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

At 5,170m, the base camp enlivens a barren, 455m-wide spoil field with a patchwork quilt of brightly colored tents housing several hundred souls. It's a circus of climbers, lamas, porters, cooks and provisioners, festooned with flapping Buddhist prayer flags of red, yellow, blue, white and green, and perfumed by the aromas of burning juniper boughs, curried lentils, yak-dung fires and open latrines.

Many climbers spend as much as two weeks at the base camp to allow their bodies to compensate for the thin air -- half the oxygen at sea level -- by boosting respiration and even increasing production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Quick to acclimate, Sharp stayed only five days before ascending to advance base camp -- a two-day, 21km trek.

Sharp spent the next few weeks climbing up and down the mountain to acclimatize and to stow tents, oxygen, food and high-altitude fuel to melt snow for water and cook at the higher camps.

He cut a distinctive figure on the mountain with his goatee, his beat-up red and blue rucksack and his red Millet Everest knee boots -- this time, the top of the line.

no higher power

Sharp never told anyone when he was leaving, how high he was going or when he intended to come back. Unlike most climbers, he carried no two-way radio or satellite phone. When he returned from these excursions, instead of using modern designations, he'd talk of reaching "British Camp I" or "British Camp II" -- references to the fatal 1924 Mallory expedition.

Death, to Sharp, was merely a biological process. He had told McGuinness that he was an atheist and didn't believe in a higher power, unless it was nature.

Still, he showed respect for Sherpa tradition, and for the "goddess of the sky." Before he left Kathmandu, Sharp accepted the cream-colored khata or Buddhist prayer scarf -- blessed by a monk or lama and meant to ensure a safe journey to the summit, and back. At advanced base camp, Sharp sat respectfully for the hour-long puja, a ceremony in which a lama blesses the climbers' gear.

And in his tent, beside the Shakespeare volume, was a Bible, the sales sticker from a Kathmandu shop still on its cover.

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

He scaled the North Col, an ice cascade riddled with gaping crevasses, and established a camp at about 7,855m, where tents often must be pitched at 45o angles. But when he awoke on the third morning, it was snowing and extremely windy, and Sharp decided to abandon the attempt.

When he learned back at camp that if he had just gone a little higher, he would have found clearer weather, he second-guessed his decision to turn around.

While plotting his next attempt, Sharp got into a discussion about the use of bottled oxygen with Austrian mountain guide Christian Stangl, a purist who considers climbing with gas a form of "doping." Sharp told Stangl he would only reach for oxygen in an extreme emergency. Stangl suggested it might be better not to tire himself out carrying heavy cylinders he might not use.

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