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Original Issue

Past Its Peak

And so ends anotherbanner climbing season at the world's highest graveyard, Mount Everest.

Hundreds ofclimbers left a fresh trash heap of empty oxygen bottles, miles of rope and,oh, yeah, 11 stunned-face corpses, making the earth's tallest peak look likesome macabre wedding cake.

Over there, in acave, is David Sharp. Some 40 climbers reportedly passed the 34-year-oldBritish schoolteacher as they made their way to the top, and only one partytried to help. You talk about Cold Mountain.

Maybe this is whatSharp gets for lying to his mother. He'd told her not to worry. "You arenever alone on Everest," he said before he left. "There are climberseverywhere." In a way, he was right. He won't be alone. Sharing that cavewith him is a corpse from 1997.

Those 40 climbersdisgust Ed Viesturs, an American climber who has summited Everest six times."How can they sleep at night?" he says. "How can they live with thethought, I made it to the summit, but I didn't do anything to help this guy whowas dying?"

Here's how: Manyof them are not true mountaineers. They're trophy hunters. Mountaineers reverethe whole mountain. Trophy hunters just want the picture at the top. They spendup to $100,000 each to be guided to the summit, another checkmark on theirto-do list of life, right behind Run with the bulls and Play Augusta. You thinkthey're going to spend all this money and time and not make it all the way?Over your dead body.

Even the first manto reach the top of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, 86, was aghast. "It waswrong, if there was a man suffering altitude problems and huddled under a rock,just to lift your hat, say 'Good morning' and pass on by," he told NewZealand AP.

"That mountainbecame a circus years ago," legendary Spanish climber Juanito Oiarzabaltold reporters. "And it's getting worse."

Do you realizethat there can be a wait of an hour or more to climb the ladder at the SecondStep, a rock wall at 28,230 feet? Everest used to be the lastfrontier--pristine and foreboding. Now it's the Des Moines DMV. Come to thinkof it, climbing Everest used to be the pinnacle of human achievement, a rarefeat. Now it's like making the white pages. More than 2,500 people have made itup and back. (More than 200 have died trying.) And yet they still come, allwanting a slice of her to pin on their chests.

This year, we hadfolks trying to be the youngest up, oldest, first British married couple andfirst Playboy cover model. What, no redheaded Amish twins? Some Spaniardsplanned to leave an essay on Don Quixote at the top. One Swede died when hetried to ski down Everest's North Face.

And in their maddash to the top, a lot of climbers blew by poor David Sharp. Some said theycouldn't have saved him without risking their own lives. One said it wasimpossible to rescue him because he couldn't stand up. "He was effectivelydead, so we carried on," said New Zealander Mark Inglis. Me, I think someclimbers' sense of morality is effectively dead.

Inglis, who becamethe first double amputee to summit, at least tried to help. His critics thinkhe should have tried harder. Do you know how Inglis lost his legs? Tofrostbite, 24 years ago, on a mountain, after being rescued.

"Of course[some group] could've gotten [Sharp] down," says Viesturs, who should know.He was in a party that famously saved a near lifeless French climber in 1995 bypushing, pulling, carrying and sliding her down to a high-mountain camp.

Ask the 40 this:How do you explain Lincoln Hall?

Hall, too, wasthought to be dead on the mountain this May. His own team was sure he was aboutto join the 100-plus permanent residents of the Death Zone, the area above26,000 feet where the lack of oxygen turns climbers punch drunk. But Americanguide Dan Mazur stopped to take a look. His Sherpas gave Hall some tea andoxygen. Before long, Hall was revived. Mazur turned his group into a rescueteam. "Mazur probably knew that Everest would be there next year,"Viesturs says, "but maybe Lincoln Hall wouldn't."

Something has tobe done. And it won't be done by the Nepalese government, which gets $65,000for a seven-man ticket to its circus, safety be damned. You want to take apiano up there and play Climb Every Mountain? Knock yourself out! (Once thecheck clears.)

No, it's got to bethe guides who stop the madness. Nobody goes who's not ready. Nobody goesalone. Nobody without oxygen. First sign of trouble, everybody's turning back.Life comes before ego. Ethics don't get to just vanish into thin air.

Until then, maybequoting Don Quixote at the top is perfect. Everest has become a fool'serrand.

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Everest used to be the last frontier. Now it's the DesMoines DMV. It used to be the peak of human achievement, a rare feat. Now it'slike making the white pages.