A climber’s venture into the death zone on Mount Everest
In part one of this story, published yesterday, British mountaineer David Sharp had begun his third attempt on Mount Everest and was nearing the summit
By Allen Breed and Binaj Gurubacharya
AP , KATHMANDU
Monday, Jul 24, 2006,Page 9
Down from Everest’s summit in the advance base camp, exhausted climbers returned to congratulations, drinks and blessed rest after the day’s conquests. But David Sharp, last spotted hours earlier near the mountain’s pinnacle, was not among them that evening, May 14. Still, the experienced climbers who were his friends were not overly concerned.
Dave Watson assumed his friend had crawled into an unoccupied tent at one of the high camps to rest. Sharp had turned around just shy of the summit twice before, so Watson knew the Briton was a smart climber. But he also knew Sharp thought of this as his last trip to Everest and was determined not to leave in defeat.
He remembered a remark Sharp had made several days earlier while acclimatizing at the camp. Other climbers were snapping photos, but he told Watson he was saving the film in his disposable camera.
"I’ve got all the pictures I need," he’d said, "except for the summit."
Around 11:10pm, while many in the camp slept, on the mountain’s highest reaches another group began its summit push.
Sharp was unconscious and shivering violently, his teeth clenched. His nose had already turned a deep black, his cheeks and lips becoming that way.’
Mark Woodward, a guide for Himalayan Experience, was escorting a camera crew filming fellow New Zealander Mark Inglis’ bid to become the first double amputee to reach the summit. Shortly before 1am, at about 8,412m, the group reached a rock alcove where Woodward knew they would find "Green Boots" — the frozen Indian climber who’d died there 10 years earlier. Woodward turned to warn a client when he got a shock: There was a second pair of boots protruding from the cave.
In the glare of his headlamp, Woodward could see a man, still clipped onto the red-and-blue guide rope, sitting to the right of the dead Indian, his arms wrapped around his knees. He had no oxygen mask on, and ice crystals had formed on his closed eyelashes.
Cameraman Mark Whetu yelled at him to get moving, but there was no response.
"The poor guy’s stuffed," Woodward thought, believing the man was in a hypothermic coma and beyond help.
No one radioed down to expedition leader Russell Brice about a rescue. After pausing just long enough to unclip from the rope, pass Sharp and clip back in, the group trudged on.
About 20 minutes later, a group of Turkish climbers from Middle East Technical University’s mountaineering club reached the alcove and also saw Sharp. The group’s Sherpa, Lapka, urged the climber to get up and keep moving.
Sharp did not speak, but waved them off.
Others among the three dozen or so climbers attempting the summit that day assumed Sharp was "Green Boots," or didn’t notice him at all.
Maxime Chaya had been first up the mountain that day and had passed the notch before the others, but had noticed no one. The beam from his headlamp was weak, and Chaya was focused on his goal of becoming the first Lebanese citizen to summit Everest.
Arc of flame
Climbing with a young Sherpa named Dorjee who was also making his first summit attempt, Chaya reached the top at 5:50am, just in time to see the sun rise. At this altitude, you can see the curvature of the Earth, and the light hitting the lesser peaks appeared like an arc of flame.
Chaya stripped off two of his three layers of mittens and gloves for a photo of himself flashing the victory sign, just before his camera froze. The temperature was minus 37.7?C as he and Dorjee headed back down.
It was a joyous descent until they reached the rock cave around 9:30am. The sun was shining brilliantly, and this time they could not miss Sharp and his red — not green — boots.
Chaya radioed Brice.
Sharp was unconscious and shivering violently, his teeth clenched. His nose had already turned a deep black, his cheeks and lips becoming that way.
He was hatless and without glasses or goggles, wearing just a thin pair of light-blue woolen gloves. (When the Turks had seen Sharp, he was still fully clothed.) Chaya could see his crooked fingers were frozen solid.
Sharp’s knees were drawn up in front of him. In Sharp’s pack, Chaya found only one oxygen bottle, the gauge on empty.
Chaya told Brice that Sharp’s legs appeared to be frozen to the knees, his arms to the elbows. Dorjee had attempted to give the man oxygen, but there was no response.
"There’s nothing you can do, Max," Brice said.
Brice reminded Chaya that he had only about 90 minutes’ worth of oxygen left. All of his Sherpas were helping clients down the mountain, and there weren’t enough people to carry an unconscious man down tricky passes of ice and loose scree.
For nearly an hour, Chaya sat on a rock a short distance from Sharp, crying and pleading into the radio. Down at the advanced base camp, climbers clustered around the radios and wept.
Finally, Chaya and Dorjee got up to leave. Chaya, a Greek Orthodox Christian, stood by the dying man and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer in French: "Notre Pere qui etes aux cieux …"
Finishing, Chaya made the sign of the cross, and he and Dorjee walked away.
It is not your body but your mind that carries you to the summit and back, according to one climber who nearly died on Everest.
"Your body is exhausted hours before you reach the top," Beck Weathers wrote in a book recounting an expedition that killed two of the most experienced guides during the 1996 Everest season, the deadliest on record.
Weathers had been left for dead twice and made it down the mountain only because he was able to keep walking.
