I was reading about Mount Everest the other day.
The region above 26000 feet (8000 metres) is known as the Death Zone. Besides hypothermia, frost bite, brain swellings, heart attacks, avalanches, the human mind starts shutting off at such high altitudes due to lack of oxygen triggering cerebral edema.
Which begs the question – why climb Everest?
Arguably, the most famous dead body to lie on Everest is that of ‘Green Boots’. It is the body of Tsewang Paljor, who was part of a four member Indo-Tibetan Border Police expedition team, and died during the disaster of 1996.
Almost everyone who climbs Everest, specially those climbing on the north side, know about Green Boots! His body lay under the shadow of a overhanging rock, and it came to be known as Green Boots Cave. The ‘cave’ located at about 8500 metres altitude is a regular resting point for climbers on the way back from the Everest summit. As his body lies curled up as if to protect himself from the cold and the wind, and the red fleece jacket is pulled upto the face, you could almost mistake him for a person taking a nap. Since his legs stretch out into the path, mountaineers have to gingerly cross over the neon boots to move ahead.
Quite eerie that where a man’s dead body lies, people use the same spot as a resting point. The trail marker serves as a grim lesson to everyone attempting to summit Everest from the north face that the mountain is cold and doesn’t spare anyone when riled.
Who was Tsewang Paljor
I felt a little odd that a dead person could be referred to with such a flippant tag. I wanted to know more about the man who wore those boots. Who was Tsewang Paljor? Where was he from? Did he have a family? Did he watch cricket? The questions swirled around my brain.
After a little research, I got some answers. Paljor belonged to Sakti village in Ladakh. I google ‘Sakti’ and excitedly follow the map route from Leh. Shey, Thiksey, Karu show up as blobs enroute. Thiksey is one of the most beautiful monasteries in the region. Karu is the first check point we cross when we are headed from Leh to Pangong. We cover this route every time we go to Pangong lake. I see a small detour on the Karu – Chang La pass stretch that goes to village Sakti. Green Boot’s village. Nay, Tsewang Paljor’s home.
Sakti is a small village with just three hundred odd households. Everyone knows everyone here. Poplar trees, barley fields, fat cows form the landscape. Paljor’s house is a nice two storeyed building, with whitewashed walls and built in the traditional Ladakhi style.
As a kid, Tsewang was the middle child and had five siblings. He was naturally quiet, but also kind and compassionate. Friends and family describe him as shy. He quits school after tenth standard, to help his family’s finances. It reminds me of my own study in Ladakh in 2008 as part of a rural marketing project. While girls completed school, boys would quit midway by eighth standard or so, and search for employment. Most would become drivers or join the tourism industry, or join the army.
Tsewang joined the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) unit. It’s campus is near Leh. The ITBP was formed in 1962, after hostilities from China grew in the region. All the personnel were trained to patrol high altitude landscapes. During his tenure, he scaled several peaks, and his home is full of his certificates and awards.
When Paljor would return to home for holidays, his younger brother, Thinle Namgyal, would playfully hit him in the stomach. “His stomach felt like rock. I always thought that my brother was like Superman”.
In 1996 the ITBP formed a four-man team to summit Everest – hoping they would be the first Indians to do it from the North side.
Thinle, who had become a monk by then, blessed Tsewang just a few days before he left for the expedition. He was the last family member to see Tsewang alive.
Tsewang’s Paljor’s death:
Besides Paljor, the others chosen for the mission were Tsewang Smanla, Dorje Morup, and deputy leader Harbhajan Singh. Except Harbhajan, the other three were Ladakhi.
On May 10, the troubles began. It went wrong right from the beginning. The four were at camp VI and were to push for the summit at 330 am. But due to bad weather, and later because they overslept, they started out at 8 am, losing precious hours. It was pre-decided that whatever be the case, they would turn back at 3 pm so as to make it back to camp VI safely. Around 230 pm, Harbhajan Singh was lagging far behind the three Ladakhis who were further up on the mountain. He kept signalling them to stop and turn around, but either they did not see him or ignored him. Frostbitten and exhausted, Harbhajan returned alone.
Today, Harbhajan Singh is an Inspector General at the ITBP and is a Padma Shri awardee.
At 3 pm, the walkie talkie at a lower camp spluttered to life. Expedition leader Mohinder Singh who was waiting on tenterhooks, was taken aback when Smanla said “Sir, we are heading towards the summit”. Singh reminded them the cut-off turn back time, and told them to return but Smanla insisted that they were just an hour away from the summit and all three were feeling fit. Singh urged them to not be overconfident, told them that the weather was turning bad, but Peljor confidently spoke into the walkie-talkie “Sir, please allow us to go up”. The radio went blank the next moment.
They were probably suffering from Summit Fever – an overwhelming desire to reach the summit that causes climbers to flout safety guidelines.
However, at 535 pm, Singh’s walkie talkie crackled again, and he heard Smanla say “We are on the summit”. Though Singh reminded them the importance of coming down immediately, he was himself super excited to call up New Delhi and declare the team’s victory.
The celebrations began, both in Delhi and at the lower camp, but they were short-lived. Very soon, the weather that was already deteriorating broke completely and a furious blizzard ensued blanketing everything in snow and wind. The infamous blizzard of 1996, took the lives of eight men that night. Singh kept praying and hoping that his men would come back. They never did.
