Peace at last for Sleeping Beauty
I had seen her on the ascent...a tragic figure lying on her side just below the First Step. I knew her story...Francys Arsentiev...A successful summit in 1998, the first American woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. A tragic end, freezing to death in the inhospitable cold of the Northeast Ridgecrest.
Her family had contacted our expedition previously, asking that her body be moved from the climbing route if at all possible.
As I rappelled down the First Step, falling snow accompanied by a strong wind obscured my vision. But, I could still make out the purple down suit lying silently beneath me, tucked on the windward side of a large boulder. I trudged over to her, happy to give her some peace, but not excited to be working with the dead once more.
Two weeks before, we - the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition - had discovered the remains of pioneer climber George Leigh Mallory at 27,000 feet on Everest's North Face. We spent several hours with Mallory, delicately chipping him from the surrounding snow, ice, and rock, and retrieving telling artifacts from his pockets. In the late afternoon, we spent an hour gathering rock from the mountainside and gave him a proper burial, reading a Committal his family sent us from the Bishop of Bristol.
When I got up to Fran, her story was spelled out clearly in her body position. It was almost comfortable, lying in strange peace on the mountainside, indicative of the relative calm which comes at the end of a battle with severe hypothermia.
In her current state, the fixed lines - which are physically attached to the mountain, providing safety and a guide for climbers - were still attached to her mechanical ascender. She was still a part of the climbing route. That meant, of course, that every single climber ascending the Northeast Ridge would have to pass by Francys, disturbing her again and again.
I tried to move her off the route, but the process of sublimation had made her body a part of the mountain. It was as if she had been set in concrete.
Given the falling snow and the late hour, coupled by my fatigue, I knew I could not safely take the time to extricate her from the ice and rock and move her body to a more peaceful location, off the climbing route.
So, I did the next best thing: I moved the climbing route away from Fran, resetting the fixed line well above her and the boulder marking her final resting place.
Returning to Fran, I said my own personal prayers for her and her family, and began my descent.
In subsequent years returning to the Northeast Ridge (2001, 2003, & 2004), I was happy to see that the climbing route still goes above Francys, and she is hopefully lying peacefully, undisturbed in her final place.
I was happy to read in the article below about Ian Woodall's expedition this year to give Fran Arsentiev, David Sharp, and others a full burial on the mountain. I wish him the best of luck, and salute him in his attempt to bring more humanity back to Everest and mountaineering. It's been a long time in coming.
- Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.
Peace at last for Sleeping Beauty
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 02/05/2007
When climbers perish on Everest, their corpses serve as ghastly waymarkers. But one victim is due for a dignified 'burial', says Neil Tweedie
Everest has many ways of punishing the overconfident and the unwary. It can freeze its victims to death in a sudden, roaring storm, or kill them quietly at night, using the seductive warmth of hypothermia to carry them away in their sleep.
It can suffocate painfully with its thin air just as the summit beckons, or inter bodies forever under avalanches of snow and rock. And if none of these, there is always the chance of a collapsing ice bridge and a hidden, waiting crevasse.
Many of the climbers who perish touching the roof of the world are never seen again, but some simply lie there in the open year after year, preserved almost perfectly in deep freeze like morbid, cautionary signposts in the snow for veterans and newcomers alike.
The body of George Mallory is still there at 27,000ft. It was discovered in 1999 by climbers who hoped to determine whether or not he and his companion, Andrew Irvine, had made it to the top in June 1924.
The rope that once attached him to Irvine was still around his waist, and his hands still clawed at the rock. But the camera that might have proved the two Britons to be the first conquerors of the world's highest mountain was not found.
The expedition achieved one aim, though: Mallory was at last accorded the dignity of burial.
The body of the American climber Francys Arsentiev has yet to be paid the same respect. But hopefully, if a veteran British climber has his way, it soon will.
In May 1998, Ian Woodall and his then future wife, the South African climber Cathy O'Dowd, came across Fran Arsentiev in her last hour.
Sacrificing their chance to reach the summit only 1,000ft above them, they stayed with her. But there was nothing they could do before moving on except watch her die.
Yesterday, speaking from her home in Andorra, Cathy remembered that day: "It was her movement - her twitching, a spasmodic jerk - that caught my eye, and then the purple of her jacket. She must have been aware of us because she started to speak, but there were just three sentences repeated over and over again: 'Don't leave me', 'Why are you doing this to me?' and 'I'm an American'.
"We recognised who she was from that last sentence. I didn't know her immediately - her face was frost-bitten, but not in the way one thinks. It was a waxy, white and incredibly smooth look, like Sleeping Beauty. It made her look much younger than she was.
"We had talked to her at Base Camp. She had come into our tent and had tea. She wasn't an obsessive type of climber - she spoke a lot about her son and home.
"She wasn't dead when we left her, although she had ceased to speak. It was getting bitterly cold and we were fearing for our own safety. If you stop moving on Everest you are in serious danger.
" I thought at first there was a chance for her because she was talking but I knew really that, lying down as she was, there wasn't. I don't think she was talking to us. It was like a stuck record."
