The first man to the summit of Mt Everest cannot understand how New Zealand climber Mark Inglis and others on the mountain left British mountaineer David Sharp to die.
"All I can say is that in our expedition there was never any likelihood whatsoever if one member of the party was incapacitated that we would just leave him to die," Sir Edmund Hillary said yesterday.
The renowned adventurer was reacting to the decision by double-amputee Inglis, who was one of many who passed the dying Briton near the summit without trying to rescue him.
Sharp died on the mountain.
Mr Inglis' family has today voiced disappointment at the criticisms of the mountaineer.
Father in-law Kevin Hathaway said it was no use being a dead man's hero on Everest.
Inglis has also said his party could do nothing, as Sharp had neither oxygen nor proper gloves when they came across him sheltering under a rock.
"Trouble is, at 8500m it's extremely difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keep anyone else alive," he said.
Inglis has accepted that his group would get flak for not doing more to help the dying man.
"Absolutely. That's a very fair point," the 47-year-old said on TV One's Close Up.
"On that morning, over 40 people went past this young Briton.
"I ... radioed and [expedition manager] Russ said, 'Mate, you can't do anything. He's been there x number of hours without oxygen. He's effectively dead'. So we carried on.
"Of those 40 people who went past, no one helped him except for people from our expedition."
But Sir Edmund was in no doubt.
"On my expedition there was no way that you would have left a man under a rock to die.
"It simply would not have happened. It would have been a disaster from our point of view."
People had completely lost sight of what was important, he said.
"There have been a number of occasions when people have been neglected and left to die and I don't regard this as a correct philosophy.
"I am absolutely certain that if any member of our expedition all those years ago had been in that situation we would have made every effort.
"I think you have to have your priorities. If the priority is just to get to the summit and let another man die, okay, you do it.
"But if you have someone who is in great need and you are still strong and energetic, then you have a duty, really, to give all you can to get the man down and getting to the summit becomes very secondary."
The difficulties posed by operating at high altitude were not an excuse.
"You can try, can't you? This is the whole thing," Sir Edmund said.
"You are in a dangerous situation, there's no question about that.
"But at least you can try to rescue the life of a man who is obviously in a distressful condition."
Sir Edmund has previously criticised the intensely commercial environment that has developed around the world's highest peak and called for a moratorium to give the mountain a break.
"I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest has become rather horrifying. The 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," Sir Edmund said.
Inglis could not be reached to respond. He is believed to be returning to New Zealand.
Death is part of the Everest experience, with the final climb to the summit sometimes littered with bodies.
Sharp was the seventh climber to perish on Everest this season.
He died about 300m below the summit on his way down after running out of oxygen. Inglis and his team passed him on their way to the top.
A website dedicated to climbing Everest summarised Sharp's passing: "He did not get himself down and therefore he died. Very sad."
Sharp's mother, Linda, was quoted in the Evening Gazette newspaper in Britain as saying that she did not blame other climbers for her son's death.
"Your responsibility is to save yourself - not to try and save anybody else."
Mountaineer Graham Dingle said people should be helped but that the circumstances of a climber in trouble had to be considered. If he was close to death and close to the summit there is probably very little that could be done.
Mr Dingle said the tradition of always helping a fellow mountaineer in trouble is being overtaken by ambition and the large sums of money tied up in any climb of the mountain. People who should not be on the mountain were now climbing it and it had become a mess, with junk and even bodies on the ascent.
Climbers 'could have saved' Sharp's life
A scientist who has studied oxygen use on Mt Everest believes British climber David Sharp could have been saved.
University of Otago scientist and mountaineer Dr Phil Ainslie said it might have been possible to revive the climber with bottled oxygen and even get him down to safety.
What might have determined Sharp's fate was the intense commercial pressure on Everest climbers, who generally had one very expensive shot at the peak, Dr Ainslie said.
At least 40 climbers passed Sharp, who was identified as being in difficulty and later died on the mountain.
Dr Ainslie, a lecturer in Otago's physiology department, said had Sharp been given oxygen by another climber he could have recovered something like 80 per cent of his capacity.
The line of 40-plus climbers that day probably had one shot at the summit: "There would have been a line like at the supermarket."
Many on the mountain had paid upwards of $75,000 and were effectively being dragged up by guides, he said.
Had Sharp been without oxygen for a time when the other climbers found him, he would have needed someone to give up their chance of making the summit and share their supplies with him immediately.
"Which really is what it boils down to," Dr Ainslie said. "If he has been using oxygen all the way up there and all of a sudden he's had a problem, he would probably have five or six hours to live unless he gets more oxygen."
He said getting Sharp down the mountain would still have been difficult, but possible for other climbers breathing bottled oxygen.
- OTAGO DAILY TIMES, NEWSTALK ZBBy Tom McKinlay