"It is only through will and focus and drive that you continue to move," wrote the Texas pathologist. "If you lose that focus, your body is a dead, worthless thing beneath you."
When the Turkish team, descending now, encountered Sharp again, it was already in rescue mode: a team member stricken with acute altitude sickness was being evacuated.
Another climber, Eylem Elif Mavis, also descending from the summit, found Sharp in what appeared to be a hypothermic coma. She and her Sherpa, Nima, tried to hook one of their own precious oxygen bottles to Sharp’s regulator, but the device did not work.
They scanned the man’s clothing for something that might tell them which expedition he was with, hoping they could alert his team to mount a rescue, but found nothing. After a team leader radioed advanced base camp with the unidentified climber’s condition and location, the group moved on.
Phurba Tashi, Brice’s chief Sherpa, was descending with some others at 11:45am and was wearing a video camera on his helmet. Bending toward the shivering man, he asked his name. Whether because of the rising temperature or the oxygen Dorjee had given him, Sharp was somehow able to respond.
"My name is David Sharp," he said, according to some accounts. "I’m with Asian Trekking, and I just want to sleep."
The Sherpas administered oxygen and tried to get Sharp to his feet, but he kept collapsing.
They shifted Sharp into the sun, then headed down the mountain.
Back at the advance base camp, uncertainty about three unaccounted-for climbers was causing a buzz. Besides Sharp, a Malaysian and an American, both first-timers, were overdue.
Many in the camp were less concerned about the experienced Sharp, as they put out calls describing the other two, who would later return safely.
As for Sharp himself, Phurba had not radioed his words down to Brice, and Chaya had suggested the climber he’d found was Russian, not British.
On the morning of May 16, as confusion gave way to serious concern, Phurba described the stricken climber’s gear to Watson, who then went to Sharp’s yellow tent and retrieved his friend’s passport. Yes, the Sherpa confirmed, that was the man he’d seen.
But no new distress call was raised. There was no need.
A Sherpa who had just summited with a South Korean team called in the news from the mountainside: The climber in red boots was dead.
Nearly two weeks after his death, Australian climber Lincoln Hall was rescued from even higher on the mountain after being left for dead and spending a night exposed to the elements. It took more than a dozen Sherpas and 50 cylinders of oxygen, but Hall — like Weathers — walked down under his own steam.
Edmund Hillary was outraged after hearing that some climbers reported Sharp’s condition during the ascent, but were told to continue to the summit.
Suggesting he would have aborted his own historic climb to aid the young Briton, Hillary declared that human life was "far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain."
Brice, who has initiated or taken part in 15 Everest rescue missions, insists he didn’t know about Sharp’s predicament until Sharp was already beyond rescue. He says his radio logs and transcripts of his conversations on May 14 and 15 reveal no calls about a stricken climber.
Inglis, who reached the summit on his prosthetic legs, had said in a May broadcast interview that his team radioed to Brice about a stricken climber on their ascent — before Sharp had spent a second night in the cruel temperatures — and was told to go on. But the New Zealander said this month that he was so focused on the challenges of the climb that "I may be mistaken."
Eleven climbers perished on Everest this season, the second worst after 1996. But because of reports that as many as 40 people passed him as he lay dying, Sharp’s death has received the most attention.
Questions and recriminations swirl like the plume of snow blowing from Everest’s peak:
Why did no one try to administer high-altitude drugs — which most climbing teams carry with them — to stimulate Sharp’s breathing and relieve possible brain swelling? Could a couple of hours of high-flow oxygen have revived Sharp enough to get him moving? Why do people who passed Sharp within minutes of each other have significantly different recollections of his condition?
Watson said Sharp was just an hour’s climb above the high camps for a strong Sherpa. He would have gladly helped pay for a rescue effort as he and Dijmarescu had done in 2004, saving a Mexican climber.
"It’s too bad that none of the people who cared about David knew he was in trouble," Watson said, "because the outcome would have been a lot different."
Chaya, who did as much as anyone to help Sharp, offered condolences to Sharp’s parents. But he said Sharp made grave errors by going alone with so little oxygen, without a radio and so late in the day.
"It almost looks," he said, "like he had a death wish."
Although Sharp was not a client, Brice took it upon himself to phone the Englishman’s parents with the terrible news. Early last month, he hand-delivered his effects to their home in Yorkshire.
Sharp’s mother, Linda, did not blame Brice, Chaya or anyone else for her son’s death. She thanked them for what they did do.
"Your only responsibility," she said, "is to save yourself — not to try to save anyone else."
Did Sharp himself reach the summit, as some media outlets have speculated? In the one interview they have granted, his parents said they believe he did.
But, as with Everest pioneer George Leigh Mallory, no one is sure.
Sharp left no token at the top. No one has reported seeing him there. His camera, like Mallory’s, is unaccounted for.
Jamie McGuinness, who accompanied Sharp on his first Everest climb, wants to believe his friend made it.
Regardless, he thinks Sharp would be satisfied to know that, in a kind of frozen afterlife, his body will serve as a guidepost to the summit.
Additional reporting by Ray Lilley and Veronika Oleksyn