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By Richard Cowper in Tibet

Perched in tiny tents on the north-east ridge of Everest at 8,300 metres, two Japanese climbers and their three Nepalese sherpas wearing down-lined suits, plastic climbing boots and crampons, switched on their oxygen sets and headed off in the hope of becoming the first to ascend Everest from the north side this season.

If everything went to plan they would cover the 1 1/2km horizontal distance and 548 metres height gain in about nine hours, leaving time to get back to Camp 3 before dark.

By 8am last Saturday they had reached the first difficulties on their climb - the first step - a sheer rock climb at 8,500 metres. To their shock, just to the side of their route they came upon an Indian climber slumped in the snow.

According to the leading sherpa climber, the Indian was in a desperate state with frostbite and unable to talk properly. He just 'made a big noise'. The two Japanese mountaineers and their three sherpas climbed on. They arrived at the biggest obstacle to their climb 1 1/2 hours later - the second step. This is a vertical rock and snow climb of about 30 metres, a huge task at 8,630 metres, where there is so little oxygen that climbers call it the death zone.

The ladder that had been there in previous years was broken and had come away from the rock. It took the five nearly 1 1/2 hours to haul themselves up the final overhang. Ten metres farther on they came across two more Indian climbers - one apparently close to death, the other crouching in the snow.

No words were passed. No water, food or oxygen exchanged hands. The Japanese moved on and 50 metres further along they rested and changed oxygen cylinders.

Three-and-a-half hours and a superhuman effort later, all five climbers reached Everest's 8,848-metre summit. For 22-year-old Pasang Kami Sherpa, it was his fourth time at the top of Everest, but for Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa it was a dream come true.

The Japanese plan, involved siege-style tactics. Well-stocked camps of food and oxygen were hauled up the mountain and fixed rope was used nearly all the way to the top. The plan had always envisaged May 11 as the summit date. Now, they were there. They believed they were first, ahead of members from a dozen other expeditions, including the large Indian one led by Mohinder Singh, of the Indian Tibetan Border Police, and my own, the British 1996 North Col Expedition.

As the five celebrated and let their climbing leader know of their success by radio, they had no inkling of the storm of protest and horror that would greet them on their return to Advanced Base Camp 24 hours later.

By then, all three Indians tackling the peak from the Tibetan side were dead, storms had taken at least five other lives on the mountain, including four from a New Zealand-led expedition and an American on the Nepal side of the mountain. Since the first Europeans visited the mountain in 1921, Everest has claimed 141 lives.

As news filtered through of the Indian disaster, earlier co-operation and friendliness between the Japanese and Indian expeditions was in tatters. The normally benign and widely admired Norwegian expedition leader, Jon Gangdal, spoke for British, Indians, Slovenians and many others at Base Camp when he said: 'Friendship, closeness to nature, building up a relationship with the mountain has gone.

'Now it is attack, in old-fashioned siege style, and climbers have to reach the summit at any price. People are even willing to walk over dead bodies to get to the top. This is my second visit to Everest and I shall never come back.'

I talked to the two Japanese who had reached the summit and their sherpas immediately on their descent and arrival at Advance Base Camp. Asked why they did not help the dying Indians on the way up, or on the way down, Eisuke Shigekawa, aged 21, said: 'We climb by ourselves, by our own efforts, on the big mountains. We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality.'

Hiroshi Hanada, 36, his head in his hands and struggling for words, said: 'They were Indian climbing members - we didn't know them. No, we didn't give them any water. We didn't talk to them. They had severe high-altitude sickness. They looked as if they were dangerous.'

A day later, after official protests from the Indian expedition leader, the Japanese released a statement partly changing their story, saying Kami Sherpa had helped one man down the second step while he was descending. Nevertheless, the Japanese expedition leader never apologised and dispatched a second summit team to the top of Everest on May 13, two days after the tragedy. These climbers found the body of an Indian mountaineer in the snow, just 100 metres from safety above their top camp.

No one believes for one moment that the Japanese could have saved all three Indians. But most mountaineers I spoke to say that if all five members of the Japanese team had concentrated on the one frost-bitten Indian at the first step then one life would surely have been saved.

The perennial image of one mountaineer tied by rope to another, depending for his life on another, is at the moral and emotional heart of a dangerous sport that is more a way of life than a hobby.

On the north side of Everest this spring, that code was savagely violated. In the words of Fausto De Stefani, the Italian on Everest for the fifth time in his drive to complete all 14 peaks over 8,000 metres: 'This is a terrible case of summit fever. The end of morality is the end of true alpinism.'

The failure of the Japanese team to mount an effective rescue does not hide the fact that it was the three Indians and their superiors who must bear ultimate responsibility.

A worrying element of the competition between the Japanese and Indian expeditions may have encouraged the three Ladakhi Indians to push for the summit in uncertain weather on May 10, one day ahead of the Japanese, but without the sure knowledge of getting back to safety in time.

They did not set off from Camp 3 until 8am and, when they were hit by storms as it was getting dark, they were stopped in their tracks exhausted and frost-bitten. They would have found it almost impossible to descend.

Harbhajan Singh, a fourth Indian team member and deputy leader, turned back at 4.30pm. 'They were overcome by summit fever,' he said.

On Thursday, the news agency Reuter reported that the leader of the Japanese team issued a statement saying it had done 'as much as possible' to rescue the Indian climbers. Katsutoshi Ikebe said he sent Sherpa guides last Saturday to try to find the Indians which proved unsuccessful.

A bitter footnote to this story of ambition, death and morality in high places is that Mohinder Singh, the Indian expedition leader, telephoned Narashima Rao, then Indian prime minister, by satellite just after 6pm on May 10 to tell him his three climbers had reached the summit in safety.

Afterwards, the Japanese publicly and bluntly said there was no indication - flags, footsteps or oxygen bottles - to show that anyone had been to the summit before them.

The tragedies on both sides of the mountain and the fierce storms of the past few days have confined most expeditions, including my own, to Advanced Base Camp. We are now waiting for the furore to subside and the weather to improve before making our own final push to the world's highest summit.


(c) The Financial Times Limited May 18 1996.