In 2006, British mountaineer David Sharp died close to the summit of Mount Everest. His death alone, while tragic, was not particularly remarkable; ten other climbers lost their lives on the mountain that year. However, it was the circumstances surrounding his death, huddled in a limestone alcove some 350 vertical metres from the summit, that resulted in significant debate surrounding both the risks that climbers undergo to achieve this ultimate goal and their attitudes towards the well-being of their fellow mountaineers. Public figures including Sir Edmund Hillary angrily accused other climbers on the mountain the day Sharp died of failing to assist him due to what is sometimes termed ‘summit fever’; a need, once so close to the summit, to complete their climb at all costs. More than 40 climbers passed Sharp as he slowly succumbed to hypothermia and acute altitude sickness. Only a small number attempted to assist him.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1972, David Sharp was an accomplished mountaineer and rock climber. After studying at the University of Nottingham, graduating with a Masters in Engineering, he worked for a defence contractor for many years, resigning in 2005 with the intention of beginning work as a teacher the following autumn.
Four years prior, he made his first attempt at an ‘eight-thousander’; one of the 14 peaks over eight kilometres in height. The expedition to Gasherbrum II in the Karakoram mountains was unsuccessful, but undeterred, Sharp traveled to the neighbouring Himalayas the following year. His objective was the 8,188m Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth tallest mountain. This time his expedition was successful, summiting as part of a group led by experienced Irish climber Richard Dougan. While Dougan expressed concerns that Sharp’s tall, lean frame and lack of body fat made him particularly vulnerable to the freezing conditions of high-altitude climbing, he was impressed with his rock climbing skills. When one member of the group was killed in a crevasse fall on Cho Oyu, Dougan invited Sharp to take the newly vacant place on a planned attempt of Mount Everest the following year.
Six men took part in the expedition, but only two overcame the difficult conditions to reach the summit of the world’s tallest peak. Sharp was not among them, suffering severe frostbite that prevented him finishing the ascent. Despite the setback, he had acclimatized well and Dougan believed him the strongest member of the team. After abandoning his own summit attempt, he was amongst those that assisted a struggling Spanish climber, providing him with additional oxygen. His frostbite eventually cost him several toes.
Determined, Sharp returned to Everest for the 2004 season, this time climbing with a new, European team. Despite this time seven men reaching the summit, again Sharp failed in his attempt, forced to turn back at around 8,500m, close to the cave where he would meet his fate two years later. Members of the expedition later stated that Sharp had disagreed with them on a number of safety measures, including his belief that climbing alone was viable and that supplementary oxygen was unnecessary.
in the spring of 2006, Sharp made his final return to the Himalayas. This time, rather than joining an organised expedition, Sharp intended to attempt his climb alone, commissioning Nepalese adventure company Asia Trekking to make the required arrangements. Advertised as ‘Eco Everest’ trips, Sharp’s decision was likely at least in part financial; he paid around $7,400 for his trip, a far cry from the cost of organised expeditions that can run as high as $100,000. Once an Asia Trekking client reached base camp they were effectively on their own, although the fourteen clients made up an informal group. Notably, three further Asia Trekking clients lost their lives during 2006, alongside two of the outfit’s sherpas. As well as being without the support of an organised team, Sharp was climbing with only limited supplementary oxygen (later reported as just two bottles) and did not carry a radio.
After his arrival at Base Camp, Sharp began the process of acclimatizing to the altitude, making numerous partial ascents to set up and stock camps higher up the mountain. His lack of teammates means there is some degree of uncertainty surrounding his final hours, however he appears to have begun his final push for the summit late on the evening of the 13th May. He had told none of the other Asia Trekking clients of his attempt.
Sharp’s movements on the 14th May are unclear, however an American climber recounted meeting a man he believed to be David Sharp at the base of the Third Step, a 10 metre rock face beneath the summit snowfield. Other climbers had seen a figure they later believed to be Sharp ascending the northeast ridge, worryingly late in the day for a summit attempt. There is a good chance that Sharp was successful in his summit attempt, having been seen ascending, albeit slowly, close to the summit. When his body was later searched his camera was missing, leaving the question of whether he summitted or not unanswered. Either way, the extreme cold, fatigue, rapidly descending darkness and likely issues stemming from his lack of supplementary oxygen subsequently trapped Sharp during his descent, still well above 8,000m. The lack of sufficient oxygen to support human life and the deathly cold earn these extreme altitudes their foreboding moniker; the death zone.
Trapped and desperate, Sharp sought shelter in a small overhang known as ‘Green Boots Cave’, named for the distinctive climbing boots possessed by the corpse of an Indian climber who lost his life there during the 1996 Everest disaster. Close to the main route up the northeast ridge, the cave and the body it contains is known as a macabre progress marker for climbers on the popular route. Sharp ultimately died huddled close to the body, arms hugging his legs.
Shortly after midnight on May 15th, climbers beginning their own ascent attempts began to pass the cave. Many likely didn’t see the stricken Sharp in the dark. Others assumed he had already died, or made the decision that he was beyond help given the circumstances. Members of a Turkish team noticed that he was still alive, but believed he was simply taking a short rest. Members of the same team encountered him again after abandoning their summit attempt and noticed that he was still alive, if barely. He had run out of oxygen, was suffering severe frostbite and his limbs had frozen. While members of the team set off to retrieve additional oxygen with the intention of returning, they were prevented from doing so after one of their own number began to struggle with the conditions.
A New Zealand team, made up of experienced guide Mark Woodward, his clients and sherpas also encountered Sharp in the early hours of May 15th. Noting his grave condition, they attempted to jostle and shout him awake, yelling at him to follow the head torches of ascending climbers back to a camp. He didn’t respond to their efforts, nor to a torch being shone in his eyes. Judging a rescue attempt of Sharp in his condition, particularly given the darkness, to be impossible, Woodward made the decision to press on. On descent they found him to still be alive, shivering severely and missing his hat and goggles. After two sherpas spent 20 minutes attempting to move him without success, they took to trying to provide him with oxygen and a drink as well as rubbing his limbs to try and encourage circulation. He was able to mumble responses to some questions, telling a sherpa his name and that he was with Asia Trekking. However, he was unable to stand, even supported. Despite a number of strong sherpas now on hand, it was impossible to carry Sharp through the challenging climbs below. Many mountaineers maintain that if a climber is unable to walk at that altitude, they may as well be on the moon in terms of the possibility of rescue.
After stories of the circumstances surrounding Sharp’s death were widely circulated in international media, many climbers criticised those who had failed to attempt a rescue. Sir Edmund Hillary was amongst the most vocal, stating that he was ‘horrified’ by the callousness of modern climbers. Others have countered that Sharp failed to take necessary precautions, or even that he appeared to have a death wish.
Sharp’s body remains on the mountain, one of around 250 unfortunates that continue to reside on Everest. Since the 34-year old became the 199th known climber to lose their life, a further 106 men and women have perished attempting to conquer the world’s highest peak.