Climbing Mount Everest
Sherpas ferrying supplies to Everest's North Col camp, May 2006.

Over the Top

David Sharp's lonely death on Mount Everest revived the old, raging debates about personal ethics and the wisdom of commercially guided climbing. But whatever went right and wrong in 2006, the bottom line remains: You challenge this peak at your own risk, because its punishments are swift, terrible, and blind.

Climbing Mount Everest
Ed Douglas

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AT AROUND 5 A.M. ON MAY 15, 2006, Dawa Sherpa’s luck took a turn for the worse. The 30-year-old Nepali was 28,215 feet up Everest’s Northeast Ridge, working as lead Sherpa for an expedition to put the first Turkish woman on the summit. Burçak Poçan, a 36-year-old university lecturer, seemed poised to reach the goal she’d already made it halfway up the Second Step, the treacherous cliff just 800 feet shy of the top. But suddenly, as she inched up the fixed ropes, Poçan slumped over and lost consciousness. Half a dozen Sherpas lowered her slack form down the rock, and nearly an hour later she awoke and was able to stand. That’s when their troubles really started.

Climbing Mount Everest

Climbing Mount Everest Michael Matthews's brother, James, and father, David, in London.

“After she is coming alive again, I carry her,” Dawa told me, explaining in broken English as we sat in a Kathmandu café weeks later. He and another Sherpa, Phurbu Temba, began half lifting, half supporting the woman down the ridge, above dizzying drops of thousands of feet on either side. Then, just below the Second Step at a spot called Mushroom Rock, Dawa’s exertions brought on a coughing fit so violent that it tore muscles in his chest. Every breath left him wincing with pain.

For the next three hours, Dawa and Temba helped Poçan down the rocky spine to the bottom of the First Step, the technical pitch above a system of frozen gullies leading to the comparative safety of high camp, at 27,000 feet. Then something caught Dawa’s eye. He expected to come across one dead body here: an Indian climber, presumably Tsewang Paljor, who lay curled under an overhang, a victim of exposure in the storm that hit Everest on May 10, 1996. Twelve climbers died that spring eight of them on that single day in May fixing the mountain in the public imagination as a place where rich, inexperienced clients tried to buy their way to the summit, often with deadly consequences. Paljor’s plight had been noticed by two Japanese climbers, but they’d trudged past to snag the summit, leaving him to become a macabre landmark now known simply as Green Boots.

This morning, however, Dawa saw two bodies where only Green Boots should have been, the second tucked against the corpse’s feet. “I say to my friend, ‘This look like new body, man,’ ” Dawa told me. “And my friend, he say, ‘No, this one die long time ago.’ And I say, ‘No, no, he is another body, a new body.’ I go and look, and he is alive! He can speak nothing, but he is still watching with his eye, and I ask him, ‘Where you from? Which group? You have a Sherpa?’ And he didn’t answer me.”

The man was David Sharp, a 34-year-old British climber scaling Everest alone. A quiet and determined engineer who’d recently decided to shift careers and become a teacher, Sharp had failed in two previous Everest summit bids, in 2003 and 2004. This year, going the budget route, he’d arranged a climbing permit through the Kathmandu-based Asian Trekking, and used the company’s no-frills food-and-shelter services at the north-side base camp. He’d chosen to climb without a guide or Sherpas, relying on two bottles of oxygen he’d bought, instead of the standard five. He didn’t even have a radio to call for help.

Dawa said Sharp’s condition was shocking: “Legs just like wood. Face already gone. Black, black.” The Sherpa pulled long icicles from the climber’s nose and unzipped his down jacket to feel his chest. Sharp’s trunk was icy cold, an indication that hypothermia and lack of oxygen had almost done their work. It appeared he had spent the night in the deadly cold and thin air above 26,000 feet.

“We feel very bad, but we can do nothing there,” Dawa told me. “It was very hard.” If half a dozen fresh Sherpas had been on hand, they might have been able to drag Sharp to high camp, some two hours below. But Sharp’s legs were frozen stiff. Dawa and Temba were exhausted. Each time Dawa moved, he felt as if there were a knife between his ribs. And Poçan was still near collapse. The Sherpas agreed to leave Sharp and continue on.

