|Summit of Everest|
David Sharp stepped from his tent into a velvet night filled with a silver spray of stars. This time the 34 - year-old planned to go it alone. No guide. No Sherpas. No teammates. Others we re nearby, but they were strangers, climbers from a few different teams milling near their tents, preparing for their own summit bids. He saw the dull glow of the tents, a few headlamps bobbing in the dark, heard the clink of carabiners, stoves firing, a low murmur of voices. He brought his watch up into the light of his own headlamp. Shortly a f ter midnight, May 14. Time to go.
Tall and rail-thin, with brown hair and a passion for Bob Marley, Sharp was a former engineer from Guisborough, England, who had quit his career to become a math teacher, which allowed him more time for his true calling: climbing mountains. He looked the part of the mathematician, with wire - rim specs and a goatee that had grown scraggly since he'd arrived in Tibet. While his neighbors in Advanced Base Camp (ABC) had iPods, satellite phones, and laptops, Sharp was resolutely low- tech. In his 10-year-old Berghaus backpack he carried old but adequate climbing gear and two books (Shakespeare and a Bible). He hadn't even bothered to bring a camera.
Those who knew Sharp asserted that he was a strong and experienced climber. In 2002 he summited Everest's 26,750-foot neighbor, Cho Oyu, and then went on to Everest itself in 2003 and 2004.Twice he'd climbed Everest's northeast ridge, and twice he'd come tantalizingly close to the top, just below the Second Step, 1,000 vertical feet below the 29,035-foot summit. In the 2003 climb he lost a few toes to frostbite.
"If he didn't summit Everest this time, that was going to be it," says David Watson, an American climber from Vermont who befriended Sharp in ABC this year. "He wasn't coming back, because he couldn't afford to. So he was determined. And he said he was willing to give up more fingers and toes to do it."
It's believed that Sharp reached the summit on the afternoon of the 14th, but the achievement came at a high price. He would freeze to death under a rock ledge next to the route not far above High Camp, and, as the world soon learned from websites such as Explorer's Web and Everest News , radio interviews, and indignant editorials, as many as40 climbers passed Sharp along the ridge as he lay dying. Though the outrage reignited debates that have smoldered since the Everest disas ter of 1996 (chronicled in Jon Krakauer's In to Thin Air) , this time there was no killer storm. This time the fingers we re pointed solely at the climbers invo l ve d . Even Sir Edmund Hillary spoke out. "The whole attitude to ward climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying," he told the press. 'A human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain."
In extensive interviews with team members and others who were on the mountain at the time, Men's Journal learned myriad details that were either misreported or missing entirely from the initial wave of stories. To wit: Sharp was completely on his own, without any kind of support or even a radio, and so had no margin for error. He collapsed while still clipped in to a fixed line used by passing climbers and lay just three feet from the route. Many did stop to try to help him or comfort him, but only after they had already passed him on their way to the summit. They stopped on their descent. Many of those who passed Sharp did not see him the first time because it was dark, and they were wearing oxygen masks and hooded down suits. Or they did see him and mistook him for the corpse of an Indian climber, nicknamed Green Boots, who has been there since 1996.
Members of a 12-person Turkish team came upon Sharp approximately 24 hours after he set out and described him as sitting up, conscious, and responding 'in a restrained way,' while others who saw him around the same time claim he was unconscious, in a hypothermic coma, and irrecoverable. Eight hours later, after daybreak on the 15th, climbers found Sharp shivering, near death, but able to speak his name.
In the ensuing weeks many of the Web reports centered on Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience (Himex). With nearly 30 climbers on the northeast ridge during the two days in question, Brice and Himex had the manpower, resources, and experience to mount a rescue of Sharp. In both a public statement and a separate interview with Men's Journal, Brice, who monitors his expedition teams from a command post lower on the mountain, maintains that he was not aware of Sharp's predicament - in fact, not aware of Sharp at all - until approximately 9:30 am on the 15th, when his teams were strung out along the ridge, depleted, and, in some cases, facing crises of their own.
