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The Mountains are Graveyards. Some Climbers See Ghosts.

Specters, “third men,” and otherworldly encounters... Are they trying to tell us something?


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I.

Who to believe? The mountain or the ghost.

Both saved our lives, Almost.

II.

As she hunkered down at 6,800 meters for her third open bivy on the second winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, French mountaineer Elisabeth Revol met an old wrinkled lady. The lady offered her warm tea, but only if “you give me your shoes.” 

Revol did as requested, and woke up the next morning with a frozen foot. “Fuck, what happened,” she thought to herself.  

III.

In 1985, Jeff Lowe arrived in the Everest region with Earl Wiggins to attempt a new route on Pumori (23,400 feet) and the South East Spur of Nuptse East (26,000 feet). Upon arriving at base camp, Wiggins fell sick. 

Lowe, impatient and eager, headed out solo on Pumori. As he made his way up, Lowe realized he had a friend with him. A ghost. The ghost gave him beta and guided him to the summit. Lowe then fell sick on the mountain, emptying his stomach of all he had and remaining unable to hold food down. With persistence and sound advice, the ghost got him to base camp. Lowe would later recount the story not with an “I,” but with a “we.” 

Once back in base camp, Lowe learned that Wiggins had recovered faster than expected, and had started up to do a new route on the mountain he just came from. Exhausted, Lowe turned in for the night, but kept hearing a voice crying “help.” Lowe realized that Wiggins, over a mile above him on Pumori and far out of range to be heard, must be in trouble. The ghost was relaying a message. Lowe roused an extremely reluctant base camp team in the middle of the night—they figured he was just delirious—and went up to look for Wiggins. In what can only be of the mystical variety, Lowe spotted a glow and found Wiggins face down in a frothing pool of vomit. 

“What took you so long?” quipped Wiggins.

IV.

Ghosts, spirits and souls—the latter our true daily ghosts—all have chosen the mountains as their proscenium, where they play with us. Put on a show. It’s called the third-man factor, or third-man syndrome. Sometimes the ghosts are mischievous, as with Revol, sometimes comforting, as with Lowe. It just depends. 

In 2014, a Swiss researcher by the name of Olaf Blanke was reportedly able to recreate the third-man factor. By manipulating bodily sensation via robotic arms and temporal delays, in essence playing tricks on his participants, Blanke said he was able to generate strong feelings of a “third presence” in his subjects. But how would Blanke’s theory explain away Lowe’s story on Pumori? Or the hundreds of other stories? It can’t.

V.

In May of 1996, Tsewang Paljor, an Indian mountaineer and border-police agent, was high in the death zone on Everest. A storm was brewing and the mountain gods had just turned off the lights. He was exhausted, stumbling, alone.

Paljor, a young-looking 28, had just tagged the summit with two others and was hours away from making history as part of the first Indian team—an Indo-Tibetan Border Police expedition—to summit Everest from the north. 

In family pictures, Paljor has soft, proud eyes, not an athletic frame but not unathletic either, a black rubbly mustache and black hair, the kind you can’t really comb, just sticks up. In another photo, in official police garb, he has beady black eyes, is clean shaven with tamed hair that parts right and his mustache has filled out. He looks older. According to friends, Paljor liked to sing in his free time.

Earlier that morning, the 10th of May, Paljor and his teammates Tsewang Smanla and Dorje Morup overslept. They would start out at 8 a.m. from Camp VI, four and a half hours after their intended start. Given the late start, they agreed to fix ropes that day, rather than gun it for the summit. It was the reasonable decision. Harbhajan Singh, the expedition leader, was good with that plan. He was on the mountain with them, but he couldn’t keep up, so they went ahead. 

By 2:30 p.m., Singh wanted them on their way down, and so, around that time he gave the order to return. But much to his surprise, at 3 p.m. the team wasn’t heading down. They were heading up, for the summit. Unable to catch up, and sensing the veil of mortality being drawn on himself, Singh headed for the tent in Camp 4. 

VI. 

At 5:35, Singh got a call on his radio. All three were on the summit. He was relieved, but, and no one knew it yet, the infamous 1996 blizzard—the same one that made Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and stole the lives of eight climbers—had wrapped itself around the mountain. 