Moments later, Poçan’s husband, Serhan, and another Turkish climber, Bora Mavis, arrived at the overhang. They stopped to give hot water to Sharp, who wasn’t responsive, but moved on when Serhan’s wife collapsed again farther down the ridge. Within an hour, by about 9:30 a.m., as climbers straggled down from the summit, Sharp also got help from Turkish-team members Soner Büyükatalay and Lhakpa Sherpa, and from Phurba Tashi, the lead Sherpa for the France-based Himalayan Experience (Himex), a guiding company run by New Zealander and veteran expedition leader Russell Brice. The climbers gave Sharp oxygen and dragged him from the shade of the overhang to sit him in a patch of sunlight. They tried to get him moving, but Sharp could not stand up, and they couldn’t carry him. They continued on.

Burçak Poçan, shepherded by Dawa and Temba, reached high camp at 11 a.m. She’d suffered hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, after having problems with her supplemental oxygen, said her husband. After several days’ rest, she went back up the mountain and reached the summit on May 24. Dawa’s injury stopped him from joining her. But climbing with her was Serhan, who walked up to pay his respects to Sharp. The body looked ancient to him, he said, as if it had been lying there for years. When Sharp’s possessions were packed up at base camp, a scrap of paper told more about the real story of Everest than all the yards of newsprint that would follow. It was a receipt for $7,490, the entire cost of his final climb.

DAVID SHARP’S FATE was barely reported at first, just one on the list of 11 deaths that made 2006 the second-deadliest spring season on record, pushing the total known Everest toll to more than 200 since adventurers first set foot on the mountain in the 1920s. The uproar started on May 22, after Mark Inglis, a 46-year-old New Zealander who’d become the first double amputee to reach the summit, gave post-expedition interviews in Kathmandu to a New Zealand television show and London’s Daily Telegraph. “About 40 people” went past Sharp en route to the summit without stopping to help, Inglis declared. Unaware of the Turkish team’s efforts, Inglis said the only climbers who offered aid were Sherpas with the Himex team, led by Brice, who was stationed at the North Col below. A few people in the group radioed Brice, Inglis said, and the Himex leader told them to leave Sharp behind, because the man was beyond saving. Brice disputes this and says no one told him about Sharp during their ascent. In any case, the climbers moved on. “It was a very hard decision,” Inglis noted. But “at 28,000 feet, it’s hard to stay alive yourself.”

Inglis has since revised his statements, which he says he made when he was physically and mentally exhausted and in a lot of pain. He’d suffered severe frostbite he later had five fingertips amputated and his leg stumps were badly injured from climbing on prosthetic limbs. When he e-mailed me this summer, it was between hospitalizations back home, where he’d undergone additional amputations on both legs.

In truth, Inglis wrote, “I remember little apart from the intense cold and from trying to keep my hands warm” in temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero “as I need to use my hands much more than legged climbers.” Inglis now says he can’t recall whether, during the early-morning ascent, he himself called Brice or he heard others contact the expedition leader or whether no one called Brice at all. It’s possible, Inglis added, that the radio traffic actually occurred during the descent, the most dangerous part of the climb, when people’s strength and oxygen supplies are spent and rescue efforts can easily end badly. “My recollection is unclear,” he wrote.

Whatever the circumstances, Inglis soon found himself the target= of worldwide media wrath. Never mind that being disabled made him the least likely individual to help Sharp: Editorialists from all corners stepped forward to confirm the moral collapse of climbing, a charge led by Sir Edmund Hillary himself.

“I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” Hillary told the New Zealand press. “People just want to get to the top. They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress.”

Basque climber Juan Oiarzabal, the sixth man to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, put it even more scathingly to the adventure site “That mountain turned into a circus years ago,” he declared, “and it’s getting worse.”

WHEN I FIRST SET OUT to report on Everest this year, my focus was the strange mix of horror and fascination the mountain seemed to have taken on a high-altitude Wild West filled with summit-grubbing rogues and desperadoes. What I discovered when I landed in Kathmandu at the end of the spring climbing season was a story more bizarre, more complicated, and more human than anything I imagined. I sat in cafés with zoned-out climbers sipping sweet, milky tea. In the tourist bars, weather-beaten men shared drinks with frostbite victims dressed in bandages. Climbers told tales of jostling crowds, clients so clueless they’d hardly walked in crampons before, and one woman being taught how to rappel on the Second Step of the Northeast Ridge.

True, there was no shortage of vaudeville on the mountain. On the south side, an ultra-fit former Polish Playboy cover girl named Martyna Wojciechowska reached the summit on May 18. Newspapers in the Philippines reported a bitter rivalry between maverick Dale Abenojar who claimed the first Filipino ascent, via the Northeast Ridge on May 15 and a national team that summited from the south side two days later. A young Sherpa, Lakpa Tharke, was reported to have stripped naked for summit photos. (He actually only bared his torso, but the flash of flesh left some of his colleagues horrified.) A team on the north side had their ice axes and crampons stolen; other groups saw their tents looted and their oxygen filched.