But Brice's account differs from one given by his star client, New Zealander Mark Inglis, a double amputee and a main character in a Discovery Channel documentary that was being filmed during the expedition. Inglis initially told an Australian radio reporter that he contacted Brice about Sharp on May 15, when he was on his way up the ridge. (Inglis has since told Men's Journal that he either misspoke or was misquoted, and that he didn't radio Brice about Sharp until he was on his way down.)
Given the sophistication of Brice's tightly run organization, it is hard to imagine that Himex's guides and Sherpas (some of whom we re wearing helmet cameras) failed to communicate Sharp's situation to Brice. If Brice truly didn't hear of Sharp until May 15 at 9:30 am, then it appears his top climbing guides made the decision not to initiate a rescue.
Whatever the case, one thing is abundantly clear: Some climbers on the ridge that day were aware of Sharp but chose their summits over an attempt, however monumental and possibly futile, to save his life.
The popularity of climbing Everest coupled with good weather conditions this spring set the stage for the most successful season in the mountain's history. The combination also ensured that the season would tie 1996 as the most lethal. More people reached the top in 2006 than in any other year, but 12 perished in the effort, eight of those on the north side.
In the late 1990s Everest's northern ridges became an attractive alternative to the increasingly crowded South Col route. For starters, the north side has no hazards comparable to the south's deadly Khumbu Icefall. The northeast ridge has more technical sections, and at higher elevations , than the southeas tern ridge route, a point of pride since Eve rest is known in climbing circles more as a slog than an elegant climb.
Perhaps even more enticing, the Chinese government charges less for permits than Nepal does on the south side, and the price break carries through to what outfitters charge climbers. Discount operation Asian Trekking typically charges less than $10,000. Sharp paid the company about $6,200 for a permit and food at the base camps (he purchased oxygen bottles à la carte at $440 apiece), but the fee included no additional support above ABC.
On May 14, as Sharp headed up from High Camp, the first of t wo Himex teams was also on its way up the northeast ridge. Very little would be possible on Everest's north side were it not for Brice and Himex. Though Brice can be gruff, the Chamonix, France - based New Zealander commands enormous respect in the climbing community. His Sherpas and climbers break trail each spring, fix ropes on the mountain, and on numerous occasions they've come to the aid of debilitated climbers. Brice has orchestrated 15 high-altitude rescues on Everest alone.
Brice typically ascends with his teams to the North Col, at 23,000 feet, from which he follows them with a spotting telescope and communicates with his guides, Sherpas, and clients as they continue their ascents via two - way radios and satellite telephones. While anyone can listen in on the radio conversations, the sat phones afford Brice and his guides private communication.
In 32 years of guiding in the Himalayas Brice has m ounted 23 commercial expeditions, led 270 climbers to the tops of 8,000- meter peaks, and has never lost a customer, although there is an as terisk by this claim. One client, his good friend Marco Siffredi, died while snowboarding down Eve rest in 2002. "Marco was my client," Brice acknowledges, "but my contract really finished on the summit."
Two Himex teams climbed separately on consecutive days. The group setting out early on the 14th, at the same time as Sharp, was led by guide Bill Crouse, an American based in Breckenridge, Colorado, who was going for his fifth Everest summit bid. From High Camp it's about 1,950 vertical feet to the summit and takes an average of eight hours up and four back, though times vary widely.
Crouse and his team charged ahead of Sharp, and at 9 a m they topped out. Crouse recalls encountering Sharp (though at the time he had no idea who he was) during his descent on the 14th around noon, as he and his clients and Sherpas we re descending the Third Step, at 28,500 feet.
When Crouse saw Sharp, Crouse says, "he was still clipped in to the rope, and people were almost stepping on him as we were coming down. I remember saying, 'Look out,' but he just kind of sat there. I didn't know then if he was going up or down, but seeing somebody who's kind of lethargic and not overly responsive wouldn't be uncommon. People have put in a long day, and you take rests. That's just how it goes."
The climbers picked their way down the ridge, and as Crouse was setting up to rappel over the edge of the Second Step, now facing back up the ridge, he saw Sharp above the Third Step, slowly ascending the ridge. "He'd only gone about 100 meters since I'd seen him before," Crouse continued. At that rate it would have ta ken Sharp two or more hours to summit, leaving him little time for a safe return.
