In 1992, an Indian climber was left to die alone high on the South Col of Mount Everest by other climbers who watched his feebly waving hand from the security of their tent thirty yards away. Some film footage of his corpse was later shown on television. Why did these onlookers not hold the dying man's hand and comfort him? The answer appalls Joe Simpson, who was himself left for dead in a crevasse at the foot of Siula Grande in Peru in 1985.
It is an uncomfortable ethical question that he is forced to confront as he attempts a difficult new route on Pumori, with a clear view of the whole South Col from close to the vantage point where Eric Shipton first spotted the way up the south side of Everest taken by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. Now that Everest has become the playground of the rich, where commercial operators offer guided tours to the top up fixed ropes, camping amidst the detritus and unburied corpses of previous less fortunate climbers, Simpson wonders if the noble, caring instincts that once characterized mountaineering have been irrevocably displaced as in other facets of today's society.
On investigation, he finds it a less black and white issue that at first it seemed. "I shall never forget the horror of dying alone, the awful empty loneliness of it," he says. Yet his empathy for the victims of storms, altitude sickness, or misjudgments, is tested time and again as he explores anecdotally and in conversations with his companions on Pumori, the moral climate of mountaineering in the 1990s.