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David Sharp's vow on Everest: "If I don't do it this time, I'm not coming back."

The Associated Press

This is the first of two parts on Briton David Sharp's fatal quest to reach the top of Mount Everest, and about those who encountered the stricken climber near the summit and offered varying degrees of help.

KATMANDU, Nepal – Sipping black tea on a glacial beach of jagged gray rocks nearly four miles above sea level, the lanky Briton had the air of a jilted lover who didn't want to admit it was over.

Twice before, David Sharp had stood on this gravel plain in Mount Everest's shadow. The 34-year-old engineer had made it well into the "Death Zone" above 26,000 feet before weather, frostbite and lack of oxygen had forced him to turn around.

Already, the quest had cost Sharp parts of two toes.

Now, warmed by a hissing propane heater in a mess tent at a camp below Everest's forbidding North Face, the bespectacled Briton was telling camp neighbor Dave Watson that his obsession with the mountain was drawing to a close.

Sharp was preparing to begin a new career as a teacher in the fall, and he said it was time to move on.

"If I don't do it this time, I'm not coming back," Sharp said.

But he didn't believe he'd need to come back. He was sure this third assault would succeed.

He blamed his frostbite on cheap equipment, and believed he'd remedied that. He was looking and climbing strong — and he was determined, to a fault.

"I would give up more toes — or even fingers to get on top," he told Watson.

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On Mount Everest, both men knew, the price can be much higher.

The Nepalese call it Sagarmatha, "goddess of the sky." To Tibetans, it is Qomolungma, "goddess, mother of the world." The British named it Everest, after the head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

The world's tallest mountain has claimed more than 200 lives. Many, like British schoolmaster George Leigh Mallory, who famously declared that he climbed Everest "because it's there," remain on the mountain.

It wasn't until 1953, 29 years after Mallory died on his third expedition to Everest, that New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit more than 29,000 feet up. Tales of the feats that earned Hillary a knighthood inspired generations of British schoolchildren — children like David Sharp.

His passion for climbing blossomed after he entered Nottingham University to pursue an engineering degree, and joined the university's mountaineering club.

Before long, Sharp had scaled his first major peak, the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. Higher mountains followed: Mount Elbrus, Europe's tallest; Africa's Kilimanjaro; Pakistan's Gasherbrum.

In 2002, he joined an Irish expedition for Tibet's Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest peak.

Expedition leader Richard Dougan was amazed at how quickly Sharp acclimated to the thin air. The sinewy Englishman, who moved fast to keep warm, was clearly a gifted rock climber. Dougan considered him "definitely the strongest member of our team."

When Dougan organized a 2003 expedition to Everest, he invited Sharp.

They would be climbing the North to Northeast Ridge route — the one blazed by Mallory.

In the high camps, Mallory entertained his team by reading aloud from "Hamlet" and "King Lear." Nearly 79 years later, Sharp carried a volume of Shakespeare to Everest.

Most climbers begin their final ascent in the middle of the night so they arrive at the summit in the early to late morning. This allows maximum daylight hours for making the tricky descent and, not incidentally, for victory photographs.

At around midnight on May 22, 2003, Sharp and Dougan left the 27,231-foot Camp 3 to begin their summit push.

Everest's summit has only a third as much oxygen as at sea level. There, a climber is more susceptible to frostbite, brain swelling and delirium. Climbers have been known to strip off their clothing in the icy winds, or simply walk off the side of the mountain.

At about 27,760 feet, Sharp and Dougan got a vivid reminder of the mountain's dangers.

They had stopped at a limestone alcove. Inside was the perfectly preserved corpse of an Indian climber who had died in 1996. Climbers had dubbed him "Green Boots."

At around 27,900 feet, they scaled the first of three nearly vertical rock outcroppings or "steps" that lay between high camp and the summit. As they moved upward, Dougan noticed his friend, normally quick, was slowing down. Just below the Second Step, about 650 vertical feet from the summit, Sharp removed his oxygen mask.

Dougan noticed that Sharp's cheeks and nose had turned an ashen gray. Sharp acknowledged feeling a funny sensation in his fingers and toes.

"David, this is frostbite," Dougan warned.

The summit was tantalizingly close, just two rock climbs away. But Sharp knew he'd reached his limit.