"You make a note to yourself that it's pretty late in the day to be going up, and it was blowy and snowy and quite, quite cold," Crouse says. "Russ [Brice] watches us as we 're climbing, through a spotting scope from Camp 1 at the North Col, and I remember we commented back and forth on the radio about that, seeing [Sharp] moving really, really slowly. I didn't see him again. I was focusing more on getting myself and our clients down."
Eleven hours later the vanguard of Himex's second team departed High Camp on its own summit push. It was miserably cold that night, between 20 and 40 below, and the climbers hustled up the route.
Himex client Max Chaya and Dorjee Sherpa were in the lead by about half an hour. Behind them trudged Mark Inglis (whom the team had taken to calling 'Penguin'), guide Mark 'Woody' Woodward, Wayne 'Cowboy' Alexander, Mark Whetu (a cameraman for the Discovery Channel), and four Sherpas. Client Bob Killip trailed, followed by another four Himex climbers, including guides Shaun Hutson and Phurba Tashi. Nor were they alone on the ridge; far from it. Coming up behind them was a 12- person Turkish team and at least one other group.
About 800 vertical feet abo ve High Camp, on the lower part of the ridge, is the small rock cave in which Green Boots lies. At around 1 am, Woodward and his group reached the cave, and Woodward noticed a second body - Sharp - seated in a fetal position, hugging his knees. Wood ward says Sharp was still clipped in to the fixed line with a carabiner, which, if true, would mean any climber also using the rope and wishing to pass him would have to first unclip and then reclip into the line after passing him.
"We were kind of shining our head torches on him and going, ‘Hello, hello,'" says Woodward. "He didn't have any oxygen on him, and he had fairly thin gloves on. He was completely unresponsive and pretty well into a hypothermic coma, really. I realized that, you know, it was so cold that there was little chance that he would survive any way. And primarily my responsibility is to the clients and people that I'm with. So at that stage, not knowing who he was or anything, I presumed that somebody from his expedition would be trying to do something if they knew he was still on the mountain."
Inglis told the radio program that before they left he called Brice to tell him that they'd come across someone in bad shape but alive. According to that account, Inglis recalled Brice telling him that there was nothing he could do and instructing him to move on. Woodward claims he tried to radio Brice about Sharp but received no answer.
"We had a traffic jam coming up behind us," Wood ward continues. "It was bloody cold so we were keen to just keep moving. It was fairly evident that not a lot could be done, so we carried on." Sometime between 1 and 1:30 a m, 25 hours after Sharp had left High Camp, Woodward and his group left him. "God bless," said Wayne Alexander as he moved past the cave. "Rest in peace."
At around 6am on may 15, max chaya, 44, who is Lebanese, and Dorjee Sherpa were the first of the Himex group to reach the summit. Chaya was so focused, his world ending at the edge of his small headlamp, that he had flown past the rock cave, oblivious to Sharp. (He does not remember unclipping to get around Sharp.) On the way back down, however, at around 9 am, he saw Sharp, lying on his side, unresponsive and catatonic, but, to Chaya's amazement, shivering.
How, if he'd been in a coma when Woodward assessed him, could Sharp now be shivering, a sign of much less severe hypothermia? Chaya may have been observing a rare if temporary partial recovery from severe hypothermia.
"You stop shivering because you've run out of energy," explains Dr. Frank Hubble, founder of SOLO, a wilderness medicine school, and a physician with Saco River Medical Group in New Hampshire. "Sometimes, as the body lies there, more glycogen becomes available in the liver to be released into the blood and you start shivering again."
Chaya radioed Brice and described the condition of the man he'd found in the cave. Brice claims that this was the first he'd heard of Sharp.
"Russ tried to understand what the situation was," says Chaya. "And then, when he understood what state David was in - and I can tell you that David was much closer to death than he was to life at that point - Russ just told me, ‘Max, we can't do anything. You have to come back down.'"
