The truth of Nangpa La
The truth of Nangpa La
The body of the Tibetan nun, left in a snow path on Nangpa La. Courtesy of Pavle Kozjek (click to enlarge).
07:44 pm EST Dec 31, 2006
"Hi, my name is Pavle Kozjek, from Slovenia, and I just returned from Cho Oyu. I have some photos from 30.9.," reported an email to Explorersweb on November 2nd. The sender's images showed a nun shot dead before more than a hundred of climbers. The Nangpa La incident would close the 2006 season of world exploration - a moral shakedown of human values above new routes.
If everyone howled at every injustice, every act of barbarism, every act of unkindness, then we would be taking the first step towards a real humanity. This quote by Nelson DeMille therefore introduces the winner of the 2006 Best of ExplorersWeb awards.
"Details are unclear"
It had brewed for years, with Übermensch attitudes and commerce taking increasingly greater hold of the supposedly pure in heart - the world's climbers and explorers.
The boil down began with a short note on May 17: "British David Sharp lost on Everest."
New Kerala was first to publish the name, but the news had been confirmed already one day before by Brazilian climber and Everest summiteer Vitor Negrete. He and David climbed Everest in an international team of 13 independent climbers. Both were seasoned; Vitor was there for a no 02 attempt this time, David was making his third climb on the peak. "Details are unclear, reports from other climbers are expected," wrote ExplorersWeb in the note.
But no other information about David arrived, instead two days later Vitor Negrete too perished on Everest, after a no O2 summit. A Sherpa had gone up and helped him down to high camp, but Vitor died there that night.
It wasn't weather that troubled his mind
Vitor should have gone home instead. Everest north side was not a good place for independent climbers. Vitor had been ambivalent before his summit push, and it wasn't weather that troubled his mind. His climbing mate had died under strange circumstances and in addition the climbers' high camp had been robbed. “All these events have affected me deeply – I even considered calling the attempt off,” said Vitor's last dispatch.
One week passed by and still no details about David. ExplorersWeb demanded answers but people on the mountain said they didn't want to upset the families. Yet on May 23d, the headline came, "Everest fatality silence mystery solved: British David Sharp left to die by 40 climbers."
American and UK news sources brought the news, coming as a byline in an interview with Double amputee Mark Inglis about his own success on the mountain.
Turned out David was still alive at 28,000 feet when climbers on summit push began to reach him shortly before midnight - one after the other, even unclipping from the rope to get by.
Mark Inglis told the news sources: "He was in a very poor condition, near death. And it was like, what do we do? That's, he had no oxygen, he had no proper gloves, things like that. On that morning over 40 people went past this young Briton. I was one of the first, radioed, and Russ (Ed note: Himex expedition leader) said, 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."
Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them... he cried, "Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?" God said, "I did do something. I made you." ~Author Unknown
Now came the excuses. At first, altitude was put to blame. Next, the victim was blamed - for being poor, inexperienced and part of a cheap team. While many climbers rallied to their mates' defense, and even more kept silent, some of the world's most veteran climbers didn't buy the explanations at all.
For two reasons; rescues on altitude are routinely done and climbers are never judged before a decision is made to save their lives. Example after example arrived at ExplorersWeb of people saved at high altitude (and continued hands-on through the summer season).
"An important thing to realize in light of all the comments, is perhaps the fact that the climbers passed David Sharp on their way up. It was not a question of their lives against David's - but his life against their summit," wrote ExplorersWeb.
And there it was, the moral question of summit vs. life.
"He was strong at altitude"
Out on his third Everest attempt - David Sharp was more experienced than many of the commercial clients who stepped past him.
Jamie McGuinness, a commercial expedition leader who knew David well was one of the few speaking for the dead climber, "I will remember David as a strong and independent climber, for example on Cho Oyu, rather than pull on old ropes, he free-climbed a difficult section. He was strong at altitude, and I thought far too sensible to die. David was clean, easy company and a very likeable chap, I will miss him," Jamie wrote.
"I have a feeling that his personal wish may be to stay there and frighten-inspect every climber that goes by, although for the moment his face is covered by a classic Berghaus pack."
"They pay for a summit - not a climb"
Edmund Hillary was mad, "I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest has become rather horrifying...people just want to get to the top, they don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn't impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die,” he said and he was not alone.
