How Francys Arsentiev Became The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Of Mount Everest

Published July 16, 2023
Updated August 8, 2023

Known as the "Sleeping Beauty" of Mount Everest, American mountaineer Francys Arsentiev died tragically atop Earth's highest peak on May 24, 1998.

Francys Arsentiev

Denver Public LibraryFrancys Arsentiev poses at the summit of Mount Everest in what’s believed to be the last photo ever taken of her.

On May 22, 1998, Francys Arsentiev made history when she became the first American woman to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest without the aid of supplemental oxygen. However, her glory would be short lived. On May 24, Francys Arsentiev perished during her descent — and when her corpse had to be left behind, she became known as the “Sleeping Beauty” of Mount Everest.

For almost nine years, the haunting corpse of “Sleeping Beauty” lay right where it had fallen on the upper slopes of Mount Everest. Finally, in 2007, Francys Arsentiev was given a proper burial and her tragic story was brought to an end.

A Chilling Omen Before Francys Arsentiev’s Fateful Climb

One night in 1998, 11-year old Paul Distefano woke up from a terrible nightmare. In it, he had seen two climbers stuck on a mountain, trapped in a sea of whiteness and unable to escape the snow that seemed to be almost attacking them.

Distefano was so disturbed that he immediately called his mother, Francys Arsentiev, upon waking; he thought it could be no coincidence that he had had the terrible nightmare the night before she was due to leave on an expedition to climb Mount Everest. Distefano’s mother brushed off his fears, however, and insisted she was going forward with her trip, telling her young son “I have to do this.”

At first glance, it would seem that Francys Arsentiev stood no chance against Everest. The 40-year old American woman was not a professional climber, nor an obsessive adventurer. She was, however, married to a famous mountaineer, Sergei Arsentiev, who was known as “the snow leopard” for having scaled the five highest peaks of his native Russia.

Together, the couple decided they would make a little history by reaching the summit without supplemental oxygen.

The Lethal Dangers Of Mount Everest — And The Bodies Left Behind

Mount Everest

Wikimedia Commons Mount Everest, where 280 people died in more than 60 years, including Francys Arsentiev.

Mount Everest has a way of reminding climbers that they should not be too prideful, that they should not underestimate the power of nature. There is no technology in the world that can help someone stranded 29,000 feet in the air, where temperatures can drop to 160 degrees below zero.

Anyone who begins their climb with confidence is quickly reminded of the challenges they face; bodies of unfortunate climbers serve as macabre guideposts throughout the way to the summit. Perfectly preserved in the freezing cold and wearing gear reflecting the various decades in which they succumbed to the mountain’s might, these bodies on Mount Everest were left where they fell because it was too dangerous to try and retrieve them.

Francys Arsentiev Dies On Mount Everest And Becomes Known As “Sleeping Beauty”

Mount Everest Sleeping Beauty

The SunOn May 24, 1998, American climber Francys Arsentiev died during her descent on Mount Everest — then her corpse became known as “Sleeping Beauty.”

Francys Arsentiev and Sergei would soon join the ranks of the never-aging dead when they trekked up Everest in May 1998. Although they indeed made it to the peak without any extra oxygen (making Arsentiev the first American woman to do so), they would never finish their descent.

Without oxygen, they had to move slowly while hiking through the uppermost reaches of Everest above 20,000 feet. And because they stayed inside this dangerous zone, with little oxygen, for so long, they became fatigued and likely disoriented.

Nevertheless, they were able to reach the summit on May 22, but as they made their way down, they became separated in the dark that evening. Francys Arsentiev was now lost and alone near the top of Mount Everest.

As another climbing couple, Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd, were making their own attempt at reaching the summit, they were shocked to come across what they had at first taken for a frozen body decked in a purple jacket. After seeing the body spasm violently, they realized that the unfortunate woman was actually still alive.

After they approached the woman to see if they could help her, the couple got another shock when they recognized the purple-clad climber: Francys Arsentiev had been in their tent for tea at the base camp. O’Dowd recalled how Arsentiev “wasn’t an obsessive type of climber – she spoke a lot about her son and home” when they had talked in the safety of the camp.

Thousands of feet in the air, Francys Arsentiev was only able to repeat three phrases, “Don’t leave me,” “Why are you doing this to me,” and “I’m an American.” The couple quickly realized that although she was still conscious, she wasn’t actually speaking at all, only repeating the same things on autopilot “like a stuck record.”

Francys Arsentiev The Sleeping Beauty Of Mount Everest

Wikimedia CommonsFrancys Arsentiev’s body on the slopes of Mount Everest.

Arsentiev had already succumbed to frostbite which, rather than distort her face with blotchy redness, had turned her skin hard and white. The effect gave her the smooth features of a wax figure and lead O’Dowd to remark that the fallen climber looked like Sleeping Beauty, a name the press eagerly seized for the headlines.

Conditions became so dangerous that Woodall and O’Dowd were forced to abandon Arsentiev, fearing for their own lives. There is no place for sentimentality on Everest and although it may seem that the couple abandoned Arsentiev to a cruel death, they had made the practical decision: there was no way they could carry her back down with them and they wanted to avoid becoming two more gruesome signposts on the mountain’s slopes themselves.

To this day, the demise of “Sleeping Beauty” Francys Arsentiev on May 24, 1998 remains one of the most haunting deaths to ever occur on Mount Everest.

A Burial For Mount Everest’s “Sleeping Beauty”

Sergei’s remains were found the following year and young Paul Distefano had to endure the added misery of seeing pictures of his mother’s frozen body on the mountain for nearly a decade.

Francys Arsentiev Burial

YouTubeFrancys Arsentiev was finally given a mountain burial in 2007.

In 2007, haunted by the image of the dying woman, Woodall led an expedition to give Francys Aresntiev a more dignified burial: he and his team managed to locate the body, wrap her in an American flag, and move Sleeping Beauty far from where cameras could find her.

After learning about Francys Arsentiev, the Sleeping Beauty of Mount Everest, read about the other bodies that rest forever atop Mount Everest’s slopes. Then, read about Hannelore Schmatz, the first woman to die on Everest.

Gina Dimuro
A graduate of New York University, Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.