Everest Deaths Create Questions

June 2, 2006 — -- For a mountain that was supposedly conquered more than 50 years ago, this has been an extraordinary year of firsts for Mt. Everest. But as more climbers reach novelty milestones like Everest's summit, some are concerned the mountain's touristy trend makes it more deadly.

Earlier this year, 70-year-old Takao Arayama of Japan became the oldest climber ever to reach the summit. Mark Ingliss, a New Zealander who medaled in the paralympic games, because the first double-amputee. And just last week, another first: A Sherpa stripped off his clothes for three minutes at the summit -- Mt. Everest's first streaker!

But in the midst of all of those firsts, it has also been the deadliest season in a decade. Ten climbers have died in the past six weeks, among them a British man named David Sharp.

Sharp was no mere tourist on Mt. Everest. He'd earned the right to be there, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and some of the most daunting peaks in Nepal. Twice before he'd tried and failed to summit Everest, and he hoped this trip would be different.

He got his wish and made it to the top, but the triumph didn't last long. Just 300 feet down from the top, Sharp got "summit fever." Delirious for lack of air, he ripped off his face mask and collapsed.

Ingliss was one of the climbers who passed Sharp. He radioed another member of his team, who told Ingliss to keep going. "He said, 'Look mate, you can't do anything.' You know he's been there X number of hours, been there without oxygen, so we carried on," Ingliss said.

Sharp died on the mountain.

A Deadly Tourist Destination

Everest is the world's most treacherous tourist destination, and its biggest tombstone. It's an environment so hostile that one in 20 climbers die before they ever reach the summit. More than 100 bodies have been left there, out in the open. Burial takes care of itself.

It's not a place to be taken lightly.

"You should only be up there if you've done your apprenticeship -- you've earned your stripes," said Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach Everest's summit. Peter Hillary has summited Everest twice himself.

The challenge of climbing Everest is undiminished even 50 years after Edmund Hillary was the first. But these days, the mountain is more crowded than ever.

Commercial guides and their armies of porters, called Sherpas, have opened the mountain to less experienced climbers who have tens of thousands of dollars to spare.

"I don't like the commercial aspect. I really believe that we were the lucky ones 50 years ago," said Edmund Hillary. "We had to pioneer the route, we had to cross the crevasses, we had to overcome the avalanches, climb up high on the mountain, battle against the wind and finally get to the summit."

Everest may be more accessible now, but it's no less demanding.

Climbing Soaring Heights Into Thin Air

At the mountain's summit, the air is so thin you need an oxygen mask to breathe. It's 29,000 feet above sea level -- more than five miles, and roughly the altitude of a long-haul airplane flight.

"I really don't think you are thinking clearly at that height," said climber Ben Clowes. "I remember meeting one of my climbing colleagues ahead of me. She had already reached the summit and was on her way down. And I didn't recognize her. I didn't know who she was."

That's likely what David Sharp must have faced in those agonizing moments after he reached the summit.

But what about the 40 climbers who passed Sharp on their way to the top? Did they put their own ambition above saving a life, or was leaving him the only way they could make it back alive?

Ingliss said attempting to save another climber is very dangerous.

"It's like what do we do, you know? And we couldn't do anything. He had no oxygen, he had no proper gloves -- things like that," he said. "Trouble is, at 8,500 meters it is extremely difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keeping anybody else alive."

Ironically, Ingliss himself was saved in a mountain rescue. That's how he lost his legs more than 20 years ago, and some of his rescuers nearly died.

Sharp was not a member of Ingliss's climbing party, nor a member of any other party. He was climbing alone.

Tragically, as he left on this trip, Sharp told his mother not to worry about his solo summit attempt. He told her that you are never alone on Mt. Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary is outraged by Sharp's lonely death.

"I don't think it matters a damn whether it is a member of another party. If he had been Swiss or from Timbuktu, or whatever, we could regard it as our duty to get him back to safety," Hillary said.

But other climbers say the story may be more complicated than that. They suggest Sharp did not take enough oxygen with him, that he summited four to five hours too late in the day. And they say a climber of his experience should have known better.

"You can't help thinking, you know, what would I do if I was in that position," said Clowes. "The answer is, no one can tell. Especially no one who has been up at altitude can really sit and judge other people, because they don't know what it's like up at 8,000 meters."

Another Close Call

Just a few days after Sharp's death, the summit saw another near tragedy. Australian Lincoln Hall collapsed shortly after reaching the summit. His Sherpas left him for dead.

But the next day, another team found him -- barely alive. The gave him oxygen and tea and later that morning mounted a rescue operation.

Lincoln arrived at Everest's base camp two days after he collapsed. He was frostbitten and confused, but every much alive.

"I think this is a great example of how teams can work together climbing Everest," said one of his rescuers, an American climber. "I know a lot of times it feels like we are in competition with one another, and, you know, there are times when we can really work together. And this is a great example of that."