“Effectively Dead”

David Sharp froze to death on May 15 in a Rock Cave near the summit of Mount Everest. The 34-year-old Briton’s only companion, the abandoned dead body of another climber, foreshadowed his own fate.

According to, “Climbers saw David in various states, from standing and walking, to trying to work on his oxygen system, to at one point down on the ground. ”

But no one tried to save him.

Edmund Hillary, who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first to reach Everest’s summit in 1953, skewered the appalling ethics, according to the Associated Press:

“Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain. …

“There have been a number of occasions when people have been neglected and left to die and I don’t regard this as a correct philosophy. …

“I think the whole attitude toward 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.”

One of the estimated 40 climbers to bypass the dying man was Mark Inglis, the first person to reach the mountain’s summit on artificial legs. The New Zealander lost his own legs to frostbite 24 years ago in an earlier effort to climb Mount Everest from which a rescue team saved his life during a blizzard.

Mark Alexander, one of Inglis’s three climbing companions, gushed over the alleged accomplishment on

“What Mark did was absolutely remarkable. I have never seen such human endurance. … He did so well. It was a bit like chasing a greyhound – he was gone. …

“We came across a chap sheltering under a rock, who was perhaps hours from death. That was probably only two and a half hours into the climb.

“He had made a mistake the day before. He started too late and couldn’t get off the mountain. That was a very sobering reality, that every pace you took further from that point was further from safety, and we had to all make it back. It didn’t deter Mark.”

So we’re supposed to cheer the selfishness of the legless climber who didn’t let the matter of another man’s impending death stop him from reaching his goal?

According to The New York Times [registration required], Inglis says that he radioed for help, but another mountaineer told him:

“Look, mate, you can’t do anything. You know, he’s been there X number of hours, been there without oxygen, you know, he’s effectively dead.”

“Effectively dead”?

What is “effectively dead”? Is that like “a little pregnant”?

David Sharp wasn’t “effectively dead”. There is no such condition.

Could he have been saved? Only God knows for sure.

But the remarkable story of Lincoln Hall suggests that it’s possible. The 50-year-old Australian climber was descending from the summit of Mount Everest last week when he collapsed. Sherpa guides reportedly tried to save him but were forced to give up when their own survival was jeopardized. A rescue team was unable to reach him.

But he wasn’t dead. He survived through the night and was discovered alive the next day by American Dan Mazur. Sherpas came to rescue him, armed with “tea, oxygen, and medicines”. He continues to recover at a base camp.

Perhaps David Sharp could have been saved–if he’d been spotted by one person with the “correct philosophy”. Or, perhaps, he would have died no matter what. But even so, he could have died with a caring person at his side.

But no one atop Mount Everest cared. No one held David Sharp’s hand as he died; no one told him in his last moments that he had value, that his life mattered, that the world would be lessened by his loss.

Apparently, they didn’t know.

3 thoughts on ““Effectively Dead”

  1. I don’t recall the details specifically enough to say so with certainty, but I don’t believe you have the full facts about what happened. I don’t think saying he was ignored is correct.

    There was a series a couple months ago (on Discovery channel, if memory serves) which followed a group of men climbing Everest. The double amputee you refer to was in this group. As I recall several members of the climbing group did try to help another climber who was suffering.

    A significant portion of one episode was spent on this and it was clear that the climber in trouble was not thinking clearly. He was not able to help at all in his own rescue insisting instead on staying put.

    Climbing Everest (or any mountain) is extremely difficult. And anyone who does it knows and has to accept the risks inherent in the activity.

    To criticize people who are working hard to keep themselves alive for not being able to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved in the midst of one of the harshest environments in the world is easy to do from the comfort of a warm, safe home. But it is not appropriate.

    As you note, these art the accepted ethics of mountain climbers. And it is known to everyone who climbs a mountain. As it was known to David Sharpe. Help WILL be provided (you note a few examples) if possible. But when, yes, someone is effectively dead and there is nothing that can reasonable be done, putting yourself in greater danger so you can sit by him and hold his hand as he dies is not reasonable. Tragic, sure. But not something the other climbers should be berated for.

  2. National Geo channel had a special on a while back about the “ethics” of professional climbers. This would be standard, according to that.

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