- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal — Sipping black tea on a glacial beach of jagged gray rocks nearly four miles above sea level, the lanky Briton had the air of a jilted lover who didn’t want to concede it was over.

Twice before, David Sharp had stood on this gravel plain in Mount Everest’s shadow. The 34-year-old engineer had made it well into the “Death Zone” above 26,000 feet before weather, frostbite and lack of oxygen had forced him to turn around.

Already, the quest had cost Mr. Sharp parts of two toes.

Warmed by a propane heater in a mess tent at a camp below Everest’s forbidding North Face, the bespectacled Briton was telling camp neighbor Dave Watson that his courtship of the mountain was drawing to a close.

Mr. Sharp was preparing to begin a new career as a teacher in the fall, and he said it was time to move on.

“If I don’t do it this time, I’m not coming back,” he said.

But he didn’t believe he’d need to come back. He was sure this third assault would succeed.

“I would give up more toes — or even fingers to get on top,” he told Mr. Watson.

In the summit-at-all-cost world of Mount Everest, both men knew the price can be much higher.

‘Goddess of the sky’

The Nepalese call it Sagarmatha, “goddess of the sky.” To Tibetans, it is Qomolungma, “goddess, mother of the world.” The British named it Everest, after the head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

The world’s tallest mountain has claimed more than 200 lives. Many, like British schoolteacher George Leigh Mallory, who famously said that he climbed Everest “because it’s there,” remain on the mountain.

It wasn’t until 1953, 29 years after Mr. Mallory died on his third expedition to Everest, that New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit more than 29,000 feet up.

Mr. Sharp’s passion for climbing blossomed after he entered Nottingham University to pursue an engineering degree, and joined the university’s mountaineering club.

Before long, he had bagged his first major peak, the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. Higher mountains followed: Mount Elbrus, Europe’s tallest; Africa’s Kilimanjaro; Pakistan’s Gasherbrum.

In 2002, he joined an Irish expedition for Tibet’s Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak. Expedition leader Richard Dougan considered Mr. Sharp “definitely the strongest member of our team,” and invited him to join a 2003 expedition to Everest.

They would be climbing the North-to-Northeast-Ridge route — the one blazed by Mr. Mallory. In the high camps, Mr. Mallory entertained his team by reading aloud from “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Mr. Sharp carried a volume of Shakespeare to Everest.

At around midnight on May 22, 2003, Mr. Sharp and Mr. Dougan left the 27,231-foot Camp 3 to begin their summit push.

Everest’s summit has only a third as much oxygen as at sea level. There, a climber is more susceptible to frostbite, brain swelling and delirium.

At about 27,760 feet, Mr. Sharp and Mr. Dougan got a vivid reminder of the mountain’s dangers. They had stopped at a limestone alcove. Inside was the perfectly preserved corpse of an Indian climber who had died in 1996. Climbers had dubbed him “Green Boots.”

Frostbite takes toll

At around 27,900 feet, they scaled the first of three nearly vertical rock outcroppings or “steps” that lay between high camp and the summit. Just below the Second Step, about 650 vertical feet from the summit, Mr. Dougan noticed Mr. Sharp’s cheeks and nose had turned an ashen gray, apparently from frostbite. Mr. Sharp acknowledged feeling a funny sensation in his fingers and toes.

The summit was tantalizingly close, but Mr. Sharp knew he’d reached his limit.

Back at camp, it soon became clear Mr. Sharp would lose most of his left big toe and part of the second toe on his right foot. He bemoaned his decision not to spend $350 for top-of-the-line boots.

Mr. Sharp returned to Everest in May 2004, this time climbing solo.

After about seven hours of climbing, he got to just below the First Step — even lower than the previous year — but abandoned the attempt and returned to England.

Mr. Sharp took a year off from his adventures to complete a postgraduate course in education. He had secured a job teaching math and was scheduled to start in September.

On March 29 this year, Mr. Sharp was back in Katmandu, for his third assault on Everest. He had signed on with Asian Trekking’s International Everest Expedition I, a loose grouping of individuals and smaller teams, paying about $6,200 for a bare-bones package.

They would carry him into Tibet and up to base camp by truck, then ferry his equipment by yak train to the advance base camp at around 21,000 feet. From there, he was on his own.

The journey from Katmandu to the Rongbuk Base Camp took five days, and sometime on the third, Mr. Sharp would have gotten his first glimpse of Everest.

Many climbers spend as much as two weeks at the base camp to allow their bodies to compensate for the thin air. But Mr. Sharp stayed only five days before ascending to advance base camp — a two-day, 13-mile trek.

