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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

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

"My toes are worth more than $35 apiece," he told expedition member Jamie McGuinness.

The amputations did not stop Sharp. In spite of the pain and disappointment, he was back the next season, ready to try Everest again.

On May 17, 2004, Sharp started out around 12:30am from Camp 3, this time solo. After about seven hours of climbing, he got to just below the First Step -- even lower than the previous year -- when he decided it was too late, and he was too tired to continue.

When he realized the next morning that his fingers were frostbitten, he abandoned the attempt and returned to England.

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.

In this, he was again following the teacher-climber Mallory, whose footsteps would lead him inexorably back to Everest.

BARE-BONES PACKAGE

Sam's Bar in Kathmandu is a hangout where trekkers congregate to write their names on the wall, trade stories on the bamboo-lined terrace and listen to reggae music. As soon as Sharp hit town on March 29 this year, he headed there to toss back a few beers with McGuinness and discuss his third attempt at Everest.

Again, Sharp was attempting the North Ridge.

Sharp had signed on with Asian Trekking, one of the older companies working the mountain. He would be on the company's International Everest Expedition I, a loose grouping of individuals and smaller teams lumped together for convenience of permitting and accommodations. There were 13 people on Sharp's "team," most making their first assault on Everest.

Sharp had paid Asian Trekking about US$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 6,364m.

Most climbers hire ethnic Sherpas, natives of these high altitudes, to carry gear, prepare food and act as guides. But Sharp's deal called for Asian Trekking to provide tents and food up to the advance base camp.

From there, he was on his own.

McGuinness had asked Sharp to join his expedition, but Sharp declined. He had more than enough cash with him to hire Sherpas, but he wanted to go solo.

Besides, as he'd told his mother Linda before leaving England: "You are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere."

From the north, the approach to Everest passes through a treeless high-desert landscape, what one member of Mallory's third expedition described as "a cheerless, desolate valley suggestive at every turn of the greater desolation to which it leads."

The journey from Kathmandu to the Rongbuk Base Camp winds along dusty, gravelly two-lane roads where a boulder is often the only thing standing between the trucks that climbers ride and a 300m plunge. The trip took five days, and sometime on the third, Sharp would have gotten his first glimpse of Everest.

In 1921, Mallory described his first sighting of Everest as it appeared out of the gray mists.

"A preposterous triangular lump rose out of the depths; its edge came leaping up at an angle of about 70o and ended nowhere," he wrote. "Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountainsides and glaciers and aretes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared."

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