Francys Arsentiev: The Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest

Francys Arsentiev, born on January 18, 1958, was the first woman from the United States to reach the summit of Mount Everest without relying on supplemental bottled oxygen. However, she died during the descent from the summit in 1998.

Due to the position of her body when she died, she was nicknamed Sleeping Beauty of Everest. Due to this, Francys Arsentiev has become one of the most famous dead bodies on Mount Everest.

Quick Facts about Francys Arsentiev

  • Francys Arsentiev was born on January 18, 1958.
  • She became the first woman from the United States to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental bottled oxygen.
  • Arsentiev died during the descent from the summit of Everest in 1998.
  • Francys Arsentiev’s last words were reported as, “Don’t leave me. Why are you doing this to me. I am American.”
  • She was nicknamed “Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest” by the media for the position of her body when she died on Everest.
  • She was married to Sergei Arsentiev, a well-known Russian climber.
  • During Sergei Arsentiev and Francys Arsentiev final ascent on May 22, they got separated, and Sergei went missing while trying to find Francys.

How Did Francys Arsentiev Become The Sleeping Beauty?

Francys Arsentiev, The Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest

On May 23rd, an Uzbek team descending from the summit of Everest, came across a motionless body. By the time they found her in the death zone, she was half-conscious due to oxygen deprivation, hypothermia, and frostbite. The team provided oxygen and attempted to carry Francys down out of the Death Zone.

However, in the unforgiving altitude where even the weight of one’s own body becomes a burden, let alone that of an incapacitated climber, the Uzbeks were unable to continue with her. With heavy hearts and no alternatives, the team made the decision to leave Francys on the slopes of Everest.

Later that day, climbers Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd encountered a surreal sight. Initially mistaking a frozen figure in a vibrant purple jacket for a lifeless form, they were astonished to find the woman alive. Limited by resources at high altitudes, their ability to help was constrained. They ended up having to leave Francys Arsentiev, but not before she spoke her last words,

Don’t leave me. Why are you doing this to me. I am American.

– Francys Arsentiev’s last words.

Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd noted that her body looked like sleeping beauty. Which was later picked up on by the media, and ultimately giving Francys the nickname ‘The Sleeping Beauty of Everest”.

Who was Francys Arsentiev?

francys arsentiev sleeping beauty of mount everest

Francys Yarbro Distefano-Arsentiev, born on January 18, 1958, in Honolulu, Hawaii, was the daughter of John Yarbro and Marina Garrett. At the age of six, she was introduced to the Colorado mountains by her father. She received her education at The American School in Switzerland and various schools in the United States.

Arsentiev pursued her higher education at Stephens College and later graduated from the University of Louisville. Additionally, she earned a Master’s degree from the International School of Business Management in Phoenix. Arsentiev’s professional career included working as an accountant in Telluride, Colorado throughout the 1980s. She went on to marry Sergei Arsentiev, where her climbing obsession grew.

Sergei and Francys Arsentiev’s Climbing History

Francys Arsentiev and Sergei Arsentiev

Sergei Arsentiev, a well-known climber in Russia, earned the moniker ‘Snow Leopard’ for scaling the five highest peaks in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Francys initially had no significant climbing background but was inspired and empowered by Sergei’s encouragement and dynamic spirit. Consequently, she found her passion while progressively climbing higher peaks alongside her husband.

The couple embarked on numerous climbing expeditions in Russia, with Arsentiev notably becoming the first U.S. woman to ski down Elbrus. Using the West Buttress of Denali as a testing ground, they strategized for Francys to achieve the distinction of becoming the first U.S. woman to reach the summit of Everest without relying on supplemental oxygen.

Francys Arsentiev: A Climber’s Unique Journey to Everest

Francys Arsentiev Sleeping Beauty

In contrast to many high-altitude climbers attempting Everest without guided assistance, Francys did not fit the typical mold. She lacked the obsessive drive often seen in serious climbers and wasn’t a sponsored professional.

Interestingly, Francys’s 11-year-old son, Paul Distefano, exhibited a better understanding of the risks associated with climbing Everest than his mother. In a prophetic nightmare, he envisioned two climbers stranded on a storm-battered mountain. The following morning, he told his unsettling dream to his mother. Despite his apprehensions, she was resolute about her expedition to climb Mount Everest, stating, “I have to do this.”