"That's a hard decision," Brice says. 'Not many people have the balls to do that. Seriously, I've got to get people who have paid me up and down the mountain safely. One of the main things in a rescue situation is that you do not put your rescuers at further risk." You have to keep in mind, Brice says, "I can only go on a limited radio conversation with Max, who's saying the man seems to be unconscious, he's got a frozen nose, his arms are wooden, he's not on oxygen, and so on. And there's no way you can carry him off. This is what people don't understand."
"I understand now," Chaya continues. "Russell has an obligation to ward me because I'm his client. And he didn't want anyone else to jeopardize his life to try to save someone who was almost dead. But at the time I couldn't understand how I could walk past a dying person without being able to help."
Chaya and Dorjee stayed with Sharp for an hour, talking with Brice and weeping over the radio, until Brice was finally able to talk his climber down. When Chaya at last returned to High Camp he was inconsolable. He collapsed in his tent and cried for two hours.
When Brice received chaya's radio call, he already had his hands full. The Turks were administering CPR to a climber above the Second Step and asking for assistance, two of his clients had resisted his orders to turn around, and Inglis was reporting worsening frostbite on his fingers and under his prosthetic legs.
Inglis had broken the news of his frostbite to Woodward soon after they topped out, at around 7 am on May 15. While the Discovery team wasn't getting its money shot on the summit (Whetu's camera froze), Inglis showed Woodward the blisters on his hands and, noting incre asing pain in his legs, told him, "I think I'm going to need a hand down." (Discovery's planned six-part series is set to debut on November 14. The working title is Everest: No Experience Required.)
After Brice convinced his two dangerously slow clients to turn around, one of them collapsed. Meanwhile, Brett Merrell, a Himex team member from California, listened to the radio chatter at ABC and atte mpted to talk one of the climbers back down the mountain.
Then, amid the escalating problems, Brice heard from a guide, Shaun Hutson, who had been stuck in a bottleneck of climbers at the Second Step but was now asking for permission to tag the summit.
"Good on ya, mate," Merrell recalls Brice telling Hutson. "Go for the summit."
Merrell couldn't believe Brice would free a guide to shoot for the top when problems on the ridge seemed to be out of control. In a fit he threw down the radio. "This is fucking bullshit," Merrell said as he stormed out of the communications tent, the Discovery Channel cameras in tow.
"Well," Brice tells Men's Journal when asked about the decision to let Hutson peel away. "Shaun's quite a fit mountain guide. If I feel like I've got the support I need at the time, and I can send a guide up to the top, hopefully he'll work for us more in the future. And he was there to help people down at the end."
Late in the morning, as the last of the Himex team came down the mountain, Phurba Tashi, with a Sherpa going to be it," says David Watson, an American climber from Vermont who befriended Sharp in ABC this year. "He wasn't coming back, because he couldn't from Arun Treks, and one of the Turkish climbers stopped at the rock cave and saw Sharp. Miraculously, 36 hours after he'd left High Camp, he was still breathing. They gave him oxygen and some water. Phurba Tashi and the others tried to get Sharp to his feet, but he couldn't stand, even with assistance. They then moved him into the sun. If they could not save him, they could at least make his last hours more comfortable. In footage gathered by one of the helmet cameras, David Sharp can be heard murmuring his name. The group bade him farewell and descended.
The events of May 15, and the ensuing controversy surrounding Sharp, Brice, and the others, might have faded into the Himalayan shadows, a troubling but familiar episode in the annals of Everest climbing, if not for three coincidental deaths - and one miraculous survival - on the same ridge one week later.
The deaths (Brazilian Vitor Negrete, Russian Igor Plyushkin, and German Thomas Weber) occurred under varying circumstances but with one conspicuous common denominator: All three climbers had been outfitted by Asian Trekking.
Even so, it was Australian Lincoln Hall's return from the grave and subsequent three-day rescue that made international headlines and fanned the still-burning questions about what could have been done to help Sharp. Hall, also with an Asian Trekking group, had been left for dead late on the afternoon of May 26, after showing signs of high-altitude cerebral edema and collapsing at the base of the Second Step. Four climbers discovered him the next morning. He was in such a delirious state that they had to anchor him into the snow to keep him from throwing himself into the abyss. By the time Hall got to Kathmandu he was suffering from little more than frostbitten hands and an advanced case of instant celebrity.
