Francys Arsentiev: The Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest

Francys Arsentiev, born on January 18, 1958, achieved the significant milestone of being the first woman from the United States to reach the summit of Mount Everest without relying on supplemental bottled oxygen. Tragically, she lost her life during the descent from the summit on 1998. Alongside the ranks of legendary climbers who have tested their skill on Everest, Francys Arsentiev’s is one of the most famous dead bodies on Mount Everest.

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, came across a motionless body. By the time they found her in the death zone, she was half-conscious due to the effects of oxygen deprivation, hypothermia, and frostbite. Acting swiftly, they provided essential oxygen and carried Francys down, pushing their own limits despite exhaustion.

In the unforgiving altitudes where even the weight of one’s own body becomes a burden, let alone that of an incapacitated climber, they were unable to continue with her. With heavy hearts and no alternatives, the Uzbek team made the decision to lay Francys to rest, allowing her to find solace amidst the magnificence 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 sketched her tragic death into history.

Who was Francys Arsentiev?

francys arsentiev sleeping beauty of mount everest

Francys Yarbro Distefano-Arsentiev, born as Francys Yarbro on January 18, 1958, hailed from Honolulu, Hawaii, and 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.

Sergei and Francys Arsentiev’s Climbing History

Francys Arsentiev and Sergei Arsentiev

Sergei, 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 niche in pushing her limits on progressively higher peaks alongside her supportive partner.

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.

In the world of Everest ascents, guides, with ample oxygen, can guide affluent clients to the summit and back in favorable conditions. However, even slight weather shifts can turn the expedition risky, especially without supplemental oxygen.

Interestingly, Francys’s 11-year-old son, Paul Distefano, exhibited a clearer understanding of these risks than his mother. In a prophetic nightmare, he envisioned two climbers stranded on a storm-battered mountain, where the snow seemed to assail them. The following morning, he bravely recounted 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. Subsequently, on the following day, they attained an elevation of 7700 meters (25,262 ft), coinciding with 21 other climbers reaching Everest’s summit from the North route. Advancing further, on May 19, they reached 8,203 meters (27,000 ft), establishing Camp 6. Sergei communicated their good condition via radio, affirming their intent to commence their summit bid at 1:00am on May 20.

On the designated day, they initiated their summit endeavor after spending the night at Camp 4. However, they encountered a setback at the First Step when their headlamps malfunctioned, prompting their decision to retreat. Undeterred, they made another attempt on May 21, staying overnight at Camp 6. Despite only ascending a modest 50–100 meters (200 to 300 feet) before retracing their steps, they demonstrated remarkable determination in pursuing their Everest summit dream.

The Final Ascent of Sergei and Francys Arsentiev on Everest

Following their previous attempts, Francis and Sergei initiated their final ascent on Mount Everest on May 22. Scaling without supplemental oxygen at such high altitudes 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, they 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 crucial supplies.

Although the exact sequence of events remains 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 administered oxygen and began the descent, carrying her as far as possible.

However, when their own oxygen was depleted and exhaustion set in, they could no longer continue. Francys was still alive at this point. Later that evening, as the Uzbek climbers descended to their 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

Tragically, Francys Arsentiev’s lifeless form remained frozen directly 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, exposing her helpless countenance to the world.

Regrettably, Francys is not alone in this grim fate, as the slopes of the mountain have seen over 300 deaths, and the slopes of Mount Everest are the resting place of over 200 dead bodies. The haunting memory of Francys’s fading visage continued to haunt Ian Woodall, etching itself indelibly into his consciousness. In 2007, driven by a desire to grant her some semblance of peace and shield future climbers from the unsettling sight, he orchestrated an expedition known as the ‘Tao of Everest’. 

This endeavor succeeded in enshrouding Francys Arsentiev’s remains in the comforting embrace of an American flag, gently lowering her down the mountain. Carried away from the prying eyes of those who tread the main route, Sleeping Beauty found her eternal repose amidst the serene embrace of the clouds, forever hidden 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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