Back at camp, it soon became clear Sharp would lose most of his left big toe and part of the second toe on his right foot. He bemoaned his decision not to spend $350 for top-of-the-line boots.

"My toes are worth more than $35 apiece," he told expedition member Jamie McGuinness.

In spite of the pain and disappointment, Sharp returned to Everest in May 2004, this time climbing solo.

After about seven hours of climbing, he got to just below the First Step — even lower than the previous year — when he decided it was too late, and he was too tired to continue. When he realized the next morning that his fingers were frostbitten, he abandoned the attempt and returned to England.

Sharp took a year off from his adventures to complete a postgraduate course in education. He had secured a job teaching math and was scheduled to start in September.

In this, he was again following the teacher-climber Mallory, whose footsteps would lead him inexorably back to Everest.

On March 29 of this year, Sharp was back in Katmandu, for his third assault on Everest. He had signed on with Asian Trekking's International Everest Expedition I, a loose grouping of individuals and smaller teams, paying about $6,200 for a bare-bones package.

They would carry him into Tibet and up to base camp by truck, then ferry his equipment by yak train to the advance base camp at around 21,000 feet. From there, he was on his own. No native Sherpas to help him cook, carry gear or set up campsites.

Sharp said he wanted to go solo. As he'd told his mother Linda before leaving England: "You are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere."

From the north, the approach to Everest passes through a treeless high-desert landscape.

The journey from Katmandu to the Rongbuk Base Camp winds along dusty, gravelly two-lane roads where a boulder is often the only thing standing between the trucks that climbers ride and a thousand-foot plunge. The trip took five days, and sometime on the third, Sharp would have gotten his first glimpse of Everest.

Many climbers spend as much as two weeks at the base camp to allow their bodies to compensate for the thin air — half the oxygen at sea level. But Sharp stayed only five days before ascending to advance base camp — a two-day, 13-mile trek.

Sharp spent the next few weeks climbing up and down the mountain to acclimatize and to stow tents, oxygen, food and high-altitude fuel to melt snow for water and cook at the higher camps.

He cut a distinctive figure on the mountain with his goatee, his beat-up red and blue rucksack and his brand-new red Millet Everest knee boots, the top of the line.

Sharp never told anyone when he was leaving, how high he was going or when he intended to come back. Unlike most climbers, he carried no two-way radio or satellite phone. When he returned from these excursions, instead of using modern designations, he'd talk of reaching "British Camp I" or "British Camp II" — references to the fatal 1924 Mallory expedition.

Death, to Sharp, was merely a biological process. He had told McGuinness that he was an atheist and didn't believe in a higher power, unless it was nature.

But in his tent, beside the Shakespeare volume, was a new Bible.

In the first week of May, Sharp began his summit push.

He scaled the North Col, an ice cascade riddled with gaping crevasses, and established a camp at about 25,920 feet. But when he awoke on the third morning, it was snowing and extremely windy, and Sharp decided to abandon the attempt.

While plotting his next try, Sharp got into a discussion about the use of bottled oxygen with Austrian mountain guide Christian Stangl, a purist who considers climbing with gas a form of "doping." Sharp had bought two 4-liter cylinders — a bare minimum for summit day — but told Stangl he would only reach for oxygen in an extreme emergency.

Sharp began his second push on May 11.

He was at about 27,560 feet shortly after 1 a.m. on the 14th, when Colorado guide Bill Crouse and his team of a dozen clients and Sherpas spotted him on their ascent at a diagonally rising traverse known as the Exit Cracks. He was sitting off to the side, looking tired.

Crouse's group made it to the top and then, on their descent at the Third Step, roughly 490 vertical feet from the summit, noticed Sharp again — out of the blowing wind but still clipped to the fixed line. Crouse's party unclipped and re-clipped to get around him. It was around 11:20 a.m.

"That guy's going up pretty late in the day today," Crouse said to a companion.

Sharp had already climbed higher than he'd ever been before. At this altitude, he was taking several breaths for each step, but the summit awaited, so close now.

Just a little farther.

AP National Writer Allen G. Breed reported from the United States and Katmandu Correspondent Binaj Gurubacharya from Nepal. Also contributing to this report were AP writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Austria.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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