First American Woman on Top of the World
I met Fran Yarbro when I was 17 and she was 15. We were both on the varsity volleyball team at The American School in Switzerland. We spent two hours together every afternoon at practice. She was a natural athlete and good at volleyball as well as all the other sports she played and an excellent skier. She was beautiful. But she was tough. Nobody messed with Fran.
From high school she went on to get a Masters degree from the International School of Business in Arizona. She lived most of her life in the mountains, mainly in Colorado. She was also a mountain climber. When she was 33, she was climbing Annapurna and met Sergei Arsentiev. Sergei was famous in Russia for being one of the best climbers ever. He had climbed all the major mountains in Russia as well as Everest. In 1992 they climbed Mt Elbrus in the Caucasus and Fran skied down. They were married that same year and soon moved to Colorado together.
Fran had a dream. She wanted to summit Everest without oxygen. On May 22, 1998, Fran became the 8th woman to summit the north face of Everest, she was the first American woman to summit the north face of Everest, and she was the first American woman without oxygen to summit the north face of Everest. Fran was 40 years old and she had realized her dream.
And then it all went wrong.
Fran and Sergei’s summit had been late in the day because it had been slow going without oxygen. They had anticipated this and left a tent and some oxygen at about 8630 m. (the summit is at 8848 m). For some unknown reason the tent was not there. They had to spend the night with no tent.
The next day some climbers met Sergei going down the mountain alone. He asked them if they had seen Fran, apparently assuming she was already down. Sergei continued down to camp. He was safe. But there was no Fran.
The climbers found Fran standing half conscious with no harness further up the mountain. They sat her down and gave her some oxygen and tried to massage her but they could not do much. Later, when they descended to camp, they told Sergei about her condition. He immediately took some oxygen and some tea and went back up the mountain, knowing she was still alive. Some other climbers had found Fran’s harness and managed to get her about 80m. further down the mountain but could not do more.
The next day Fran was still alive but she had already spent two nights without a tent and was freezing to death. Sergei was nowhere to be found.
Fran’s body lay visible from the route to the summit for nine years. In 2007, British climber Ian Woodall led an expedition to bury her along with some others who had died in the vicinity. Woodall was one of the climbers who tried to help her but had to leave her in 1998. A few climbers reported spotting Sergei’s body further down the mountain but he was unreachable. Due to bad weather, Woodall was not able to give Fran the proper burial he had hoped for but he did manage wrap her body in the American flag and say a few words before lowering her body further down the mountain and out of sight. Possibly closer to Sergei.
One of the climbers that day in 1998, was from Uzbekistan. He found a few film canisters at 8600m. and picked them up just in case. He developed the film and found pictures of Fran going up the mountain and at the summit. This confirmed she had done it. He sent the pictures to her mom through the US Embassy in Uzbekistan and she received them a year after they had been taken.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.