If, like me, you have read journalist Jon Krakauer's classic book "Into Thin Air" more times than you'd like to admit, and you own the IMAX film "Everest," then the New York Times has a story for you.
This is one of those multi-media deep-dives that has to be seen, and read, to be believed.
Seen? Yes, the images and videos from Mt. Everest are stunning. This includes final looks at experiences in the lives of climbers who died on the mountain and whose stories are at the heart of reporter John Branch's epic "Deliverance From 27,000 Feet."
This is an amazing, multi-media mini-book. But why write about it at GetReligion? As several readers noted, in emails, this is not a religion story. However, this report on how three West Bengali climbers died on the mountain -- and the amazing efforts to retrieve their bodies from the "dead zone" high on Everest -- is in large part driven by details about their Hindu faith. And it's crucial that these climbers were not wealthy people clicking one more item on bucket lists. They were middle-class people whose families made great sacrifices to back their climbs, and then to recover their bodies -- for reasons both spiritual and practical.
If you connect the dots between several passages, you will understand the big themes woven into this must-read feature. Let's focus on Goutam Ghosh, a 50-year-old police officer. As the story notes, the "last time anyone saw him alive was on the evening of May 21, 2016." This passage is long, but essential:
At the time of the tragedy, the climbing season for Everest was almost over. On their way to the summit over the next two nights, the last two dozen of the year’s climbers had come upon Ghosh’s rigid corpse on a steep section of rock and ice.
To get around him, climbers and their guides, sucking oxygen through masks and double-clipped to a rope for safety, stripped off their puffy mittens. They untethered the clips one at a time, stepped over and reached around Ghosh’s body, and clipped themselves to the rope above him.
Some numbly treated the body as an obstacle. ... One climber stepped on the dead man and apologized profusely. Another saw the body and nearly turned around, spooked by the thought of his own worried family back home. Another paused on his descent to hold a one-sided conversation with the corpse stretched across the route.
Who are you? Who left you here? And is anyone coming to take you home?
Once readers are hooked on the personal stories, Branch pauses to sum up the practical -- and spiritual -- motives behind this quest.
There are business details, and government regulations. There are even painful themes linked to (wait for it) tourism trends. Check this out:
Other bodies remaining on Everest include those of George Mallory, dating to his fatal attempt in 1924, and the guide Scott Fischer, part of the 1996 disaster depicted in “Into Thin Air.”
Most of the bodies are far out of sight. Some have been moved, dumped over cliffs or into crevasses at the behest of families bothered that their loved ones were someone else’s landmark or at the direction of Nepali officials who worry that the sight of dead bodies hinders the country’s tourist trade.
However, the cynical notes never dominate this narrative.
Over and over, the story returns to the concerns of the families. The bottom line: There are grieving wives and children who want to see the souls of their loved ones set free. And the families then have to find some way to move on. Here is the main summary:
There were three major reasons the Ghosh family desperately wanted Goutam’s body returned. The first was emotional. The idea that he lay near the summit of Everest, alone, exposed to the elements, left to serve as a tragic tourist marker for future climbers, was nearly too much to bear. And they wanted answers about what happened. Maybe his body could provide those answers. Maybe that video camera around his neck, if it was still there and still worked, held clues. Maybe there were memory cards from his camera in his pockets or backpack. Maybe a message for the family. Something.
The second was religious. Hindus believe the body is merely a temporary vessel for the soul. Once the soul is severed from the body through cremation, it is reincarnated in another body. Like most in West Bengal and across India, the Ghoshes were devoutly Hindu. To them, closure required a cremation, and all the ceremonies that came with it.
The third reason, as important as the others, was financial. Legally, in India, Ghosh was considered a missing person. Only when a body was produced, or seven years had passed, would the Indian government issue a death certificate, which the Ghosh family needed to gain access to his modest bank accounts and to receive financial death benefits like life insurance and the pension he had earned as a police officer.
The religious and personal details have to be there for readers to understand. For example:
... So his wife, Chandana, kept the vermilion sindoor in the part of her hair, and the red and white bangles on her right wrist, to indicate that she was a married woman. She would not remove them until she was certain she was a widow. She left the calendar on the wall of the bedroom turned to May 2016. In her mind, that was when time stopped.
“I still believe he is alive,” she said in her home in February. “I am not a widow. I am the married wife to Goutam Ghosh. Not a widow. Unless I see him, and we cremate him, I will not change.”
This feature isn't a quick read over coffee. I'm not sure I could have read it all during my old commuter-train ride from the edge of Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, D.C. Plus, you really have to read this -- experience this -- with a strong WIFI signal on a tablet or your computer, in order to sink into the digital imagery and videos.
So we will jump all the way to the end, after Ghosh's body had been carved out of the ice and snow, taken down, down, down the mountain and then flown home. This is where the story has to end.
Several sticks of incense were lit. In a bowl, rice, banana and ghee were mashed together. A nephew fed it to his uncle’s lips. He poured sacred Ganges water into his hand and sprinkled it on Ghosh’s blackened face, then over the rest of his body. The group chanted prayers and mantras. Debasish Ghosh stood in the corner, expressionless.
The body was carried and placed headfirst on rails that disappeared under the metal door of a 10-foot-tall oven. Several times, a man called, “Balo Hari.” The group answered, “Hari Bol,” a plea to Lord Krishna to take Ghosh from earth to heaven. The door opened slightly to reveal an orange glow. Someone pulled a lever, and the body slid into the opening. The door closed behind it.
Take the time. Read it all.
Would this story have made sense without the Hindu themes? No way. The result is a story that is stunning on multiple levels.