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The Bodies of Mount Everest, the World's Highest Graveyard

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

The slopes of the world's highest mountain serve as the final resting place for many who have attempted the dangerous climb.

The slopes of the world's highest mountain serve as the final resting place for many who have attempted the dangerous climb.

Mount Everest: The World's Highest Graveyard

The rule of Everest is simple: You're left where you fall. Over the last eighty years, around 300 climbers have failed to return alive from the world's highest mountain, earning it the unofficial title of "the world's highest graveyard." The mountain's fabled "death zone," or the portion above 25,000 feet, is where the majority of these climbing fatalities occur.

Many wonder why so few attempts are made to recover the bodies that litter that mountain, and the truth is painful—it's hard enough for the living to return alive, and it's near impossible to recover most of the dead. In recent years, however, outcry and incentives have finally pushed expedition leaders to begin removing some of the bodies that rest on Everest's slopes. While some bodies have been removed, it is estimated that over 100 remain on the mountain.

In addition to bodies, discarded climbing gear, oxygen bottles, and other detritus from years of dangerous expeditions litter the mountainside, earning Everest yet another unofficial title: "the world's highest trashcan."

How Well-Preserved Are Climbers' Bodies?

A typical dead body on Everest weighs over 200 pounds and is frozen solid. Before the body can even be moved, it must first be broken free from the mountainside. Most bodies freeze to the mountainside less than one hour after death and freeze solid in less than four hours.

Due to the temperature, these corpses remain frozen 365 days a year. As a result, most of the bodies are nearly perfectly preserved, even after being abandoned for decades. No better example exists than the still-frozen body of George Mallory, which was discovered in 1999. He and his climbing partner disappeared over 80 years ago, but his body has barely decayed.

The phrase "death zone" refers to all parts of Everest above 25,000 feet in elevation. This is where the majority of climbing fatalities occur.

The phrase "death zone" refers to all parts of Everest above 25,000 feet in elevation. This is where the majority of climbing fatalities occur.

What Is the Death Zone?

Most of the mountain's dead lie in what's called the "death zone," or the part of the mountain above 25,000 feet where the air contains only a third of the amount of oxygen as the air at sea level. As a result, helicopters cannot fly to this altitude, making airlifting bodies impossible. Each body must be hand-carried down icy rock faces and slippery frozen slopes.

Why Is It So Difficult to Remove Climbers' Corpses?

Since they are frozen solid, the bodies are stiff and cumbersome, so carrying one is almost like carrying a section of a tree trunk. Hand-carried bodies may also act as sails in Everest's unrelenting winds, further adding to the danger. The mountain's notoriously strong winds have literally ripped climbers clean off the mountain. Ultimately, most agree that no body is worth the life of another. Hence, the decision is often made to simply leave bodies where they fall.

Everest's Most Infamous Graves

While most of Everest's bodies are preserved in relative anonymity, covered with rocks, or removed, several climbers' bodies that still remain on the mountain have become somewhat well-known.

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine

George Mallory vanished in 1924 and was declared dead after he and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, failed to return from their summit bid. For 70 years, the pair's whereabouts remained unknown. The mystery was partially solved in 1999 when Mallory's body was discovered face down on a steep rock face.

The location of the body suggested that Mallory fell and slid down the slope, breaking his right leg clean in two. After the body was identified by a nametag still visible on Mallory's coat, it was buried where it was found. Andrew Irvine's body has yet to be located.

Tsewang "Green Boots" Paljor

One of the more well-known bodies on Everest is that of "Green Boots," so named for the green climbing boots still worn by the body. The body is believed by many to be that of Tsewang Paljor, an Indian climber who died on Everest in 1996. It still lies where it fell, and those who traverse the mountain's north side can visit it in a limestone cave at 21,000 feet (8,500 meters) in elevation.

Everest's Legacy: 300 and Counting . . .

Since the count began in the 1920s with the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, nearly 300 individuals have lost their lives on the slopes of Mount Everest, and the number continues to grow. On average, one in four climbers dies on Everest each year.

Since the premiere of Discovery Channel's Everest: Beyond the Limit in 2006, awareness of the mounting body count has skyrocketed. In 2010, an expedition was launched with the sole purpose of addressing the dead on Everest. Bodies below 25,000 feet were to be removed and brought down for cremation at Everest's base camp. Those above 25,000 feet in the "death zone" were to remain on the mountain but be buried in stone graves, forever hidden from view.

Resources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on May 12, 2012:

Everest has fallen out of favor to most expert climbers these last few decades because of the way it's become.

Chris Hugh on May 06, 2012:

Fascinating but gory. I think this has cured me of any desire to climb Everest. Such ugliness and callousness there.

DragonBallSuper on May 05, 2012:

Interesting.. You did a great work uncovering these remains. Voted UP! very nice.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 05, 2012:

I can certainly understand the difficulty in recovering any body from a mountain that high. I didn't know much of the information you shared in this very interesting hub. Voted up!