Francys and Sergei Arsentiev

Francys Arsentiev

Francys Yarbro was born on January 18, 1958 in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1992 she married Russian mountaineer Sergei Arsentiev and together, they summited many peaks in Russia including ‘Peak 5800m’.

Francys and Sergei Arsentiev

The Arsentievs became the first people to ascend this peak, naming it “Peak Goodwill”. Francys became the first American woman to ski down Mount Elbrus and had summited both its east and west peaks. Francys dreamt of becoming the first American woman to climb Mount Everest without the aid of an oxygen bottle and on May 17, 1998, Francys and her husband, Sergei, set out to make it happen. Francys’s son from a previous relationship, who was eleven at the time, had final say as to whether his mother would go on the expedition to Mount Everest and attempt to summit without the aid of an oxygen bottle. During the 1998 expedition, Francys and Sergei made several attempts to summit which were aborted due to dangerous weather conditions. Finally, on May 22, 1998, Francys became the first woman from the United States to ascend Mount Everest without the aid of an oxygen bottle. Unfortunately, the couple had summited very late in the day and were forced to spend the night in the Death Zone (above 8,000 meters/feet) without supplemental oxygen. At some point in the evening, Francys and Sergei became separated; It is believed Francys was experiencing snow blindness, possibly oxygen depletion, and wandered off without him. When Sergei awoke on the morning of the 23rd to find Francys was gone, he made his way down the mountain to base camp.

Sergei Arsentiev

After failing to find her there, he gathered oxygen bottles and medicine and set off on his own to find his wife. Meanwhile, Francys encountered a Uzbek team of climbers the same morning who were in the final stretch of their summit. According to the team, she was frostbitten and appeared to be half-conscious, deprived of oxygen and unable to move on her own. The Uzbek team administered oxygen to Francys and carried her down the mountain with them as far as possible. Eventually, they had depleted their supply of oxygen and were too fatigued to continue the rescue effort. The team left Francys with a few oxygen bottles and returned to base camp without her. On their way, they encountered Sergei, who was on his way back up the mountain (in the direction Francys lay alone), in search of Francys. It was the last time Sergei Arsentiev was ever seen alive. The following day, on the morning of the 24th, another team of Uzbek climbers, along with British climber Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd of South Africa noticed Francys on their way to the summit.

Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall at Mount Everest’s peak in 1996. Photo courtesy Cathy O’Dowd’s private collection.

She was discovered where she had been left the previous evening, clipped to a guide rope on the mountain, lying on her side. Russian-made oxygen bottles were lying next to her, Sergei’s rope and ice axe were found nearby, but no Sergei. It was Cathy O’Dowd who insisted she and her team abandon their own summit attempt to tend to Francys. Ian Woodall came to the aid of Cathy and Francys as the remainder of the team continued with the summit. Cathy O’Dowd, who first approached Francys, discovered her lying in an inverted ‘V’, which caused Francys to appear as though her spine were broken. She was jerking in an unnatural way and had no motor control, her skin appeared waxy and white. She had removed her gloves and although her purple dow jacket was stikl on her body, her arms were not inside the sleeves. No visual signs of trauma were present and her unnatural positioning was found to be caused by muscular limpness. As they attempted to re-dress her, she did not assist, nor did she fight she only repeated, “I am an American. I am an American.”. O’Dowd and Woodall quickly realized she was not talking to them. As Cathy O’Dowd put it, Francys’s though and speech patterns were like that of a “stuck record”. The same Uzbek team who had assisted Francys previously passed by . When Cathy noticed them, she asked they come help but they responded, “We tried to help yesterday. We left her with oxygen. She is too far gone to help.”, and advised they leave her before leaving themselves. Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall remained with Francys for over an hour and the decision to leave her was a difficult one which was only made after much discussion.

Body of Francys Arsentiev. Photo courtesy of GoreGrish.com

Ultimately, they knew there was nothing the two of them could do to help and that Francys’s best chance was for them to return to base camp, find assistance, and return with a team. Francys begged, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”, after one again assuring her they would return, Francys’s last word to them were, “Why are you doing this to me?”. Although they did return a they had promised, it was too late. Francys died on May 24, 1998 at the age of 40. In 1999 Jake Norton, a member of the Mallory & Irvine expedition team discovered the body of Sergei Artsentiev nearby the location of his wife’s body. He had perished farther down the mountain’s face and believed to have been attempting to rescue Francys when he sustained a fatal fall. Ian Woodall lead an expedition in 2007 known as “The Tao of Everest” which aimed to discover and burry the bodies of Francys Arsentiev, “Green Boots”, and David Sharp. Cathy O’Dowd, who married Woodall in 2001 played an integral role in “The Tao of Everest”. It was she and Ian who eventually rediscovered the area in which they had left Francys Artsentiev, reached her body which rested on a steep slope and gave her a proper Death Zone burial. Her body was wrapped in an American flag along with a note from her son.

 They then lowered her body further down the mountain’s face and out of sight from the main path. In 1999 Cathy O’Dowd returned to Mount Everest and became the first woman to summit the mountain from both its north and south route.

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