The Tragic Death of David Sharp
On May 15, 2006, thirty-four year old Englishman, David Sharp, froze to death in Green Boots Cave on the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Everest. His death ignited a controversy that continues to this day: what obligation does a climber have when he/she comes upon a fellow climber in extremis?
It is well documented that over 40 climbers passed Mr. Sharp on their way up or down the mountain. This included Mark Inglis who became the first double amputee to summit the highest mountain in the world. When word got out that many climbers passed Mr. Sharp dying at Green Boots Cave, there was substantial public condemnation of their actions. Even Sir Edmund Hillary, revered worldwide as the first person to climb Mt. Everest, expressed indignation and outrage. In addition, the Everest expedition company used by Mr. Sharp–Asian Trekking–came under attack. The event drew significant media attention and was the subject of numerous newspaper reports, magazine articles, film documentaries and books.
My personal belief is that much of the criticism, especially the criticism of Mark Inglis and Asian Trekking, was excessively harsh and unjustified.
When climbers passed Mr. Sharp in Green Boots Cave on May 15, he was completely immobile and near death. His arms, legs and face were severely frozen and frostbitten. He could not stand upright, even with assistance, and it took the effort of several men just to drag him out of the cave and into the sun. It is well established that an immobile climber in the so-called “Death Zone” above 26,000 feet cannot be rescued, no matter what resources are put against the task. In 2004, three Korean climbers perished on the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Everest. There was a similar outcry over the lack of efforts to save their lives. The following year, a 14 person team of expert Korean climbers returned to bring the bodies down the mountain. They were able to locate only one body, still clipped to the fixed line at 28,700 feet. After hours of effort, they were able to move the body only 500 feet. After covering the body with stones and conducting a brief ceremony, they descended without having accomplished their goal. In 2010, when I was on the mountain, an English climber was coming down from the summit on the North side of Everest when he lost his vision, most likely because of cerebral edema. He eventually collapsed. Despite the heroic efforts of a team of Sherpas sent up to help bring him down, he could not be moved, and was left to freeze to death on the mountain.
David Sharp’s condition in Green Boots Cave was equally, if not more, hopeless. It is hard to imagine what any climber moving up the Northeast Ridge that night could have done to help Mr. Sharp, who was virtually frozen in place at 28,000 feet. When Mr. Sharp was first discovered in Green Boots Cave, it was 1 am in the morning on May 15. Even assuming a rescue attempt might have been launched, it would have had to wait until sunrise many hours later. At that point, his condition would have been even more hopeless.
Mark Inglis, who bore much of the criticism, was a double amputee who was himself suffering severe frostbite damage from the harsh weather conditions. His condition was so severe he had to be carried down a portion of the mountain on the back of a Sherpa. In addition, he was a client on an expedition team, not an experienced expedition leader, guide or Sherpa. He was simply in no position to render assistance to Mr. Sharp.
If Mr. Sharp was mobile as he sat in Green Boots Cave, I believe other climbers, guides and Sherpas aware of his peril would have had a moral and ethical obligation to render assistance. Most of them would have answered the call. Just 10 days after Mr. Sharp died, Dan Mazur was leading three clients on the Northeast Ridge. He came upon Lincoln Hall, who was sitting alone in the snow just below the summit. He had been left for dead the previous day by his Sherpas and had spent the night on the ridgeline. When Dan came upon Mr. Hall, his jacket was open and his expedition gloves were off. He was near death, but was able to stand and move with assistance. Dan and his clients gave up their summit bid and called down for help. A team of Sherpas was sent up and Mr. Hall was assisted down the mountain to safety. He suffered significant frostbite damage, but survived.
The perilous position Mr. Sharp found himself in on May 15 is a risk every climber understands and accepts. I am sure Mr. Sharp would be the first to acknowledge this point. He chose to climb alone, with insufficient oxygen, no radio, no satellite telephone and no Sherpa support. It was his third attempt to climb Mt. Everest from the North side. In previous attempts he lost toes to frostbite, and boldly declared he was prepared to lose more to reach the top.
Equally troubling is the criticism leveled at Asian Trekking, the expedition organizer hired by Mr. Sharp. What very few people understand is the difference between a “guided” climb and an “unguided” climb. In a fully guided climb, experienced guides are with the climbers the entire time they are on the mountain and the team always moves together. In an unguided climb, the climbers are pretty much on their own when they move up and down the mountain. Unguided climbs are therefore best suited to climbers who are experienced and prefer the freedom and independence that come from moving solo or with just a Sherpa to help carry their gear.
Asian Trekking offers two types of unguided climbs on the North side of Everest–full service to the summit and no service above Advance Base Camp. By “service” I mean that Asian Trekking assumes responsibility to obtain the permits, transport the climbers and gear to Chinese Base Camp and establish and stock the camps from Chinese Base Camp to the summit. With the no service option, Asian Trekking’s responsibility ends once the climber arrives at ABC. The climber is responsible to get himself and his provisions up and down the mountain above ABC. Obviously, the no service option is only suitable for highly experienced, independent and strong climbers. It is also much less expensive.
David Sharp signed up with Asian Trekking for the no service option. There is no dispute that he was a highly experienced and competent climber. He chose to move alone, with no Sherpa support and only 2 bottles of oxygen. It also appears he decided to move to the summit very late in the day, a very dangerous proposition even in the best weather conditions. Asian Trekking was not keeping track of his movements on the mountain because he was moving without a radio or satellite telephone. I am not aware of any evidence to indicate Asian Trekking was notified of his desperate condition at Green Boot’s Cave until it was far too late to mount a rescue effort. Unless one takes the position that no service, unguided climbs should be banned on Mt. Everest, I don’t see the basis for criticism of Asian Trekking.
I have been on the North side of Everest three times and have met many no service climbers. Many of them are good friends. They are a hardy, brave and independent lot, and each one understood and assumed the risk in traveling alone with virtually no support or radio contact. Not one of these climbers asked, expected or wanted Asian Trekking, or anyone else, to keep track of their movements. However, if any one of them had gotten into trouble and had Asian Trekking had been notified, I am absolutely confident a rescue effort would have been mobilized immediately, and we all would have joined in the effort.
This is not a defense or apology for Asian Trekking. Like every other expedition company, they make mistakes. For example, in 2011, when I was on the North side, I had to turn around and descend at the First Step on the Northeast Ridge, even though I was moving strong and had plenty of time to make the summit. My Sherpa miscalculated the amount of oxygen we would need to make the summit and return safely. It would be easy for me to harbor a bitter attitude towards the Sherpa and Asian Trekking who employed him. But, in the end it was my responsibility to make sure we had enough oxygen since I was on an unguided climb.
In my view, no one is at fault for what happened to David Sharp, except Mr. Sharp himself. My guess is that he would agree with this assessment.