Posted on: September 1, 2006
K2: August 10, 1953. Seven men sat trapped in their tents at 7600 meters. For days a storm had battered the walls; now snow was beginning to seep through the seams. There was no longer any question of trying to make the mountain's first ascent: team member Art Gilkey had developed dangerous blood clots in his legs. The doctor, Charles Houston, reported that he wouldn't survive much longer. Gilkey's only chance lay in immediate evacuation. Through the deafening wind one man yelled, "What? Move in this storm?"
"We've got to," Houston replied. The men became silent. Houston and Robert Bates would later write in K2: The Savage Mountain, "We all knew what this decision meant.... We had never seen anything like [the] duration and violence of this furious wind and snow...[,] and we were trying to bring down these precipitous slopes a crippled companion as well!" They were climbing without oxygen. No one could come to their aid. As the men wrapped Gilkey in a tent and sleeping bag and lashed the bundle together, each of them realized "that he was beginning the most dangerous task of his lifetime."
Ravaged by altitude and the unceasing storm, they began moving Gilkey down an unknown route (their line of ascent was impossible with their improvised litter). A near-miss with an avalanche was followed by Pete Schoening's now-legendary belay: when George Bell slipped while trying to assist with Gilkey's ropes, Schoening braced his wooden ice axe against a boulder and arrested the entire team's fall. Later that afternoon, at circa 7468 meters, another avalanche swept Gilkey away. His friends had done everything they could to save him.
Their story would become the classic mountaineering tale, a symbol, for many, of alpine ethics at its best: friendship between climbing partners had prevailed above all other considerations. Amid the cold, hypoxia and ferocity of one of the world's wildest places, the survivors felt as though they had reached "the core of life itself."
Everest: May 15, 2006. "There's someone up here, lying under a rock." In a small cave, next to a frozen corpse, another body was still moving, however slightly. During his descent from the 8852-meter summit, David Sharp, who had tried Everest twice before, had run out of oxygen and collapsed at around 8535 meters on the crowded North Ridge. Now Mark Inglis, on his way to becoming the first double amputee to reach the summit, called base camp to ask what to do. Inglis and his team were, reportedly, told to keep climbing: "You know, [Sharp's] been there X number of hours... without oxygen.... He's effectively dead." "The trouble is," Inglis subsequently told New Zealand television, "at 8500 meters it is extremely difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keep anyone else alive. We couldn't do anything."
At least thirty people that day made the same decision. Sharp died alone. As we go to press, the rumors of Sharp's condition before his death range from someone who was entirely motionless, apart from fluttering eyelids, to someone who was able to sit up and say, "My name is David Sharp, I'm with Asian Trekking and I just want to sleep."
But a few facts are certain. Although they were at a higher elevation, those who chose not to help Sharp had far more resources to assist them than Gilkey's team did on K2: in addition to oxygen bottles and modern climbing equipment, they had access to a highly developed infrastructure of fixed ropes, guides and Sherpa support; a camp lay a few hours below. And as many have noted, including climbers such as Ed Viesturs, however worn-out they might have been, if those who passed Sharp had enough strength to summit, they had enough strength to help. Whether or not Sharp could have been rescued, Viesturs adds, remains uncertain, because "no one tried."
"I imagine you are very surprised to see me here." Eleven days after Sharp died, that's how Lincoln Hall greeted the climbers who found him at 8687 meters on the North Ridge, where he'd spent an open bivouac without hat, gloves or oxygen. Like Sharp (not to mention Beck Weathers), Hall had been left for dead. Hall's discoverers, however—leader Dan Mazur, with team members Andrew Brash, Myles Osborne and Jangbu Sherpa—abandoned their summit push to mount a rescue. They put his hat and gloves back on, gave him food, water and oxygen and radioed Hall's Sherpas to return to help. By the time the rescue team reached high camp, Hall was walking on his own. One can only speculate whether Sharp would have recovered in the same way.
Almost a decade ago Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air spent fifty-two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, filling readers' imaginations with images of the "Death Zone" above 8000 meters as a place so extreme no rationality or compassion could exist. Many took that description to mean that ethics stop at a preordained altitude. Yet alpinists like Ian Parnell (who has summited Everest with bottled oxygen) and Viesturs (who has summited without it) question this logic. Numerous high-altitude rescues have taken place on Everest; Viesturs himself helped a woman down from only ninety meters below the summit. "It's total BS that there's no morality in the 'Death Zone'," Mazur insists. "It's not like you cross a certain line and suddenly have the right to be an a-hole." And Brash explains that even after spending four or five hours with Hall, he and the other rescuers felt "with it" enough to get him back to camp.
Viesturs describes the attitudes widespread among Everest summiters as the antithesis of the solidarity displayed by Gilkey's partners: "The people who go [to Everest] don't know each other; you have separate teams, an every-man-for-himself attitude...[,] people in big down jackets, their faces hidden behind oxygen masks.... [W]hen you're an anonymous person, it's easier to walk past another anonymous person lying on the ground." As Brash says, on Everest, "the urban environment has come to the mountain."
Yet among climbing's greatest values remains its potential to allow the mountains to come to the urban environment. Even in rock gyms, novices taught to belay for the first time learn to take responsibility for other people's lives, if only for a fifteen-minute toprope. When Schoening died on September 22, 2004, what dominated his Seattle Times obituary, more than his successful first ascents of peaks like Gasherbrum I, was "a single heroic day in August 1953, when he alone held a rope that kept six climbers from plunging to their deaths."
Houston and Bates wrote that "the summit is but a token of success." Real success lies higher, in the acts of those such as Mazur, Brash and Osborne who let their choices reflect the grandeur that surrounds them. Inglis' summit certainly required determination and strength; but would it not have been far more impressive—and far more inspirational to the people for whom he wanted to raise money—had he become the first double amputee to try to save someone's life on Everest?