Posted on Wed, May. 31, 2006

Stuck between heaven and earth

Mercury News

Ten years after the tragedy that inspired the bestselling book ``Into Thin Air,'' a recent death on Mount Everest has rekindled debate over the ethics of mountaineering.

According to news reports, British climber David Sharp sat dying in the freezing snow while dozens attempting to reach the 29,035-foot summit passed him without offering to help. Sharp was one of 11 fatalities reported this year on Earth's tallest peak.

But his death, on May 15, has aroused visceral feelings about Everest and those who attempt to climb it. Sir Edmund Hillary, who led the first successful summit, in 1953, sparked an outcry last week when he told New Zealand reporters, ``Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.''

Some say the incident underscores the changing ethic of climbing, which has become highly commercial since dramatic narratives such as ``Into Thin Air'' have romanticized the sport. This season's death toll is the largest since 15 died on Everest in 1996.

As shocking as Sharp's tale seems, mountaineers say it is unfair to judge decisions made at high altitude, where one mishap can mean the difference between life and death. Even as they discussed issues of individual responsibility and moral choices, climbers were slow to criticize the actions of the some 40 people said to have continued upward while Sharp clung to life 1,000 feet below the summit.

``To understand you have to have been there,'' said Palo Alto's Nick Clinch, who last year received the American Alpine Club's second-ever lifetime achievement award. ``It is one thing to pontificate when you are safe and warm.''

Sharp, who was attempting a solo climb, was said to be so close to death when others found him that nothing could have been done to save him.

``When you are that high on Everest rescues are nearly impossible unless you have someone who is somewhat capable of helping themselves,'' Lance Trumbull of Sunnyvale wrote in an e-mail from Nepal last week. ``It seemed that David was unable to move or to help himself -- and it is literally impossible to carry someone down from that point on the mountain.''

As expedition leader of the Everest Peace Project, Turnbull met Sharp at base camp before the ordeal.

``It is tragic and incredibly sad -- and unfortunately, it is part of what Everest is about: death and heroics,'' he wrote.

Attitudes old and new

Trumbull recounted a 36-hour ordeal two weeks ago in which his group rescued one of its climbers at the summit. That climber was resting in Katmandu, he said.

Clinch, who four decades ago led the American expedition that made the first ascent of Mount Vinson on Antarctica, said the effect of high altitude on decision-making cannot be overstated.

``You are not running on all cylinders,'' he said. ``The higher you go the worse you get.''

Clinch, 75, also supported Hillary's outrage. He said it expressed the feelings of most old-time mountaineers.

``There was this feeling that you would help your friends and they would help you,'' Clinch said. ``I've rescued people and have been rescued -- there was no question.''

Clinch calls the current attitude the ``big city syndrome'': with so many tramping on Everest now, climbers don't stop to help because they think someone else will do it. But he will not judge those who passed Sharp. ``I wonder if I would have done it. I wouldn't swear I would do it unless I did it.''

Linda McMillan, a past vice president of the American Alpine Club, shares Clinch's view.

``When do you draw the line?'' she asked, referring to the issue of attempting to rescue someone who already might be gone.

McMillan, of San Rafael, said her group sends a message about climbing ethics by honoring those who make extraordinary rescues. It is considered one of the most prestigious awards in mountaineering, she added.

Still, some lose sight of the climbing code when blinded by the ambition to conquer Everest.

Michigan attorney Lou Kasischke understands that powerful draw as well as anyone. Ten years ago, he paid the late Rob Hall, a famed New Zealand guide, $65,000 to reach the summit. Four hundred vertical feet from his dream, he turned around.

That decision perhaps saved his life and became one of the lessons of ``Into Thin Air,'' the book by Jon Krakauer, which chronicled two disastrous Everest expeditions in 1996 in which eight people -- including Hall -- died in one day. Among them were four of Kasischke's six friends who continued climbing when he turned back.

``The biggest challenge on Everest isn't Everest, it is yourself,'' Kasischke said last week. ``Are you strong enough inside to have the strength to make the right decision? That was a bad decision on my part'' to go on the trip. ``I wish I had never been there.''

Kasischke will not go back.

``I learned the dark side of the goal process,'' he said. ``It can lead you to do bad things. It was reckless, selfish and irresponsible for me to take those risks. I was in denial, as climbers usually are.''

A matter of priorities

Kasischke sees parallels between the 1996 tragedies and the latest missteps on the snowy ridges of the Himalayas. What, he asked, should one do under the circumstances?

Sharp, 34, was an engineer and, according to friends, a strong climber. Kasischke said that Sharp might have shirked responsibilities by climbing solo with inadequate gear. But, he added, that would not exonerate those who failed to help him. One of climbing's ethos is to be prepared for emergencies -- yours and others'.

``That absolutely has 100 percent priority over reaching your own goals,'' Kasischke said. ``It's just a sport for God's sake.''

Kasischke said it is too easy to suggest that Sharp would have perished even if someone stopped to help. ``How can they know?'' he asked.

One of the protagonists of the ``Into Thin Air'' story -- Beck Weathers -- was left for dead before awakening and being rescued. More recently, an Australian climber pronounced dead on Thursday was found alive the next day. A rescue party brought him off the mountain this week.

Kasischke knows there are no pat answers when it comes to catastrophe on Everest. But he has a different perspective than many. One of most transforming moments in his life is something that never happened.

``I never stood on the summit,'' he said.

He didn't need to do it. Not as long as he is still standing on the ground.

Contact Elliott Almond at or (408) 920-5865.

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