Deliverance From 27,000 Feet

Dec 19, 2017| Courtesy by :

By John Branch

Five Sherpas surrounded the frozen corpse. They swung axes at the body’s edges, trying to pry it from its icy tomb. They knocked chunks of snow from the body, and the shattered pieces skittered down the mountain. When they finally freed a leg and lifted it, the entire stiff and contorted body shifted, down to its fingertips.

The sun was shining, but the air was dangerously cold and thin at 27,300 feet above sea level. A plume of snow clouded the ridge toward the summit of Mount Everest, so close above. When the Sherpas arrived — masks on their faces, oxygen tanks on their backs — the only movement on the steep face came from the dead man’s frayed jacket pockets. They were inside out and flapping in the whipping wind.

More than a year of exposure to the world’s wickedest elements had blackened and shriveled the man’s bare face and hands. His hydrant-yellow summit suit had dulled to the hue of a fallen leaf. The bottom of his boots pointed uphill. His frozen arms were bent at the elbows and splayed downhill over his head. It was as if the man sat down for a rest, fell backward and froze that way.

The Sherpas picked at the body and used gestures and muffled words to decide how best to move it off the mountain. The ghoulish face and bone-white teeth scared them, so they covered the head with the jacket’s hood.

There was no time to linger. That altitude is called the “death zone” for good reason. The Sherpas knew from experience how difficult it was to scale the world’s highest mountain. The only thing more daunting might be to haul a dead body back down.

The man’s name was Goutam Ghosh, and the last time anyone saw him alive was on the evening of May 21, 2016, when it was obvious that he would become another fatality statistic, soon frozen and as inanimate as the boulders around him.

Ghosh was a 50-year-old police officer from Kolkata, part of a doomed eight-person expedition — four climbers from the Indian state of West Bengal and four Sherpa guides from Nepal — that ran out of time and oxygen near the top of Everest. The four Bengali climbers were eventually abandoned by their guides and left to die. Three did; only one, a 42-year-old woman named Sunita Hazra, survived, as did the guides.

From left, Sunita Hazra, Goutam Ghosh, Paresh Nath and Subhas Paul shortly before their summit attempt at Mount Everest in May 2016. Sunita Hazra

At the time of the tragedy, the climbing season for Everest was almost over. On their way to the summit over the next two nights, the last two dozen of the year’s climbers had come upon Ghosh’s rigid corpse on a steep section of rock and ice.

To get around him, climbers and their guides, sucking oxygen through masks and double-clipped to a rope for safety, stripped off their puffy mittens. They untethered the clips one at a time, stepped over and reached around Ghosh’s body, and clipped themselves to the rope above him.

Some numbly treated the body as an obstacle. Others paused to make sense of what they saw — a twisted man still affixed to the rope, reclined on the slope as if he might continue climbing after waking from his awkward slumber.

Apparently abandoned at his time of greatest need, he was a mute embodiment of their worst fears. One climber stepped on the dead man and apologized profusely. Another saw the body and nearly turned around, spooked by the thought of his own worried family back home. Another paused on his descent to hold a one-sided conversation with the corpse stretched across the route.

Who are you? Who left you here? And is anyone coming to take you home?

Mount Everest occupies a rare spot in the collective imagination — a misty mix of wonder, reverence and trepidation. Hundreds of people successfully and safely reach the summit most years and return home with inspirational tales of conquest and perseverance. Other stories detail the occasional tragedies that leave a few people dead in a typical year. Those disaster stories are now their own genre in books and film.

Where most of those stories end is where this one begins, long after hope is gone — the quiet, desperate and dangerous pursuit, usually at the insistence of a distraught family far away, to bring the dead home. The only search is for some semblance of closure.

That was why the Sherpas with their oxygen masks and ice axes had come this far, this high, more than a year later.

The four Indian climbers, from a vibrant climbing culture in West Bengal, were like so many others attempting Everest. They saw the mountain as the ultimate conquest, a bucket-list item that would bring personal satisfaction and prestige. They dreamed of it for years and made it the focus of their training. As motivation, they surrounded themselves with photographs of the mountain, from their Facebook pages to the walls of their homes.

In other ways, however, they were different. Climbing Everest is an expensive endeavor, something to be both bought and earned. Many climbers are middle-aged Westerners — doctors, lawyers and other professionals — with the kind of wealth that the group from India could not fathom. Some spend $100,000 to ensure the best guides, service and safety.

These four climbers measured monthly salaries in the hundreds of dollars. They borrowed money and sold off possessions simply for a chance. They cut costs and corners, because otherwise Everest was completely out of reach.