In a frustrated May 16 dispatch to his expedition Web site, Brazilian Vitor Negrete an independent who, like David Sharp, had gotten his permit from the cut-rate Asian Trekking described reaching his cache at Camp II on the north side only to discover that thieves had taken his food and tent. Resupplied by fellow climbers, Negrete would summit without using oxygen, as he’d wanted to do, only to collapse and die of acute altitude sickness after his return to high camp, on May 18.

As the season wore on, Everest began to resemble a deadly reality show populated by self-obsessed contestants reaching for a prize discredited by their very attention. But then, in an instant, the whole crazy ride whipsawed, and Everest became a theater of heroism instead.

Early on May 26 on the Northeast Ridge, American guide Dan Mazur, his lead Sherpa, Jangbu, and two clients Canadian Andrew Brash and Briton Myles Osborne were approaching the Second Step when they saw a man sitting cross-legged just inches from the edge of the 10,000-foot Kangshung Face. He wore no gloves or hat, and his fingers were deeply frostbitten. “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here,” the man said.

His name, he told them, was Lincoln Hall. He was lucid enough to speak, but thought he was on a boat and, in his advanced stages of hypothermia, had started to shed his clothes. Mazur’s team checked the logo on Hall’s jacket and realized he was on Russian Alex Abramov’s 7 Summits expedition. When they radioed Abramov at base camp, he explained that Hall had been left on the mountain the day before, after he’d collapsed and appeared lifeless, and Sherpas couldn’t bring him down. Now the astonished Abramov dispatched 13 Sherpas to aid in the Australian’s rescue. Unlike David Sharp, Hall could stand, and when help arrived, he was led down to safety. Unfortunately, Abramov’s team had already called Hall’s wife, Barbara Scanlan, and told her Lincoln was dead. When Scanlan answered the phone the next day, she could hardly believe the thin whisper she heard belonged to her husband.

THE RUSH OF NEWS STORIES from the slopes of Everest this spring reduced the mountain to a kind of Himalaya Horribilis, where human ethics crumble under the mountain’s terrible grind. What most of these stories did not mention was that far off-stage, in a very different scrum zone the decidedly thick air of a London courtroom the very business of guiding was being tested. There, in Southwark Crown Court, an unprecedented criminal lawsuit threatened to put the entire expedition industry under scrutiny.

The case, unfolding at press time, concerns 22-year-old Michael Matthews, who on May 13, 1999, became the youngest Briton to scale Everest, then vanished on his descent. Matthews hadn’t scrimped on expense, paying $40,000 to the Sheffield, England based Out There Trekking, an outfitter with an impressive safety record. But he’d struggled with exhaustion during the climb up, and OTT’s lead Sherpa, Lakpa Gelu, had advised him to turn back. Despite the warning, he went on to reach the top, accompanied by OTT guide Michael Smith. As the men climbed down, a blizzard swept in. Smith went ahead to clear the fixed ropes of accumulating snow. He never saw Matthews again.

Smith told London’s Mail on Sunday that he’d tried to make it up the slope to find Matthews, but the storm beat him back. After waiting an hour, feeling his feet go numb with frostbite he would ultimately have a toe amputated Smith said he was faced with a stark choice: “Do I stay there and wait ad infinitum and fall asleep and never wake up, or go down?” Smith said he consulted with Nick Kekus, the team leader, who was stationed at the South Col. Kekus told him the choice was his; Smith decided he had to descend.

I first wrote about the Matthews incident for the London Observer, in 2001, when Michael’s father, self-made millionaire David Matthews, was preparing to file a civil lawsuit against OTT. Insurers for OTT would eventually pay an undisclosed amount in an out-of-court settlement, admitting no liability. Matthews, meanwhile, continued to investigate his son’s death, which he increasingly believed was caused by negligence something that, as he saw it, plagued commercial expeditions.

