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Mysterious Places: The Rainbow Valley

The Rainbow Valley sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? A place where one could expect to find leprechauns frolicking.

Think again.

The Rainbow Valley isn’t actually a valley at all, but an area just below the summit of Everest’s Northeast Ridge, where dozens of unlucky mountaineers remain frozen in time. Their brightly colored climbing gear is how the “valley” got its name.

You read that right–it’s a “rainbow” of corpses.

Removing a body from the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain is an expensive and risky business, so if you expire in your quest to reach the summit (or, more likely–to get back down), chances are you’ll become part of Everest’s infamous open graveyard. While recent efforts to remove or cover bodies have restored some of the deceased’s dignity, it’s still impossible to climb Mount Everest without seeing human remains. Or having to step over them.

And that’s not the most disturbing part about scaling this mountain: those who do it often face a huge moral dilemma–when confronted by a dying climber, would you abandon your quest to reach the summit (a privilege people pay over $65,000 for)? Or would you leave the stricken behind?

David Sharp

David Sharp

Over 40 climbers passed British mountaineer David Sharp as he was dying in a cave below the summit in 2006. Since getting around Sharp required climbers to unclip from the fixed rope, it’s unlikely he was missed, though many believed he was already dead. By the time Lebanese climber Maxime Chaya saw him and tried to help, it was too late. A Sherpa did what he could as well, putting an oxygen mask on Sharp, who revived enough to tell the Sherpa his name. (Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the name of this kind Sherpa–if anyone knows, please leave it in the comments.)

Sir Edmund Hillary, who became famous in 1953 when he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first confirmed climbers to summit Everest, was appalled by Sharp’s death. Hillary was openly critical of the “commercialization of Everest,” which has resulted in hundreds of inexperienced climbers scaling the mountain, leaving tons of garbage and waste behind.

“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn’t impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die,” he said.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Not all who are left to die go quietly, however. In 1996, disaster struck the mountain when twelve people died in a storm. (It was the most deadly day in Everest’s history until an ice avalanche in 2014 killed sixteen Nepalese guides.) Beck Weathers, a Texan pathologist and amateur mountaineer, was with a group who got lost in the storm. Weathers, who had recently had radial keratotomy surgery on his eyes, went blind in the high altitude.

Neal Beidleman, a guide with another expedition, left the group to get help. He was successful, but Weathers and a fellow climber, a Japanese woman named Yasuko Namba, were considered too far gone to make it down the mountain alive. Their team agreed to leave them for dead.

After spending an entire night on Everest with no protection from the elements, with the windchill plummeting to an insane 100 degrees below zero, Weathers woke up. With the image of his wife and two children in mind, he staggered to his feet and began to walk blindly in a grid pattern, determined to reach Camp Four. A misstep would have sent him plummeting over the side of the mountain, but Fortune smiled on Weathers that day. When he reached the camp, none of his fellow climbers could believe their eyes. Weathers’ face was black with frostbite, one of his arms was frozen in a salute position, and his hands were as white and hard as porcelain. One of the climbers described him as looking like a “mummy in a low-budget horror film.”

Sadly, even after Weathers survived enormous odds, his fellow climbers still assumed he would die, so they abandoned him in a tent that night. Another storm hit the mountain, collapsing Weathers’ tent, which nearly suffocated him. The 70-mile/hr winds blew off his sleeping bags, leaving him exposed and helpless. If journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer hadn’t checked on Weathers before leaving for Camp Four the next morning, the poor man would have been left for dead again.

Weathers’ wife Margaret “Peach” Olson Weathers said, “Where was their basic human compassion? Being in the tent with Beck certainly would not have endangered anyone. If they figured he was going to die, then being there to hear his final words, and perhaps pass them on to those he left behind, would have been a tremendous comfort to us.”

Seaborne Beck Weathers and his wife Margaret "Peach" Weathers soon after his rescue.

Seaborne Beck Weathers and his wife Margaret “Peach” Weathers after his return from Everest.

Incredibly, the Texan physician survived, though he lost a hand, all of his fingers, and his nose (a new nose was reconstructed from other tissue and grown on his forehead until it could be sewn into place).