First Attempt to Mount Everest

Francys Arsentiev on the top of Mount Everest

In May 1998, Francys and Sergei Arsentiev embarked on their Mount Everest expedition. After reaching base camp, they progressed to the North Col from Advance Base Camp on May 17. On the following day, they attained an elevation of 7,700 meters (25,262 ft), coinciding with 21 other climbers bidding for Everest’s summit from the North route.

On May 19, they reached 8,203 meters (27,000 ft), establishing Camp 6. Sergei communicated their favorable condition via radio, affirming their intent to commence their summit bid at 1:00am on May 20.

On the following morning, they began their summit bid after spending the night at Camp 4. However, they encountered a setback at the First Step when their headlamps malfunctioned, prompting them to return. Undeterred, they made another attempt on May 21, staying overnight at Camp 6. During this attempt, they only ascended a modest 50–100 meters (200 to 300 feet) before retracing their steps.

The Final Ascent of Sergei and Francys Arsentiev on Everest

Following their previous attempts, Francis and Sergei began their final ascent on Mount Everest on May 22. Scaling without supplemental oxygen slowed their progress and led them to summit dangerously late in the day. Consequently, they had to endure another night above 8,000 meters (26,000 ft). During the night, the husband and wife got separated, prompting Sergei to descend to camp the next morning. To his distress, Francys had not arrived at the camp. Realizing she must be in a risky position high on the mountain, he went on to search for her, carrying oxygen bottles and other supplies.

Although the exact sequence of events remain uncertain, the most plausible accounts suggest that on the morning of May 23, Francys Arsentiev was encountered by a team from Uzbekistan as they approached the summit. She appeared semi-conscious, affected by both oxygen deprivation and frostbite. Being unable to move independently, they gave her supplemental oxygen and began carrying her down the mountain.

However, when their own oxygen was depleted and exhaustion set in, they could no longer continue. Francys was still alive at this point and as the Uzbeks descended to camp, they encountered Sergei Arsentiev on his way back up to find her. Unfortunately, this marks the last confirmed sighting of him. Sergei vanished without a trace, leaving behind only his abandoned ice axe.

The Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest

Francys Arsentiev’s body covered by the American Flag

Francys Arsentiev’s lifeless form remained frozen on the main route to the summit, becoming an unwelcome fixture along the path. Over the course of nine years, countless photographs captured her enigmatic silhouette, giving rise to the nickname Sleeping Beauty and exposing her to the world.

The Sleeping Beauty of Everest is not alone, as there have been over 300 deaths, making Mount Everest the resting place of over 200 dead bodies. The haunting memory of Francys’s continues to haunt Ian Woodall, etching herself into his consciousness. In 2007, driven by a desire to grant her some peace and shield future climbers from seeing Sleeping Beauty, he organized an expedition known as the ‘Tao of Everest’. 

This expedition succeeded in covering Francys Arsentiev’s remains in an American flag, gently lowering her down the mountain. Sleeping Beauty was then carried away from the eyes of those who climb the main route, finding her eternal resting place hidden away from view.

FAQs: Francys Arsentiev

1. Why is Francys Arsentiev called sleeping beauty?

Ian Woodall and Kathy came across Francys on their climb, her frozen body resembling Sleeping Beauty. The press coined her “Sleeping Beauty on Everest,” forever linking her tranquil repose to the mountain’s mystique.

2. Has Sleeping Beauty been removed from Everest?

On May 23, 2007, Woodall, having aided Francys during her descent, found her lifeless body. In a solemn act, he performed a final ritual and lowered her remains to a lower location, removing the captivating sight of Everest’s sleeping beauty from the climbers’ gaze.

3. What happened to Francys Arsentiev?

Francys Arsentiev (January 18, 1958 – May 24, 1998) etched her name in history as the first American woman to conquer Mount Everest’s summit without the use of bottled oxygen, achieving this remarkable feat on May 22, 1998. Tragically, her life was cut short during the descent.

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