One of the team’s oxygen suppliers, Matthews discovered, was Henry Todd, a longtime Everest outfitter who also refills used oxygen canisters and sells them to scores of climbers each year, saving them the exorbitant cost of buying new top-of-the-line Russian-made Poisk bottles. No oxygen system is failure-proof, so it’s crucial to bring backups, climbers say. Once you do that, “it makes sense to recycle it’s silly not to,” as New Zealander Guy Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants, told Wellington’s Dominion Post this year. The veteran guide said he brings new bottles for summit climbs, along with refills from Todd, adding that his company has not had problems with them. But in 1999, Todd was offering Poisk regulators wedded with British bottles; the hybrids sometimes required modification on the mountain before they worked properly, but by summit day they operated satisfactorily, OTT said.

Matthews was unconvinced, and in December 2005 he took the extraordinary step of filing a private criminal prosecution, in which a citizen pursues legal action in place of the state. Believing that negligent guiding and defective oxygen equipment left his son debilitated and at risk, Matthews alleged that Smith, former OTT co-director Jon Tinker, OTT itself, and Todd were guilty of manslaughter.

At first, as Matthews explained it to me, he’d believed what he’d been told by OTT that his son’s death was an accident and that the outfitter was in no way to blame. Two months later, however, he received a phone call from John Crellin, one of Michael’s fellow OTT climbers. Crellin said some of the team’s oxygen equipment had failed or was substandard, an allegation that Matthews would later hear from two additional OTT clients.

Because of a gag order, all parties in the suit are barred from discussing it with reporters, but Todd, Smith, and Tinker have strenuously denied any wrongdoing. Tinker became ill during the expedition and had already left the mountain by the time Michael Matthews died; OTT has since folded. For his part, Todd says his oxygen supplies are safe and always have been.

“I have a legitimate business which is tested and proven,” he told me in 2001. “People who use my service take huge risks. I can’t afford to let them down.”

At press time, the judge in the case was preparing to decide whether to dismiss the suit for lack of evidence or let the matter proceed to a trial this fall. If convicted, the defendants could face lengthy jail terms.

“Some will suggest that we’re wealthy people who want to make people suffer for the death of our son,” Matthews told me in 2001. “But our boy died, we’ve looked into the reasons why, as most loving families would do, and what we’ve found out is a shocking tale of deceit and desertion.”

Whatever the outcome of the case, guides fear it will usher in a new age on Everest the liability era. Even if this suit is dismissed, it may be only a matter of time before similar disputes end up in court, they say. Nothing can truly protect them from grieving family members or wrathful clients.

Consider the recent example of Dan Mazur, the SummitClimb expedition leader who helped rescue Lincoln Hall. Mazur says that, this spring, his company also rescued an Argentinian client, Juan Pablo Milana, from the Second Step.

“Dude, he was facedown in the snow mumbling Ave Marias,” Mazur says. “Literally.”

How does Milana remember it? He says the rescue never happened and faults SummitClimb for failing to give him medical help when he suffered altitude sickness, leaving him to climb down by himself. “I am considering suing them for irresponsible behavior that put my life in danger,” he said. “I lost the summit because of them.”

THE CONTROVERSIES about the Matthews case and the death of David Sharp underscore a huge shift on Everest over the past ten years, one that makes it more important than ever to remember this: Buyer beware.

Until around 1996, most climbers summited on the south side, shelling out about $60,000 to do so. Only a few commercial outfitters in the early 1990s Brice most prominently offered trips up the more difficult Northeast Ridge. By the last part of the decade, the majority of summit attempts were made from the north side, a trend that continues still.

The south side, controlled by Nepal, remains dominated by established commercial operators, but the Chinese-governed north side now attracts growing numbers of no-frills outfitters and independent climbers some of them sacrificing safety for a bargain. What they get in exchange is a longer, riskier, more technical climb.

High camp on the Northeast Ridge is at 27,000 feet, a debilitating altitude from which to launch a summit bid; on the south side, the top camp is the South Col’s Camp IV, at 26,200 feet. Wig out from oxygen starvation on the north side and you have to traverse rocky terrain for hours before you reach thicker air; on the southern route you can get down a lot quicker. For these reasons and others, eight of the 11 fatalities on Everest this year occurred on the north side and this during a long spell of good weather.

The deceased include semiblind German Thomas Weber, 41, and Russian Igor Plyushkin, 54, both of whom collapsed and died high on the mountain but did not summit. Both men were climbing on permits from Asian Trekking, the same company that outfitted Sharp, Negrete, and Lincoln Hall. (Officials at Asian Trekking say the business provides goods and services to many expeditions each year without incident and say the 2006 deaths were not the responsibility of the company.)

