Mount Everest always had certain notoriety. It is not easy to scale even to the most experienced climbers. One such was Hannelore Schmatz.
After successfully scaling the top, Hannelore Schmatz died of hypothermia and exhaustion in this cruel habitat during the descent down the mountain. She was caught by darkness at 27.200 feet distance below the summit, which had caused her to make a decision to bivouac as darkness fell.
Due to danger, Hannelore was urged by her two guides to descend, but she, along with an American climber, sat down into the snow, never to stand up again. In 1979, she was the first woman to die on Mount Everest.
The ridge where her final resting place is called the Rainbow Valley. The name came from the many bodies discovered on this ridge, all of them wearing colorful snow gear. This is only one of the eerie secrets of this mountain that makes it such a challenge to scale.
Who Was Hannelore Schmatz?
Born on February 16th, 1940, Hannelore Schmatz was a German climber with many successful ascents under her belt. She was raised in the town of Regensburg and was aged 39 when she decided to take on the challenge of Mount Everest.
The expedition on the mountain started in October 1979. Hannelore’s husband, Gerhard Schmatz, led it. He was a 50-year-old experienced climber and the oldest man ever to summit Everest. The expedition consisted of the Sherpas, two native guides, Hannelore Schmatz and her husband, and an American climber named Rey Genet.
The peak of Mount Everest was considered a mountaineer’s life goal for nearly 100 years. Climbers faced weeks of acclimatization time as they climbed slowly from camp to camp. They adjust to the thin air and treacherous terrain, and freezing conditions. It is no small task, even for those with plenty of experience.
The highest camp is located at 26.300 feet in what is known as the Death Zone. The ominous name came from the fact that at every level above 26.000 feet, the human body is slowly dying. A person is essentially suffocating slowly over two or three days. This is why staying in the Death Zone is supposed to be for a very short period of time.
More than 8.400 mountaineers have tried climbing Mount Everest since 1922. Out of all of them, almost 300 people found themselves in life-threatening circumstances, and a large percentage of them lost their lives in the attempt. The majority of them have died in the Death Zone. The climbers there are killed by avalanches or rockfall, by injuries resulting from a fall, exposure to the elements, exhaustion, or altitude illness.
On October 2nd, 1979, a tragic death happened upon Hannelore Schmatz as well. Exhausted from the ascent, she stopped to rest in the Death Zone, just below the summit. Against the advice of the guides, she sat down in the snow, leaning against her backpack, and died. Her last words, according to the Sherpas, were “water, water.”
Along with Hannelore Schmatz, her American colleague acted against the advice of the expediting and stopped to rest too. The same fate happened to him, and his body ultimately disappeared under the snow.
Hannelore Schmatz’s body remained where she died on the mountain, leaning on her backpack, frozen in that position with her eyes open. It stood there for the years to come.
The Climb Up The Mountain
The expedition led by Gerhard Schmatz took off in October 1979. It consisted of 13 people and lasted several months, as the climbers had to take the ascent slow to adjust to the altitude. Their climb was relatively uneventful, even though difficult, and they made it to the summit just above the Death Zone mark on time.
The Death Zone was understood to begin at 26.000 feet. There are no more than 14 mountains on the planet that extend beyond the 26.000 feet mark. However, the highest camp on Mount Everest is at 26.300 feet.
The oxygen levels all the way up there are only a third of what they are at sea level. Due to this, the climbers of the expedition spent 10 days acclimatizing to the depleted oxygen levels at the base camp. Despite this, no human can survive more than 48 hours in the Death Zone. The goal of Hannelore Schmatz’s expedition was to get in, get to the summit and get back. If something happens to the climbers, even the rescue attempts are judged unlikely to succeed.
Every year many people attempt to summit Mount Everest. In the last decades, many made it to the top. The ascent was not the hard part for Hannelore Schmatz. Due to the myriad hazards of the journey: fatigue, confusion, lack of oxygen, falls, natural disasters, cold, a large number of climbers don’t make it off the mountain.
Even though Hannelore and her husband, Gerhard, were experienced climbers when they decided to try their luck at Mount Everest, this proved to be a perilous journey. The pair had reached the summit successfully, celebrating as they did so.
Once they were at the highest base camp, they prepared for their journey back. They headed back with their group that contained 8 climbers and 5 Sherpas. Most of the expedition made it safely down, however, for Hannelore Schmatz, this would be the last day of her life.
What Went Wrong? Hannelore Schmatz’s Tragic Death
Even if their ascent had gone without any major difficulties, the descent would prove fatal for Hannelore Schmatz. During the descent, even if they were experienced climbers, Hannelore and Genet were too tired to keep going.
Their guides had warned them about the dangers of remaining in the mountain’s Death Zone overnight. However, they did not listen and instead had set up a bivouac camp. One Sherpa remained with them. During the night, a brutal snowstorm occurred. It proved to be too much for Genet, who died from hypothermia before morning.
Even though Hannelore Schmatz and the Sherpa that stayed with her survived the night and continued down the mountain, she wasn’t able to go for very long. Due to exhaustion, Hannelore was barely walking. Having stayed in the Death Zone for so long had taken a toll on her body. At 27,200 feet, she sat down to rest against her backpack. Hannelore fell asleep and never woke up. The Sherpa companion that was with her stayed with her body, costing him most of his fingers and toes. He would be the one to say that her last words were “water, water.”
Hannelore died of exposure and exhaustion that resulted in the prolonged stay in the Death Zone, in the highest Camp IV, on one of the primary trekking routes. The fatigue that led to her death was due to the lack of oxygen that can cause poor coordination, incoherence, and confusion. It could make even an experienced climber like her make decisions that they wouldn’t have made otherwise.
At the age of 39, Hannelore Schmatz was the first woman to die on the mountain. Her fate stands as a testimony that experience is not enough to be able to survive the perils of Mount Everest.
The Aftermath – Attempts At Recovering The Body
After she died in 1979, Hannelore Schmatz’s body stood on the mountain for years to come. Her remains, leaning back on her backpack with eyes still open, her hair waving in each gust of the wind, marked for years the path to the peak. It was an ominous sight on one of the commonly used trekking paths.
The strong wind and low temperatures mummified the body of Hannelore. It quickly got frozen into place. To recover the body, the rescuers would have needed to hack it out of the ice, which would be extremely difficult. The frozen body may have also doubled in weight.
Some of the recovery missions recounted that it took as much as 8 people to handle just one body. This only serves to further the danger. Recovery missions resulted in the deaths of more than a few volunteers.
In 1984, a Sherpa and a Nepalese police inspector took on a recovery mission to reach Hannelore Schmatz’s body. Sadly, they were both killed when they tried to retrieve it. During the trek, they fell to their deaths, and it was decided that perhaps Schmatz wanted to stay where she was. Eventually, the corpse was blown off the mountainside by strong winds.
Around 200 to 250 bodies still remain on Mount Everest, either frozen solid along the climbing routes or buried in the ice of snowfields and glaciers. This is the fate of many climbers who are killed by avalanches or fall to their death. Most of their bodies end up buried in the ice of the glaciers flowing down from Mount Everest. They won’t be moved until the ice from the site of the accident moves to the lower part of the glacier.