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

Sun, Jul 23, 2006 - Page 9

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.

strongest climber

Sharp was clearly a gifted rock climber, free-climbing a particularly tricky rock cliff rather than rely on iffy ropes. Dougan considered him "definitely the strongest member of our team."

He was a convivial camp companion, who would laugh as other climbers tried to eat their frozen chocolate bars, then pull out his stash of fudge, which remained supple even at high altitudes. He enjoyed his whiskey and beer.

After Sharp made it to the top of Cho Oyu with relative ease, Dougan invited him to join a 2003 expedition to Everest.

They would be climbing the North to Northeast Ridge route -- the one blazed at such great cost by Mallory.

In the high camps, Mallory entertained his team by reading aloud from Hamlet and King Lear. Nearly 79 years later, Sharp carried a volume of Shakespeare in his battered rucksack while making his first assault on Everest.

Most climbers begin their final ascent in the middle of the night so they arrive at the summit in the early to late morning. This allows maximum daylight hours for making the tricky descent and, not incidentally, for victory photographs.

At around midnight on May 22, 2003, Sharp and Dougan left the 8,252m Camp 3 to begin their summit push. Clipping onto a fixed line with metal jumars -- ascending devices that lock onto ropes and attach to a climber's safety harness -- they trudged upward, the spiked crampons on their boots biting into the rock and ice.

Everest's summit has only a third as much oxygen as at sea level. There, climbers are susceptible to frostbite and delirium. Climbers have been known to strip off their clothing in the icy winds, or simply walk off the side of the mountain. Other dangers include fluid in the lungs and high-altitude cerebral edema, or HACE -- a sudden, potentially fatal swelling of the brain.

At about 8,412m, Sharp and Dougan got a vivid reminder of the mountain's dangers.

They had stopped at a limestone alcove littered with spent oxygen bottles. Inside was a perfectly preserved body, the corpse of an Indian climber who had died in 1996. Climbers had dubbed him "Green Boots," for his distinctive footwear. He lay in the fetal position, facing out.

"He looks like he's sleeping," Dougan remarked to Sharp, who nodded.

They continued their climb, and around 8,455m they scaled the first of three nearly vertical rock outcroppings or "steps" that lay between high camp and the summit. As they moved upward, Dougan noticed his friend, normally quicker than average climbers, was slowing down. Just below the Second Step, about 197m from the summit, Sharp removed his oxygen mask.

Dougan noticed that Sharp's cheeks and nose had turned an ashen gray. Sharp acknowledged feeling a funny sensation in his fingers and toes.

"David, this is frostbite," Dougan warned.

The summit was tantalizingly close, just two rock climbs away. But the wind was picking up, and Sharp knew he'd reached his limit.

He encouraged Dougan to go on, but they went down together.

En route, the pair came across a Spanish climber who was struggling upward. They offered the man oxygen and verbal encouragement, and stayed until they were sure he was OK.

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.


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."

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.

on the threshold

As far as Stangl could tell, Sharp was down to just one cylinder. But Sharp knew the mountain was littered with partial bottles that he could use.

By May 11, Sharp had reached Camp One at the North Col again. He popped his head out of his green tent to offer congratulations to Watson and partner Gheorge Dijmarescu as they descended from what was Dijmarescu's eighth successful summit and Watson's second.

Over the next three days, Sharp clawed his way back into the Death Zone, threshold of the summit.

He was at about 8,352m shortly after 1am on the May 14, when Colorado climber Bill Crouse and his team of a dozen clients and Sherpas spotted him on their ascent at a diagonally rising traverse known as the Exit Cracks.

Looking tired, Sharp sat in the falling snow, disconnected from the fixed line to let other, faster climbers pass. In the darkness, the climbers exchanged waves.

Crouse, working as a guide for noted New Zealand climber Russell Brice, reached the summit and keyed his two-way radio as multicolored Buddhist prayer flags flapped in a bitterly cold wind.

"How much time do we have?" Crouse asked Brice, who had been watching the ascent through a telescope from camp at the North Col.

"No more than 20 minutes," the leader said.

Descending, Crouse and his team reached the top of the Third Step, roughly 148m from the summit, around 11:20am, when the guide noticed Sharp again at its base -- off to the side, out of the blowing wind.

He was clipped to the fixed line, and Crouse's party unclipped and re-clipped to get around him.

"Watch out," Crouse warned Sharp, but nothing else was said.

About an hour and 20 minutes later, at the Second Step, Crouse looked back. The man his team had gone around had moved higher, but barely -- just 90m or so. He appeared to be the last one up the mountain.

"That guy's going up pretty late in the day today," Crouse said to a companion.

Sharp had already climbed higher than he'd ever been before. At this altitude, he was taking several breaths for each step, but the summit awaited, so close now.

Just a little farther.

This is part one of a two-part story. Part two will appear tomorrow.