So why head north? It’s cheaper. On the Nepal side, a permit alone costs $10,000. On the Chinese side, you can get a permit, a ride to base camp, lodging, and yaks to carry your gear to advance base camp, on the East Rongbuk Glacier, all for $4,000. If you can cope with bare-bones base-camp services, grim food, and no Sherpa support, Everest becomes less Bergdorf’s and more Wal-Mart.

For strong climbers, bargain-basement trips can work. Austrian speed climber Christian Stangl, for instance, paid Asian Trekking even less than David Sharp did a rock-bottom $5,300 total, including supplies and managed to summit in less than 17 hours, without bottled oxygen. But was Sharp skilled enough to go solo? Richard Dougan, his Everest teammate in 2003, told me Sharp was “a fantastic lad, strong at high altitude.” Nevertheless, without a climbing partner, guide, Sherpa, or radio, he vastly reduced his chances for survival. Resources are everything on Everest, either those you bring or those you buy.

Even when you have help, there are no guarantees. Take the case of Nils Antezana, a 69-year-old Washington, D.C. area pathologist who disappeared on Everest shortly after scaling it in 2004, becoming the oldest American to summit. According to a lengthy investigation in The Washington Post Magazine, Antezana offered Argentinian mountaineer Gustavo Lisi an all-expenses-paid trip to Everest, including a two-Sherpa crew and a $10,000 bonus if the doctor summited. But the exhausted Antezana collapsed soon after reaching the top, leaving the Sherpas to carry or lower him down by ropes. As the afternoon wore on, Lisi himself began suffering from fatigue. He left Antezana and the Sherpas and slowly descended alone.

Lisi did not mention the doctor’s plight to anyone he saw en route or at Camp IV, which he reached at 11 p.m. and immediately went to sleep. Antezana, meanwhile, had spent the afternoon drifting in and out of consciousness at 27,500 feet. The Sherpas stayed with him until nearly nightfall, when their own lives were at risk. They propped oxygen bottles by his side and said goodbye.

The next morning, Lisi called his Web-site manager to report his summit success, the magazine reported. He waited another two days before phoning the dead man’s wife.

Lisi, who works as a guide in South America, disputes this entire version of events and, in particular, denies being Antezana’s guide, saying he went to Everest only as a friend. “I have nothing to hide about my expedition,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding, “only true alpinists understand when things happen at such altitudes and the risks associated with a mountain like Everest.”

Then there’s Gheorghe Dijmarescu. The 44-year-old native Romanian, now a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, has summited eight times since 1999; his wife, Lakpa Sherpa, is a six-time summiter herself. In 2004, on the strength of Dijmarescu’s reputation and the low quotes from Asian Trekking regarding services and supplies, Hartford Courant reporter Michael Kodas convinced the newspaper to send him and his wife, also a Courant reporter, on what promised to be a dream assignment to the north side of Everest, as part of a seven-member team. Dijmarescu, Kodas believed, would help people summit.

But according to Kodas’s stories in the Courant, the expedition turned into a nightmare of arguments, fights, and intimidation. At base camp, Dijmarescu became angry about the critical dispatches the Kodases were filing and threatened to burn Kodas’s tent down, sue him, or “whack him,” Kodas wrote.

“Mr. Kodas’s accusations are false,” Dijmarescu wrote in an e-mail. He stressed that he is a climber, not a professional guide. “I have assisted many climbers and participated in numerous rescues, but I have never received money.”

Allegations and counter-allegations like these aren’t typical on Everest, of course. But the guiding scene there has always had its lawless elements, and that’s not likely to change. Reluctant to undermine the Klondike on their doorsteps, the Chinese and Nepalese governments don’t check credentials before letting people lead expeditions: If you pay, you’re in.

Guides are left to distinguish themselves, for worse or for better. Increasing numbers on Everest have done the latter by seeking accreditation from the Switzerland-based International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations and its national chapters, a certification that requires rigorous testing, years of training, and proficiency in everything from skiing and crevasse rescues to first aid. If certified guides lose a client, they can face a professional inquiry, which might result in suspension.

Still, this is Everest, a place where consumer watchdog groups won’t ever exist what frontier has them? It’s left to clients to figure out what they’re getting. Even if they sort it out, unfortunately, things can always go wrong.

EVEREST GUIDES wish the bad stories would go away. Ditto for the naysaying about commercialism. No one calls it a problem when people pay guides to climb Mount McKinley, they point out, so why all the fuss about Everest? Local people earn much-needed cash from the climbing scene. The overall fatality rate on the mountain has improved in the past ten years, they add. In 1996, there were 15 deaths and 98 summits. So far this year, there were 11 deaths and an estimated 400 summits.

