Cold mountain: Death on Everest

David Sharp was one of 11 climbers to die on Everest so far this year. Did the spirit of the sport die with him?

Cole Moreton
Sunday 28 May 2006 00:00

There is hope. The summit of Everest used to be known as the loneliest place on the planet but this is climbing season, the short few weeks in spring when the weather lifts and ascent is possible. Now queues form even on narrow ice ledges, as more people try to climb the mountain than ever before. They pass by and see him dying, the experienced guides and the first-timers who have paid thousands of dollars to be on top of the world. They could stop and give oxygen from their bottles that might help him recover strength. They could offer the comfort of company, in his final moments. But they press on. The summit will be theirs today, and nothing is going to stop them.

Forty people passed David Sharp on their way to the top of Everest on 15 May, according to the only one who has been prepared to admit it. Mark Inglis, a double amputee from New Zealand who was making the climb on carbon legs, has been vilified for describing what happened on the mountain. "He was in a very poor condition, near death," he said on his return to camp. "We talked about [what to do for him] quite a lot at the time and it was a very hard decision ... no one else helped him apart from our expedition. Our Sherpas gave him oxygen."

But it was not enough. David Sharp will never come down now. He is one of 203 people who have died on the mountain, 11 in the past six weeks - the worst ever season for individual fatal incidents. The engineer from Guisborough in Cleveland who was having a big adventure before starting work as a teacher, had set off in March and told his mother not to worry: "You are never alone. There are climbers everywhere."

His third attempt on Everest was as part of a team organised from Brazil, including competent climbers, but he was essentially alone. And he was carrying only two bottles of oxygen. Most people take five, unless they want to reach the peak without it, which is considered the purer - and far more dangerous - achievement. "He wanted to be top of everything," his grieving mother Linda said, "and Everest was no exception."

So how could people just leave him like that? Sir Edmund Hillary asked the question, ahead of the anniversary tomorrow of the day in 1953 when he and Sherpa Norgay Tensing became the first men to reach the summit. It would have been unthinkable to ignore a stricken climber then and should be now, he said. "If he'd been a Swiss or from Timbuktu or whatever, that didn't matter; he was a human being. We would regard it as our duty to get him back to safety."

The Spanish climber Juanito Oiarzabal, who has conquered more 8,000m peaks than anyone alive, says of Everest: "That mountain turned into a circus years ago and it's getting worse." The deeply felt solidarity between climbers no longer exists there, he told the mountaineers' website, because inexperienced people are paying huge amounts of money to be given every assistance and they care only about reaching the top. "I wouldn't even consider many of them climbers."

By the end of the season in 2000 there had been 1,314 people at the summit. The number has almost doubled since then. Going up with experienced Sherpa guides, oxygen and specialist high-altitude equipment can easily cost £50,000 a person. A place on a low-budget expedition can be bought for £10,000 - but after advanced base camp your gear, route and survival are up to you. To attract sponsorship it helps to be first in some way - so in the past fortnight the peak has seen its oldest climber (70 years, seven months and 13 days) first Turkish woman and first ever Playboy cover model.

Pauline and Phil Sanderson became the first British married couple, climbing for the EverestMax expedition which took them by bike and ice-pick from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest. Close to the summit they saw a body dangling from a rope. Later they learned that it had been a friend, a Frenchman called Jacques. Pauline's own rope had already snagged on another corpse on the way up. At North Col camp, sickened climbers told of other deaths. "Each story made my feeling of euphoria diminish," she wrote in her expedition blog, "as we realised that the Everest circus was becoming an Everest graveyard."

Why should different rules apply when climbing Everest? One reason is that you enter what climbers call the Death Zone. There is not enough oxygen in the air above 8,000m to sustain the human body, and it starts to fail. When high-altitude cerebral edema strikes, fluid collects in the brain. Vomiting, hallucinations and extreme sleepiness follow. Or the lungs fill, lips go blue and breathing becomes impossible. When the shivering stops you have hypothermia. Confused, your brain may tell you to strip off. Death is close. Stay by the side of a stricken climber and you may be committing suicide.

Stephen Venables, the first British climber to ascend Everest without bottled oxygen, describes the Death Zone as "a rarefied, desolate place where the human body is effectively dying; where the longer you stay, the more you deteriorate; and where the potent mixture of oxygen-starvation and ambition distorts your moral compass."

To get there at all you must be obsessively driven, but then summit fever strikes. You are sick, your oxygen is running out and your food has almost gone, but you are nearly there. You risk everything to reach the top. You get there and are euphoric. The view would be breathtaking but you have no breath left. And then the realisation hits, as powerful as an avalanche, that you cannot go any higher. This is all there is. Has it been worth it, really? A view is a view. Euphoria is followed by a crash. Getting down will take hours, days of hard climbing but now the weather is worsening, your strength is gone, your legs are jelly and your mind is scrambled. You fall. And you may never get back up again.

