Even Sir Edmund Hillary weighed in on the controversy surrounding David Sharp's death.
Before David Sharp left England for his quest to conquer Mount Everest, he reassured his worried mother that on the mountain “you are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere.” While it is true the dozens of other climbing teams who attempt to reach the peak each day offer a sense of security, the bodies of the more than 200 climbers that serve as grim milestones along the path to the top are also a reminder that this safety is an illusion.
David Sharp’s Daring Attempt
David Sharp had already tried to scale the world’s highest mountain twice but had been forced to turn around before reaching the summit. His words to his mother would prove eerily prescient since nearly forty other climbers would be witness to his death on Everest.
Sharp was no mountaineering amateur: the 34-year old Brit had already seen the summits of the tallest mountains in Europe and Africa (Elbrus and Kilimanjaro) and had been personally invited to his first attempt at Everest by an expedition leader who had been impressed by the ease with which Sharp had scaled the Cho Oyu, another mountain in the Himalayas.
On this his third attempt, David Sharp decided he would face the mountain alone and without taking along any bottles of oxygen. Another climber had suggested to Sharp that lugging the heavy bottled up the mountain would only tire him out on his ascent (although a lack of supplemental oxygen had already been responsible for the deaths of several other climbers) and this time, Sharp was determined to reach the peak.
Sharp began his fateful climb the evening of May 13th; other groups would later report seeing the lone climber at various points higher up on the mountain throughout the next day. No one was able to verify if he made it to the summit on the 14th, but at some point that day he began to make his descent.
The First Discovery
“Green Boots” is probably the most famous body that rests on Everest: people use the Indian climber who froze to his death back in 1996 as a kind of landmark to judge their progress. Sharp had seen the eerily preserved body, forever dressed in mountain gear and lime-green boots, when he had made his first attempt at reaching the peak in 2003.
On the night of May 15th, as a group of climbers reached the limestone cave where Green Boots marked the way, they got a nasty shock. When they glanced inside, they realized the long-dead mountaineer had company – David Sharp. It seemed that on his way down, he had stopped to rest in the infamous cave.
According to the group, Sharp sat with his arms wrapped around his knees; icicles hung from his eyelashes and he did not respond to their shouts. The climbers thought he was already in a coma, but did not radio down to basecamp for help. Instead, they left him behind.
A mere twenty minutes later, another group came upon Sharp in the cave; again they shouted at him to get up and move on, but this time Sharp waved them off, not saying a word. A further thirty-six climbers were traveling towards the peak that day, some of whom attempted to speak to Sharp and whose varying accounts of his condition would generate some of the controversies after his death.
The bodies that lay frozen on the mountain’s peak show how hard rescue can be; they often lay where they fell, since those above a certain altitude are too difficult to remove.
The same holds true for struggling climbers who reach the mountain’s “death zone.” When climber Maxime Chaya and his team found David Sharp still in the cave on their own descent from the summit, they knew that there was nothing they could do. Unwilling to simply abandon the Englishman (whose face was already turning black), Chaya sat with him and prayed until he was forced to leave or risk his own life; those who heard his desperate radio messages at the base camp could only listen and weep.
David Sharp’s death generated a good deal of controversy, mainly because of the sheer number of people who saw him while he was still alive; at least 40 other climbers passed by him in the cave and did little to help him.
It is still unclear whether he could potentially have been saved had one of the climbers given him drugs or oxygen on the first day he sat frozen. There have also been contradictory accounts from the other climbers regarding whether reports requesting help were actually radioed in, or whether they received instructions to leave him and continue on their ways.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber to reach Everest’s summit, was particularly disgusted by the attitudes of the climbers who passed by Sharp. Hillary decried the current fanaticism of “people [who] just want to get to the top” and declared that “on my expedition, there was no way that you would have left a man under a rock to die.”
It is even debated if David Sharp did meet his goal and reach the summit before succumbing to the cold; whether he did or not, his body will join the others in warning climbers of the constant perils of the mountain.
Next, check out the story of Marco Siffredi, the guy who died while snowboarding down Everest. Then, read about Beck Weathers, whose escape from certain death on Everest was nothing short of a miracle.