At the base camp, he cut a distinctive figure with his goatee, his beat-up red and blue rucksack and his brand-new red Millet Everest knee boots, the top of the line. Unlike most climbers, he carried no two-way radio or satellite phone.

Summit push

Death, to Mr. Sharp, was merely a biological process. He had told expedition member Jamie McGuinness he was an atheist and didn’t believe in a higher power, unless it was nature. But in his tent, beside the Shakespeare volume, was a new Bible.

In the first week of May, Mr. Sharp began his summit push.

He scaled the North Col, an ice cascade riddled with gaping crevasses, and established a camp at about 25,920 feet. He had bought two 4-liter cylinders — a bare minimum for summit day — but told Austrian mountain guide Christian Stangl he would only reach for oxygen in an extreme emergency.

After abandoning a first push at the summit, he began a second push on May 11. He was at about 27,560 feet shortly after 1 a.m. on May 14, when Colorado guide Bill Crouse and his team spotted him, looking tired.

Mr. Crouse’s group made it to the top and then, on their descent at the Third Step, roughly 490 vertical feet from the summit, noticed Mr. Sharp again — out of the blowing wind but still clipped to the fixed line. It was around 11:20 a.m.

Mr. Sharp had already climbed higher than he’d ever been before.

Hours later in the advance base camp, exhausted climbers returned to congratulations, drinks and blessed rest after the day’s conquests. But Mr. Sharp was not among them. Still, the experienced climbers were not overly concerned.

Mr. Watson assumed Mr. Sharp had crawled into an unoccupied tent at one of the high camps to rest.

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 1 a.m., at about 27,760 feet, Mr. Woodward was shocked to find a second pair of boots protruding from Green Boots’ cave.

In the glare of his headlamp, he could see a man, still clipped onto the red-and-blue guide rope, sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees. He had no oxygen mask on, and ice crystals had formed on his closed eyelashes. Believing the man was in a hypothermic coma and beyond help, the group decided to move on.

About 20 minutes later, a group of Turkish climbers were waved off by Mr. Sharp. Others among the three dozen or so climbers attempting the summit that day assumed Mr. Sharp was “Green Boots,” or didn’t notice him at all.

Maxime Chaya, who was aiming to become the first Lebanese citizen to climb Everest, reached the top at sunrise. As he and his Sherpa, Dorjee, headed back down, they saw Mr. Sharp around 9:30 a.m. Mr. Chaya radioed expedition leader Russell Brice.

Mr. Sharp was unconscious and shivering violently. In his pack, Mr. Chaya found only one oxygen bottle, the gauge on empty. Dorjee attempted to give him oxygen, but there was no response.

After sitting near Mr. Sharp for nearly an hour, Mr. Chaya recited the Lord’s Prayer, made the sign of the cross and walked away.

Phurba Tashi, Mr. Brice’s chief Sherpa, was descending with some others at 11:45 a.m. Whether because of the rising temperature or the oxygen Dorjee had given him, Mr. Sharp was able to speak.

‘I just want to sleep’

“My name is David Sharp,” he reportedly said. “I’m with Asian Trekking, and I just want to sleep.”

The Sherpas administered oxygen and tried to get Mr. Sharp to his feet, but he kept collapsing. They shifted him a few feet into the sun, then headed down the mountain.

Back at the advance base camp, by the morning of May 16, confusion was giving gave way to serious concern.

Mr. Phurba identified Mr. Sharp from the passport retrieved from his camp tent. But no new distress call was raised. Another Sherpa had already reported that the climber in the red boots was dead.

Did David Sharp have to die?

Nearly two weeks after his death, an Australian was rescued from even higher on the mountain.

Mr. Hillary was outraged after hearing that some climbers reported Mr. 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 him, Mr. Hillary said that human life was “far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”

Mr. Sharp’s mother, Linda, did not blame the experienced climbers 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 Mr. Sharp reach the summit? As with Mr. Mallory, the Everest pioneer, no one is sure.

Mr. Sharp left no token at the top. No one has reported seeing him there. His camera, like Mr. Mallory’s, is unaccounted for.

Mr. McGuinness, who accompanied Mr. Sharp on his first Everest climb, wants to believe his friend made it. Regardless, he thinks Mr. Sharp would be satisfied to know that, in a kind of frozen afterlife, his body will serve as a guidepost to the summit.

Another reminder of the price some pay for a chance to stand on the roof of the world.

Allen Breed reported from the United States and Binaj Gurubacharya from Katmandu, Nepal. Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Austria, also contributed.

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