|Summit of Everest
He woke to wind, bitter cold. Not that there was much sleep to be had here: High
Camp, 50 or so tents scatte red about a sorry slant of broken shale and scalloped snow scratched in to the northeast flank of Mount Everest, 27,000 feet above sea level. It was desperate up this high, even in the best conditions. Climb above 26,000 feet and it becomes impossible for the body to acclimate. Your digestive system begins to shut down, blood oxygen dwindles, brain cells starve. As one Everest alum puts it, "At altitude, you stay pretty busy trying not to die."
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
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
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
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
"I’m telling my sister - I’m talking to my sister
on the sat phone "‘We just lost a guy,’" says
Merrell. "He’s down, they can’t get him up. They’re
screaming at him: ‘Get up! Get up! Get up! Get up!’"
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.