Mark Inglis' journey to the top of Mt. Everest appeared to be one for the ages, courageous and inspirational, proof that with enough desire a person can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But the first double-amputee to scale the world's tallest mountain may be remembered more for what he didn't do.
May 15, the day the New Zealand climber realized his dream of attaining the Himalayan peak, was also the day that David Sharp, a 34-year-old British climber, was hunkered down in a nearby snow cave, taking his last breaths.
Inglis was the first to reach Sharp and one of an estimated 40 climbers who marched on rather than help as Sharp sat in a daze, deprived of oxygen, disoriented and supposedly near death 1,000 feet beneath the summit.
Sharp was making his return after reaching the peak. He died on the mountain and remains there, as have many of the almost 200 climbers who have perished on Everest in the last half-century.
Since Inglis was the one who disclosed what otherwise might have remained a tight-lipped secret -- and such secrets do exist -- he received the brunt of criticism, including a harsh condemnation from revered Everest pioneer Edmund Hillary.
With this being one of the deadliest Everest seasons on record -- 10 confirmed fatalities among an estimated 300 summit attempts so far; second only to the reported 19 deaths in 1996 -- the revelation has stirred a contentious debate.
Some in climbing circles bemoan what they perceive to be a diminished moral code caused, in part, by overcrowding and by commercial outfitters adopting a summit-or-bust attitude to justify the high fees they charge clients who, in some cases, lack adequate climbing experience. The cost of joining an expedition can run from $10,000 to more than $40,000.
Others, however, say that high ethics are still maintained among the veteran climbing fraternity -- of which Inglis has been a respected member -- and that situations vary. Conditions are extremely harsh in what is known as the Death Zone, above 25,000 feet, where oxygen is sparse, winds are fierce and temperatures reach 100 below. Judgment can be impaired and rescue attempts are difficult and can be perilous.
But rescues do occur. Just this week Lincoln Hall, who had become separated from his party and given up for dead, was delivered safely to base camp by a group of climbers who abandoned their summit attempt to lend a hand.
This contrast in scenarios, perhaps, suggests that blanket assessments are probably inaccurate. The human spirit is tested just as severely today as it was when Hillary and Tenzing Norgay logged the first successful ascent of the 29,035-foot peak in 1953, and whether it prevails admirably or otherwise depends on variables and is not always easy to determine. More than 1,500 climbers have reached the summit since 1953.
Inglis, 46, a former search-and-rescue mountaineer for Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand, was himself the subject of a spectacular rescue after spending 14 days in a cave on Mt. Cook during a blizzard. He lost both lower legs but, with artificial legs, continued climbing with the ultimate dream of scaling Everest.
His 40-day expedition, led by veteran guide Russell Brice, included two teams totaling 22 climbers and six sherpa guides. The weather cooperated except for high winds that delayed the summit attempt a couple of days. It was savagely cold and difficult to breath without supplemental oxygen, which the climbers used while en route. At one point, Inglis had a long fall and broke one of his prosthetic legs, which he repaired with duct tape.
It was during the summit assault, on a well-traveled route, that the party stumbled upon Sharp, who sat cross-legged in a shallow cave, without oxygen, motionless and barely breathing. One of the sherpas attempted to revive him with oxygen, but it was ultimately determined that he was beyond help.
Though details are unclear, Sharp had become separated from teammate Vitor Negrete of Brazil. Negrete, in a solo attempt, reached the summit three days after Sharp's death but became ill and was unable to make a descent. After being taken to one of the high camps by a sherpa, he also died.
Hillary expressed his disgust on New Zealand television about the Sharp incident, implying that his 1953 summit might not have occurred had his party found a climber in distress. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain," Hillary said.
Inglis, who remains hospitalized while recovering from frostbite to his fingers and injuries to his upper legs, is stung by the criticism and has stopped doing interviews, said his wife, Anne. However, he told the Dominion Post of New Zealand, "I did nothing at all to help David because I wasn't in a position to. Some of our sherpas and other team members were far more qualified and capable and did what they could, but to no avail.