In the climbers’ defence, probably all or most of them were suffering from hypoxia, which occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Hypoxia greatly inhibits decision-making, causing confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, and light-headedness.

Hypoxia is one of the reasons Everest’s Rainbow Valley will continue to glow with coats of many colors. To date, it’s estimated that over 240 people have died on the mountain.

Have you ever wanted to climb Everest? Do the statistics deter you? What’s the most extreme challenge you’ve ever undertaken?

Thanks to Jon Krakauer’s memoir Into Thin AirBeck Weathers’ memoir Left For Dead, and about a thousand documentaries and websites. I highly recommend the documentary Sherpa, which is a chilling look at the dangers the brave Nepalese climbers undertake to ensure Westerners achieve their Everest dreams.

**Dedicated to the memory of David Sharp and the hundreds who have died on Everest.**

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24 Comments

  1. What a shocking story! Especially about Weathers being left for dead twice. I agree with Hillary that Everest has become too commercialized and the climbers have lost their compassion. Still, anyone who goes knows they’re putting their life at risk. You’d never find me doing it!

    Reply
    • JH

      It was too much to get into in this post, but Weather was actually left for dead FOUR times. Two different mountaineers decided to leave him there, and then the survivors of his group had a meeting, where they again agreed this was a good idea.

      And then he was left in the tent. When Kraukauer found him that morning, he burst into sobs when he realized they’d failed Weathers again. In his memoir, Weathers poses a good question about whether or not Namba would have lived if she’d been taken back to camp.

      Reply
  2. What a fascinating look at Everest. I’m not sure what it says about mankind to climb over human remains just to make it to the top of a mountain. I guess it’s sometimes more of a challenge to be kind and compassionate than to climb the mountain. I also didn’t realize the cost to climb…wow. I’d say there was a purpose in life for Weathers to have beaten the odds as many times as he did. Everest is not a place you will ever find me.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    Reply
    • JH

      It gave Weathers the opportunity to rebuild his marriage and family life, which had suffered due to his obsession with climbing. I believe he’s an inspirational speaker in addition to his pathology work now.

      I think you’re right about compassion being a greater challenge than climbing the mountain. Many people who leave a dying climber are haunted for the rest of their lives. Even if all you can do is provide comfort, it’s worth the time, I think.

      Reply
  3. That is shocking. And very sad. I just read about this on another blog yesterday and didn’t realize so many had been left for dead on the mountain.

    Reply
    • JH

      Definitely sad, Alex, and I’m guessing those stats are low, since they probably don’t count all the Sherpas and other Nepalese guides who have lost their lives. 🙁

      Reply
  4. I remain totally fascinated by the whole Everest s-show. There needs to be some kind of percentage of each climber’s ascent cost donated to a common fund dedicated to cleaning up the people who have fallen *and* the trash.

    That said, ignoring the (perceived) dead or dying near the top is certainly part about sunk costs, but also in that from what I understand you yourself are teetering on the edge of hypoxia and perhaps not in your right mind. That on top of a person who is also far gone — and might not follow instruction/direction to go back down — makes rescue near the summit incredibly unlikely.

    If you haven’t read “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, do it now. (Do it for all his books, but that one is incredibly gripping.) Skip the “Everest” movie based on it, though.

    Reply
    • JH

      I credit “Into Thin Air” at the end of the post, along with Weathers’ memoir. I enjoyed them both. I actually liked Everest as well, even though Jon Krakauer hated it.

      I agree about a portion of the fee going to clean-up efforts. That’s a great idea. I could be wrong, but I think there is an environmental tax for climbers now. It’s about time!

      Reply
  5. This one bugs me because on one hand I want to say, those people are compassion-less AHoles, but on the other hand I want to say, they all bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into.
    The only thing worse is if they start using the bodies for directions.
    10 paces past Kevin is a left. When you get to Bob, set up camp for the night.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sadly, that’s been happening for a while, Heather. The bodies are landmarks, especially the one known as “Green Boots.” When the man’s father heard his son was being called Green Boots and used as a marker, he was devastated.

