American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Mount Everest, North Ridge, Ascent and Tragedy

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Mt. Everest, North Ridge, Ascent and Tragedy. On May 17, the husband-and-wife team of Serguei Arsentiev and Francys Distefano-Arsentiev started from ABC to the North Col with members of their Russian expedition. On May 18, Serguei, Francys and Boris Slepikovsky ascended to 7700 meters. On the 19th, Serguei and Francys ascended to 8200 meters. On May 20, they made an attempt to climb to the top, but turned back at the First Step (ca. 8600m). Anatoli Moshnikov, a member of their team, saw them from 8200 meters at about 3 p.m. descending from the ridge. When Serguei reached the couple’s tent, he went to Moshnikov’s tent and explained to him that because of dead headlamp batteries, they had started at 6:30 a.m., but that they would try again tomorrow. Moshnikov gave him an extra battery and offered to come with them. On May 21, Serguei and Francys tried to go up again but only managed 50-100 meters before returning to the tents.

Moshnikov returned from the summit at about 6 p.m. Serguei congratulated him on his success and again complained of dead batteries. Moshnikov tried to persuade Serguei to descend, but Serguei declined, telling him that they were fine.

On May 22, Serguei and Francys departed, perhaps as early as 2 or 3 a.m. Rustam Radgapov (a member of the Uzbekistan expedition) passed them on the steep snow slope below the summit ridge (8750 - 8800m) at about 3:30 or 4 p.m. Francys’s pace was slow; she sat down very often. Radgapov was on the top at 4:45. About 5:45 p.m., on his descent, Radgapov met Serguei and Francys on the gentle slope near the rocks 100 meters from the top. Francys’s pace was slower. Radgapov went with them for about 50 meters back toward the top, trying to persuade them to turn around because it was quite late. Serguei told him not to worry, that they felt good and had a cache down below between the First and Second Steps that included a bottle of oxygen, a tent and some warm clothing. Radgapov saw the cache at about 8630 meters on his descent, but though it included the bottle of oxygen, the backpack was otherwise nearly empty. Later the tent was found at 7700 meters.

Radgapov descended to 8200 meters at 8:30 p.m. The last time he saw them was at the Second Step (8750m) at 7:30 p.m. on their descent. It is assumed Serguei and Francys were on top at 6:15 p.m. They apparently descended to their cache at 8630 meters, where they spent the night without a tent.

On May 23, Oleg Grigoriev, Andrei Fedorov, Serguei Sokolov, Svetlana Baskakova and Marat Usaev, members of the Uzbekistan expedition, started up from 8200 meters at 6 a.m. They had ten bottles of oxygen with them. At about 9:35 a.m. at 8450 meters, they met Serguei, who asked them: “Where is my wife? Did she not come down?” They answered in the negative. Serguei started to descend to the tents without saying anything, and they continued their ascent.

At 10:40 a.m. the Uzbekistan climbers came to Francys above the First Step. She was halfconscious and leaned against the rock. There was no harness on her; the protection cord was clipped to the jacket zipper. After medical consultation with the doctors of the Czech and Slovak expeditions, they gave her a few tablets of trental and oxygen at four liters per minute (Fedorov gave her his mask), but she tore the mask off, mumbling something. Her feet were out of order, so she could not descend by herself. The examination results: dilated pupils, fixed look, frozen fingers. They made her sit down and massaged her legs and hands. At 11:40 a.m., Grigoriev decided that Sokolov, Baskakova and Usaev would continue the attempt, while he and Fedorov stayed with Francys. At 1 p.m., Fedorov also continued his attempt, leaving his mask and oxygen to Francys. Grigoriev went up for the summit at 1:30 p.m. Before going away, he secured Fedorov’s oxygen mask to Francys and fixed her to the rope. One hundred meters higher, at 8630 meters, he found their cache, which included the empty sack, an empty oxygen bottle, a mask with regulator, a headlamp and water bottle. He took the mask and regulator for Fedorov. He found Francys’s harness below the Second Step. Grigoriev passed Fedorov above the Second Step, gave him his half-used oxygen bottle and the mask with regulator that he had found at 8630 meters. When he met the three descending Uzbekistan climbers, he arranged that Usaev would give his half-used bottle to Fedorov. All three climbers were already using their second oxygen bottle.

