Tsewang Paljor, in younger days. Photographs by Rachel Nuwer. I admit to feeling a certain morbid curiosity at the thought of Paljor and all the other fallen climbers on the mountain, stranded far from loved ones and frozen in time, forever displaying the moment of their death. But more than a fixation on the macabre, I wished to know the story of the handsome young man in the green boots — especially the circumstances that could allow him to remain on the mountain for so many years.
I was also intrigued by what extreme altitude can do to the human body and mind, and the unexpected impact it can have on the decisions — and even ethics — of a person. But ultimately, I wanted answers to another, more pressing query; one that has been raised countless times but seems to evade explanation: why climb this mountain at all?
Why gamble your life on its unforgiving slopes? How is it that so many people still see this endeavour as worthwhile? My desire to answer these questions — in a two-part in-depth series for BBC Future — led me down a rabbit hole of psychology, ethics and climbing culture; to the doorsteps of mountaineering legends and broken-hearted parents alike; to sources spanning Fukuoka, California and Kathmandu.
This is my attempt to make sense of what I found. The landscape, however, has only begun to grow in scale and splendour. Hills climb to ever-greater heights, shaking themselves free of villages, fields and vegetation — and then, any remnants of life. Jagged, snow-kissed mountain peaks stretch ever higher, as though trying to pluck our tiny vessel from the sky. Here and there, a valley river punctuates the monochrome landscape with a ribbon of green, a lifeline in an otherwise impossibly inhospitable environment. It was here, in this high altitude desert at 3,m 12,ft , that Tsewang Paljor was born on April 10, We set out for Sakti early on a Wednesday, following the course of the brilliant blue Indus River, passing breathtaking mountainside monasteries, dusty roadside diners and otherworldly plains of rock and barren earth.
I travelled with Tsultim Dorjey , a sociologist and guide, who is serving as my local lifeline. Now, I was plagued by doubt. Would they refuse to speak with us? Would they be offended? Would anyone even be home? On the road to Sakti.
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We passed dusty, otherworldly plains on our journey. Passing remote villages on the way to Paljor's home.
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About an hour after leaving Leh, we were getting close. Tsultim jumped out of the car, approaching an old man fingering some Buddhist prayer beads on the side of the road. In a place like Sakti, populated by just or so households, everyone knows everyone else. Getting directions in Ladakh. Minutes later, we arrived at a brown gate, in front of an attractive two-storey home with large windows and fluttering Tibetan prayer flags adorning the roof.
My stomach churned as we approached the front door, past a garden brimming with petunias, marigolds and daisies and a yellow dog, who gazed lazily at us from a sunny spot. Arriving at the home of Paljor's mother, unsure what to expect. At 73, her twinkling eyes and smiling face appeared a decade younger. We made our way into the sitting room, lined with couches, ornately carved tables and poster-size photos of her grandchildren.
After fetching a pot of steaming tea and a plate of biscuits, she and Tsultim exchanged niceties for several minutes. Yet when Tsultim asked if we could proceed with the interview, she said yes. A quiet middle child with five siblings, Paljor was known in the village for his polite, compassionate manner.
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He had a big heart and natural kindness. Though good-looking, even as a teen Paljor never had a girlfriend — he was simply too shy. He once told his brother that he was more interested in dedicating his life to something bigger than himself than in getting married. As the eldest son, Paljor no doubt felt pressured to provide for his family, which was struggling to make ends meet at their modest farm. Tashi Angmo, with her son's possessions. So when he was selected to join an elite group of climbers who would undertake a risky but grandiose mission — to become the first Indians ever to summit Everest from its north side — he chose not to reveal his true destination to her.
She implored her son not to go, but he told her he had to.
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A certificate marking Paljor's ascent. But younger brother Thinley Namgyal was not worried. His brother was the strongest person he knew. Thinley, who is a monk, met Paljor in Delhi days before he was due to leave; he gave his brother a blessing before telling him goodbye. He was really happy about all of this. Paljor was young, strong and experienced, but Everest presents multitudes of ways to take the life of even the most well prepared climber — falls, avalanches, exposure and more.
The body also baulks at the insults it endures on the mountain. Sudden death — from heart attacks, strokes, irregular heart beat, asthma or exacerbation of other pre-existing conditions — is not uncommon, and lack of oxygen can trigger acute pulmonary or cerebral edema: life-threatening conditions that occur when blood vessels begin leaking fluid into the lungs or brain.
Documentation for Paljor: resident of Sakti, climber, no children - from the files of Elizabeth Hawley.
Not everyone on the mountain shares the same odds of dying under any given circumstance, however. In a retrospective study of climbing deaths on Everest from to , Paul Firth , an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and his colleagues found that most Sherpa deaths occur at lower altitudes, reflecting the unavoidable risk of traversing the Khumbu icefall — an unstable glacier field laden with house-sized ice blocks and gaping crevasses.
A medal awarded after Paljor's death. When Mark Jenkins , a journalist, author and adventurer in Wyoming, was on Everest in , five people died on a single day. Sherpas he interviewed told him that most of the fatalities belonged to clients who had refused to turn around. Viesturs, who once ended a climb on Everest within m ft of the summit because conditions did not look good, credits his survival to always listening to the mountain and knowing when to turn back.
Kathmandu, where many Everest journeys begin. Jenkins estimates that half the climbers on Everest today do not belong there. Files of expeditions, kept by Elizabeth Hawley.
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On Everest, things were proceeding without a hitch for Paljor and his comrades. The Indian expedition was well connected on the mountain, with a luxurious communal tent that all climbers, regardless of nationality, were welcome to visit. Mohinder Singh and his wife at their home outside of San Francisco.
For his strength and enthusiasm, Singh selected Paljor to be part of the first summit attack team, along with climbing partners Tsewang Smanla and Dorje Morup, and deputy leader Harbhajan Singh. The problems started on the morning of 10 May, when the team was delayed by strong wind and then overslept. They did not set out from Camp VI until , rather than as planned.
Given the extremely tardy start, they decided to move further up the mountain to fix ropes rather than attempt the summit, since doing so would guarantee descending through the Death Zone in the dark — the area above 8,m where climbers often lose their lives. Harbhajan Singh, deputy team leader, and the only survivor of the expedition.
By , the team had made significant progress, but the wind had begun to pick up again. Singh had given the team strict orders to turn around at , or at the latest. Harbhajan Singh, however, was lagging far behind the three Ladakhi men. When he signaled for them to stop and return to camp, they either did not see him or ignored him. Watching as they pushed on, the frostbitten Harbhajan Singh had no choice but to descend back to Camp VI without them. On either side of town, where the trail passes through the highest mountains of Virginia, white blazes on rocks and tree trunks mark the way.
In Damascus, the blazes are posted on telephone poles on the town's main street. Snowflake wanted no part of the throngs in town for the weekend celebration. She had another tucked behind her right ear.
Playing it safe clearly isn't her thing. She was among the majority mourning the loss of a fellow hiker, but continuing on despite the tragedy. Thousands of people hike on the Appalachian Trail every year. Tragedies like the one we heard about are rare. We have to be careful all the time. He blogs at www. Contact Dennis at dennisforney capegazette. Two tales illustrate the best and, rarely, worst on trails.
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