Two weeks ago a man died near the summit of Mount Everest. He was not the only one to lose his gamble with nature on the mountain this year — 13 others have also succumbed — but his fate sent a tremor of alarm and indignation around the world. Forty other climbers passed David Sharp, an Englishman, as he lay under a rock half frozen and without oxygen, but, while a few made attempts to help him, they all ultimately moved on and left him to die alone.
It’s a scene that brings romantic notions of mountaineering crashing down. When a sick and frostbitten Captain Oates left his comrades in Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition and walked off into the snow to die, he was being heroic. When a team of climbers with plenty of resources to call on decide that getting to the top is more important than trying to save the life of a stricken man, it’s hard to find the right words for the occasion.
Unless you are Sir Edmund Hillary, that is. Sir Edmund, a countryman of mine whom I grew up regarding as a hero for being first, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to the top of Everest, and a great humanitarian for his commitment to the welfare of the Sherpa people, knew exactly what to say. On his expedition in 1953, he said, a death that the team did not try to prevent would have been nothing less than a "disaster".
"I am absolutely certain that if any member of our expedition all those years ago had been in that situation we would have made every effort. I think you have to have your priorities. If the priority is just to get to the summit and let another man die, okay, you do it. But if you have someone in great need and you are still strong and energetic, then you have a duty, really, to give all you can to get the man down, and getting to the summit becomes very secondary."
The order of priorities in which a fellow human being’s need comes before personal ambition and even personal cost has been endorsed by the majority of commentators. The website mounteverest.net said: "This year, Everest displayed a weakness much more dangerous than death… lack of compassion, selfish ambition and silence". Coming from a mountaineer, such a statement is reassuring in the face of the many arguments justifying the decision to abandon Sharp. Even his mother has said, "Your responsibility is to save yourself — not to try and save anybody else."
To be fair, some efforts were made. Sherpas with the New Zealand led team that is in the spotlight over this episode gave the man oxygen, but he seemed more dead than alive and the decision from the expedition leader back at base was to move on. People from two other teams also tried to assist but gave up the effort — in one case because they could not get Sharp on his feet. He reportedly told one group to leave him alone, he only wanted to sleep.
But no one with their heart in the right place is going to make a delirious wish like that an excuse for getting on up the hill. If a man is dying, so much the more reason for someone to stay and accompany him. Even if his body is too frozen to benefit from physical help, his soul can still respond to the human warmth of a comrade, to compassion, and yield to death in peace. It is unbelievable that out of so many people who saw David Sharp dying, not one could see the need to stay with him.
Why? Explanations have not been lacking, chief among them the commercialism that has turned Everest into a "circus" where ill-resourced budget expeditions rub shoulders with groups paying large sums to be able to call up extra help if they get into trouble (David Sharp was on a budget deal).
Commerce, though, trades on an idea of sport in which winning, and with it a kind of instant stardom, is everything. Everest has its "rules" and the main one now seems to be that you pay your money and you get to the top. To make the system work, more or less, people don’t go roped together in parties but are hooked up to permanent lines — "like at the supermarket", said one experienced mountaineer. They are effectively being dragged up by guides, he added.
Furthermore, everyone knows the score. All the climbers know the risk they are taking and how much help they can expect. An Australian professional mountaineer commented: "You don’t know people on the mountain and climbers are responsible for their own decisions." A new, individualistic ethic reigns at Everest and no one should be made to feel guilty for not forfeiting their own personal goals to help a stranger.
Mark Inglis, the New Zealander who, incredibly, did the climb on artificial legs and was one of those who passed Sharp, explained his position like this: "It’s such a tough place… 8,500 metres is an awfully hard place to survive. I went there to survive, to come back alive, unharmed, and even doing my absolute best I came back with five frostbitten fingers and frostbitten stumps."
With all due respect to a man who has shown so much guts, one has to say that "survival" is not the real issue when one is about to climb another 300 metres and back. The issue is getting to the top and surviving. While fellow Kiwis have not wanted to be too hard on Inglis, many have expressed disappointment that he missed the opportunity for an even more heroic gesture than being the first double amputee to conquer Everest. "Double amputee ditches summit attempt to comfort/save fellow climber" might have been the bigger news story, wrote one.
If any one of the climbers who saw Sharp that day had insisted on staying with him and getting help, who knows what the outcome would have been? Less than two weeks later Australian climber Lincoln Hall was rescued after 48 hours in the "death zone", by which time he was severely frostbitten and suffering from altitude sickness and disorientation. Hall, too, had been left for dead by his expedition, but a team led by American Dan Mazur saw signs of life in the frozen body and set about rescuing him, giving up its attempt on the summit. Hall soon began to make a remarkable recovery.
Mazur told Thomas Sjogren of mounteverest.net that once Hall was found, there was no question of leaving him and pressing on to the summit, even though the conditions were ideal. "We didn’t even discuss it. We just all felt like we knew that’s what we had to do. How could we leave a person like that? The summit is still there and we can go back. Lincoln only has one life."
Now, if you ask me, that’s real sporting talk. Competitiveness and pushing oneself to the limit is only part of the sportsman’s code; a larger part has to come from more fundamental values: respect for life, solidarity, compassion. The fact that many people, including many in the mountaineering community, have been saying so during the past couple of weeks gives hope that the trend of rugged – not to say, ruthless – individualism in sport can be turned around.
"Maybe the new Everest is for someone to be the good Samaritan at 8000m,"wrote one blogger before the rescue of Lincoln Hall. In that case the new Everest already exists and we should hear less in future of dying climbers being left to freeze alone.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.