A proper farewell for Francys Arsentiev
On May 2, I reported on the story of Ian Woodall's intentions to give final resting peace to Francys Arsentiev, a Colorado climber and mother who perished on Mount Everest in 1998 with her husband Sergei.
A touching article came out today in The Rocky Mountain News detailing Woodall's success in putting Fran to rest after all these years. But, more importantly - and more poignantly - the article serves as a wonderful tribute to Fran as both a climber and a person, one who was full of life, a fantastic mother, and far more than simply the "Sleeping Beauty" she has been portrayed in by the press.
I never knew Fran personally. I only knew the story of her tragic final days on Everest and my subsequent interaction with her in 1999. It is wonderful to learn more about her, about a life infused with passion, love, and tenacity. Her memory lives on, and I am happy to hear that she might finally be at peace.
- Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.
Everest vow, lovingly kept
Nine years after a Colorado mother perished, a fellow climber puts her to rest
By Jean Torkelson, Rocky Mountain News
May 24, 2007
Francys Arsentiev strode into the Telluride bank that spring day in 1998, stoked and confident. She was leaving soon to make history on Mount Everest, where she hoped to be the first American woman to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain without supplemental oxygen.
"I remember she was extremely excited about it," says Peter Kenworthy, a former banker who saw her that day. "She was in training, in tip-top shape, and trying to do something no one had ever done. I think it was the farthest thing from her mind that she wouldn't come back."
Instead, Arsentiev faced the cruel side of the majestic and fickle mountain, known to Tibetans as Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World - a goddess who offers her suitors random portions of tragedy and success.
Her son, Paul Distefano, now 20, recalled this week that shortly before she left for Everest, his mother asked him if he was OK with her quest.
"She was packing up and she said, 'Paulie, I'm leaving it up to you. Should I do this?' And I said, 'You know, I can picture you at 80 years old kicking yourself that you didn't climb Everest. You need to go.' "
He added: "She was happiest in those last days. You could tell she could do anything. She could fly if she wanted to. And she knew I was going to be OK. She gave me everything she could."
'Please don't leave me'
On Monday, the body of Francys Arsentiev was freed from the icy flanks of Everest, where it has been lying for the past nine years.
It was fulfillment of a pledge that British climber Ian Woodall had held ever since he and fellow climber Cathy O'Dowd had come upon the dying Arsentiev: Unable to forget her haunting plea, "Please don't leave me," Woodall vowed to return to Everest someday to give Arsentiev a dignified final resting place.
But in the grip Monday of a massive, three-day storm and waist-deep snow, Woodall couldn't bury Arsentiev in a rock cairn as he hoped.
Instead, he and his Sherpa team placed a teddy bear near her heart, wrapped her in an American flag, whispered a message from her son Paul, and slipped her body over Everest's North Face.
The body likely fell into a mountain bowl, which holds the bodies of many climbers, O'Dowd said. It's mountaineering's equivalent of a burial at sea.
"Ian described it as the three hardest days of his life - and you have to understand he's been to Everest four times and summited twice, so that's saying a lot," said O'Dowd on Wednesday. O'Dowd, now Woodall's wife, got word of her husband's successful mission in Madrid, where she is lecturing.
For nearly a decade, Woodall and O'Dowd haven't been able to forget the figure in the purple down suit they found sprawled on the Northeast Ridge about 800 feet below the summit in May 1998.
By then, Arsentiev, 40, had been without supplemental oxygen for two nights. Her husband, the powerful Russian climber Sergei Arsentiev, appeared to have protectively tied her to the slope and gone for help. His body has never been found.
O'Dowd recognized Francys Arsentiev as the effervescent American climber who came into their tent at base camp to have tea and popcorn and chat about her son and her home.
Now, high on the mountain, "I didn't recognize her at first - she looked like one of those old-fashioned porcelain dolls," O'Dowd recalled that day in 1998. "Her face was pale and waxy-smooth from frostbite, and it made her look incredibly young, like she was 20."
Woodall and O'Dowd comforted Arsentiev, but at the altitude of a jetliner's path, in steep terrain and profound cold, rescue was unthinkable: "She was limp as a rag doll," O'Dowd said.
For Woodall and O'Dowd, time was also running out the longer they tarried in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere known as "the death zone."
They stayed as long as they could.
When they left after about an hour, "she was not in any pain, just fading away. I think a good deal of her had faded away when we got there," O'Dowd said.
No one doubts that Arsentiev achieved the summit. She has been awarded the record as the first American woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. But today she's just as likely to be known on Web sites as "the Sleeping Beauty," a vulnerable, heartbreaking figure who elicits tenderness and compassion.
