A few years ago, I read the disturbing story of 34-year-old David Sharp’s Mt. Everest climb. After reaching the summit, a feat only around 1500 people have ever accomplished, David encountered trouble on his descent. At around 1000 feet back down the mountain, lack of oxygen and adverse weather conditions began to get the best of him, so he moved to a small cave along a main path to the summit. That is where he eventually died.
The fact that this young man died is not surprising. People perish trying to climb Mt. Everest on a regular basis. What makes this story troubling is the way he died. Apparently, 42 other climbers walked past David without offering any help as he sat there dying. Some did not want to risk their safety by sharing their oxygen, but most did not want to risk their dream of reaching the summit by stopping to help someone else. Sir Edmund Hillary said it was “horrifying” that other climbers would leave a dying man just to achieve their own goal of reaching the summit.
In fairness, rescuing someone at that altitude is dangerous, and not everyone was completely calloused to David’s condition. There were a few people who at least stopped to check on him, and two gave him some oxygen before continuing their ascent. But no one made a serious effort to save him, and no one sat with him in the final hours of his life.
As I read this story, I was deeply troubled by two things. The first was the unwillingness of fellow climbers to help a dying man. Much like Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, the indifference and lack of empathy was staggering (Luke 10:25-37). Christ calls us to “carry one another’s burdens,” and “we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak” (Galatians 6:2; Romans 15:1). As followers of Jesus, we are responsible for more than just ourselves. We are called to help, serve, lead, and minister to others—especially those in need.
The second thing that troubled me was David’s attempt to make the journey alone. Yes, other climbers should have offered to help him, but this doesn’t change the fact that his decision to attempt a solo climb was foolish. Even though he was experienced and well-trained, the lack of security, strength, and benefits of having a team around him ultimately led to his unnecessary death.
I once heard a pastor say of the Christian life, “He who walks alone usually walks away.” My experience tells me this is true. We cannot complete our spiritual journey without a community of support around us. No matter how knowledgeable, passionate, or committed we are, we need others to help us finish strong. Only by choosing to live in community and with accountability do we find the encouragement, strength, and exhortation we need to live out God’s will for our lives.
Sometimes when I have a full schedule or when I’m focused on a goal, I can become calloused to the needs of others. Likewise, my flesh can lead me to believe I don’t need anyone and can master my spiritual journey alone. Yet the story of David Sharp reminds me that both marginalizing others and going it alone puts my spiritual life as risk just as these two human tendencies put David’s physical life at risk.
Even more than an Everest climb, the journey of the Christian life requires community. We need each other. We need to give and receive help on this climb together. For my part, I can only hope God keeps my head clear, my heart humble, and my spirit open to the community around me so that my journey has a happy ending.