[The Alienist has no good excuse for the silence of the past 18 months. He promises to do better in the future]
Mount Everest is an infamously unforgiving environment. Since the Hillary-Norgay expedition first put a man on the summit in 1953, there have been no fewer than 7000 attempts to climb its sheer walls… and at least 280 deaths. This isn’t hard to understand when one realizes the atmosphere above 26,000′ – in other words, the final ~3000′ of each attempt – is located in the so-called ‘Death Zone,’ wherein bitter cold combines with oxygen pressure one-third that at sea level.
In short, there is almost no room for error in such harsh surroundings.
Predictably, when climbers expire, they are usually left where they fall. As the temps remain below 0’C, the bodies become freeze-dried to the ice underneath, serving then as familiar, albeit macabre, semi-permanent road markers for future expeditions, and usually ID’d by features of their appearance.
There is Rainbow Ridge, a section of the North Face with at least ten dead climbers along a short span. It is named such because of the colorful nylon parkas that many of the corpses still sport.
There is Hannelore Schmatz, who expired in 1979, a mere 330′ above base camp along the Southern Face. She was frozen to the ground for years, but lately has been missing, having either blown into a precipice, or covered by a drift. Her corporeal remains were located close to those of Scott Fisher, who died 17 years after Schmatz in a freak blizzard along the same ridge, and at last check is still there.
There is ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ thought to be Francys Arsentiev, a woman with long flowing (now frozen) hair whose demise came just shy of the summit in 1998, and who was on display until 2007 when she also went over a cliff edge.
Perhaps the most famous – and anonymous – of the body markers is called ‘Green Boots,’ on the North Face. There are those who believe this to be Indian trekker Dorje Morip, whilst others believe it to be his countryman Tsewang Paljor. People actually argue this point. Either way, the body appeared in 1996, neon-colored footwear and all, at 27,887′, but has not been seen in the past five seasons, having fallen victim to either gravity or avalanche.
And right next to Green Boots’ erstwhile spot is David Sharpe and his green-and-black checkered backpack, who joined the roster of immortal dead in 2006.
In short, in the absence of more conventional means of divining direction and measuring distance, travelers will use whatever is at hand.
Bringing it back to sea level, as I live in a rural part of the country, there are long stretches of state highway along which there are NO gas stations, road signs, or services. So I’ve developed an early-warning system whereby objects scattered en route serve as markers that tell of conditions and dangers.
Heading on SR 264, over one twenty mile stretch, a traveler encounters the rotten wooden sign for Randy’s Produce, long gone, the ad now hanging at a 45′ angle. Next is a small white shipping container in a ditch of the median strip. Shortly thereafter, on the southside of the byway, a crumpled billboard left over from a past hurricane or tornado displays forlornly in a field, its message no longer visible to those passing. Several crushed cars on a large platform – a ‘safe driving’ PSA? – are just beyond the billboard. Then one sees an abandoned boat and trailer located 1.5 miles from the crushed cars, right across the median from a dangerously listing mobile home with only half its roof remaining. A burned mattress (these are used to build smoldering fires for pig pickins) is visible near the treeline near a nameless mailbox that is likely long abandoned. At approx the halfway point, there is a vehicle bumper in a ravine that appears from a small 1990s-vintage red model, perhaps an Asian import. And one mile past that is a stack of three truck tires with no nearby business or structure to explain their presence.
I have learned the following:
During rainy weather, cell coverage is poor between the crumpled billboard and the listing mobile home, and also at the truck tires, and calls will likely be dropped.
If my daughter is heating dinner, as long as I call her before reaching the crushed cars, heading east, she will have enough time to get it on the table by my ETA.
If I make it as far as the burned mattress no later than 6:47 p.m., I will be able to reach the county dump before closing, if I have garbage in the back of my pick-up of which I want to dispose.
I’ll be able to hear the entire NPR newscast and the headline story before arriving at the office if, driving west, the announcer begins no later than the abandoned boat and trailer.
And most importantly, if the orange ‘critically low gasoline’ light does not start blinking on my dashboard before I can see the vehicle bumper in the ravine, I’ll be able to limp into town without running out of gas. And I might even be able to stop at Hardees for breakfast.
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