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1982: Belgian Climber Jean Bourgeois Disappears on Mt. Everest

On December 30, 1982, the great Belgian mountaineer Jean Bourgeois, a 44-year-old climber, photographer, and explorer, fell off the north side of the West Ridge of Mount Everest while descending in a storm. Jean slid into remote Tibet and was unable to reach the Nepalese side of the mountain. After spending several nights outside, he reached a village where Chinese authorities arrested him.

He was eventually released and made his way by foot to Kathmandu, where he surprised his wife Danielle and climbing team members, who had long given him up for dead. An amazing story of survival on the world’s highest mountain.

I first met Jean and his American climbing partner Matt Robertson in 2000 while climbing at Sella in Spain, and became friends. I later visited Jean a couple times, climbing at Freyr in Belgium and in southern France.

Jean Bourgeois and his wife Danielle at home near Dinant, Belgium, in 2000. Danielle passed away a couple years later. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

At that time, Jean was finishing his book Les voies abruptes: Trois chemins de l'Extreme (The Abrupt Journey: Death and Rebirth on Mt. Everest), which was published in France and Belgium to rave reviews. I translated part of the book from French and wrote a proposal to find an American publisher for Jean’s adventure story. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful.

Here is part of that book proposal:

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is at the center of The Abrupt Journey (Les Voies Abruptes). This adventure book, by Jean and Danielle Bourgeois of Belgium, explores the mythical mountain as an exceptional human and spiritual journey from three people and three points of view. The name Everest conjures up magic. For some people, Mt. Everest is a place for fantastic adventures on extreme terrain. For others, like the Tibetan people, Mt. Everest is literally the “mother goddess,” the symbol for the eternal feminine present in everyone.

The first part of the story is the physical struggle of Jean Bourgeois. On December 27, 1982 two Japanese climbers died on the Nepalese side of Mt. Everest and Jean Bourgeois, a well-known and famous Belgium mountaineer, vanished from his expedition without a trace. For several days his party searched in vain for him. But after scouring the mountain, they concluded Jean was dead and gave up their ascent of the peak, returning to Kathmandu and breaking the sad news to his wife Danielle. Three weeks later, however, Jean Bourgeois miraculously appeared in Kathmandu. His teammates were stupefied. Here was Jean, left for dead but now reborn among the living.

On that fateful day, Jean developed cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain at high altitude. He knew that he had to descend quickly to a lower altitude where there was more oxygen or risk dying on the mountain. Isolated from the rest of his expedition, he made the decision to descend by the easiest way, which happened to be down the opposite side of Mt. Everest into forbidden Tibet. And so he descended, lost and sick, into an unknown land. Bourgeois fought and struggled day and night for survival in this harsh landscape of towering mountains, glaciers, and frigid cold. With little food and scant water, he slowly made his way back to Nepal and Kathmandu.

Jean’s real struggle, however, was not the physical struggle for survival in the Himalayas, but later when he had to come back to life for Danielle and his friends after they had given him up for dead. He found himself a hero to the media, who gathered around him to hear his harrowing tale of survival. He also found himself among skeptics who found his story so incredulous that they simply refused to believe the veracity of his improbable adventure.

Jean Bourgeois leading a 5.10 route at Calenque Sormiou in southern France in 2002. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

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