Three mountaineers accused of manslaughter over the death of a City trader who became the youngest Briton to climb Everest had the case against them thrown out of court yesterday.
Michael Matthews, the 22-year-old son of a property millionaire, scaled the 29,000ft summit in 1999 after paying £22,000 to a specialist expedition company based in Sheffield.
He became separated from his guide, Michael Smith, in a 100mph blizzard during the descent from the peak, and is believed to have fallen to his death. Mr Matthews's body has never been found.
His father, David, spent six years preparing a rare private prosecution for manslaughter against Mr Smith, 44, and two others involved in the ill-fated trip - Henry Todd, 61, who supplied oxygen for the climbers, and Jonathan Tinker, 47, the owner of the tour firm, Out There Trekking (OTT), which is in liquidation.
David Matthews, 62, claimed that his son had been effectively "deserted" on the mountain top, and that the group had been supplied with sub-standard oxygen equipment which had mis-matched breathing tubes and valves.
But the judge in the case yesterday ordered the charges against the men to be dropped after a strongly-worded ruling that they had been brought to court with insufficient evidence.
Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC said that while it was clear there had been problems with the oxygen equipment, these had not contributed to Mr Matthews's death.
The judge said: "If ever a criminal charge should be emphatically dismissed, this is it ... The prosecution case was based upon pure and wholly impermissible speculation."
He added: "That [Mr Matthews's] death was a tragedy is in no doubt. That he was a fine, fit, athletic and gifted young man is likewise in no doubt. But in order for a party to be guilty of manslaughter, they must be guilty of gross negligence of a kind that shows a flagrant disregard for the safety of human life. I am satisfied that none of the parties in this case meet or come close to meeting this criteria."
Michael Matthews, a share options trader who lived in Fulham, west London, had first suggested to his father in 1998 that he would like to climb Everest, the world's highest mountain. He found a brochure from OTT, which had since been renamed Alpine Mountaineering Ltd, and paid the $40,000 (£22,000) for the Everest expedition, including a premium to ensure he would be accompanied by a professional guide at all times. After a number of acclimatisation trips, he arrived in Nepal with a friend, Jamie Everet, and reached the summit on 13 May, despite concerns about the oxygen systems.
Mr Tinker, from York, the expedition leader, returned to Britain before the ascent after suffering altitude sickness.
The ascent made Mr Matthews the youngest Briton at the time to have scaled Everest.
Southwark Crown Court in south London heard that the expedition had been supplied by Mr Todd, who lives in Nepal, with a "ragtag" mixture of cylinders and regulator valves, with parts that had been filed down to make them fit, not always successfully.
Mr Smith said he lost contact with Mr Matthews when he went to free ropes which he feared were becoming stuck in the snow. When he arrived back at the expedition camp, the blizzard was too intense to launch a search.
David Matthews, who runs a hotel in the French West Indies, insisted after the ruling that the prosecution had not been brought out of vindictiveness.
He said: "We believe that my son's life was given away and our whole purpose as a family has been to alert other families to these circumstances [and the] avoidable dangers presented both by the mountain and also by some of the professional people involved in guided climbing."