The Tragic Story Of Mount Everest Climber Francys Arsentiev

Mount Everest – and the nearly 30,000-foot trek to its summit – is a global paragon of adventure, an ambition that reflects humanity's hunger for Earth's most impressive wonders. People around the world make a lifetime pursuit out of scaling the infamous mountain, and over 4,000 of those have achieved the ultimate dream of reaching its peak. Some climbers, however, were not so fortunate. Over 200 bodies of those who couldn't complete the climb remain on the mountain, left out of necessity due to the hazardous conditions that prevent rescue teams from retrieving their remains.

One of the most well-known of these unfortunate hikers is Francys Arsentiev, popularly known by her posthumous title, "Sleeping Beauty." In May of 1998, the 40-year-old, American-born hiker was encouraged by her son, Paul Distefano, to scale the mountain. Eager to be the first American woman to reach the peak without a supplemental oxygen bag, Arsentiev made her trek alongside her husband, famous mountaineer Sergei Arsentiev. Tragically, while Francys and her husband did reach Everest's summit, they never descended – both succumbed to frostbite on their trek down the mountain.

  • Two Climbers Tried To Rescue Arsentiev But Were Forced To Leave Her Behind

    Abandoning a stranded climber may seem callous, but Ian Woodall and Cathy O'Dowd had little choice. By the time the hikers found Arsentiev, she was badly frostbitten and barely breathing, and when they attempted to move her into a sitting position, the effort left them gasping for breath.

    Mount Everest has no emergency protocol, and unfortunately, most hikers who do get stuck on the mountain eventually perish there. After much debate, the team realized that an attempted rescue would most likely prove fatal for all involved. Wracked with guilt, the team left Arsentiev in order to save their own lives, though they promised her they would return.

  • Her Final Words Still Haunt Her Would-Be Rescuers

    Francys Arsentiev legacy persists largely because of her last words: Arsentiev repeatedly said, “Don’t leave me here,” as fellow climbers debated how to help her. When the climbers let her know they had to leave, they promised to come back with help.

    Arsentiev either misunderstood or was skeptical of the promise. In response, she asked, “Why are you doing this to me?” Her words would continue to haunt the hikers years later.

  • The Nickname "Sleeping Beauty" References Her Peaceful Appearance

    Arsentiev was nicknamed Sleeping Beauty following her death. After suffering from severe frostbite, her skin gained a waxy appearance similar to the complexion of a porcelain doll. According to her fellow climbers, she also fell into a "deep sleep" just before they were forced to leave her due to lack of oxygen.

    This posthumous fame was the least she deserved: despite her tragic end, she was the first woman from the US to successfully summit Mount Everest without the aid of bottled oxygen.

  • She Died In Everest's Notorious Death Zone

    Arsentiev died in an area of Everest known as “the death zone.” This refers to the upper level of the mountain where oxygen levels are too low to support human life. The physical effects of lack of oxygen, such as exhaustion and general weakness, have resulted in the deaths of many hikers.

    The death zone is also more prone to avalanches and storms than other areas of the mountains, which also contribute to the high fatality rate. 

  • Hikers From Uzbekistan Tried To Save Her
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hikers From Uzbekistan Tried To Save Her

    Arsentiev was first found by a group of hikers from Uzbekistan. The hikers attempted to help her, giving her a few oxygen bottles and carrying her down the mountain, but their efforts ultimately failed when their own oxygen became depleted. 

    They did encounter Arsentiev’s husband, Sergei, on their way back and tried to direct him towards his wife. This was the last time Sergei Arsentiev was seen alive.


  • Her Husband's Body Wasn't Found Until One Year Later

    The body of Sergei Arsentiev wasn't found until 1999, about a year after the couple's tragic end. A climber named Jake Norton located Sergei’s body, which was fairly close to where his wife had passed.

    Sergei most likely suffered a fatal fall while attempting to rescue his wife.