Life and death at 30,000 feet

'EVEREST is a miraculous place.

Beauty and wonder are two of the words most often associated with the majesty of the planet's most iconic peak. Last week, however, the reputation of Everest - and the world of mountaineering - lay under a dark shadow. David Sharp, a British climber, died after suffering acute altitude sickness, abandoned to his fate by dozens of climbers who effectively stepped over him as they pushed towards the summit.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who won lifelong fame by becoming the first man to conquer Everest in 1953, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, described it as "horrifying that climbers would leave a dying man" and insisted he would have abandoned his own pioneering climb to save another person's life. The manner of Sharp's death and the seemingly callous disregard shown towards his plight has exposed mountaineering's grubby little secret: above 20,000 feet, amid treacherous conditions and with the achievement of a lifetime's ambition in sight, it is every man for himself.

The full details of Sharp's horrific death took nearly a week to be made public, though it had been an open secret in the crowded tent city of Mount Everest base camp. The 34-year-old, from Guisborough, North Yorkshire, died on May 15 as he descended alone from the summit. At around 1,000ft from the top of the 29,035ft peak he collapsed, struggling to breathe. About 40 people are thought to have walked past him as he sat cross-legged in a shallow snow cave. The few who stopped to check reported him in various states, from fighting to fix his breathing equipment to barely breathing and frozen solid.

New Zealander Mark Inglis, the world's first double-amputee to reach the summit, was a member of one party to pass by. He and a guide stopped to give the British climber some oxygen, but after radioing down to base camp, were told nothing more could be done to help the dying man. Inglis is the only person on the mountain that day to have spoken about what happened, breaking the unofficial code of silence mountaineers observe around such situations.

Defending his party's decision not to call off the ascent to help the stricken climber, Inglis said: "The trouble is, at 8,500m it's extremely difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keep anyone else alive. He had no oxygen, no proper gloves, things like that."

It is not the first time climbers on Everest have faced criticism for their ruthless attitude. On May 10, 1996, the mountain claimed eight lives in a single day - its worst ever tragedy. American Beck Weathers was abandoned for dead, passed several times by teams desperately trying to escape as a ferocious storm ravaged the slopes. Hours later, Weathers regained consciousness and staggered back to Camp 4 before being evacuated from the mountain.

"People pass other climbers who are clearly in dire straits," says Tom Sjogren. "I have seen people refuse to help even when asked. All they care about is getting to the top. You have people's deaths going unreported for weeks because other climbers are not wanting to stop and help. It is a crazy situation."

Lydia Bradley became the first woman to summit on Everest without supplementary oxygen. "If you are going to Everest, you have to accept responsibility that you may end up doing something that is not very ethically nice," she admits. "The sheer pressure of numbers and accessibility to these mountains has changed the kind of people who go." Last week's display of apparent callousness, coupled with Edmund Hillary's intervention, has sparked a furious debate over the unwritten ethics that govern mountaineers. In the great ranges, some insist on adhering to a "survival of the fittest" approach in an environment where staying alive is a constant battle. Others argue it is time for a change from this mentality.

For years this culture in the hazardous world of high-level mountaineering had gone largely unnoticed by the wider public. It could be seen as an inevitable consequence of the dangers inherent in entering a place where any exposed skin will freeze solid within minutes, and even breathing in the wispy thin air is a struggle. Climbers who get into trouble at altitudes of more than 26,000ft are largely considered beyond rescue - they are in an area known as the "death zone".

"At that height, the only thing climbers have on their mind is their own personal survival," says Alfie Ingram, chairman of the Mountain Rescue Council of Scotland. "When you get above 20,000 feet people start to lose the desire to help others, as their own survival is at stake. They have also invested a lot of time and effort into tackling these big summits, so giving up their own attempt becomes far harder."

An experienced mountain rescue team member, Ingram has led many rescues from the peaks in Scotland. In this country there is a strong ethic among climbers to go to the aid of an injured or stranded mountaineer.

Even at extreme heights, rescues are possible, says Ingram. In 2001, an RAF rescue team abandoned its own attempt on Everest to carry down two critically ill teammates from 20,000ft.