"I had seen her on (my) ascent . . . a tragic figure lying on her side just below the first step," wrote Jake Norton, a Colorado-based Everest climber in a blog two weeks ago. He was recounting how in 1999 he slightly altered the standard Everest route away from Arsentiev's body to give it more privacy.
Norton recalled the gallant figure in the purple down suit, "almost comfortable lying in a strange peace on the mountainside."
Image in poor taste
Arsentiev's family considers much of the media interest in her fate to be rank sensationalism.
The image of her as a fragile "Sleeping Beauty" is in poor taste, says Arsentiev's stepfather, Joe Garrett. "This idea of her as this poor, fragile being - when she was so much more than that, so much more than a mountain climber."
Her son, Paul, says most of the accounts ignore her spirited essence, the mother who loved to take him skiing - "she was so graceful, she'd just fly" - and so charismatic and personable, "that when she'd walk in a room, you knew she was in the room."
Instead, said Distefano, "I have British reporters calling me and asking, 'Do you feel this is finally bringing dignity to your mother's body?' It's like, 'f--- you.' On a spiritual level you know her energy isn't there. You don't even need me to say that."
Distefano was 10 years old when his mother died. His dad, Joe Distefano, who still lives in the Telluride area, was also a climber who wanted to settle down after Paul was born, his son says.
"He wanted to build a golf course and enjoy the landscape and live in Telluride. My mother wasn't into that. She wanted to go and adventure."
The couple divorced when Paul was a baby. His mother kept traveling the world, a mirror of her youth.
Arsentiev was born in Hawaii, the daughter of a military physician, John Yarbro, who later became a prominent cancer specialist. Her Peruvian-born mother is a pediatrician. The family lived all over the U.S.
Her mother, Marina Yarbro, recalled this week a graceful, exceptional daughter who earned undergraduate and master's degrees in international management and was a standout skier.
"In the beginning I didn't approve of what she did - to expose her life," said Yarbro, referring to mountain climbing. "She excelled in everything, she was educated and strong; it was a waste of a magnificent life."
In Norwood, a quiet mountain town 50 miles from Telluride, Francys and Sergei built a home and decorated it with maps from climbing expeditions and places they visited all over the world. In the offseason, Sergei worked in construction and Francys worked as a bookkeeper. A local environmental issue led her to join the Norwood Town Council.
Distefano grew up close to both his father and his father's wife and to his mother and Sergei, whom she met on a climbing expedition to Russia.
"On a spiritual level, I lived with four parents, and I was always going back and forth," said Distefano, who is a magician in Los Angeles.
It was his adventurous, spirited mother who opened the world to him, who took him skiing, hiking and bouldering around Telluride.
"She didn't need to do anything to be 'up,' " he said. "She was always wanting to go see another mountain or do something."
He resents people assuming that she went to Everest just to get into the record books.
"It had nothing to do with her competitiveness or her wanting to go and be first at something," he said. "I knew her better than anyone. That's not why she did it.
"She talked to me about climbing Everest before it was desecrated and ruined, before it was no longer something beautiful and where everybody's taking the elevator (to the summit)."
That was why his mother and Sergei climbed without big expeditions, "because in that way it was pure. She didn't want anything to get in the way of the experience.
"Some people took it as arrogant, that she wanted to do it all. But she did it that way because growing up she had a lot of problems in her family, like everyone else on this planet."
The mountains, he said, "were her church, her sanctuary, where she could go and see God. That's who she was."
Distefano lost two people that day - he was also close to Sergei, a quiet, powerful presence.
"He was my friend. He never tried to be my father. He was so quiet, the biggest, strongest man in the world, but he'd walk in a room so quiet you couldn't hear him. Just feel him."
Someday Distefano hopes to go to Everest, to be where his mother spent her intense final days. But he will do it from base camp. He won't climb the mountain.
Of all the sports and pastimes he shared with his mother, climbing never captured his spirit.
"I think I leaned away from it and got into other sports," he said. "I never wanted to share climbing with her because it meant she was going somewhere."
• Elevation: 29,035 feet, highest mountain in the world
• Location: In the Himalaya range, flanking Nepal and China
• First to summit: New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, 1953
• First American to summit: Jim Whittaker, 1963
• First American woman to summit: Stacey Allison, 1988
• First people to summit without using supplemental oxygen: Reinhold Messner of Italy and Austrian Peter Habeler, 1978
• First American woman to summit without supplemental oxygen: Francys Arsentiev, 1998
• How many have summited: 2,943 as of this year
• Number of deaths: 206
• Leading cause of death: Injuries and exhaustion
Sources: Everestnews.Com, World Mountain Encyclopedia, Forbes Magazine
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