Showing Dead Bodies: Reality or Bad Taste?

K2 Memorial
K2 Memorial

When is it acceptable to show a picture of dead body that is decomposing, ambulance disfigured, or disturbing to a viewer? Especially if it is somewhat recognizable by friends or family, unexpectedly?

In my sport of climbing, this situation has become more commonplace thus I wanted to explore it a bit in this post.

With the Internet, we are exposed, often unknowingly or without warning, to seeing all sorts of graphic scenes from torture to executions to accidents. To state the obvious, some of the most popular movies and television shows exploit this morbid curiosity. Producers and viewers rationalize it as not being “real” since it was on TV or a movie screen.

With so many cell phone cameras taking pictures of every event, there seems to be no filter as anyone with the picture has the capability to post on forums, private websites, sell them to media outlets and more. Sadly, these posts seem to attract the morbid curious thus driving traffic and revenue from advertising to the outlet.

“Reality” on K2

A recent case in point was from the adventure Mike Horn while on K2.

Mr. Horn is a well respected adventure with a huge loyal following. He attempted the world’s second highest mountain and second most deadly in July 2015, K2. He and a small team pushed hard, made a great effort, but were stopped by heavy snow. In fact no one summited K2 in 2015 making it four of out the last six years without a summit thus demonstrating just how difficult K2 can be.

Upon his return to civilization, he posted on Facebook a well done 3 minute video of his effort. As the video showed him discussing how deadly K2 can be, the picture shifted to a decapitated head of a climber for 2 seconds – more than enough time to see a disfigured mass with hair, eyes, a skewed mouth – and the impression of a human who died in great pain.

It was found between Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp suggesting the death had happened higher up on the mountain and brought lower through the flow of multiple avalanches that occurred this year.

Outrage from Friends and Family

A collective cry of outrage began from friends and family of climbers who had died on K2. Their basic argument was that Mr. Horn was insensitive to post such an image.

Sequoia Di Angelo, who lost her brother, Denali, and father Marty Schmidt in 2013 on K2 posted this on her’s and Mr. Horn’s Facebook pages:

You have children correct? Please ask your daughter how she would feel if this was your head decomposing on the mountain and was put on a promotional video from another climbers expedition. Now over 87,000 people have viewed this morbid footage. This horrific image will be indelibly imprinted in my mind. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Another climber, Canadian Louis Rousseau, said this in part in an open letter posted on several websites:

I’ve been climbing for almost 25 years now and my first high altitude expedition was when you did your six-month solo traverse of the South American continent in 1997 about 18 years ago. During all those years, I lost friends in the mountains; I saw families crying for the loss of their own child. I also saw the bodies of climbers and even parts of them. When possible, I put them away so other climbers could not take pictures of them. With a short prayer, it was the I could do to show respect. What you did was the complete opposite approach and behaviour.

Mr. Rousseau summed up what many felt with this powerful sentence:

Imagine if it was the head of your own child lying right there on the snow. People take picture and filming. Did you lost some part of your sensibility with all your popularity and media exposure?

Mr. Horn took down the video, saying he and his colleagues considered the impact but went ahead with the post.  In part, he posted this on his Facebook:

I do value everyone’s opinion, being accused of being disrespectful towards the dead and their families is, of course, a matter of opinion. However, I do apologize if I offended anyone who lost loved ones and do not see life, and death, in the same way as I do. So we have removed the video from Facebook.

I learned years ago that if you really mean to apologize, you never use the word “if”. Then he went further to justify his decision to post the video in the first place:

When I die doing what I love, I die a happy man. My daughters and family will be happy for me, my spirit leaves my body that becomes old and useless and when my spirit is released it will roam the world with freedom and are finally released from the body that ties me down.

Mr. Horn, sponsored by Mercedes Benz, has over 115,000 likes on his Facebook page and receives global publicity during his adventures from a large and loyal set of followers. His video had received thousands of likes and shares before it was removed.  The horse was out of the barn.