No one knows altitude better than Juan ‘Juanito’ Oiarzabal. The world's foremost high altitude summiteer with 21, 8000ers under his belt also had his opinion clear, “that mountain [Everest] turned into a circus years ago, and it's getting worse – it's a classic - someone is in trouble, and people pass by, not even taking a quick look," he told ExWeb.
Everest is frequented by inexperienced non-climbers dragged there by commercial teams, Juanito said, "...they pay huge amounts of money – and they don’t pay for a climb, but for a summit. Thus, reaching the summit becomes their first and only priority. In order to get the summit, they will use all the resources they can afford: Sherpas, bottled O2, camps and ropes previously fixed, etc… Up there, everybody focus on their own progress only, selfishly pursuing their goal. They don’t care for the rest.”
Veteran climber and legendary altitude doctor Dr. Jose Ramon Morandeira chimed in, "I can’t help thinking that if David had thought of shouting: 'I’ll give you a million dollars if you get me out of here,' he could still be alive," the doc said.
A reflection of the world today
A poll run on The Press website showed 60 per cent of nearly 200 respondents thought Inglis should have stopped to help. That also meant that 40 per cent thought he should have not.
The veteran climbing Doctor said: "This is not just a climbing issue. The current environment on commercialized Everest, where only success and money count, is only a reflection of our world today."
The climber continued, "just like David, wounded and lost on Everest. No one cared for him anymore: 'He should have hired a better team, instead of being so cheap, he should have been fitter,' the passing climbers figured. Those who can’t follow the leaders are considered losers, and thus despised."
"All words seem too soft to describe this kind of behavior"
In fact, the incident blew the top off feelings that had long been brewing among the world's true mountaineers. Jose Ramon Morandeira wrapped them up, “From my point of view as a Doctor and most of all as a climber… all words seem too soft to describe this kind of behavior. It is an aberration!"
"I guess I am too old, I guess these are not my times anymore, and Himalaya is not what it used to be. But not so long ago (let’s say 15 years), in a situation like that, all of us present would have jumped to the rescue. And if we saved a climber’s life, we returned home utterly proud and satisfied, with or without a summit."
Everest sets an example
But no matter what the veterans said, a depressing debate began to weigh against David: Rescue was impossible on that altitude and he should have chosen a better team, the world decided. That's when Everest itself intervened with a shocking example coming out of nowhere.
The mountaineer doctor said that David would have had many possibilities of being saved if someone had cared for him on the spot, and then helped him down. "I’ve seen people in the mountains in a much worse state - and they made it. I can't guarantee he would have survived the rescue, but at least people around him would have had the satisfaction of knowing they had tried their best!”
Only days later, the doctor was proved right.
May 25, at around 7 pm, after he reportedly had showed no signs of life for hours, another climber - Lincoln Hall - was pronounced dead and left at the second step, 8700 m, on Everest North side. The next morning at 7 am, climbers from another team on summit push found him disoriented but alive.
The example could not have been clearer: Climbers on a summit push, finding a climber in trouble from another - low budget - team. Lincoln was in poor shape but sitting up and talking. Just as David had done, stating into Discovery's camera, "My name is David Sharp, I'm with Asian Trekking."
In addition, contrary to David, Lincoln was found only the next morning instead of already before midnight - and even higher up.
ExWeb got the news first, and published the incredible headline: "Lincoln is alive!" Half an hour later, our server crashed.
The purpose of life
The purpose of life is not to be happy - but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all. ~Leo Rosten
Dr. Jose Ramon Morandeira had said about David Sharp that climbers who passed him could have administered first aid, while a rescue team was called up. “Virtually all Everest climbers on summit push carry O2, spare warm clothes, water, acetazolamide (commercial name is Diamox) and aspirin – exactly what David would have needed to stay alive until a rescue team arrived," the doctor said.
This time, the three climbers from SummitClimb led by American Dan Mazur did exactly that. Giving up their summit on a beautiful day, they administered first aid to Lincoln Hall, radioed down for rescue and waited with Lincoln until a team of 11 Sherpas turned up. Following 11 hours of descent, and 23 hours since he had been left for dead, Lincoln walked into ABC, and called his wife.
