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CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)

Ghost Stories From the World's Tallest Peaks

CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)

The world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest and K2, are associated with great mountaineering feats, a love of nature, and tales of adventure. These 8000-meter peaks also hold a dark side for climbers, however, and there are just as many stories of hardship, defeat, and death on the summits. Among these tales are a surprising number of accounts of the strange, ghostly, and supernatural.

To begin with, the atmosphere on the tallest peaks can be somewhat grim. Death is a constant possibility to be reckoned with for climbers on the highest peaks of the Himalayas and the Karakoram range, which spans Pakistan, India, and China. Over 220 people have died climbing Everest, and due to the impossibility of retrieving the fallen, the majority of bodies are left frozen on the slopes indefinitely, turning the mountains into a high-altitude cemetery.

Some of the bodies remain visible, lying close enough to the main routes that climbers are obliged to step over them. The colorful gear worn by the dead has earned Everest’s Northeast Ridge route the nickname “Rainbow Valley.” Everest, however, is not the deadliest 8000-er in terms of percentages. Since the first successful ascent of K2 in 1954, over 25 percent of those who have attempted the summit have died, while Annapurna I’s death toll is closer to 33 percent. It’s no wonder that the area between around 8000 meters and the tops of these mountains is ominously referred to as the “Death Zone.”

Given this macabre climate, it’s inevitable that some weird stories have emerged. Some of these spooky tales are informed by the mountains’ cultural and spiritual significance, and some can be explained by science, while others remain inexplicable.

The Sherpas, without whose help so many ascents of Himalayan mountains would be impossible, view the Himalayas as both the embodiment and the realm of gods. Some feel that disrespect for their sacred mountain has led to both bad karma and to restless spirits. In May 2004, Pemba Dorji Sherpa was climbing Everest, a trip during which he earned a disputed claim to the world’s fastest ascent, when he encountered what he described as black shapes near the summit. Pemba says that the shapes were the ghosts of climbers who died on the mountain, and that as the shapes approached him they held out their hands, begging for something to eat. Pemba and other Sherpas believe the ghosts will continue to haunt the mountain until a proper funeral rite can be performed for their souls.

The scientifically minded feel that ghostly sightings above 8000 meters have a much more logical explanation. The detrimental effects of time spent in the Death Zone are well-known. At high altitude, temperatures far below freezing inflict frostbite, sleep becomes difficult, and reflected light causes snow-blindness. Perhaps worst of all, though, the lack of atmospheric pressure and attendant low oxygen concentration (about 30 percent of that at sea level) can cause altitude sickness and High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE. In the latter condition, the brain swells, leading to hampered speech and mental function, poor decision-making, impaired coordination, hallucinations, and loss of touch with reality.

Altitude’s effects on the brain can explain a particularly haunting moment described in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a first-person retelling of a 1996 Everest expedition during which a severe storm killed eight climbers on the mountain and stranded several others. The incident is considered one of the worst-ever mountaineering disasters. Krakauer, descending in the midst of the mounting storm, at one point thought he encountered his teammate Andy Harris, only to discover later that he had seen an entirely different person, and that Harris had died up on the mountain.

Low oxygen and other physical stresses can also account for a common phenomenon in which mountaineers report the sense of an additional, phantom person. Dougal Haston and Doug Scott, members of a 1975 British expedition up Everest, describe a horrific night spent just below the summit with no food and problems with their oxygen supply. The men are said to have sensed a third climber with them in their snow hole, a comforting presence that talked them through their ordeal. Climber Hermann Buhl experienced something similar on his first-ever ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953, as did Joe Simpson, whose ordeal escaping death in the Andes is described in Touching the Void.

British climber Frank Smythe, who attempted Everest several times in the 1930s, may have the most colorful story, however. He describes encountering two presences, the first being a benign one that seemed so real he offered it some of his mint cake. Later, he encountered strange hovering objects, one of which had "what looked like squat, underdeveloped wings, whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. They distinctly pulsated … as though they possessed some horrible quality of life."

Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain reports that the so-called sensed-presence effect (referred to elsewhere as “Feelings of Presence,” or FOPs) is common to people under physical and mental duress, including mountain climbers, polar explorers, endurance athletes, and isolated sailors. An experiment conducted by a Swiss team in 2014 and reported in Current Biology seems to confirm this. Researchers managed to induce in volunteers the experience of nearby ghostly presences by creating a disconnect in motor-sensory signals received by the brain, causing the brain’s sense of the body in space to malfunction. Researchers suggest that FOPs, or ghosts, may be an illusion created by the mind when it temporarily loses track of the body’s location due to mental illness, stress, or extreme physical exertion or duress.

Not all mountaineering ghost stories can be explained away so easily, however. Jennifer Jordan’s book Savage Summit, which details the lives and feats of the first five women to climb K2, also presents a few accounts that would not be out of place in a book of ghost stories. Wanda Rutkiewicz, an accomplished Polish mountaineer who in 1986 became the first woman ever to climb K2, survived the descent and went on to climb several other 8000-foot mountains before dying in her bid to climb Kanchenjunga in 1992. After Rutkiewicz’s death, Jordan writes, her friend Ewa Matuszewska was awoken in the middle of the night by a telephone call, and upon answering heard Rutkiewicz’s voice on the other end of the line. Delighted to hear her friend’s voice, Matuszewska pleaded, “We are all in despair. Where are you?”

The voice responded,“I am cold, I am very cold, but don’t cry. Everything will be fine.”

“But why aren’t you coming back?” Matuszewska persisted.

“I cannot now,” Wanda’s voice said, before the phone went dead.

Equally chilling is a story from Jordan’s book involving Julie Tullis, a British climber and the third woman to summit K2. Tullis’s accomplishment took place in July of 1986. The months surrounding her climb saw 13 deaths on K2, which came to be known as the Black Summer. During her descent with her partner Kurt Diemberger, Tullis suffered a bad fall, severe frostbite to one hand, and blurred vision likely stemming from HACE. She died while trapped at Camp IV with several other climbers, and her body was left on the mountain.

Years later, in 1992, Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher, members of an American-Russian team, were jolted out of an unusual quiet at base camp by the sound of a voice coming over the communications radio. “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?” the voice said. Both Kieser and Fisher knew that no one was on the mountain at that time. And the voice was that of a British woman.

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14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

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6 Historical Methods for Contacting the Dead (and Their Drawbacks)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'Tis the season for getting in touch with the spirit realm. (This applies no matter what month we're in right now; 'tis always high time to get your séance on.) But there are several different ways you can go about it. Do you Ouija? Should you go wandering around a haunted house? No, you should probably pick up the psychic telephone.

Lapham's Quarterly helpfully charted out some of historical ways you could (supposedly) go about contacting the dead, from Chinese Fuji writing—a method that's kind of like a Ouija board, but using a stylus to make letters in sand instead of a board—to past-life regression via hypnosis. The chart lays out how each ghost-whispering concept works, and its theoretical drawbacks. Because there are always drawbacks.

Transfiguration, for instance, lets you see a spirit's face through the body of a medium, but that's a whole lot of hard work for your medium. You can listen for electronic voice phenomena via a recorder, but you have to buy the recorder first. F. R. Melton's 1921 invention, the balloon-powered psychic telephone, was a great option—except when his son George wasn't around to work it. And past-life regression, as you might imagine, holds “potential for new levels of self-hatred." No one wants to find out that their past self was a total jerk.

There are plenty of scientific and cultural explanations for seeing ghosts that don't involve the actual spirits of the dead returning to the Earthly plane, but if you're into the history of the occult, this is a great primer on spirit-conjuring traditions.

[h/t Lapham's Quarterly]

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