      Some climbers have pushed bodies off the paths and into crevasses to show respect. It’s also why I avoided posting a bunch of grisly photos. Can’t be easy for the ones left behind.

      Reply
  6. Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read – ever. Some South Africans were on that trip – this post is also pretty horrifying. How Weather’s defied the odds is beyond me, besides the fact that he was left 4 times for dead …

    My most challenging mountain climb was Mt. Kilimanjaro the highest one in Africa. Several have died on that mountain due to altitude mountain sickness …

    Reply
  7. Beck Weathers certainly is one inspirational person. Talk about being determined not to die. Amazing what the human body is capable of.
    I’ve never been drawn to mountaineering, but understand the passion that drives a person to do something they love despite all the odds.
    I can’t imagine leaving another human being behind to die by themselves…but it’s hard to judge others in a life-threatening situation like a storm where everyone is fighting for survival.
    Thankfully, I’m inside with a warm coffee. 🙂

    Reply
  8. I’m aware of the interest or challenge of climbing the highest peaks, but I had no idea of the cost. Rainbows will never bee the same.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
  9. This is certainly not a quest for the weak of heart. But now that Everest is strewn with bodies of those who didn’t make it, along with piles (I’ve read but not seen this) of trash tossed by climbers, the romance of the ascent is tarnished for me. Not that I’m a climber, but I am a romantic and this was one of those feats I loved to read about.

    Reply
  10. I knew about all of the bodies but I’d never heard individual accounts. That’s horrifying.
    And no, no mountain climbing for me. I don’t do extreme anything unless it’s extreme eating!

    Reply
  11. Such a strange obsession, extreme climbing. All the stories I’ve read or heard imply that in most cases, trying to assist those in desperate situations would lead to other deaths. Still, I’m not sure I could climb on if someone was in distress.

    Reply
  12. I became fascinated with this subject after reading Into Thin Air. It is a horrifying question: do you put your life at serious risk to help someone else, especially when you both knew treading into that environment was potentially deadly? I don’t know what I would do, except stay the heck away from such tall mountains! The documentaries and books about K-2 are equally interesting and horrifying.

    Reply
  13. Dante wrote that the lowest level of Hell was cold and composed of ice — those who were so heartless to the dying and injured may awaken after their death to find themselves forever injured and helpless in Hell’s Rainbow Valley. Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven wrote a fascinating fantasy, INFERNO, where a Sci Fi author dies and awakens in Dante’s Inferno. Riveting book.

    Reply
  14. I watched a documentary the last 3 months about this and was amazed how this man survived. I know there are many on that mountain and I agree with Sir Hillary about how this mountain is not respected. I have never wanted to climb this mountain even though I would like to see it. The biggest risk I ever did was wondering if I should eat that last piece of cake before I felt I would explode.

    Reply
  15. So terrible. How chilling would that be to come upon those bodies as you were hiking? Unless that person insisted you go on without them, how could you leave someone behind?

    Reply
  16. Wow. Just…wow. I had no idea. The thought of all those bodies up there gives me the chills.

    And Weathers? A true miracle man.

    Reply
  17. Yeah, no desire to attempt the mountain. It’s just heartbreaking to me that people would leave others behind. I mean, I understand when conditions get some extreme that you’re just trying to survive, but I would be one of those who got left behind because I was trying to help someone else.

    Reply
  18. At one point in my life I considered adding “Climb Everest” to my bucket list, but after reading how commercial it has become, as well as the numerous stories and accounts similar to yours it was stricken off immediately. NOTHING is worth that to me.

    Testing my own endurance has always been my favourite challenge, from running marathons, to cycling 225 miles along mountain bike trails from Durango CO to Moab UT, to my most recent 7-day back-country hike along the north short of Lake Superior this past summer. Although each of those could result in injury or death, the stakes are nowhere near as high as scaling a mountain that has gone from elusive to “doable for anyone who can afford it”.

    Reply
  19. I recently watched the movie Everest. Thank god none of my sons ever wanted to do anything so foolish – IMO.

    Reply

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