Exhausted, unable to go any farther, Paljor found a small cave of black rock, a bit of respite from the biting cold and the blinding snow. Likely, he thought he’d just rest a bit, gather some strength, and head out when the storm cleared. He laid down on his left side.

You are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere—said David Sharp to his mother before he left for Everest

Illustration based on image from Wikimedia Commons / Maxwell J040

VII.

On August 24, 79 CE, Mt. Vesuvius, a volcano in the Gulf of Naples, erupted. A different type of storm and a different type of mountain.

If Italy is a boot, Vesuvius is near the lower laces. The nearby town of Pompeii, about 14 miles southeast of Naples and located on the southeastern flanks of Mt. Vesuvius, got buried. By midday of the eruption, pumice and earthen discards buried the town in more than nine feet of ash.

Pliny the Younger, watching the tragedy unfold from the nearby port town of Misenum, would write: “Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room.”

At first townsfolk sought cover, but when the inches turned to feet, things got desperate. Those seeking shelter from the ash and toxic fumes hurried indoors and tied pillows to their heads when they went outside. As the heavy ash settled, roofs started to collapse. The city and all its inhabitants would be buried.

Upwards of 20 feet of ash and debris would eventually be dumped onto Pompeii, killing 2,000 individuals and creating an unparalleled museum of human life.

Nearly 1,700 years would pass before the town was dug out. What excavators found in 1748 astonished them—bodies “frozen” in sleep, in the middle of trying to get up, consoling a loved one. Some died while in embrace. In one scene an infant lies on its right side, set apart from its parents, the parents seemingly unworried; the body of another sibling lies dead in repose feet away. Likely, they were sleeping, waiting for daylight. It was an avalanche by another name.

The “bodies”—now plaster casts— still lie there, untouched. Open caskets. Testaments to something difficult to communicate. Only a few places in the world have open graveyards. Mountains are one of them, and Everest, with over 200 corpses littering its upper snowfields, has the most.

Is it any wonder then that ghosts haunt the grounds of Pompeii … as they do the site of the World Trade Center … and Everest?

VIII.

Not many climbers survive an open bivy at 27,900 feet on Everest, in a blizzard, with no help in sight, no tent or sleeping bag.

The moment Paljor lay on his side the great sleep started, right there, just like that. He didn’t stand a chance, encased not in ash or volcanic pumice, but the cold, the whipping snow, the rarified air.

No one knows what happened next. Did a Japanese team the following day walk past Paljor or his teammates while they were struggling for their lives? Mohinder Singh, an expedition partner of Paljor’s, claims that they did. The Japanese deny they sidestepped anyone. The fog of war, apparently.

A decade later, Paljor’s parka would still be tucked beneath his harness.

Known thereafter as “Green Boots,” Paljor’s body would become a high-altitude cairn, a landmark stepped over, and frequently photographed, as hundreds of climbers made their way upward.

For a short bit, Paljor had some company. Close to 10 years after Paljor took his final rest, on May 13, 2006, David Sharp, a 34-year-old British mountaineer, was on his third attempt on Everest, this time solo and sans oxygen. Some climbers said they saw him that day, high on Everest, but no one could say for sure he tagged the summit, or if they really saw Sharp, but on May 14 his flame was extinguishing. The following day, Sharp was seen in the cave, Paljor’s cave, sitting down, his hat pulled low, nearly covering his eyes. His face was buried in his jacket. He looked dead, but he wasn’t. Nearly 40 climbers walked past Sharp. Some spoke with him. He waved off a few. One climber sat with him, keeping him company. Contradictory stories abound about whether clients and sherpas got messages to rescue him.

The fog, again.

IX.

“You are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere”—said David Sharp to his mother before he left for Everest.

X.

Buddhism—founded, curated and forged in the foothills and mountains of India and Tibet—has made staring at and thinking about dead bodies central to its teachings. It’s part of a death meditation known as maranasati. Maranasati is an expedient way to get us to pay attention to the transient nature of life. Monks in Thailand are known to carry around photos of corpses for meditational purposes, to look at, dwell on, stare intently at the rotting flesh.