His “apology” received 3,618 likes and was shared 195 times. In reviewing the 267 comments, about 170 were supportive of Mr. Horn’s video, 60 were negative and the rest made no sense to me as they had not seen the video …

These are few of the more thoughtful comment and are representative of the many:

  • I personally saw nothing wrong with your video and took some abuse for stating that on some people’s rants on other pages. Stay strong and stay safe Mike.
  • Mike, you are an example for many of us, living a life that many of us would like to live, it is true that some of the latest videos have been a bit different from what you normally do, but go ahead, Greetings!
  • Just remove the graphic part, Mike Horn. We don’t need to see pictures of a corpse to convey it in our head. Not only it is inappropriate & unnecessary for public viewing, but also it does strip dignity away from the dead person you depicted. I’m sure you will make the right decision. It’s your call. As a side note, I have been following you for many years. I have a great admiration and respect for what you are doing and I have read all your books. Best of luck for your future expeditions.
  • thank you for sharing and the harsh reality is that many climbers are killed each year and I don’t think you were being disrespectful but only showing the what can happen so people don’t take up mountain climbing without understanding the risks.
  • Cut the crap Mike! I’m very sorry you’ve lost your Wife and friends. You should have put a warning on that Video. That twisted face with its mangled jaw haunts me every day. YOU DID NOT ANSWER MY QUESTION? Why didn’t you bury that person and give him or her some dignity? If you are a man of values then stick by your statements!! RESPECT THE DEAD! That person like you was also an adventurer and wanted to climb to the summits. He or she didn’t make it. A tragedy. But you certainly didn’t have to post his or her face on your Video. SO CALLOUS. The one thing that you have proven, is that you are heartless with absolute no feeling to loss of life. BRAVO!
  • It seems like what many of the people commenting on the video had an issue with was the ‘gratuitousness’ of the shot in question. It was used as a prop, an effect, an element of horror (“quelle horreur!”) to make your journey seem that much more ‘hard core’ and ‘epic’.This approach, which was consistent with the rest of the style of your video (action! adventure! hardcore shots! slipping off an icy wall!) necessarily negates any implied respect or care, there was no subtlety or nuance in showing the skull. No further action on it was shown (i.e. carefully wrapping it and putting it to the side or burying it etc) and that is problematic.
  • It is not that you personally don’t care about the dead or lack respect for them, but aesthetically this shot and the way it was used just came across as crude and for personal gain only.
  • I don’t see anything “offensive” in that video you shared Mike. It was simply a motivating clip. This is the era where we have lot of lots of definitions so I am not sure what “offensive” means in that sense where a simple motivational video can offend someone to that extent, anyways. Stay blessed.

In Bad Company

Mr. Horn is far from the only recent example. After the tragic April Nepal earthquake, one guide posted pictures of dismembered bodies on his website, complete with names of the victims. He took it down after receiving many comments as to the inappropriateness of the images.

Simply Google “dead bodies on Everest”, or any other mountain, country or highway you want, and you will be rewarded with multiple hits that will satisfy your curiosity and, hopefully, make you sick to your stomach.

Serious newspapers, magazines and most television websites will often not post graphic pictures following a very loose code of ethics but many choose to and are rewarded with large ratings. The Internet has no rules thus it’s up to the author to demonstrate sensitivity, respect and taste.

The only taboo area that has consensus is around showing the faces of children.

Could or Should?

In 2012, I  wrote an article about bodies on Everest after the respected Smithsonian did a blog post with links and pictures of dead bodies. I primarily addressed why the bodies were still there.

With Mr. Horn’s decision, I was encouraged to rethink the appropriateness.

I fully agree that mountain are dangerous, the risk is evident to the climbers and families and consequences are real. I fully understand that if you die on the mountain, your body may be left for future climbers to step over, bury, or exploit for their own personal gain. I get it, and there is more.

K2 has seen over 85 deaths, Everest, 250, Mont Blanc, 2000 and on and on. To feel the need to show a picture of a corpse to “to show the reality.” as Mr. Horn declared, is naive at , exploitative at the worse. And in my opinion, inexcusable for an adventure of his stature. For Mercedes Benz to allow this is suspect at . Have you ever seen a Mercedes Benz commercial with a mangled body hanging out of their latest car to denote the “reality” of how accidents happen?

We don’t need to see a burned hand to understand a fire can cause damage.

Sigh, but this is that age of sensationalism over the top. Freedom of the press. Freedom of speech, Freedom FROM taste.

Perhaps showing “shock” video and images is useful in a controlled environment like a driver’s education course for 15 year-olds to force teach the concepts of not texting while driving. But even then, I personally don’t think it is needed.

The old adage in journalism is “if it bleeds it leads” and the only rules in media, both public and private, are ones that each individual follows according to their own morals, conscience and experience.

I suggest asking yourself how you would feel about seeing a decomposing image of your mother on the front page of your local newspaper, or on the main page of a website. You might be fine with it as it shows the “reality” of life and death.

However, your choice is not the choice of all and to make your choice without considering the impact on others is selfish, arrogant and destructive.

Our society has many serious problems. This is not the most critical but it is important. I invite my fellow “adventurers”, and anyone who has a choice, to exercise sensitivity and judgment when creating or perpetuating sensational headlines, images or stories. I especially invite editors of the popular adventure magazines and websites to show restraint and taste. One day it may be your relative on your cover.