Rescue helicopters cannot fly this high. Strangers pass you by. Or maybe not, if you are more lucky than you deserve. For all the bad publicity this last week, there is still some honour on the mountain. The EverestMax team doctor, Andrew Sutherland, for example, had himself lowered on a rope over the edge of a precipice only 100m from the summit in order to dangle by the corpse of the dead Jacques and retrieve his wedding ring for the climber's widow back at camp - a remarkable act of daring in the name of climber solidarity.

Then there is Darren Swift, part of a Royal Navy and Marines team trying to climb the north face in 2003. They were almost there but stopped in favour of helping two climbers in trouble at 8,300m. One had a broken leg, and was carried from the summit assault camp by the team, a notable rescue in itself. The other was snowblind, dehydrated and frostbitten. Lance Corporal Swift volunteered to bring him down, alone. The temperature was -30C and a gale was blowing at 20 knots. Swift roped himself to the taller and heavier man, who could neither see nor use his hands. As they inched down near-vertical ice slopes with 2,000m drops on either side, Swift had to guide the other man's feet to holds in the rock. "It was very scary," he said, "but I knew I had to stay calm because Peter was getting panicky." The Royal Humane Society gave Swift the Stanhope Gold Medal, its highest honour, but he said: "I'm gobsmacked. I really didn't think I'd done anything worthy of an award."

Typical English understatement, perhaps. But the quietest voices, as ever on Everest, are those of the Himalayan Sherpas who climb the mountain time after time without fanfare. Last Wednesday, three of them stayed close to the peak for nine hours, trying to help down the 50-year-old Australian climber and author Lincoln Hall. They had to leave him for dead at nightfall. The next morning, climbers discovered Hall motionless in the snow but alive. Miraculously, he had survived a night in the open at the top of the mountain. These climbers did stop to help, with tea and oxygen. Then a team of 11 Sherpas carried him down.

Sherpas save many more climbers than they are given credit for. One of them, called Dawa, was the only person who stopped to help David Sharp. "He tried to help him move, repeatedly, for perhaps an hour," said an eyewitness. "But he could not get David to stand alone or even stand resting on his shoulders, and - crying - Dawa had to leave him too."

Dawa did not go on to the summit with those he was guiding. He had given his oxygen to a dying man. Even on Everest, it seems, some people still believe there are more important things in life than getting to the top.


Since the beginning of April, 11 people have died while climbing Everest, making this the worst ever season for individual fatal incidents

Tuk Bahadur Thapa Masar, 32, of Nepal, fell ill on 4 April after his first ascent of the North Col. The Sherpa returned to base camp but was killed by high-altitude pulmonary edema.

Igor Plyushkin, 54, of Russia, complained of feeling unwell at 7,800 metres on 22 May. He was given extra oxygen and adrenalin shots, but died 90 minutes later. A "snow leopard" - one who has climbed all the highest peaks of the former Soviet Union - he was wrapped in his sleeping bag and buried under rocks by fellow members of the 7summits team.

Climbing alone, Vitor Negrete of Brazil became the first person from his country to reach the summit without oxygen tanks, but he could not make it back down. His Sherpa climbed up to help him, but Negrete died on 18 May, shortly after being brought back to the summit assault camp. He was a member of the same team as the English climber David Sharp, who had died three days earlier.

David Sharp, 34, of England, collapsed during his descent from the summit on 15 May. This was his third attempt on Everest, but he had taken less oxygen than is usual. Mark Inglis, a double amputee from New Zealand, later confessed to having been one of "about 40 people" who passed him on the way up. Sharp died in a cave 300m below the summit, beside the body of an Indian climber who was killed in 1997.

Thomas Weber of Germany, a visually-impaired climber who had climbed four of the seven highest mountains in the world before Everest, died close to the summit on 25 May. He had expected to go totally blind at altitude, but was climbing alongside an accomplished guide from the 7summits team.

Tomas Olsson, 30, of Sweden, died during an attempt to create a first by skiing down the Great Couloir with team mate Tormod Granheim on 16 May. His skis broke at 8500m. The pair were attempting to descend by rope when a snow anchor came loose and he fell. His body was found by a search party the following day, 1800m below.

Jacques-Hugues Letrange, 32, of France, died 100m from the summit on 17 May after successfully climbing the north face with his wife Caroline. He was collecting snow and ice to help French government climatologists study global warming.

Ang Phinjo, 50, of Nepal, was one of three Sherpas who died after an icefall on the south side on 21 April. This was his 49th ascent. Towers of ice collapsed after the worst snowstorms in a decade. The other victims were Lhakpa Tseri, 32, and Dawa Temba, 22, also of the Khumbu Valley in Nepal.

Pavel Kalny of the Czech Republic went missing on the south side on 9 May, and seems to have fallen, but was found the next day. Frostbitten after a night in the open, he died.


8,848m is the height of the mountain

8,000m marks the start of the "Death Zone", when oxygen is required

203 people have died climbing Everest since records began in 1922

2,500 number of people who will have got to the top, ever, by end of 2006

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