To draw conclusions, moral or practical, based on comparisons between Hall and Sharp, as many commentators quickly did, ignores the glaring differences between the two situations. Hall had slept out in more mild temperatures (it was an estimated 25 degrees warmer the night of his bivouac), but more important, he could walk.
"If you can't walk, you can't get people [up] there," Brice says. "It's a major rescue with stretchers and God knows what - a lot of technical gear to do traverses in steep terrain."
Opinions vary wildly about just what a rescue of Sharp might have entailed. Those familiar with the north east ridge point out that despite Sharp's proximity to High Camp - 800 vertical feet and about an hour's descent - the Exit Cracks, which lies between High Camp and Sharp, is steep and offcamber, with numerous rock ledges and natural obstacles. Could Sharp have been placed in a sleeping bag and lowered? Probably not. In a public statement released on June 9, Brice pointed out that even with an ambulatory Hall, it still took 15 Sherpas, as well as 50 additional bottles of oxygen at a cost of about $20,000, to get him down. And, of course, even if they could have gotten Sharp to High Camp, where he would have received more oxygen, hot tea and food, and a sleeping bag, it certainly would not have guaranteed his survival. He would have to have made it to ABC to receive any real medical attention.
"If we'd known about David Sharp on the way up, and we felt that we could help him, the whole day might have been totally different," Brice says. "We could have come back down to base camp, had a rest. I had enough oxygen, manpower, and resources to try again."
Asked if he would have acted differently had Sharp been a Himex client, Mark Woodward says, "I guess yes. Because as a guide I'm primarily responsible for the people on my expedition. So if he was part of our expedition, yeah, definitely. However, a member of our expedition wouldn't have ended up in that situation because he wouldn't have been left unaccompanied."
If they do not excuse the actions of Brice, Woodward, the Turkish team, or any other climber on the ridge that day, the extenuating circumstances on May 15 - the dangerous cold, the self-rescues and radio - tent dramas, the raw hypoxic misery of extreme altitude - make those actions more understandable. In the end, does accountability fall on David Sharp for climbing alone, knowing the risks full well? Or is Hillary right? Have climbers lost sight of what is really important, or the reason they seek mountain adventure in the first place: to test themselves, to learn how they might respond in a desperate situation, and to discover inner reserves of character and strength?
As the chorus of the righteous loudly points out, may be this wasn't a mountaineering story but a story about how mountaineering serves as a microcosm, albeit a very intense microcosm, of human nature. Aren't we all susceptible to the impulse to avoid the bleeding man on the curb, to leave the problem to someone else? Don't we resent having to bail out the less fortunate when they've brought trouble on themselves? And do any of those impulses absolve us of the responsibility to help any way?
Before they left the mountain Russell Brice and Phurba Tashi went to the camp occupied by the remaining members of Asian Trekking's independent, self-guided climbers, where they met Dave Watson, the mountaineer from Vermont who had befriended Sharp. After Tashi described the old Berghaus backpack, Watson confirmed that the dead climber was in fact David Sharp. Watson then went to Sharp's tent and gathered his personal belongings so that Brice, who would collect the death certificate from Chinese officials, could deliver them to Sharp's parents. Brice visited them at their home in London on June 5. Sharp's mother said she didn't blame Brice or any of the climbers for David's death. "Your responsibility is to save yourself," she told the London Sunday Times, "not to try to save any body else."
Among the belongings found in Sharp's tent was a plastic bag containing his passport and wallet. Phurba Tashi looked at the photo on the passport. Yes, that was him. Inside the wallet they also discovered an undisclosed amount of money, more than they might have expected for a modest mathematician. Travel money to ensure safe passage home. More than enough to have hired a Sherpa, or even a guide.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the 2006 August issue of Men's Journal and is re-published with permission. The aritcle was written by Nick Heil with additional reporting by Kevin Fedarko, Catharine Livingston, Andrew Olesnycky, Abraham Streep, Matt Thompson, and Brad Wieners.