In 2006 I met David Sharp at Advanced Base Camp on Mount Everest and later listened on the radio to his discovery by members of my expedition.
I was there filming a series for the Discovery channel about expedition leader Russell Brice’s commercial trips. The working title was a comment on the situation that has developed in recent years – Everest: No Experience Required.
David Sharp’s Death on Mount Everest
The tragic and lonely death of David Sharp epitomised the unhealthy culture that has grown up around the climbing of Mount Everest. Mountaineers used to be a breed apart, ready to abandon a summit attempt or the completion of a new route to give help to a stricken fellow climber.
But now hundreds of non-climbers paying $40,000 or $60,000 trudge up the fixed ropes, pausing only to step over the corpse of another client along their way to the trophy. One of those bodies belonged to David Sharp.
What Happened to David Sharp on Everest
On the night of 14th May 2006 the queue of brightly suited climbers shuffled forward a few steps. ‘For God’s sake, move!’ someone yelled from the back. They had already been there for an hour, waiting in the highest traffic jam in the world, just below the Second Step. There was dozens of them. And somehow, everyone in that queue had walked past a dying man without rescuing him – the 34-year-old Briton, David Sharp.
Sharp was on a low-budget attempt on the mountain. Instead of spending $60,000 on joining a well-resourced commercial expedition he had chosen to spend $6,200 with Asian Trekking, which supplied some logistics only up to Advanced Base Camp.
Sharp had previously climbed Cho Oyu, an 8,000m peak often used as an introduction to Mount Everest. Like Mallory, he was on his third attempt to climb Everest. As such, he was more experienced than many who are guided to the summit every season.
In recent years amateurs are driven in minibuses to Everest Base Camp, led through all the early difficulties and guided through any technical passages by following fixed ropes that are strung all the way up the mountain. They can eat luxury food and breathe through oxygen masks.
Mount Everest is not a particularly technical mountain. In fact, it’s sometimes called the highest trekking peak in the world, and therefore if you have fixed ropes from bottom to top, ladders and good guides, you will probably get away with it. I liken it to walking across a relatively quiet motorway blindfolded; the chances are that you will survive, but if you’re hit, that’s the end of you.
At the outset, Sharp had been offered a far better-resourced trip than the Asian Trekking offer. For an extra $1,000 he could have gone with his friend Jamie McGuinness, a New Zealand climber and guide who was leading a commercial group, Project Himalaya. But Sharp was something of a loner and wanted to climb the mountain on his own.
This is where it starts to get complicated. Reinhold Messner had done exactly that in 1980 and had won universal acclaim. What was the difference? Sharp had no Sherpa support and no radio, and Asian Trekking could not have mounted any form of rescue even if he had called for help, so you could say that his was also a solo attempt.
But the big difference from Messner is that Sharp climbed up fixed ropes put in place by other people, on a welltrodden trade route, and perhaps he felt more secure, being surrounded by other climbers. Little did he know how illusory that feeling was.
He climbed up the fixed ropes put into place by Sherpas employed by other, better-resourced teams, primarily Brice’s, and probably reached the summit on 14 May at around 2:30pm. That is when his troubles really began.
I could see that Brice was worried during the summits bids in 2006. Four Sherpas had died on the mountain in April, but of course we didn’t yet know that there would be seven further deaths that season.
Brice attempted to avoid the crowds of lemming-like climbers by sending his clients to the summit much earlier than usual, in mid-May instead of towards the end of the month. Word slipped out, though, and as usual the other teams copied what he was doing, leading to the queues below the summit. David Sharp was one of those queuing.
Mount Everest has now become a trap for the unwary. If you don’t have that much money, it is tempting to go with one of the cheaper expedition organisers.
As a result, people with frighteningly little ability are finding themselves far, far too high on the mountain. In the past the weaker climbers would drop out low enough to get back safely. Now it is relatively straightforward to ratchet your way up the fixed ropes to the North Col, up to Camp I, II, III … and then on to the summit.
The danger is that you don’t know how little you have left in reserve. In his briefings Brice tells his clients that they must have 25 per cent of their strength left when they get to the summit. He monitors them on the radio and has strict turn-around times. If they haven’t reached the top by the set time – usually around 1:00pm – he demands that they turn back, no matter how close they are.