Humanity and Climbers Code in the Death Zone
At 8 pm, sick with worry Singh approached a nearby Japanese commercial climbing camp. Two of their climbers were at Camp VI and were going to push for the summit a few hours after midnight. Singh spoke to the Japanese leader with the help of a Sherpa who translated the conversation and the leader radioed his climbers, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa, and reassured Singh that they would do all they could to help the stranded Indians if they found them on their way to the summit.
The two Japanese men set out in the morning after the blizzard subsided. At 9 pm, their leader informed Singh that the two climbers had seen Morup but after clipping him to a fixed descending line, they pushed ahead for the summit. Singh listened in shock as he realized that the Japanese weren’t helping in bringing his men down. Two hours later, Hanada and Shigekawa and their Sherpas crossed Peljor and Smanla, but did not stop or offer help this time too.
Weeks later when the Japanese were back in their country, they held a press conference and rubbished the Indian accusations and their version of events. The two climbers claimed that the Indians had never told them that their men were in trouble, and while climbing they had crossed several mountaineers and none of them looked as if they were dying. Their report also emphasized that above 8000 metres “Every climber should be accountable for his own actions, even on the brink of death”.
The climber’s code of ethics, drafted by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, specifies “helping someone in trouble has absolute priority over reaching goals we set for ourselves in the mountain.” Most agree. “Saving one life is more important than summiting Everest 100 times,” says Serap Jangbu Sherpa, the first person to climb all eight of Nepal’s 8,000m peaks, and the first person to summit K2 twice in one year. “We can always go back and summit, but a lost life never comes back.”
But is it that simple or black and white? Dig deeper. Commercial clients pay thousands and thousands of dollars hoping to summit Everest. It is like a lifelong dream. Many of them might not be able to raise the money again to do it. Would they want to give up that dream for a stranger? Even if the issue of money is not considered, above 8000 metres, a human’s ability to think clearly is severely impaired due to lack of oxygen. Enough people become light headed, or suffer from Summit Fever, and their decision making ability is hampered. Thirdly, to help someone at that altitude could also mean losing several precious minutes or hours for your own journey, thereby putting your own life at severe risk. Helping someone could spell death for you too. You might not want to be selfish, but you don’t have a huge choice.
Nature operates its own rules at 8000 metres.
There are over 200 bodies lying on Everest, most buried in snow or down a crevasse, and some like Peljor’s in the open. Climbers pass by his body every year. It might be a beautiful morning, you might be on top of your spirits, and then you pass by a dead body, and it reminds you how fast things can change, how the mountain still can reduce you to nothing in minutes.
In 2010, Geert van Hurck, a Belgian mountaineer was going up Everest’s north side when he came across a “coloured mass” on the ground. Someone had placed a plastic bag over a dead man’s face to prevent birds from pecking out his eyes. “It just didn’t feel right to climb any further and celebrate at the summit, and I guess maybe I was seeing myself lying there.” Hurck says.
But most climbers don’t let dead bodies deter them, and don’t just by Peljor’s body but use the ‘cave’ spot to rest for a while. In 2006, Green Boots and the cave became even more famous after there was a furore in the media about British climber David Sharp who was found huddled there. About forty mountaineers crossed him that day, but they didn’t realize that the man was on the brink of death. His body lay there for a year, after which it was removed from sight. Green Boots and the cave became even more legendary.
But is it right to label a dead man such? Imagine being the son or mother of that person and people calling him such. How would you go on the internet knowing that is how he is remembered – Not by his deeds, not by his virtues, but by the colour of his shoes. Years later when his brother went on the internet one day and got to know that his brother was referred to such, he was shocked and deeply distressed. Till date, he hasn’t told his mother or family how Peljor is now known in mountain circles.
Returning a body to the family is a very expensive affair. In the Death Zone, even bending to pick up a fallen wrapper is cumbersome as its frozen in snow, and you have to dig around it to prise it. Carrying a body down means employing a minimum of six to eight Sherpas to do it, and that could risk their lives too. On such a high altitude mountain, an 80 kilo person could end up being 150 kgs when he is dug out and the ice is still attached. Most mountaineers have expressed that they prefer to be left on the mountain if they died there. However with the number of climbers growing exponentially and so many walking past the bodies, this may no longer be a spiritual experience. Arguably, pushing them into a crevasse, also known as “putting out of sight” is considered giving the body respect and peace.
Two years after Peljor’s death, climber Francys Distefano-Arsentie went to summit Everest along with her husband Sergei. Their goal was to do it without supplemental oxygen. They reached the summit, but while coming down got separated in the night in the death zone. The next morning Sergei suffered a fatal fall while trying to rescue her. Climber Ian Woodwall came across Francys, gave up his summit bid and stayed with her for over an hour, before being forced to return for his own safety. Francys died a few hours later due to frostbite and exhaustion. Her body was referred to by everyone in mountain circles as “Sleeping Beauty”. Already coping with the loss of his parents, Francys’ son Paul was shocked to hear of this nickname awarded to his dead mother.
Woodwall remained haunted by his inability to help Francys, and felt guilty for years. , more so after the nickname “Sleeping Beauty”. In 2007, the brave man went up the mountain again and with the help of some others found her body. They kept digging, and after extracting her body, wrapped it in the American flag and put it “out of sight” to give her body the respect it deserved.
Tsewang Peljor though still lies on Everest. Snow, wind, and the rawest forces haven’t yet obliterated the presence of his Green Boots.
Click here to read about five inspiring Indian male mountaineers!
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