Xi.

For a Tibetan Buddhist sky burial, the dead are carried up a hillside and their bodies are chopped up with axes and saws. It is an act of compassion, a gift. A testament to impermanence. Vultures swoop in and feed on the flesh.

Lü is the word for “body” in Tibetan. It translates to “something you leave behind.”

XII.

On Everest there is no death meditation, rather death is a charade, a farce, as if the mountain gods are trolling us. Our dead get names, like in the circus. Brute physicality; no soul. Besides Green Boots, there’s the Sleeping Beauty, Francys Arsentiev, who would have become the first woman to summit Everest without oxygen, her body frozen in repose, her skull stripped of humanity. Day and night, she rests on display. There are many others.

XIII.

For the Kayapo people living in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon, akaron kaba means “to take a photo.” Akaron kaba also means, “to steal a soul.” Taking a likeness via a mechanical device with a lens and putting it onto paper is, for the Kayapo, an act of thievery, a duplication that robs the original.

This feeling—that the camera is a thief—is found in native traditions around the world. The Sioux Chief Crazy Horse abhorred having his picture taken, and refused to step in front of the camera. “Shadow catcher,” was how Crazy Horse referred to the camera. It is likely that no picture of him was ever taken.

XIV.

In 2011, Paljor’s brother Thinley, who is a monk, saw photos on the Internet of a body on Everest. The corpse, lying on his left side, was his brother. He was shocked. On the screen his brother Paljor was reduced to a scrollable jpeg, an online curiosity, his family name reduced to the hue of his green boots. His family had no closure, no body to bury, and the image violated what little peace they had been able to make among themselves.

Then, in 2014, Paljor’s body disappeared after having spent nearly 20 years in the cave. Rumors had it that he could have been buried by some rocks, or dragged and tossed off a cliff. Another source said that Chinese climbers relocated him. Some climbers believe they saw his body on the side of a nearby cliff. Had he been dumped over the side like trash? Had everyone had enough of his haunting?

Again, the fog.

XV.

In 2004, eight years after Paljor crawled into the cave, Pemba Dorje Sherpa, a Nepalese mountaineer, Sherpa and devout Buddhist, was gunning for a speed record on Everest when he saw a frightening sight. 

“When I paused at a mound of rocks,” he said, “I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest.”

In Tibetan Buddhism ghosts are believed to exist and one type is the hungry ghost.

A hungry ghost has a huge belly and a voracious appetite, and yet has a pinhole mouth and a neck so thin that eating is impossible. A hungry ghost is never satisfied, always wants more, a symbolic figure of desire run amok. In Eastern art, the wraiths often appear skeletal, with large stomachs, leather skin and they are always seeking food. They “just want.”

XVI.

“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt. Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top,” wrote Sir Edmund Hillary after hearing that David Sharp had been left for dead.

Just want.

For me, the Himalayas are my spiritual parents and living there was like living in the lap of a mother.

XVII.

It never occurred to the Tibetans to climb mountains for sport. Mountains were the abode of the gods and goddesses.

In the early 1950s, at the same time when massive expeditions were laying siege to the unclimbed peaks, Swami Rama was searching for enlightenment, wandering among the Himalaya, sleeping in caves known only to monks and wandering sadhus. For thousands of years, including in modern times, this is what the Himalaya was for.

While Westerners were hiking, the natives were sitting. While Westerners were making “history,” another type of story was being preserved in the secretive caves.

Rama, who would later found the Himalayan Institute, wrote in his Living with the Himalayan Masters: “For me, the Himalayas are my spiritual parents and living there was like living in the lap of a mother … There are certain hermitages where masters still teach their students in the ancient manner. There, the teacher lives in a natural cave and the disciples come from various places to study and practice with him. Most would-be students do not reach these caves, however, for there is something about the Himalayas which protects the teachers from those who are merely curious or who are not prepared for the higher teachings. If one leaves his home and starts searching for a teacher only because of curiosity or emotional problems, he will not reach these higher elevations. He will not have the intense determination and drive required to go on to those places hidden deep in the Himalayas where the great sages dwell.”

