• January 21, 2018
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Bringing the dead back from Everest

Recovering dead bodies can be more dangerous and far more costly than the expedition that killed the climber

By John Branch
15:16 December 27, 2017
Mt Everest
everest
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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 towards 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.

More than a year of exposure to the world’s wickedest elements had blackened and shrivelled 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.

Debasish Ghosh outside the hospital where a postmortem was performed on his brother’s body, in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Josh Haner/New York Times)

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.

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.

Bishakita Paul, the wife of Subhas Paul, one of four climbers who died in May 2016 while trying to climb Mount Everest, in Durgapur, India (Josh Haner/New York Times)

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.

The ultimate conquest

The four Indian climbers, from a vibrant climbing culture in West Bengal, saw the mountain as the ultimate conquest, a bucket-list item that would bring personal satisfaction and prestige.

Climbing Everest is an expensive endeavor. Some spend $100,000 (Dh367000) 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.

In a handout photo, Subhas Paul at the summit of Mount Everest. Paul died on his way down from the summit

Ghosh shared an apartment with eight members of his extended family. Paresh Nath, 58, was a one-handed tailor who barely scraped by with his wife and young son. Subhas Paul, 44, drove a small-goods truck and used his father’s pension to pay for his Everest attempt. Hazra was a nurse, married and raising a son.

About 5,000 people have reached the 29,029-foot 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.

Nepal officials estimate that about 200 bodies remain scattered across Everest.

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.

  Sunita Hazra in a tent at Base Camp 

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. Recovering the bodies can be more dangerous and far more costly than the expedition that killed the climber.

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. 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 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. 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.

  Goutam Ghosh turns the camera on himself on Mount Everest in 2016

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. Ghosh and Nath, left dead in the death zone, would remain on Everest for at least a year, and maybe forever.

Ghosh’s wife, Chandana, kept the vermilion sindoor in the part of her hair, and the red and white bangles on her right wrist, to indicate that she was a married woman. She would not remove them until she was certain she was a widow. She left the calendar on the wall of the bedroom turned to May 2016. In her mind, that was when time stopped.

“I still believe he is alive,” she said in her home in February. “Unless I see him, and we cremate him, I will not change.”

In the steel town of Durgapur, 100 miles northwest of Kolkata, Nath’s wife, Sabita, tried to move on. She had no money to bring the body home. She and her husband never spoke about what to do if he died, but now she convinced herself that he would want to be left on the mountain.

Within reach

On the afternoon of May 20, 2016, Ghosh, Nath, Paul and Hazra anxiously rested inside a tent at Camp 4. They wore oxygen masks and bright, bulky snowsuits filled with down.

Finally, after weeks at Base Camp and on the lower slopes of Everest, they were within reach of the summit. If all went well, they would be back at Camp 4 within 24 hours.

In the early evening, after dark and later than they had planned, they emerged from the tent, each with a guide.

The summit of Everest cannot be seen from Camp 4, but much of the route can. It leads up a series of ropes, used by every Everest climber, that are tied to anchors drilled into the rock and ice and set by Sherpas at the start of the season.

The route leads across a barren ice field, sliced with deep crevasses, and shoots up a steep and rocky slope until it reaches a small flat spot, a burr on the side of the mountain. The landing is known as the Balcony, and from there it is two hours or more along the exposed, knife-edged Southeast Ridge to the South Summit. From the South Summit, the top of Everest finally emerges in full view.

The round-trip journey from Camp 4 takes some people less than 12 hours, and experienced guides and climbers know that it should take no more than about 18 - 12 hours up, six hours back. Prolonged exposure is dangerous.

The West Bengal expedition stood at the Balcony well after dawn. There were four clients and only three guides because Nath’s guide appeared to stay behind at Camp 4, for reasons never understood.

The Base Camp manager for the Indian expedition received a radio call from Bishnu Gurung, the only one of the group’s guides with experience reaching the summit of Everest. He said he recommended to the clients that they turn back, but they refused.

Only Nath was persuaded to turn back to Camp 4.

Paul and Lakpa Sherpa reached the summit at 1.45pm, according to the camera later recovered from Paul’s body. The others in their group — Ghosh, Hazra, Nath and their guides — were somewhere below.

The last photograph of Ghosh taken with his camera appeared to be at the South Summit at 1.57 p.m.