The power of media
Blaming the altitude and blaming the victim now falling off the table, only one thing remained in the case of David Sharp: Denial - and the power of media.
One month later, expedition leader Russell Brice made a press release stating that he had not been told about Sharp. Mark Inglis retracted his statement and others in the commercial expedition fell silent. Later that fall - Discovery Channel ran an uncritical 6 part series about the outfit.
The time is always right to do what is right. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
But Himalaya was not ready with us just yet. Little did we know the world's tallest mountain range had another moral drama up its sleeve. This time it arrived from a neighboring peak to Everest, in an email sent on October 2. The message so explosive we only decided to publish it because we trusted the source, an American commercial guide.
"There is a story that happened here on the 30th and the 1st that is not being told," wrote the climber. "It is tragic, it is haunting, and it is apparently all too real for Tibetans." The climber reported that in the middle of the Cho Oyu massive summit push, a group of Tibetans had been shot at on their way across the Nangpa La pass, at Nepal’s borderline.
At least one refugee lay dead in the snow, and ABC was swarmed by Chinese army after the shootout. Out of hundreds of climbers and satellite phones - this was the only report about the incident. Another climber, a doctor, had called his local media who chose not to publish. The news was only at ExplorersWeb.
Blaming the victim, take 2
A day passed by, and an all too familiar silence wrapped Himalaya. An email to ExWeb requested the very next day, "Please retract the story, some commercial expedition leaders say the shot were not refugees but human traffickers."
There was no news elsewhere about the incident. China denied anything had happened at all. But on October 5 at last, the International Campaign for Tibet organization released a full report stating that something had, indeed, happened.
A very young Tibetan nun was shot dead by Chinese border patrols while on her way into exile in Nepal. Out of 70 refugees, most kids and young monks in their twenties and thirties, 43 were able to escape from the gun-fire but the whereabouts of the more than 30 remaining, including children, was not known.
Blaming the victim, take 3
Slowly, details trickled out. The organization spoke to a British mountain guide and police officer, who said that climbers had witnessed one of the Tibetans getting up after they had fallen, indicating that one of the two might have survived. The guide also said that up to 60 climbers at ABC probably witnessed the incident. "They could see Chinese soldiers quite close to Advance Base Camp kneeling, taking aim and shooting, again and again, at the group, who were completely defenseless," he said.
Romanian Alex Gavan, who summited Cho Oyu on October 2 without supplementary O2 and his mate Sergiu Matei (who stayed behind for altitude problems) - spared no harsh words in their dispatch, reporting that the refugees had been hunted like rats, while climbers watched. ”Big expedition outfitters will never speak about that. Otherwise they will be banned from the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. And this will mean no more bucks for them anymore. And they don't want that, of course. It has indeed nothing to do with the spirit of mountaineering (which has been lost in those commercial outfits) but with the basic human values.”
With the increasing number of eye-witness report, the Chinese turned around and claimed self defense: The refugees had attacked them, they said.
The best thing that happened on ExplorersWeb in 2006
"We need pictures," wrote ExplorersWeb in a call to the climbers.
"Hi, my name is Pavle Kozjek, from Slovenia, and I just returned from Cho Oyu," came a reply the very next day. Among hundreds of climbers on Cho Oyu, Pavle was the only one to choose a road less traveled; he had made a new route on the 8000er. But his email was not about that. "I have some photos from 30.9," Pavle wrote, attaching images, and publishing a video removing all doubt of what had happened. The nun lay dead in the snow; the refugees - like rats - shot at by kneeling soldiers.
For once, a young Tibetan nun's death had not passed by unnoticed - and her justice was made by climbers.
The best thing that happened on ExplorersWeb this year was therefore not a feat, and not a name. The Best of ExplorersWeb in 2006, was the coming out of truth on Nangpa La.
The Basque doctor's final words at ExplorersWeb had been, "I feel like an old mountaineer in his sixties defending out of date values and longing for a world which is no longer there. Back then we were moved by a weird, indefinable value we called ‘mountaineering spirit’, which basically involved climbing mountains and reaching summits, but not at any cost."
In spite of it all, perhaps the Nangpa La incident marked a revival of those values in the world of exploration, and the slow but sure victory of human kind.
See also the post on The MountainWorld Blog.