Higher elevations.

Higher teachings.

But he didn’t mean it as we do.

XVIII.

One mountain in the Himalaya will never be climbed.

Residing quietly in the desolateness of western Tibet, Mount Kailash is Tibet’s most sacred mountain, the center of the spiritual universe for four major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bon.

Western Tibet is barren, drier than you imagine, with crumbling hillsides of brown rock and vast expanses of no-name peaks with valley lakes brimming with water the color of a blue snow cone. Western Tibet is a wild place with a few unkempt roads, inaccessible for all but the most motivated—and devout.

Kailash, at just under 22,000 feet, is a worthy objective. It has steep-to-moderate slopes that host vast stretches of snow, and a north face that would get any alpinist to lick their chops; thousand-foot rock bands with ice ribbons bridge the gap between the upper bowls and the lower talus.

In 1985, Reinhold Messner was offered a chance to make the first documented ascent of the peak. The Chinese government wanted Messner to climb the peak so as to, we can presume, desecrate the holy site of Tibetan Buddhism. Messner declined the offer, opting instead to trek the circumference of Kailash, twice, at 31 miles per loop. Messner preferred to be a pilgrim, not a conqueror. “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls,” Messner said.

The Chinese tried again. Jesus Martinez Novas, a Spanish mountaineer, was given the green light to climb Kailash in 2001. He declined the offer amid the shit-storm that was mountaineering’s global response, but seemingly not out of respect for the mountain.

XIX.

Why, exactly, after years of trodding, exploring and cataloging the sacred mountains of the Himalayas, did climbers suddenly consider Kailash to be such a non-starter? … as if that mountain were sacred … as if we are atoning to Tibet for mountaineering’s split personality—an avowed love of the hills, a professed beauty just to be there, a contradictory “the summit doesn’t matter” philosophy, all the while crowding them, racing up them, trashing them, and presuming to have conquered them.

XX.

From the North, the Ventoux is frightening:

One would say like a wall

It arises, grandly chiseled from foot to peak;

A black crown of trees,

A forest of larch, a hard line

Serves as the machicoulis

And the portal of the formidable rampart.

—from an 1866 poem by Frederic Mistral, describing his ascent of Mt. Ventoux.

XXI.

From a distance, the wide summit of Mount Ventoux appears buried in gray sand that spills lazily into the trees below, burying their trunks the way the ocean washes over your feet. On closer inspection, however, you learn that the sand is really giant piles of white limestone.

Technically part of the Alps, the “Giant of Provence,” as it’s known, Ventoux is a wide, low-angled peak with an enormous summit ridge set apart from the rest of the landscape. A singularity.

Ventoux isn’t just a mountain, it is, for many, the first mountain to be climbed for the sake of the view, ascended by Petrarch, the Godfather of the Renaissance, on April 26, 1336. But Petrarch, the good Christian he was, was disappointed by how much physicality was needed.

Counter to the Messnerian code of climbing to dig into your soul, the Italian wrote: “And I wonder whether it ought not to be much easier to accomplish what can be done by means of the agile and immortal mind …. than what is to be performed in the succession of time by the service of the frail body that is doomed to die and under the heavy load of the limbs.”

XXII.

Apparently, the first mountain climbed for the view was a waste of time except for the realization that, should one want to interrogate their soul, so much uphill trudging was a distraction.

His response was Tibetan in spirit. Swami Rama would countersign the sentiment.

XXIII.

To climb a mountain

to dig into your soul?

this is scratching your itches with razors

and wondering why you bleed.

XXIV.

As much part of our landscape as endless talus fields, false summits or bergschrunds, ghosts are embedded in the mountains, now, then … in them or in us. It doesn’t matter—and that’s the point. That’s us being played, like an instrument, by the hills.

I often wonder if ghosts are the realism in the surrealism that is mountaineering … or is it the other way around? … Or if I’m a hungry ghost, my belly aching but neck too thin to eat, just wanting?

Francis Sanzaro is the former editor of Ascent and Gym Climber.

This article originally appeared in Ascent 2019 under the title “Hungry Ghosts”