"Putting a rescue ahead of their own ambitions is ingrained into these guys," says Ingram. Everest is technically no longer the hardest mountain in the world to ascend. There are fixed ropes, ladders and even rudimentary staircases cut into the hard snow, leading to the main route being dubbed a "yak track". Relatively inexperienced amateurs can now be guided, and in some cases almost hauled, to the summit. Double amputees, diabetics and OAPs have conquered Everest. If you have the money, everything can be provided, from equipment and oxygen to helicopter rescue.

Veteran climbers bemoan the increasing commercialisation of high peaks such as Everest and K2. Hundreds of companies offer places on expeditions to climb the highest peaks in the world. As a result, experienced mountaineers fear Everest is often underestimated. More than 120 corpses litter its upper slopes, and it is one of the most hostile environments on Earth.

In its upper reaches, climbers are at heights equal to the cruising altitudes for passenger jets. The human body struggles to find enough oxygen to survive and brain function can be severely impaired. The physical and mental strain means climbers frequently make mistakes and the slightest turn in the weather can spell disaster for an expedition. In 2005, a record 300 people reached the summit. Experts now believe the commercial interest that many expeditions have in reaching the top has made Everest more dangerous than ever. At base camp, visitors can even find a bar and a mobile brothel, such is the commercial value of the tourism to the mountain.

With clients paying up to 35,000 for a chance to launch their own ascent, guides on commercial expeditions are increasingly encouraged to care only for those in their own party. Getting their clients to the summit is the main priority, and most firms market themselves on the percentage of people they got to the top the previous year. The clients also have their own selfish motivation for stepping over the still-moving bodies of other fallen climbers. They have invested a huge amount of time and money in achieving their goal, and as paying customers they demand the full attention of their guides and Sherpas.

Veteran British mountaineer Chris Bonington, who climbed Everest in 1985, has now joined those demanding a change in the mountaineering culture. He believes it is time for strict limits to be placed on the number of expeditions climbing Everest at any one time in a bid to reduce the danger.

"This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened," he told Scotland on Sunday. "There are something like 20 different expeditions all going up the same route, but they don't know each other and have no loyalty for each other. They are all trying to get to the top of the mountain. Expeditions are not working as a team - they are generally individuals who have paid large sums of money and are being supported by Sherpas and guides to get to the top.

"Personally I cannot imagine myself walking past someone in trouble to get to the top of a mountain. I can't imagine how I would live with myself afterwards."

Why, then, do others seem to find it so easy? Dr Laura Mahady, a sport psychologist at Aberdeen University, believes the nature of extreme sports such as mountaineering tends to attract people with an emotional detachment.

"Mountaineers score highly on psychosis and mental toughness, which is why in the normal world they appear insensitive," she says. "They have low levels of emotional instability, so they will rarely show their emotion. Their personality traits do not make them ideal in everyday life, but they have a mental stability that allows them to take risks and make tough decisions in dangerous situations. Also, because they are thrill seekers, they need to take part in extreme activities to make up for the lack of risk in modern life."

This year is expected to be the darkest in the history of Everest, even though it has witnessed some of the finest weather in years. There are fears this is exactly what is fuelling the soaring death rate as climbers who would normally have turned back in questionable conditions are pushing on to the summit where altitude sickness is hitting them as they begin to descend. Already in 2006 the confirmed death toll stands at 11. Climbers report at least another two people have failed to return from attempts on the mountain, although their deaths have still to be confirmed. Around 190 climbers have died in total down the years.

There are some good news stories, however. One of the most dramatic rescue missions in recent years was under way yesterday on Everest. Australian Lincoln Hall was declared dead, along with his team mate Thomas Weber on Thursday night, but a passing climber on Friday discovered Hall, 50, was alive after spending a night in the open at more than 28,500ft. An unprecedented joint team rescue effort was launched with Sherpas and westerners fighting to bring him back down.

For Tom Sjogren it is a sign that David Sharp's death may have finally spurred the climbing community into changing its ways. "It is almost as if things have changed overnight," he says.