They knew one another from the climbing circles of West Bengal, connected more by their common mission than strong friendships.

About 5,000 people have reached the 29,029-foot (8,848-meter) summit of Everest at least once since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first did it in 1953. Nearly 300 people have died on the mountain in that period, according to the Himalayan Database, which tracks such things.

Nepal officials estimate that about 200 bodies remain scattered across Everest. A few are so familiar, so well preserved by the subfreezing temperatures, that they serve as macabre mileposts for the living, including one corpse commonly called Green Boots. Other bodies remaining on Everest include those of George Mallory, dating to his fatal attempt in 1924, and the guide Scott Fischer, part of the 1996 disaster depicted in “Into Thin Air.”

Most of the bodies are far out of sight. Some have been moved, dumped over cliffs or into crevasses at the behest of families bothered that their loved ones were someone else’s landmark or at the direction of Nepali officials who worry that the sight of dead bodies hinders the country’s tourist trade.

More and more, however, families and friends of those who die on Everest and the world’s other highest peaks want and expect the bodies to be brought home. For them and those tasked with recovering the bodies — an exercise that can be more dangerous and far more costly than the expedition that killed the climber in the first place — the drama begins with death.

When someone dies, those left behind, from climbing partners on the scene to family and friends half a world away, are immediately faced with enormously daunting decisions and tasks. The rituals, customs and logistics of what happens next are always different.

There are practical considerations, including whether to search for the bodies of those presumed missing or dead, if that is even feasible, and whether to recover the body or let it rest eternally where it is. There are emotional considerations, maybe cultural and religious ones, often in the name of closure, which can mean different things to different people. There are the wishes of the deceased, if those were ever communicated. There are logistical concerns, including danger and cost, local customs and international laws. Sometimes, in some places, recovery of a body is not just wanted, it is needed, to prove a death so that benefits can be provided to a family in desperate need of financial support.

All these things came into play after the bodies of three men from India were scattered high on Everest in 2016. The dim hopes for rescue kindled into demands for recovery, led by the West Bengal government.

Within a few days, in the short window between the last of the season’s summit attempts and the start of the summer monsoon that racks the Himalayas and shuts down the climbing season until the following year, a recovery team of six hired Sherpas tried to find the deceased and carry them down. They had neither the manpower nor the time.

The first they found was Paul, the delivery driver and a part-time guitar instructor who lived with his sprawling family, including his wife and 10-year-old daughter, in the small town of Bankura. He was steps from the well-worn route below Camp 4, roughly 26,000 feet above sea level. He was faceup, but only the toes of his boots stuck out of the fresh snow. It took four hours to chip and pry him from his icy grave and another 12 to drag him to Camp 2, where a helicopter carried the body to Base Camp.

A few days later, thousands crowded Bankura’s rough and narrow streets for a miles-long procession of Paul’s body, which was carried on the open bed of Paul’s small truck. The procession led to the banks of the Dwarakeswar River, where the body was cremated and the soul set free, according to Hindu tradition. There was heartache, but also closure.

Subhas Paul, left, and his guide, Lakpa Sherpa, at the summit.Subhas Paul
Subhas Paul’s daughter, Susreeta, and brother-in-law Shayamapada Das. Josh Haner/The New York Times
Bishakita Paul in the bedroom she shared with Subhas.Josh Haner/The New York Times

Back on Everest, above where Paul’s body was extricated, two of the Sherpas moved up to Camp 4. At roughly 26,000 feet, higher than all but about 15 of earth’s peaks, it sits at the edge of the oxygen-depleted death zone and is the last rest stop for climbers before their final push to the summit. The Sherpas searched the abandoned tents, some shredded to ribbons by wind, until they found the body of another of the missing Indian climbers. They knew it was Nath, the tailor, because he had only one hand, the other lost in a childhood firecracker accident.

Raging winds kept them from climbing any higher in search of Ghosh, and the men were called back. The summer monsoon was on the way, ending the climbing season. Everyone rushed to pack up camp and get off the mountain. Ghosh and Nath, left dead in the death zone, would remain on Everest for at least a year, and maybe forever.

The thought of Ghosh somewhere up there — alone and frozen, or maybe wandering around the Himalayas lost and crying into the wind for help — haunted his wife, his brothers, his mother and all those who lived in the cramped home off Old Calcutta Road, hundreds of miles away. Kolkata lies on the improbably flat and vast plain of the Hooghly River, a slow and wide offshoot of the Ganges in eastern India. There is nothing, not even a hill, to poke the horizon, and the thought of a mountain like Everest feels as far away as another planet.


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