Mountaineers, particularly the obsessive type, can appear callous, being prepared to leave the dying to their fate in the race to a summit. There are no 999 calls on Everest.
Suffer a serious injury or fall victim to exposure and exhaustion and, if you are high enough, there will be no one to help you. There is a horrible, Darwinistic simplicity to life - and death - on the ultimate peak.
But now Cathy's husband, Ian, 50, wants to show that there is humanity in climbing. He is back at Everest Base Camp this week preparing to return to that spot 28,000ft up to give Fran Arsentiev her burial.
In an expedition due to start in the next week or so, he will also bury the bodies of the British climber David Sharp, who died during a lone descent in spring last year, and an unnamed Indian climber who perished in the great storm of 1996 with eight others.
That event inspired the book Into Thin Air by the writer and climber Jon Krakauer, who took part in the expedition. In it he chronicled how a rogue weather system hit two teams of paying climbers on the mountain, and the selflessness and need for self-preservation that led each man and woman involved to do what they did to survive.
Like the remains of the other two dead climbers, Fran Arsentiev's body lies in the snow on the main route to the summit. The purple jacket is clearly visible to the climbers who pass by each spring at the start of the summit season.
There is still a kind of practicality to this expedition: if the corpses were not on such a busy route, they would probably be left. If they were near crevasses they would be pushed into them in the most peremptory of burials.
Mr Woodall will have to use the stones and rocks available to construct the most basic of cairns.
A former soldier and veteran of Everest, who reached the summit in 1996 and 1999, he explained: "At the back of my mind I hoped someone would eventually do something for her. But, of course, the only reason anyone would be up that high is if they're on their way to the summit or on the way down.
" In either case, you can't really devote the hours and the workload required to bury a corpse. It needed a dedicated mission by someone like me, who's been on the summit a couple of times already. This will be my last expedition, so I thought it would be fitting to give something back."
Fran Arsentiev was 40 when she died on or about May 24 1998. She was the mother of a 10-year-old son, Paul, by her first marriage, and the wife of the Russian climber Sergei Arsentiev, known as the Snow Leopard for his mountaineering prowess, including the climbing of the five highest peaks in the former Soviet Union.
The couple had reached the summit without supplemental oxygen - Fran was the first American woman to do so - and were descending when disaster struck.
A team of Uzbek climbers said later that they had come across Sergei, who had asked for oxygen and medicine and then left them to return to his wife.
It is thought he fell on the way back, although it is not known where he died.
Fran, born in Hawaii and educated at private school in Switzerland, was not killed in a storm or by rockfall, but is thought simply to have frozen to death after succumbing to exhaustion.
Before her death, she had written to Paul, enclosing a map of her journey to the Himalayas. "Hi Paul! We're at Base Camp. Miss you and love you. XXX Mom."
Cathy, 38, who with Ian has visited Everest four times and summited twice, said she lost her desire to continue the climb to the summit, knowing there was nothing she could do for Fran.
"I climb because I enjoy it, not because of an obsessional desire to reach a summit at all costs. After finding Fran there was no way reaching the top could have given me pleasure."
"He had served in the army and could differentiate more about what was practically possible in terms of helping someone. He would have liked to go on."
Still, Cathy is also practical about Everest.
"You certainly shouldn't be on Everest if you haven't thought through what could happen. You can end up a landmark - 'turn right at the guy with the green boots, turn left at the woman in the purple jacket'. There's little dignity in that."
So why does she do it? "You gain an enormous amount. You live an enormous amount. In one way you are reduced to the very basic: you eat, sleep and climb, eat, sleep and climb, eat, sleep and climb. And you ask yourself why are you doing this, and what you are, and what being alive is about. It's the process of the journey rather than the goal."
Cathy and Ian first reached the summit of Everest in 1996 as part of a South African national expedition, but their triumph was marred by controversy. Bruce Herrod, a photographer with the team, never made it back. There were claims that he had been left to his fate.
"What can I say?" says Cathy. "We were spread out, we reached the summit individually. When we met Bruce going up, the weather was fine, there was no reason to suspect there was anything wrong with him and he wanted to reach the summit. What were we supposed to do? Stop him?"
Ordinary morality has little place at 29,000 feet and 160 F below zero. The 1996 disaster attracted a lot of attention because of the presence of "trophy" climbers - relatively inexperienced mountaineers prepared to pay up to $65,000 for the privilege of standing on the top of the world.
Jon Krakauer dismissed the idea that such people were not deserving of respect.
"No matter how much you pay, even with all the assistance the Sherpas and guides provide, it's still an incredible amount of work. No one can haul you up Everest. You just can't buy the summit. You've got to pay with sweat and puke and maybe with your life. That is worth some grudging respect."
Hopefully Fran Arsentiev's remains will now enjoy some respect.
And what was Cathy O'Dowd thinking as she lost sight of that Sleeping Beauty in the snow?
"It was simple really: that life goes on and that we, ourselves, had to survive."