To be clear, Mr. Horn is an amazing adventurer, deserving of all the respect and praise he receives. In my opinion, I believe he made a serious judgment error in this specific case. We all do from time to time and I applaud him for taking the video down even with his conditional apology.

In the end it reminds of something I learned as a child:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Climb On!


Memories are Everything.

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30 thoughts on “Showing Dead Bodies: Reality or Bad Taste?

  1. What this video shows is the reality of climbing some mountains – there ARE bodies lying around exposed and you WILL see this when you climb. It’s not a trip to Yellowstone…..

  2. In Hollywood celebrities have carefully crafted images and must maintain communication with their fans, today so too must professional climbers. It seems half of the game is your story (whether its risk taking, or as in this case shock footage?), and then of course how well you communicate and share that story and how well you work as a corporate person. If you don’t send messages via self-filmed videos that often play like reality-show confessionals or do anything of interest, none of the online community will listen and no brands will see value in supporting you and Mercedes is a big brand to take to the Karakoram is it not? Again, I feel saddened by what Sequoia and the rest of the family have had to go through.

  3. We might be indifferent to the fact that we don’t look all rosey after prolonged involuntary stay in the ice or as a spaghetti-fied version of our former selves. That doesn’t excuse us for having kids, loved ones, friends, and others, from being exposed to us in that stage of existence where don’t have the cutest of smileys for them.

    If we don’t have any consideration for our own feelings, at least we could try and have them for theirs.

  4. It’s sensitive. media shows bodies and trauma all the time. Climbers are not special and do not earn an exemption from reportage, so long as they to have their summit photo on the front page of a newspaper. I photographed a skeleton on Everest in 1995 that was printed worldwide; around the same time the discovery of Mallory hit the media. I received little criticism, but what criticism did arise I answered by saying that if I died on a mountain I endorse anyone to photograph me because by stepping onto the mountain I might never step off of it, thus I’d become part of the archaeology and geography of the mountain.

    1. Thanks Greg, appreciate your thoughts and experience. In this case, it was somewhat fresh and certainly not a skelton. I wonder if the person whose head was found would have “endorsed” others to have it shown without warning in a public manner to benefit the ambitions of others?

      Of course the same could be said of “Green Boots” on Everest, etc. etc. By the way, the Chinese have been doing a low key effort to remove the bodies from the north side of Everest, including Green Boots per my understanding.

      1. In fact I did not finish my thought in my response. I was also going to ask whether ant effort has been made to identify the body. I saw the video and agree it was disturbing, but in the end, was DNA like tissue/bone/teeth taken? Oops, that is probably illegal…Were the remains interred somewhere? Or was the inclusion of the dead person on video just a gawk-fest to get hits on the internet? I saw lots of dead people during years in the mountains, I’m neutral to the sight, but in a promo video?

        1. To my knowledge and according to others who were there, no effort was made to cover or identify it by DNA (see Chris Burke’s comments below).

          I hope I’m just uniformed and some effort was made.

          According to the posts Mr. Horn made, he said he considered the disturbing aspect but in alignment with his own personal values felt the body was NOT indicative of a person and showing it was needed to demonstrate how dangerous K2 was …

          If it was for promotional value, he and Mercedes won the battle and lost the war in the eyes of many.

          1. If this is the same corpse head as the one described on Philippe Gatta’s, an official liaison officer took photos for identification purposes and forbid anyone to approach the corpse. From Philippe Gatta’s Facebook fan page :
            K2 – EXPEDITION – IT’S OVER…
            Day 26 – 27th July – Base Camp
            Email from Philippe:
            The melting snow on the glacier and the avalanches have released some dead bodies. Yesterday as I was walking to ABC, I saw a leg from the boot to the thigh and a few hundred meters further, the head of of man. We are not allowed to evacuate the body but the Liaison Officer shall take photos for identification purposes and burry it. Sad and disturbing”. Maybe Philippe Gatta has more information. Also, I noted that Joanne Patti Schmidt asked Mike Horn to take photos of any remains of her son that he could find (comment on a facebook photo mid July)., so that too is something that needs to be thought about : can family members ask climbers to take photos? Is that a convenient thing to do (although of course they must stay private). Mercedes never posted the video with the corpse because they posted it without the corpse since the beginning. So I don’t know what you mean by “Mercedes won the battle”? Mike Horn took the video down, and he has apologized, but maybe not in the way that many people were hoping for, I regret this too, but nevertheless he did apologize and take the video down, I repeat, and he said that his intent was not to hurt but to inspire and that he was sorry if he hurt any family members. I have also found out that there are some other reasons that can not be expressed here.

