The Times, October 5 2007
It will be remembered as one of the blackest moments in mountaineering history - the day when a stricken climber was left to die near the summit of Mount Everest. A team of four men elected to continue their climb rather than go to the aid of Dave Sharp, an engineer from Guisborough on Teesside, despite the fact that they knew he was still alive. It was a decision described as "pathetic" by Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to reach Everest's summit.
Now a harrowing new documentary has been produced revealing the tensions and doubts which gripped the climbers who might have saved Sharp's life. It will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Dying for Everest focuses on the expedition of four New Zealanders, including the celebrated disabled climber Mark Inglis, who encountered Sharp on their ascent to the summit in May 2006, and passed him again, still breathing but close to death, as they descended nine hours later.
Testimony from all four men makes clear that there were divisions within the party after their first encounter with Sharp and while the experienced climbers elected to continue their trek, the relative novice among them – Wayne ‘Cowboy’ Alexander – was deeply moved by his predicament.
The group’s failure to help a dying man caused at international outcry and prompted Sir Edmund to accuse the party of sacrificing their humanity for ambition. A few hours after his first encounter with Sharp, Inglis became the first double amputee to summit Everest.
Sharp was an experienced climber who had attempted the ascent of Everest unaccompanied, and with only two bottles oxygen. His decision to strike for the summit in the afternoon of May 14 exposed him to one of the coldest nights of the short climbing season on the mountain.
When the New Zealand group first encountered Sharp at 1am the following morning they were ascending into the ‘Death Zone’ of the North Ridge to Everest’s summit. He was unconscious but sitting upright, huddled in a cave, with his breath emerging from his hooded jacket. Only Alexander appears to have been drawn towards him.
“It was incredibly uncomfortable, it was horrible. The worst thing I have seen in my life. I became transfixed,” said Alexander, who is the designer of Inglis's prosthetic legs.
“There was movement, just a small movement of the head. In something seemingly lifeless it is a huge movement because it represents life. There is a desire to be tactile to someone in such need, drawing me right to him, to a point that I wanted to touch him. But there is a dignity in death that makes it hard to touch. I said ‘God bless and rest in peace’ because I knew we were leaving.
“The people who knew about these things had seen this before and they’re qualified to make that decision. They had made it we were leaving him, we were moving on.”
A reconstructed sequence in the documentary shows Sharp, huddled in cave 300m from the summit, while the New Zealanders assess his condition before continuing their climb. One man, Mark Whetu, is heard to shout, “Hey mate, get moving.”
Despite Sharp’s evident signs of life Inglis and the ascent leader, Mark Woodward, were in no doubt that the Englishman was doomed.
“It is a hard thing to explain and it is not an easy decision to make, to go past someone like that, but that’s what it takes, these are the hard calls you sometimes have to make in mountaineering,” said Woodward. “If you are going to have an accident up there, you need to be walking, you need to be conscious to be rescued.”
The minute you die, you stop being flesh and blood and you become part off the mountain,” said Inglis who lost his legs to frostbite after being trapped for 13 days in a blizzard on Mount Cook in 1982. “You can’t be moved, you adhere to frozen rock. I felt desperately sorry for whoever it was in there. The level of frostbite was tragic.”
In the weeks following Sharp’s death controversy raged over radio messages which the party claim to have sent to their expedition organiser, Russell Brice, seeking advice about a possible rescue before they continued their climb. Brice, who operates teams of sherpas on Everest, insists he received no such messages.
“If I had received a message that David Sharp was in trouble at that time of the morning, yes maybe I could have done something. Who knows the day might have been totally different if there had been a radio call,” said Brice.
Inglis concedes that altitude sickness may have caused his mind to have played tricks on him. “From my memory I used the radio, I got a reply to move on, there is nothing that I could do to help. Now I’m not sure if it was from Russell or from someone else or whether it’s just hypoxia and it’s in your mind,” said Inglis.
At 9.30am that day, a Lebanese climber called Max Chaya encountered Sharp, whose face by then was black with frostbite. Chaya radioed for help and was told by Brice at Camp Four that for his own safety he should continue his descent. The New Zealanders heard that radio conversation and they too passed by Sharp for a second time as they continued their own journey from the summit.
Two of Brice’s sherpas, travelling with a third party then found Sharp and carried him into the sun. Sharp revived sufficiently to tell them his name with his dying words. “It took him about 25 minutes to move four steps before they put him down again. So here’s two extremely strong sherpas going ‘There’s no way we can rescue this man,'” recalled Brice.
Sharp’s body was abandoned on the mountainside. He was one of 11 climbers to die on Everest last year. However, by what Woodward described as “a twisted irony” a week after Sharp’s death, an Australian climber called Lincoln Hall survived a night on Everest.
Dying for Everest will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Its producer, James Heyward sympathised with the New Zealand group. “Your decision making process is altered at the at kind of altitude and in those circumstances. These people are humane – they are not all blinded by summit lust,” he said.
* Dying for Everest, Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, October 20.