Sun, Jul 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Venturing into the death zone on Mount Everest

British climber David Sharp had made two prior attempts to climb Everest, losing parts of two toes to frostbite. He vowed his third trip would be his last

By Allen Breed and Binaj Gurubacharya  /  AP , KATHMANDU

Sipping black tea on a glacial beach of jagged gray rocks nearly 6.5km above sea level, the lanky Briton had the air of a jilted lover who didn't want to admit it was over.

Twice before, David Sharp had stood on this gravel plain in Mount Everest's shadow. In 2003 and again in 2004, the 34-year-old engineer had made it well into the "Death Zone" above 7,800m before weather, frostbite and lack of oxygen had forced him to turn around, just out of sight of the summit.

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

Now, warmed by a hissing 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.

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

"I don't really have the money to come back here anymore," said Sharp, bathed in ghostly blue light filtering through the tent's nylon walls. "So if I don't do it this time, I'm not coming back."

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

He blamed his frostbite on cheap equipment, and believed he'd remedied that. He'd had none of the headaches, diarrhea, coughs or sinus infections that plagued so many at this altitude. He was looking and climbing strong -- and was determined, to a fault.

"I would give up more toes -- or even fingers to get on top," he told Watson, who was troubled by the comment.

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

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. Many climbers refer to the mountain simply as "the hill."

Since 1852, when a surveyor's calculations confirmed "Peak 15" as the world's tallest, it has claimed more than 200 lives. Many, like British schoolmaster George Leigh Mallory, who famously declared that he climbed Everest "because it's there," remain on the mountain -- frozen reminders that this most hostile of environments was not designed to support life.

It wasn't until 1953, 29 years after Mallory died on his third expedition to Everest, that New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit more than 8,800m up. Tales of the feat that earned Hillary a knighthood were like food for generations of British schoolchildren -- children like David Sharp.

Growing up in the North Yorkshire market town of Guisborough, the nearest thing to a mountain Sharp had to look up to was a colorfully named hill: 318m Roseberry Topping. His passion for climbing blossomed after he entered Nottingham University to pursue an engineering degree and joined the university's mountaineering club.

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

Sharp took time off from his job to backpack through South America and Southeast Asia. In 2002, he joined an Irish expedition for his biggest trial yet -- Tibet's Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest peak.

Expedition leader Richard Dougan was amazed at how quickly Sharp acclimated to the thin air. At 178cm and barely 68kg, the sinewy Englishman had no body fat to spare and moved fast to keep warm.

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