  5. I’m glad General Eisenhower didn’t adopt the same censorship ‘morals’ when entering the Nazi Death Camps for the first time. Or when Mainstream Media shows smart bombs hitting buildings – just what do people imagine is happening to the often innocent people inside those buildings?

    It isn’t the exposure of death that dehumanises people it is the hiding away of death that keeps the reality of it away from people’s consciousness.

    Some people need to be reminded of the dangers of climbing and if 2 seconds of graphic proof puts off somebody from taking unnecessary risks then I’m supportive of Mr Horn.

    1. Fair point Peter, but this is not about “censorship, but rather gratuitous exploitation of another person. Of course, educating ourselves on history and the atrocities that have occurred serve a purpose.

      However, I seriously doubt someone entering the Holocaust Museum would not be expecting to see graphic images whereas someone innocently visiting a Facebook page where a video starts automatically, with no warning of a potentially graphic image that might be a relative, would be shocked.

      Perhaps it’s incorrect of me to assume Mr. Horn’s followers knew of the dangers of K2, especially given he had used it in his promotion of the attempt, thus needed a distasteful reminder.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I do appreciate it Peter.

    2. I agree with your comments, Alan. Mr Stanley, in war or where there are terrorist acts, I would say that quite different societal rules apply. Showing atrocities of war or terrorism in an appropriate context s to aid the of ing resolution or peace, asking societies to face up to their errors, action, solve problems, and to helps societies with their ethics, morals and compassion toward others so that history does not repeat itself. Sadly, in recent times, we (as a society) have become more and more desensitized to graphic images as a result of them being continually before us via numerous media sources, and we (as a society) do not stop to take the time to really think about the full picture.

      But, the article is not about a war or terrorism type context but about images resulting from death whilst climbing a mountain – a totally different scenario. The article invites the reader to consider the video (and its posting etc.) in the context in which it was shown, and in the context in which the person died. I tell many people: just because a person has a high risk job or participates in a high risk activity, it does not automatically follow that they have any less of a regard for life – quite possibly, it is to the contrary. (My prior comments then to cover the broader issue of human remains and how we manage them after death, with regard to this very case.)

      1. They’re all fair points and thank you for the response – I guess I’m just very much anti-censorship of any type (apart from images which violate the law of course). I just don’t recall any such outcry when the corpse of George Mallory was found (I’m not quite sure if it was proven that it was him) and not filmed for just for 2 seconds but for many minutes. I know there was historical context here but Mallory has a family lineage that still survive today – could they not have been offended too?

        I just find Facebook/Twitter & the like to be full of people ready to jump upon anything in the race to be offended. And if they show their offence IN CAPITAL LETTERS then it means they’re extremely offended.

        1. Peter, actually there was an uproar in the UK that pictures were shown worldwide.

          I believe the difference in this and the Mallory case was that Mallory’s body was already “mummified” and was face down., so not quite as graphic. Also, as you note, there was a historical factor.

          But probably more significant, we didn’t have Facebook and the Internet was not as developed at that time enabling people to state opinions.

          1. I’m glad we’re in agreement about the troublesome Facebook Alan!

            Great website & blog by the way.

      2. I do not agree with Mike Horn posting a corpse on his video, nevertheless I think that it’s going way too far that many people say that he “let the remains there to rot”, etc, and that is being very unfair to him. I wrote above and copy pasted Philippe Gatta’s Facebook fan page account of the corpse, and he says very clearly that a liaison officer took charge of the corpse for identification purposes and for burial. Also, in a mid July facebook photo comment that I read in an article from the NZ Herald, Joanne Patti Schmidt did ask Mike Horn to take photos if he found any remains of her son or her son’s father, to give her closure. I understand also as a mother her horrific pain but I think it is fair to ask also if it is something that family members should ask climbers, even if for private photos, it might be a bit troubling for them too. I am not judging anyone here, just trying to be fair.

          1. well that is very sad if it is the case and it’s not a reason to accuse Mike Horn, among the hundreds of persons on site, of “leaving the corpse there to rot” without knowing exactly the circumstances as if it were his responsibility when there is a liaison officer and local authorities. Just my opinion and also I feel that this is very fierceful and going too far against Mike Horn even though I condemn his using such a close up image because I believe that it’s against the dignity of a human being and that’s what we are talking about.

        1. What could have done Chris Burke more than all the people that were on site with a liaison officer in charge? I am very curious, it might serve as an example for everyone in the future, please advise.