Hazra, the lone survivor, said that she reached the summit at about 3pm There is no evidence that she got there.

Back in West Bengal, vague and inaccurate news reports spread quickly on May 21: The climbers had reached the summit. By nightfall, however, updated reports from Everest arrived. The West Bengali climbers were lost on their way down.

The red tape

The first photographs arrived on Tuesday, May 16, a day after the 2017 season opened. The photo showed a body in a faded yellow snowsuit bent like a horseshoe and half-buried in snow. There was no face visible, but the boots and the gear matched what Ghosh was wearing a year before.

Everyone agreed: It was Ghosh’s body.

Three men from the West Bengal government rushed to Kathmandu. They quickly struck a deal with Mingma Sherpa, owner of Seven Summit Treks, a major Himalayan expedition company based in Kathmandu. The sides agreed on a price that the government would pay for the two bodies to be recovered: $90,000, roughly the amount the government quietly set aside weeks earlier. The government announced it would pay for the retrievals.

Sabita Nath and Chandana Ghosh received calls from a government official asking them to sign a “no objection” certificate to allow for the attempted recoveries. They agreed.

Nepal’s Department of Tourism, which oversees the country’s mountaineering trade, placed only one major provision on the operation: It did not want the bodies coming down at the same time that hundreds of climbers were going up.

It was late May, the tail end of the Everest climbing season, when five hired Sherpas quietly left Camp 2 at 1am. They turned their oxygen on low at what they called the “crampon point,” an hour above Camp 2.

Sherpas typically use oxygen only in the death zone, at Camp 4 and above, but they wanted to move quickly.

The leader was Dawa Finjhok Sherpa, a 29-year-old guide who had been to the summit of Everest five times.

About 11am, the retrieval Sherpas reached Camp 4, a ghost town of abandoned tents and gear so late in the season. A few hours behind them, following the same route, six more Sherpas left Camp 2 and headed to Camp 4. Their mission was to recover Nath.

At 1.39 local time on a Wednesday afternoon, the recovery team searching for Ghosh got to his body.

The Sherpas connected Ghosh to a new rope, anchored in a rock about 30 feet uphill, and used ice axes to dig and pry the body from the snow. When the body moved, it moved as one piece, without torque, all the limbs, muscles and joints frozen solid. Dawa Finjhok Sherpa estimated the load weighed more than 300 pounds, double Ghosh’s weight when he was alive.

They lowered him by rigging a pulley-type system through the same anchors used for climbers attempting the summit.

At dawn, Ghosh’s body arrived at the crampon point. The Sherpas assigned to get his body had been working nearly 28 hours, but Ghosh’s journey was held up, awaiting Nath and the helicopter that would carry them off the mountain.

The body of Nath, still in the red-and-black snowsuit that he sewed for himself, reached the crampon point at about 2pm, Thursday, May 25. He was wrapped in a malleable, plastic stretcher.

The Ghosh team came up the short distance from Camp 2, and coaxed both men downhill in their makeshift sleds. In an hour, they got to the helicopter landing spot. When the Sherpas called to Base Camp, they were told the helicopter would not come that day.

What the Sherpas did not know, and what the families of Ghosh and Nath did not know, was that they were also waiting for the body of another Indian climber, one who had died just days before.

Seven Summits wanted to minimize the cost by ferrying three bodies down at once. Finally, on May 28, a helicopter curled around the valley and touched down.

In the final report, the doctors listed the cause of Ghosh’s death as “undetermined.” A similar examination for Nath ended with the same conclusion.

Last respects

Nath’s body arrived in a hearse to the courtyard of his home, where a huge crowd awaited. The lid of the coffin was pried off, and the plastic wrap that encased his body was torn open at the head. A flag of the Durgapur Mountaineers Association was draped on top of him.

Sabita Nath sobbed, and held tight to her son, Adrishikar, now 10, who came face-to-face with the corpse of his father after a year of denying his death.

At the Ghosh house, Ghosh’s widow, Chandana, had changed clothes. Gone was the colourful sari, replaced by a white one with small, subtle flowers. She had no sindoor tilak, the vermilion smear along the hairline that signaled marriage, and no red bindi dot on her forehead.

The red and white bangles on her wrist were gone, too. While her husband’s body was cremated, she broke them. A year after her husband died on Everest, she was finally a widow.

The calendar on the bedroom wall still showed May 2016.

–New York Times News Service