Tragedy and a troubling mystery have enveloped Mount Everest as the mountain’s climbing season reaches its peak. The bodies of three Indian climbers were retrieved Sunday amid reports that climbers were being jeopardized by the disappearance of oxygen bottles. The two situations have not been linked at this time.
The bodies of Ravi Kumar, who died last weekend, and Paresh Chandra Nath and Gautam Ghosh, who died last year on the mountain, were brought down after being recovered by Sherpa guides near the summit. They were taken by a helicopter from a camp at a lower elevation to Kathmandu for autopsy.
“I can finally take my brother’s body home for cremation to bring peace to all our family,” said Debashish Ghosh, Gautam Ghosh’s brother.
The window for reaching the summit closes as May ends and conditions deteriorate. With the possibility of a successful climb becoming slimmer, there are reports that oxygen is disappearing. Mountain Guide Nima Tenji Sherpa has been quoted saying “It is becoming a serious issue up there. I kept on hearing from expedition groups that their oxygen bottles had disappeared and that could be life-threatening–particularly when they have used up what they are carrying on their way up and they are still not on the summit yet, or they plan to use the stocked bottles on their way back down.”
While it’s possible to summit Everest without oxygen, it’s not recommended for most climbers because of the mountain’s extreme elevation. Soaring some 5.5 miles above sea level, Everest’s air at its peak can’t sustain life for more than a few hours. Without extensive training, lack of oxygen can bring on serious frostbite, as well as a condition called hypoxia that affects the brain, causing headaches, hallucinations and eventually death.
The first group of climbers summited the mountain on May 15 and it didn’t take long for reports of the suspected thefts to come in.
Everest Expedition leader Tim Mosedale expressed his experience on social media, saying: “Another seven bottles of Oxygen have gone missing from our supply–this time from The South Col.” South Col is the location of one of Everest’s final camps before the summit.
Mosedale referenced the high number of “failed summit bids,” as well as the five fatalities happening on the mountain so far this year, noting he wouldn’t be surprised if the oxygen was taken to help those out in immediate need, but that he wished “people would let us know.”
“No one in their right mind would withhold previous oxygen from any team/climber having difficulties. But if those difficulties are as a result of their own oversight or lack of sufficient supply, it’s a difficult situation to reconcile — especially when it potentially affects the success or otherwise of our own team,” he continued. “Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, lack of sufficient oxygen can easily develop into a life-threatening situation.”
This isn’t the first year that climbers have seen their oxygen go missing. Last year, at least two climbers complained of thefts. The problem has now become so commonplace this year that the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association called it “a trend”.
“Because of such incidents, climbers have had to return without reaching the summit, because when you learn that you no more have the life-saving bottles, the first thing you want to do is get back to the base camp,” said the group’s general secretary, Phurba Namgyal Sherpa.
No one has been caught stealing the bottles, nor do there appear to be any suspects, according to authorities.