Drama on Mount Everest A Disabled Man Caught between Fame and Disgrace

After climbing Mount Everest with two artificial legs, Mark Inglis was given a hero's welcome in his native New Zealand. But then legendary mountain climber Edmund Hillary accused him of having abandoned a dying Briton, and now Inglis is fighting for his reputation.

By Ulrich Bentele in Christchurch, New Zealand


Seven arrows, drawn with a magic marker, adorn the visibly emaciated body of the patient in room number five in the plastic surgery department at Christchurch Hospital in New Zealand. The arrows point to seven unsightly, blackened parts of the patient's body that are due to go under the surgeon's knife in a few days time. Five are shriveled, frozen fingertips, now hard as leather and beyond saving. The other two are the stumps of his legs, encrusted with centimeter-thick scabs that will have to be cut open.

"It's very painful," says Mark Inglis, his entire face beaming. The juxtaposition of scarred body and radiant smile is unsettling. "From time to time, I close my eyes and then I'm back again at the summit, it's 7a.m., and the sun is shining on the roof of the world."  It's been only two weeks since the 46-year-old mountain climber fulfilled his life's dream of scaling Everest.

His 74-year-old mother, Marie, sits next to the bed, gazing lovingly at her son. Greeting cards line the windowsill. Inglis constantly eats chocolates from a large box at the foot of his bed. In his two weeks on Mount Everest he lost 15 kilograms (33 lbs.). Although he's been back for a week now, he hasn't left the hospital, where he faces the amputation of five of his fingers. "You have to sacrifice a few fingers to get to stand on top of Mount Everest as a double-amputee. So for me it's not a biggie to lose some fingers," he says in a booming voice. "I can type with two fingers, so I'm pretty safe," he adds, wryly.

Laughing when others would despair is typical of Inglis. 24 years ago, both his legs were amputated below the knee after he suffered severe frostbite during a failed expedition on Mount Cook. But Inglis returned, and climbed New Zealand's tallest mountain, the same mountain that had cost him his legs. In 2004, he went on to scale his first 8,000-meter peak. "I'm a stand up kind of guy," he says, laughing.

A dying man in the death zone

For all his optimism, Inglis has plenty of reason to be worried. Despite his extraordinary achievement on Mount Everest, his reputation is in jeopardy as he faces criticism from New Zealand's most famous citizen, Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 became the first man to conquer Everest.

When Inglis and his team reached the so-called "Death Zone" about 300 meters (984 feet) beneath the summit, they encountered unconscious British climber David Sharp. Sharp had been climbing alone and without oxygen equipment, and he was already near death when Inglis arrived on the scene. The team decided to continue on, just as 39 other moutaineers who had been heading for the summit did that day. "The people just want to get to the top," Hillary raged, referring to Inglis and other climbers. "They don't give a damn about 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." In his day, Hillary added, such behavior would have been inconceivable.

In his native New Zealand, Hillary is held in high esteem. Despite a remarkably thin factual basis for Hillary's claims, the media have collectively taken aim against Inglis. The tone of the criticism is consistently the same; the tale of an overly ambitious handicapped man who placed his personal dream above the lives of others.

"At first I just couldn't believe the kind of criticism that was raining down on me," Inglis says today. It took him ten days to return to civilization from the summit of Mount Everest. He spent the last part of his journey enduring his prostheses pressing into his bloody flesh, then being pulled on a mat by yaks, his stumps raw and exposed, and finally being carried by Sherpa guides.

"40 people have been up there that day, 39 of them with legs. And the media? They just point at me: the double-amputee who obviously would have been least able to help Sharp anyway." Inglis repeatedly insists that Sharp was beyond help. "It's almost impossible to describe the "Death Zone". It's an alien place." Each step, Inglis says, takes an incredible effort, and in the end one can only focus on oneself.

"Your responsibility is to save yourself - not to try to save anybody else."

After all that, Inglis returned home to face accusations and disgrace. He says that although the reaction didn't surprise him, he was disappointed. "A dead mountaineer, a double-amputee guy, plus Sir Hillary - sounds like a good story, nobody is asking for verified facts."

Inglis knows how the media work, and he knows how to use the media for his own purposes -- to gain sponsors, for example, for himself and his expeditions, or for his charity project, a program to help Cambodian child amputees. Inglis has long been a well-known figure in New Zealand, a successful businessman and popular motivational speaker for major corporations. But the incident on Everest has tarnished this golden boy's image.

It's unlikely that anyone will ever really know what actually happened on that fateful May 15 near the summit of the mountain. But questions will remain, as is so often the case with the many myths and legends swirling around the world's tallest peak. David Sharp's family has asked everyone involved not to comment publicly about the exact circumstances of his death, and Inglis has respected that wish. Sharp's mother, Linda, also doesn't blame him. "Your responsibility is to save yourself - not to try to save anybody else," she told the London Sunday Times.

It's been an eventful few weeks for Mount Everest. 14 people have lost their lives on the peak this year alone, including German mountain climber Thomas Weber, who perished just a few days ago. Last week, Australian Lincoln Hall miraculously survived an unconscious night not far from the summit when he was rescued by other mountain climbers. Japanese septuagenarian Takao Arayama set a new age record when he climbed Everest in May.

"Damn, it's not over at all, you got to find your way down as well."

Today's meal at Christchurch Hospital consists of a shriveled chicken leg with instant mashed potatoes and a salad packed in plastic wrap. But Inglis eats with relish. He's only been allowed to eat normal food again for the past few days. He jokes about being fed artificially. He's gradually regaining his strength, and even the criticism of the last few days is slowly subsiding. "It's slightly changing right now to a healthy debate about morals and ethics in extreme mountaineering," he says. Indeed, Inglis plans to debate with Sir Hillary in the future, perhaps even publicly.

How did he feel, as the first man without legs to have reached the rooftop of the world? "I stayed up there only for a few minutes, taking a few photos. Sure, very happy, but most of all, I looked down the mountain thinking to myself: "Damn, Mark, it's not over at all, you got to find your way down as well."

It would be a trek past the bodies of the many who have died on the mountain over the years and can't be recovered. It would mean enduring the recurring pain of frostbite, but the hardship of the descent would also come with the certainty of having shown the world what can be achieved in spite of one's disability. Though aware that a dark shadow will probably always hang over his conquest of the world's tallest mountain, Inglis refuses to allow it to diminish his personal sense of achievement -- or, for that matter, his joie de vivre. He's just received a call from New York, where they want him to appear on the David Letterman Show. Investment bank Goldman Sachs plans to hold a dinner in his honor. A number of requests for speaking engagements in Europe are on his bedside table. Clearly Inglis and his busy life are ready to move on.

Even his mother, Marie, is breathing a sigh of relief. "He's done with the mountain climbing," she says. "I hope my son will be satisfied with the hills in his vineyard from now on."

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