Fran Arsentiev *1958 +1998

Francis Arsentiev got famous a little late: she was ambitious and reached the summit of Mt Everest as first american women without supplementary oxygen. She died on the way down from the summit.

Oil and tempera on canvas, 2011, 50 * 50 cm

Francys Yarbro Distefano-Arsentiev was born in 1958 in Honolulu, Hawaii. At six her father took her to the Colorado Mountains. She was forever hooked and continued to conquer mountains.

Fran climbed many of the Russian peaks including the first ascent of Peak Goodwill as well as Denali, the coldest mountain in the world (also called Mt McKinley) via the West Buttress. Francis became the first US woman to ski down Elbrus.

In 1992 she married Sergi (Serguei) Arsentiev, a Russian climber. It is reported that they have a son.

Sergi earned the Snow Leopard name for climbing the five highest mountains in what was then known as the USSR. Sergi summited all three tops on Kangchenjunga in a traverse, an achievement few men on this planet could accomplish, one that most experienced high altitude climbers would not even consider. Sergi was on the elite Russian climbs to Kangchenjunga, Everest and Annapurna.

They decided to got to Mt. Everest jointly. Since both were very experienced they must have known that their son could lose both parents.

On May 17, 1998 Sergi & Fran ascended from camp ABC to the North Col of Mt Everest. On May 18, they ascended to 7,700 meters as 21 other climbers reached the summit of Everest from the North. Sergi & Fran spent two nights on 8.200 meters because there ascend trials failed. That alone was very challenging, because the death zone above 8.000 meters should be left as quickly as possible.

On May 22nd they reached the summit both, with Fran becoming the first American woman without the use of supplemental oxygen.

There are many different versions of what happened thereafter and when they got seperated.

Sergi Arsentiev reached the next camp and saw his wife was not there. He decided to go up the mountain again to help. Presumably Sergi reached Fran once again because his ice axe and rope were found close to Fran.

On the morning of the 24th, Ian Woodall, Cathy O’Dowd, and several more Uzbeks encountered Francys Arsentiev while on their way to the summit. Both Woodall and O’Dowd called off their own summit attempts and tried to help Francys for more than an hour. Because of her poor condition, the perilous location, and freezing weather, they were forced to abandon her and descend to camp. She died as they found her, lying on her side, still clipped onto the guide rope.

The disappearance of her husband was solved the following year when another expedition discovered Sergei’s body lower on the mountain face, apparently dying from a fatal fall.

Woodall initiated and led “The Tao of Everest” expedition in 2007, with the purpose of returning to the mountain to bury the bodies of Francys Arsentiev and Indian climber Tsewang Paljor (“Green Boots”), both of whom were plainly visible from the nearby climbing route.

Bad weather delayed the attempt. Woodall dropped Arsentiev’s body to a lower location on the face, removing the body from view.

Fran Arsentiev’s portrait is part of the “Top of the world” series.


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The portrait is available for purchase

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17 thoughts on “Fran Arsentiev *1958 +1998”

  1. I want to thank you for sharing this page and portrait. I was traveling through Tibet in may of 1998. and was at base camp on may 22 and 23rd. my group of 5 arrived at base camp early on the morning of the 22 and were told of her summiting but that she was having difficulty breathing. we were in formed that she never made it back to her next camp, that she had collapsed shortly after begining her decent. her husband went on back to get help. as of the afternoon of the 23rd we were told that her husband never returned and that the expidetion assumed the worst. 2 climbers spent the night with her sharing their air tanks. but they were not going to attempt to move her. 2 sherpas made an attempt but she was unable to move herself. in the end they stayed with her until she died. and then returned down.

    my friends and I returned to rungbok monestary and asked the monks to preform a long life prayer. we sat in the monestary well into the evening. it was all we felt we could do.

    her death and her husbands has stuck with me these last 14 years. there is not a day that goes by and I don’t think about listening to the sherpas explain over the radio that she has stopped breathing and that they are now going to leave her body. I just wanted to share this. she did not die alone. and her presence has been felt. and her loss has been an important part of my life.

    1. Dear Josh,

      I was really touched reading your comment! I imagine it is really hard to cope with this sorry. I am glad if my painting may help you a little.

      Best regards, Juergen

  2. This woman lived in my state of Colorado…..I was so distraught to read this story and the drama that surrounded it…wouldn’t it be something, like in Romeo and Juliet, that when Sergei found his love of his life dead that he just did not have the will to live on and left his pick axe and rope to join her……………I don’t know if i could live with myself if i did not try to help in some way after hearing her pleas of please don’t leave me……….so sad.

    Cynthia Andersen

  3. Very touching, and nice painting from the picture.. I would like to more about these people too.. What a life…!

  4. such a sad ending to a beautiful love story…thank you so much for sharing this picture….I will want to know more about both of these people…peace and positive energy to you..Michaela

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