By far the most fatalities happen on the descent. Sometimes you will just run out of oxygen, and sit down in the snow and wait for rescue. The chances are that rescue won’t happen.
So the mountain has become easier but is just as dangerous. This is the trap that David Sharp walked into. There is more to it, however, than that. It is extremely difficult to stage a high-altitude rescue, and the guides from the commercial teams are concentrating on looking after their paid-for clients. Money talks.
I listened to the whole David Sharp episode on the team radio, and I watched what happened on the cameras worn by the Sherpas. After probably summiting on 14 May, Sharp descended the mile-long North-East Ridge heading for the Exit Cracks that would have led him back to his tent.
Night would have fallen before he got there, and so he crawled into the cave where Tsewang Paljor, the dead Indian climber known as Green Boots has lain as a signpost since 1996. This is at about 8,500 m (28,000 ft).
The first climbers to see Sharp were a Turkish group making the next day’s summit attempts. One of the Sherpas told him to get up and get moving, but he waved his arms to say he was all right.
Other Turkish climbers saw him motionless, and the Turkish leader, Serhan Poçan, was convinced that Sharp was dead. Two Sherpas agreed, saying they would identify the body after they descended.
The next to arrive were Brice’s climbers. Some did not see him at all, but New Zealanders Mark Woodward, one of the guides, and Mark Whetu, who was filming for our Discovery series, both saw him at around 1:00am. Quoted in the Sunday Times, Woodward said he was
“sitting almost on top of Green Boots, curled up in a foetal position. His nose was black with frostbite and he had very thin gloves on and he had no oxygen. Whetu kind of yelled at him, ‘Get going, get moving,’ that sort of thing.”
When Woodward shone a head torch into Sharp’s eyes,
“There wasn’t even a flinch of his eyelids. I was just like, ‘Oh, this poor guy, he’s stuffed’ … We pretty much considered that he was, if not dead, then not far off it. We all looked at him and realised he was pretty close to death and continued on.” (Source: The Times)
The night passed, then an hour after dawn the returning Turkish climbers saw Sharp’s arm move. They tried to give him something to drink, but had their own problems.
The next to arrive from the summit was the Lebanese climber Maxime Chaya with Dorjee Sherpa, who were both on our team and going well. Chaya tried to speak to Sharp but couldn’t get a response.
In a radio call he spoke to Brice, who was watching events at the North Col at 23,031ft (7,020m). Unlike other leaders Brice prefers to observe events through a telescope from a tent equipped with a radio.
The context is important in this very complex story. Brice had two clients near the summit who he had been trying to turn around by calling to them on the radio.
One of them, 62-year old Gerard Bourrat, was badly frostbitten because he had taken his gloves off and was clearly in a confused state. With limited resources, Brice had the prospect of having to organise a rescue for both of these clients.
Then, at 9:30 am on 15 May, he suddenly had this other problem on his hands.
My Experience of Hearing David Sharp on the Radio
I heard and recorded the whole exchange between Chaya and Brice on the radio.
I heard Chaya weeping as he tried to administer oxygen to Sharp: it was one of the most harrowing things I have ever heard in my life. Chaya and Dorjee did their very best to help, and were with him for around an hour.
Chaya reported to us that Sharp was unconscious, shivering or fitting severely, and was wearing a thin pair of wool gloves with no hat, glasses or goggles. He was severely frostbitten, had frozen hands and legs, and appeared to have only one empty oxygen bottle. I watched the footage from our cameras and saw what a bad state David Sharp was in.
They attempted to give him oxygen, but there was no response. After about an hour, Brice advised Chaya that he was running out of oxygen and there was nothing he could do, so he needed to come down.
Chaya later told The Washington Post “it almost looks like he had a death wish”.
(source: The Washington Post)
Both Mark Whetu and Mark Woodward saw Sharp on the way up. I have worked with them on several trips on the mountain itself, know both men well and consider them to be decent, moral people who enjoy helping others on the mountain. That is the nature of their work. For example, Mark Whetu nearly died trying to rescue his client Mike Rheinberger from the summit in 1994. You can read more on this in my Frostbite article.