Guides now have a better understanding than they did in 1996 of how much gear, oxygen, and Sherpa support and how many fixed ropes people need (lots more). They pool data from high-tech weather forecasts, keep all manner of equipment to treat and evacuate injured climbers, and spend huge amounts of time fine-tuning summit strategies.

The real problem, guides and expedition leaders say, is climbers who underestimate the challenge and unscrupulous outfitters who take them on. All the guides I spoke to said they’d screened and turned down inexperienced clients, only to see them show up on another company’s permit. Match weak climbers with the tougher side of the mountain, guides say, and you’ve got a recipe for big trouble. Independents have every right to try for the summit, they add, but they need to be realistic. If they’re climbing solo and need a rescue, they can’t count on assistance from mountaineering strangers, most of whom aren’t skilled or strong enough to help even if they want to.

But never mind the nuances when tragedy strikes, the media looks for easy target=s, details be damned. More than 40 people were on the upper reaches of Everest the day David Sharp died, but the only two to face widespread condemnation were Mark Inglis and Himex leader Russell Brice, who wasn’t even there. Factor in the base-camp gossip that filters into Web sites and headlines and, as one British outfitter told me, “it’s the media that’s the Everest circus.”

Shortly before leaving Kathmandu, I met with Brice to ask him about all this. It was a sweltering afternoon, and we sat in the garden of a backstreet restaurant and ordered pizza. Brice has been guiding on Everest’s north side for 13 years; he’s put 270 people on the summits of 8,000-meter peaks. Tuk Bahadur Thapa Magar, one of his Sherpas, succumbed to pulmonary edema low on Everest this spring, but he’s never lost a client. Brice has been involved in 15 rescues, taken charge of fixing rope on the north side, and repeatedly offered oxygen, tents, and supplies to climbers in trouble.

Nevertheless, Brice’s reputation had taken a public lashing over the Sharp affair, and he seemed crushed by it. He said he had no knowledge of Sharp’s existence until his climbers were descending. Pulling out a thick file crammed with the season’s details, he ran a finger down the list of radio calls received and sent that night, all meticulously logged, and confirmed that he first heard of Sharp’s plight at 9:30 a.m. some eight hours after Inglis’s team reportedly first passed the dying Briton. By that point his clients were heading down with big problems of their own. He did tell his team to keep moving, because he believed Sharp was beyond recovery. “A man who can’t walk,” he said, “is very different from a man who can, like Lincoln Hall.”

Imagine yourself on the scene, trudging through the Death Zone every step agonizing, your headlight casting a beam only a few feet ahead, and in the back of your mind the knowledge that, through the slim range of vision afforded by your hood and oxygen mask, you’ll soon be gazing upon a corpse, Green Boots. Some climbers told me they kept their eyes averted. Even the highly respected Phurba Tashi, a ten-time Everest summiter, said he did not see Sharp during the climb up. Another Turkish climber, Eylem Mavis, said she did see Sharp and thought he was resting, since he made no signal of his distress.

“If I’d known about Sharp earlier,” Brice said, “of course I’d have tried to help.” Even so, he added, “the outcome might not have been any different.”

I understood what he was getting at. Many of us don’t act generously at sea level. We fail to call 911, we don’t investigate the huddled form asleep? dead? on the steam grate. But we want adventurers on Everest to stand above us in every way. We think of the old days, the era of Mallory and Hillary, as full of common purpose and lofty goals, and disparage the profit-motivated present. Everest is worth millions; for the nations that regulate her, Chomolungma has become the Mother Goddess of Revenue.

Maybe the idealized Everest really is gone forever. But the morning I left Kathmandu, I saw something that made me think otherwise. I sat drinking coffee with Dan Mazur’s client Andrew Brash, a teacher based in Calgary. Despite sinking all his spare cash into his shot at the summit, Brash didn’t think twice about giving it up once he and his companions discovered Lincoln Hall alive after a long night in the Death Zone. “I never could have forgiven myself if I walked past a climber who was so clearly in need,” he said. Still, he told me, “I did have a few summit pangs back at base camp.”

No sooner had Brash spoken than Lincoln Hall himself appeared at our table. His frostbitten hands were bandaged, his voice was still hoarse, his speech hesitant from his ordeal. He’d come to see Brash in person.

“I want to say thank you for giving up your summit,” Hall said.

“I appreciate you saying that,” Brash replied. “It was our pleasure.” And then he gave a wry smile: “Sort of.”