The skewed ethics of high-altitude mountaineering are back under the microscope as British climber Ian Woodall returns to Mount Everest to bury the bodies of three people who perished there.
Woodall attracted flak for leaving American climber Francys Arsentiev dying on the Himalayan peak. Now, he is ascending Everest again to attempt to put to rest her body and those of Briton David Sharp, whose death attracted such controversy last year, and an unnamed Indian mountaineer whose corpse is close by.
Ian Woodall and his wife Cathy O'Dowd were attempting an ascent of Everest in 1998 when they came upon the stricken climber, who had become separated from her husband Sergeui. He is believed to have fallen and his body has never been recovered. Francys Arsentiev begged the two of them not to leave her. They stayed with her for an hour in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius before leaving her, abandoning their summit bid and retreating, believing their own lives were in danger. Two sherpas with them continued and successfully reached the summit. O’Dowd subsequently explained their actions: “It was getting bitterly cold and we feared for our own safety. If you stop moving on Everest, you are in serious danger.”
Woodall was also climbing during the terrible disaster of 1996, when 15 climbers lost their lives on the mountain, including photographer Bruce Herrod who was in his party.
The death of Francys Arsentiev has haunted Ian Woodall ever since the expedition in 1998. Now, he’s going back with the sole intention of burying the three climbers whose bodies lie directly on the north-ridge route. He says it is impossible to bury people while on a summit expedition – there simply isn’t time and it becomes dangerous – hence the trip, accompanied by sherpas, to give the mountaineers a more fitting resting place.
The intention is to wrap the body of the American woman in her country’s flag and pile a cairn of rocks over her. Digging down at 8,000m on the mountain isn’t an option. Woodall says he will also cover the bodies of David Sharp and the Indian climber in a similar fashion.
Ian Woodall has summited Everest twice, in the fateful May of 1996 and three years later. Now 50, he says this will probably be his last ascent up the mountain. He said: “It would be nice to finish one's expedition career by doing something for somebody else, rather than chasing a record or a summit. At least this way we can give everybody back some dignity.”
203 climbers have lost their lives on Everest, and most of their bodies remain on the mountain. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit in 1953, the first to reach the highest point on earth and return alive.