  6. I feel it was very Insensitive to show pictures of dead bodies or parts of… period…whoever, you may be.
    Being a popular climber does not absolve Mike of his insensitive act & joke of an apology, thereafter.

  7. Alan, thanks for this post. When I found out a week later, if I had been able to leave my team as we were exiting the area, I would have helped with next steps.

    My feeling is that if you find human remains anywhere (mountain or no mountain) social mores apply, or ought to – no matter what. In death: respect, dignity and compassion ought to apply as a minimum. Not to mention, there are laws that apply in many countries on dealings with and ensuring dignity for human remains.

    If I was walking down a street, on a beach, on a remote trail, or climbing a mountain, and I came upon human remains, I’m pretty sure my first reaction would not be that I needed to video the remains for social media. If it was, I would really want to take a good hard look at myself. It is important to ensure that the desire for ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ does not become a hunt, and that hunt sees ‘doing what is morally and ethically right’ go out the window.

    We all make mistakes, and social media can be unforgiving when mistakes occur. But, what we do next can be the thing that defines us… hopefully the remains can be laid to rest in due course.

    1. I do not agree with Mike Horn posting the corpse in the video, nevertheless I find that it is unfair that so many people say that he let the remains there to rot. I posted above Philippe Gatta’s account of the corpse from his Facebook fan page, where he clearly says that a liaison officer took charge of the corpse for identification and for burial. I also read in a NZ Herald article that Joanne Patti Schmidt asked Mike Horn on a Facebook photo comment mid July to take photos of any remain of her son or her son’s father that Mike Horn might find. So I wonder if this also is something that could be a bit troubling for climbers in general, even for private photos. I’m not trying to judge anyone here, and I understand the reality of the family suffering and the pain of a mother, I ‘m just asking this question in the debate. In any event, Mike Horn did not let the body there to rot.

  8. Well said, Alan.

    It’s not just individuals who exercise a lack of editorial control in this respect. Two weeks after the avalanche on Everest in 2014 the Discovery Channel released a documentary about the tragedy which followed the wingsuit team of Joby Ogwen.

    This documentary included footage of the team digging out the body of a victim who had been encased in ice. The victim, a high profile and popular Sherpa, had been identified in the film. Discovery Channel took the decision to show part of his corpse (the leg) on film. A less graphic image, perhaps, but because the victim’s identity was known it was equally insensitive, and very upsetting for those who knew him.

  9. As always, Alan, you thoughtfully explore every facet of a complex issue ….. and clearly state your own opinion. Bravo, and keep it up. I agree with you. (without having seen the video). Unfortunately Mike’s posting this is not dissimilar to having the transcript of Rob Hall’s dying words to his wife, Jan Arnold, in 1996 widely disseminated – Mike’s actions may have been more public, and more disquieting, and the fact that he was not the first (and undoubtedly won’t be the last) doesn’t justify them. This issue touches, for me, a fundamental problem in our world today – the erosion of ethics, good taste and common sense – all of which are contributing to a tragic cheapening of what it means to be “human” – Keep telling your truth the way you see it, and feel it, Alan. George Basch

  10. I in to the idea that we are all better off when there is an open and free exchange of views about just about anything. I think the question is how far is too far? I haven’t seen the video. I did however know Marty Schmidt – an absolute champion guy! I do feel for Sequoia here.

    Mike is obviously one of the more high-profile adventurers; in addition to multiple awards and records, his online presence is of particular interest to Mercedes. I suspect Mike’s online base is probably wider than the average Karakoram climber?, something Mercedes is probably keen to win over and thus documenting K2 was never going to be simple serendipity.

  11. I haven’t seen the video. I don’t know the people involved. But…the two-second (or whatever) shot of the remains of someone who died on K2 tells everyone, loud and clear, “This is a possibility for anyone who climbs.” It brings home the reality of death on the mountain, and the likelihood that your remains will stay there exposed to weather, and it won’t be pretty. It’s brutal, but so is climbing K2, Everest, Mont Blanc, etc. I don’t condemn Mr. Horn.Yes, it’s sad for the friends and relatives of the deceased. But their loved one chose to climb, knowing the dangers. Mr. Horn chose to show a possible outcome. Reality, not bad taste.

  12. All climbers know the risks in these mountains. There must be thousands of friends and relatives of climbers who have died doing what they love. I am sure they will want to remember them as they were in life and not in the tragic pictures of them in a terrible death. Mike Horn should not have done this and is a definite lowlight in his life. A bad thing to do in every way.

  13. Thank you Alan for posting this, as always.

    I agree with you here, 100%. I strongly suspect that almost all of our colleagues around the world feel the same way.


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