Dead bodies are a common sight on top of Mount Everest.
“I cannot believe what I saw up there,” Everest filmmaker Elia Saikaly wrote on Instagram last week. “Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route.”
Eleven people have died climbing Mount Everest this spring, in what has become the peak’s deadliest climbing sprint in recent memory. In 2015, an avalanche roared through Everest, killing at least 19 people.
When people die on Everest, it can be difficult to remove their bodies. Final repatriation costs tens of thousands of dollars (in some cases, around $70,000) and can also come at a fatal price itself: two Nepalese climbers died trying to recover a body from Everest in 1984. Instead, bodies are often left lying on the mountain.
Lhakpa Sherpa, who is the women’s record-holder for most Everest summits, said she saw seven dead bodies on her way to the top of the mountain in 2018.
“Only near the top,” she told Business Insider, remembering one man’s body in particular that “looked alive, because the wind was blowing his hair.”
Her memory is a grim reminder that removing dead bodies from Mount Everest is a pricey and potentially deadly chore, and one that is perhaps best left undone.
Everest is crowded with tourists
It’s impossible to know for sure exactly where all of the 306 recorded Everest fatalities have ended up, but it’s safe to say that many dead bodies never make it off the mountain. For years, Everest climbers have spoken of a dead man they call “Green Boots” who some have spotted lying in a cave roughly 1,130 feet from the top.
This year, Everest’s victims hailed from India, Ireland, Austria, and the US. Some hikers are blaming the surge in deaths, in part, on preventable overcrowding.
As May temperatures warm and winds stall, the favorable springtime Everest climbing conditions are notorious for creating conveyor-belt style lines that snake towards the top of the mountain. Climbers can be so eager to reach the peak and stake their claim on an Everest summit that they’ll risk their lives just to make it happen, even when others caution them to stay back. At least two climbers died of exhaustion on their way down from the summit this year, the BBC reported.
Other Everest climbers complain about risky human traffic jams in the mountain’s so-called “death zone,” the area of the hike that reaches above 8,000 meters (about 26,250 feet), where air is dangerously thin and most people use oxygen masks to stay safe.
Even with masks, this zone is not a great place to hang out for too long, and it’s a spot where some deliriously loopy trekkers start removing desperately-needed clothes, and talking to imaginary companions, despite the freezing conditions.
Often, these tourists have spent anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 to complete this once-in-a-lifetime trek.
Removing bodies is dangerous and costs thousands of dollars
Getting bodies out of the death zone is a hazardous chore.
“It’s expensive and it’s risky, and it’s incredibly dangerous for the Sherpas,” Everest climber Alan Arnette previously told the CBC. “What they have to do is reach the body, then they typically put it in some type of a rigging, sometimes a sled but often it’s just a piece of fabric. They tie ropes onto that, and then they do a controlled slip of the body in the sled.”
Arnette said he didn’t want his body to go that way, and he signed some grim “body disposal” forms before he climbed Everest, ordering that his corpse should rest in place on the mountain in case he died during the trek.
“Typically you have your spouse sign this, so think about that conversation,” he added. “You say leave me on the mountain, or get me back to Kathmandu and cremate, or try to get me back to my home country.”
“There’s sort of this idea that there’s only one mountain that really matters in the kind of Western, popular imagination,” filmmaker and director Jennifer Peedom told Business Insider when her documentary, “Mountain” was released.
Peedom has climbed Everest herself four times, but says the thrill of summiting Everest is largely relegated to the history books, and for “true mountaineers,” it’s basically just an exercise in crowd control these days.
“There seems to be a disaster mystique around Everest that seems to only serve to heighten the allure of the place,” she said. “It is extremely overcrowded now and just getting more and more every year.”
Indeed, the government in Nepal issued a record number of its $11,000 Everest permits this spring, with near 380 hikers approved to summit the peak by May 3.