the involvement of the Nepalese government –– must be amended to reflect a changing environment.

"This issue needs to be prioritised by both the government and the mountaineering industry," Dambar Parajuli, president of the Expedition Operators Association of Nepal (EOAN), told the BBC. "If they can do it on the Tibet side of Everest, we can do it here as well."

Regardless of rules, the financial and moral costs associated with retrieving remains on Everest are considerable. Sherpas, who depend on expeditions to support their families, are generally hired at prices ranging anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000 to retrieve mummified bodies. Many are located in the so-called "death zone," a region above 26,000 feet where there isn't enough oxygen to breathe.

Because of the conditions and weight of the frozen bodies, it often takes three days for a team of 10 sherpas to move from the death zone to a location further down the mountain accessible to helicopters.

"It is just not worth the risk," Tshering told the AP. "To get one body off of the mountain, they are risking the lives of 10 more people."

Mount Everest flanked by prayer flags.
Mount Everest flanked by prayer flags. (Photo: MemoryMan/Shutterstock)

Despite the unforgiving nature of Everest, its attraction to thrill-seekers remains strong. In 2018, a record-breaking 802 people summited with five reported deaths, and more than 1,000 people were expected to make the attempt in 2019. Nine climbers died on the Nepali side of Everest in May, along with two on the Tibetan side, making 2019 the mountain's deadliest climbing season since 2015.

According to mountaineer Alan Arnette, who runs a popular Everest blog, the lack of qualified sherpas to support these record crowds is a serious concern going forward.

"This is the disaster waiting to happen," he writes. "If we have a difficult weather year and operators, feeling the pressure to get clients to the summit, push in difficult weather, the support systems available are simply not in place to handle a mass number of emergencies. If this happens one day, it will be the inflection point in the never ending lure of Everest."