Climbers Who Have Died in the High Mountains
It is often not possible for companions or others to recover the body of a climber in the immediate aftermath of an accident, especially in the greater ranges. Recent events have highlighted the number of bodies that have been left at high altitude in more or less accessible locations. The Alpine Club is often asked to comment on this situation and has decided to issue this statement in the hope that its content will be helpful to others. In the context of ever increasing activity on the highest peaks the Alpine Club seeks to assist this important and evolving debate. It has now been adopted by the Mountain Heritage Trust.
Finding the body of a dead climber is likely to be a disturbing experience. Even though its existence and location may have been previously known, the encounter can still cause shock and distress. Most climbers respond with sensitivity and common sense. However it is not always easy to get things right when operating in an extreme environment where participants may be close to their physical and mental limits. If the companions of the deceased have not been able to recover the remains, the onus passes to the climbing fraternity as a whole. If recovery is possible, this should be done, but in other cases there may be much that can be done that will provide comfort to the dead climber's family and friends. The grief suffered by the family and friends of a climber lost in the mountains should not be underestimated. It is well established that the absence of a body makes the grieving process more difficult. This is often aggravated by the lack of detailed knowledge of the events giving rise to the accident or the location of the body. It is by establishing such information that those making the discovery can provide an important service to the family and friends as well as to the climbing community.
The Alpine Club recommends that the following actions should be taken, where possible:
1. Establish the precise location of the body and prepare a location map.
2. Examine the clothing carefully and respectfully so far as necessary to assist identification and recover personal possessions
3. Remove personal items such as camera, diary, notebook, photographs, letters or other personal artefacts and bag them for return to the family
4. Photograph the body and location sympathetically for record-keeping purposes. Using suitable restraint, include minor details of clothing and on returning from the mountains, efforts should be made to identify the dead climber.
Assistance with this process may be provided by a number of organisations and information sources particularly the American Alpine Journal and also the Himalayan Journal, the Alpine Journal and the Himalayan Index maintained by the Alpine Club. All personal effects, photographs and other information should be delivered to the family of the deceased before information is provided to the media. The Alpine Club considers that any decision to release photographs to the press should be left to the family of the deceased.
Recovering a body from a high mountain will never be easy, and extremes of altitude and location may render it near to impossible. It is important that the original tragedy should not be compounded by further loss of life, particularly among the local high altitude porters. It should also be recognised that great care will be necessary in the removal of the body, which is likely to be fragile. In many cases it will be frozen into the mountain and difficult to move. Here too, restraint and respect should be shown.
There have been many instances where bodies have been recovered, committed and buried on or near to the mountain. The Alpine Club considers that the remains should be left undisturbed, unless the family wishes them to be returned and the relevant authorities are able to co-operate. In other cases the remains are so remote and difficult of access that the prospect of successful recovery appears improbable. The Alpine Club suggests that in these circumstances it is preferable to commit and bury or cover the remains where they are. If that is not possible, they should be left at peace and undisturbed.
However there are other well documented situations where the location of a body, although remote, is frequently visited. This situation is particularly acute on the South Col route up Everest, a fact of which the international media have made much. The publication of photographs of bodies is distressing to the families, as well as to most other people and it generally discredits the mountaineering world.
The Nepalese and Chinese authorities in Tibet in co-operation with other nations have been considering forming expeditions for the express purpose of recovering climbers' bodies from Everest. The Alpine Club welcomes these proposals. The increase in mountaineering activity is likely to lead to more fatalities in the high mountains of the world, particularly on Everest and K2 where the physiological and technical challenges are at their greatest. The Alpine Club believes that the international climbing community needs to take steps to recognise and address this issue whilst giving deepest consideration to the views of the families of the deceased. Any concerted plan to deal with the issue is likely to involve professional recovery teams which will require funding. The Alpine Club invites the UIAA in association with national mountaineering federations to study the subject with a view to developing a coherent and comprehensive policy.
It is important to the family and friends and to the climbing community as a whole and mountaineering's image to the world at large that such tragic events are not sensationalised and are portrayed in a dignified, restrained and sensitive manner.