Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…
I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences do not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:
Mount Everest, Nepal
The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival challenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:
“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”
In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.
K2, China-Pakistan Border
The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.
Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA
Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to sleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.
Ben Macdui, Scotland
A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…
It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.