Mountain guides tend to be loyal to their own team on summit day. Everyone’s mind is concentrated on their team’s welfare, like a platoon of soldiers on a battlefield.
In a rough kind of triage, people who seem to have little chance of life tend to be ignored. However, if Sharp had been one of Whetu or Woodward’s clients I think he would have survived.
This seems to me to be the moral turning point of this story. As in Mallory’s day on Mount Everest, on just about any other mountain nowadays the people you encounter on the way up will be fellow climbers. They are part of your ‘in’ group, and as such are peers who you will go to enormous lengths to rescue.
David Sharp was, very sadly for him, part of no one’s group, and as a result of the enormous pressures on those walking past he was allowed to die.
The press had a field day. Sir Edmund Hillary had been very vocal about the changes that had taken place around the climbing of Mount Everest in recent years, and he had this to say about the 2006 season:
“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by.”Sir Edmund Hillary speaking to the New Zealand Herald
He went on to say that he was appalled by the callous attitude of today’s climbers:
“They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn’t impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die.”
The scene has changed: in his day mountaineers had a code of conduct and only real mountaineers would attempt the big mountains. Climbers helped those in trouble. But now people pay money to climb Mount Everest. That is the difference.
But not all climbers behaved callously in 2006. Russell Brice, for instance, collected Sharp’s gear and met his parents, even though he wasn’t part of Brice’s expedition.
It was completely ignored by the press that Brice’s expedition had already rescued a fellow climber that season; indeed I have seen Brice’s guides perform this kind of rescue every season that I’ve been with them, with no mention in the press. His team has performed around 15 rescues, Brice never gets paid for the oxygen (at $400 a bottle) and rarely gets any thanks. Yet when a dying climber is encountered high on the mountain there is a storm of criticism.
The simple truth is that it is very hard to rescue someone from near the summit. Everyone is very near their personal limit, everyone is self-absorbed, and it takes a huge effort of will to organise a dozen other people to carry the casualty, prepare tents and safeguard the route down.
And let’s be blunt; when people have paid $60,000 for a package holiday they are reluctant to turn away from their goal.
In my experience, most professional climbers I meet are decent people only too willing to help. They have a code of ethics that they are proud to adhere to.
But wealthy clients who have not developed their climbing within this moral framework often bring the ethics of the marketplace to the mountain: ‘Screw you; I’m all right.’
Near the summit of Mount Everest, up in the death zone, their moral being is stripped away and what’s left is a self-preserving core. It’s an ugly sight.
Frankly, the situation on the north side of Everest is now disorganised and dangerous, and if it was located in the US it would be the subject of endless litigation. The Chinese authorities should perhaps enforce the kind of vetting that is seen on Denali in Alaska, and discourage climbers who are not in a position to look after themselves.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Death of David Sharp
I get a lot of questions about this tragedy and have done my best to collate the answers below.
When Did David Sharp Die on Everest?
David sharp died on 15 May 2006, some time around 11.00 am.
Could David Sharp Have Been Rescued?
If David Sharp had been part of a well-resourced, expensive expedition with around six Sherpas to carry him, spare oxygen cylinders and medical attention at the high camp it is possible that he could have been rescued.
Rescue on Everest is notoriously difficult, so we will never truly know. Helicopter rescues are rare to non-existent – read why here.
Is David Sharp’s Body Still on Everest, or Has it Been Removed?
David Sharp’s body remains on Mount Everest, but it was removed from sight in 2007. A further explanation is given in my article on why bodies are left on the mountain, too.
Are David Sharp’s Last Words Known?
“Let me sleep.” seem to have been David Sharp’s last words (source: NZ Herald).
What can David Sharp’s Death Tell Us?
Frankly, the situation on the north side of Everest is now disorganised and dangerous and if the mountain was located in the US it would be the subject of endless litigation.
The Chinese authorities should consider enforcing the kind of vetting that is seen on Denali in Alaska and discourage climbers who are not in a position to look after themselves.
David’s death would not then have been totally in vain.