Sokolov, Baskakova and Usaev were on the top at 2:30 p.m. On the descent, below the final ridge, Usaev gave his oxygen to Fedorov. Baskakova was the first to return to Francys, which she did at 3:50 p.m. She re-connected Francys’s bottle with more oxygen. Sokolov, Baskakova and Usaev stayed with Francys until Grigoriev’s return. Grigoriev was on the top at 4 p.m. At 4:10, on his descent, he met Fedorov, who summited at 4:30. When Grigoriev reached Sokolov, Baskakova and Usaev, he sent Sokolov and Usaev down. They descended to the tents at 8200 meters, where Sokolov told Serguei what was going on with Francys. Immediately Serguei started up without oxygen, but they persuaded him to take one bottle of oxygen, tea and medicine with him. At 6:20 p.m., Grigoriev, with the help of Baskakova, started to bring Francys down from the First Step. With two ropes, they managed to get her about 80 meters down and then bring her 15 meters across to below a small rock. Fedorov descended to them at this point; his oxygen had finished at 8750 meters and he felt unwell. Francys started to convulse and Grigoriev sent Sokolova down. At 8:15 p.m., he fixed Fran, connected her to the last bottle of oxygen, set her gloves, hat and cowl straight and came down himself.

At 8 p.m., Grigoriev said by radio that he saw Serguei ascending. On the descent at 8:40 the two climbers met. To Serguei’s question, “Is Fran here?” Grigoriev answered, “She is still alive.” Grigoriev reached the tents at 8200 meters at 11:15 p.m. Serguei did not return.

On May 24, Ilias Tukhvatullin, Andrei Zaikin and Alexei Dokukin of the Uzbekistan expedition started from 8200 meters at 4:55 a.m. At 7:50 a.m., Tukhvatullin reached Francys, followed by Ian Woodall, Cathy O’Dowd, and four Sherpas from the South African expedition, plus the other members of the Uzbekistan team. Francys was still alive and connected to the rope but could not recognize anybody. She cried repeatedly, “Help, help!” Her gloveless hands were out of the jacket sleeves, her hat was off, her oxygen mask was off, and the oxygen bottle was disconnected. Serguei’s ice ax and rope were 50 or 60 meters away. There was no other sign of him. The South Africans gave Francys tea and checked and massaged her legs. They were certain that she could not move herself. Tukhvatullin offered to give her an injection of adrenaline and even warmed the ampoule, but the South Africans declined. Then all the South Africans, after conferring among themselves, canceled their attempt and went down without saying a word to the Uzbekistan climbers. Cathy O’Dowd cried.

At 9:15 a.m., after radio communication with Base Camp, the Uzbekistan climbers continued up. They were overtaken by three Sherpas around half an hour later. They reached the summit, and, upon passing Francys at 6 p.m. on the descent, they found no signs of Serguei’s ice ax. They saw jackdaws on Francys’s body. Anatoli Shabanov, the leader of the Uzbekistan expedition, told them by radio from Base Camp that the Sherpas had certified Francys’s death, so they did not go to the body. They descended to 8200 meters at 6:30 p.m.

According to Shabanov, a Chinese communications officer in Base Camp came to him at 11 a.m. and told him that an American woman climber had died five minutes earlier in the hands of Sherpas. On May 29, the official report of the death of Francys Distefano-Arsentiev was sent to her family. Serguei Arsentiev is officially listed as missing, though he is presumed dead. The on-line publication RISK and The Mountaineering Federation of Russia wish to extend our condolences to all the friends and family of Francys Distefano-Arsentiev and Serguei Arsentiev.

The Mountaineering Federation of Russia

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