Double amputee climber Mark Inglis has defended himself from criticism by Sir Edmund Hillary, saying there was little his team could have done to save an "effectively dead" Briton on Mt Everest.
Inglis is wary about returning to a storm of controversy in New Zealand today after Sir Edmund criticised climbers for failing to stop to help ill-equipped mountaineer David Sharp on their way to the summit.
Inglis said it "certainly wasn't a decision that I made" to leave Sharp 300m below the summit in a place known as the "Death Zone".
"Far more qualified people from our own team gave assistance ... to no avail. I was probably the least qualified person on that mountain that day."
Expedition leader New Zealander Russell Brice, at base camp, had to make the call to leave Mr Sharp.
When they found Sharp he was virtually frozen solid and could not speak.
Inglis told TV One's CloseUp last night: "David was so incredibly frostbitten. He was completely rigid ... just a small flicker of the eyes ... which has been indicated by a high-altitude doctor that it's more reactive. He was effectively dead.
"It's such a tough place that for me, survival of my own was equally important.
"I personally did nothing apart from acknowledge the fact that he was there next to a dead body already there.
"Our Sherpas gave him help, including oxygen.
"8500 metres is an awfully hard place to survive. I went there to survive, to come back alive, unharmed and even doing my absolute best I came back with five frostbitten fingers and frostbitten stumps.
"You realise that climbing Everest is not what it's about. It's about actually coming home.
"I'm a bit gutted [about the controversy]. I know that anyone who knows me knows that I would not walk past a road accident without helping anyone. That for me is, I guess, the most important thing."
Sir Edmund repeated his earlier criticism yesterday, saying that "human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain".
"It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say 'good morning' and pass on by."
Sir Edmund said the 1953 British-led team would have abandoned their summit bid had another climber's life been in danger on the mountain.
Everest has claimed at least 150 lives.
"My expedition would never for a moment have left one of the members or a group of members just lie there and die while they plugged on towards the summit," Sir Edmund said.
In response, Inglis said there had been an "incredible lack of understanding of the circumstances that created the situation".
"I understand entirely Sir Edmund's statements, both about leaving climbers behind and also about the number of climbers actually on the hill.
"But, I guess, so much of mountaineering is sort of a situational thing, and the situation that we got put in is not one that necessarily gets covered by blanket statements."
Inglis' team had already faced the death of a Sherpa early in their expedition, and having to leave Sharp was felt deeply.
"The thing I'm really disappointed about, rather than the distraction from myself, is the way everyone seems to be dragging poor David's family through [this]. They just need to be left alone."
Prime Minister Helen Clark, herself a mountain climber, also stepped into the debate yesterday and said it seemed to her to be "a very complex tragedy".
"From a personal point of view I have considerable sympathy for what Sir Edmund Hillary has said.
"On the other hand, it's not clear to me what Mark Inglis himself could have done.
"I think what Sir Ed said was something that many people would relate to but he is probably also reflecting on the fact that ethics around mountaineering may well change over time as well."
Inglis' family and friends in New Zealand have also leapt to his defence.
His son, Jeremy, said: "I'm finding it quite hard because there were 39 other people on the mountain that day and Dad was the one with no legs.
"He can't exactly throw him on his back and walk down the mountain, can he? Because Dad is already in the media, why should all the negative attention be ruining all of the positive attention at the moment."
The negative publicity was affecting his family and especially his grandmother, who was "very upset".
Rosemary Price, organiser of the climber's Hanmer Springs homecoming, said the controversy would not overshadow their plans or the village's pride in their famous resident.
- additional reporting: NZPA, Derek Cheng and Stuart Dye