The peak of morality
In today's Ottawa Sun, reporter Laura Czekaj comes back to the subject of ethics and morality on the slopes of Everest. In reading the well-written article, I had some reactions to elements of the story and wrote the following letter to the editor:
I read with
interest Laura Czekaj's article The Peak of Morality in today's issue
online. As a veteran of 5 Everest expeditions with summits from both the
Northeast and Southeast Ridges, and - more important to me - one who has rescued
several climbers in several rescue operations high on Everest, I wanted to share
some thoughts on the morality of life on the high peaks.
As Laura and
climber Ben Webster point out, the situation on Everest is often different than
in daily life. Indeed, it can sometimes be more like war with life and death
choices looming quite often in the background. Certainly, each and every
decision needs to be made with one's own life and well being - and survival - in
mind. The adage of First Responders and medical personnel needs to be heeded: it
never serves anyone for a rescuer to become an additional victim.
However, in the
case of David Sharp in May, 2006, we need to look a bit closer. The climbers on
that day did not decide they could not help David because, as Ben.. Webster
says, "You could be very much putting yourself at risk by stopping to help."
Most were on their ascent when they came across David, and
continued their ascent after deciding not to offer assistance. In my
opinion, it was more a case of the climbers' summit ambitions being put at risk
by stopping to help David Sharp.
As I have written
in detail on my blog (http://mountainworld.typepad.com),
popular opinion aside, the summit of Everest is not worth a human life,
nor a toe, nor a finger. The summit is simply a patch of snow on top of a really
big hunk of rock. I will not judge the climbers last May who chose not to help
David Sharp - I was not there, have not spoken with them directly, and thus
cannot say what the right decision was to make. But, I do know that my teammates
and I (with help from Russell Brice's expedition) aborted our summit attempt in
2001 to save the lives of 2 Chinese glaciologists. I blew out my knee, ending my
expedition. My team would go on to abort another summit push to rescue 3
Siberian climbers, and American guide, and his Guatemalan client. Later, in
2003, my teammates and I aborted our summit bid from high camp on the Northeast
Ridge Route to help 7 sick climbers back down the mountain.
Do I regret any of
those decisions? Not for a second. My regret would lie with looking back on a
snapshot from the top of the world with the ever-lingering question: Could I
have saved a life today?
Thank you for your
article and great reporting!
The Peak of Morality: Everest's climbers face ethical dilemmas as daunting as the summit itself
By LAURA CZEKAJ, SUN MEDIA
On the high peaks of the world's most notorious mountain, a morality play is acted out every time climbers are confronted with someone who could die without their help.
Mount Everest is revered the world over for its immense hulking mass, its height and its ability, on a whim, to allow survival or condemn to death, those who dare climb her.
Many have heeded the mountain's challenge and have been willing to spend astonishing amounts of money to follow through with their goal of getting to the top.
This invasion of climbers of varying skill levels, combined with a burning drive to get to the summit and the financial investment that goes along with it, has all the makings of a tragic ending.
A year ago, the ethical drama was played out as a dying David Sharp was bypassed by more than 40 climbers on their way to the summit.
The 34-year-old Englishman was on a solo climb when he fell ill as he descended. He apparently died of oxygen deficiency.
This debacle caused even Mount Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary to express his shock and disgust.
"Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain," Hillary told the New Zealand Press Association.
In stark contrast to the death of Sharp is the Sudbury woman who rescued a female Nepalese climber from the mountain in May.
Looking back on the Sharp incident, the question lingers about whether the people who passed the dying Briton on their way to the summit felt themselves to be in jeopardy.
"You could be very much putting yourself at risk by stopping to help," says Ben Webster, an Ottawa climber and expedition leader.
As the world sits back in their armchairs to pass judgment on the climbers who find themselves in these life-or-death situations, Webster notes that the ethics are not always as cut-and-dried on the tallest mountain in the world as they are passing someone in need on the street.
At the highest reaches of the Earth, climbers are not only struggling to make it to the summit, but also to survive.
These incidents are taking place at altitudes above 8,000 metres, where life is tenuous and people's mental capacities and judgments are flawed just by the nature of the environment, says Webster.
On another mountain, Webster had to stop a person who was preparing to walk off a 1,500-metre drop. The befuddled climber was under the impression he was walking to his tent.
At the summit of the 8,850-metre-high Everest, there is about 20% of the oxygen that there is at sea level. Under those extreme circumstances, people can hallucinate and their judgment can be impaired, says Webster.
Those laying blame can't know what they would do unless they were there, says Webster, who has led five expeditions up Everest and made the summit once. He's been climbing and guiding for more than 20 years.
"If I was to tie a plastic bag around your head and get you to walk up the CN Tower, then ask you to make really clear defining judgments in a matter of minutes about life and death ... do you think you could do it?"
Other cultures don't always view human life in the same way that Westerners do. While North American climbers, in most cases, abide by the ethical code that says no summit is worth someone's life, not every culture would see it the same way.
CODE OF CONDUCT
Ambition can also get in the way when saving someone else's life comes at the expense of not reaching the summit.
"Some people are just there and they don't care about anybody else except themselves, but the mountaineering ethic that's been around for as long as I have been climbing is if there is somebody there and asks you for help, or they are obviously in desperate need of help, then you give it to them, and to hell with the summit," says Peter Austen, a renowned author, climber and expedition leader.
He says much has changed ethically since he first started climbing about 45 years ago.
As a young man in his 20s, it would never have crossed his mind not to try to save someone who was stranded and needing help on a mountain.
"It was a universal code, but that seems to have dropped off somewhat. Times are different," the 60-year-old says over the phone from British Columbia.
Austen led the 1991 Canadian Everest expedition, of which Hillary was a patron. Inclement weather prevented the team from making the summit.
As times have changed and society has followed suit, the code of conduct on the mountain has eroded.
"It's part of the ethos of the era we are living in," Austen says. "People have got more selfish."
Dollar signs can get in the eyes of climbers faced with saving a life as they weigh the expense of climbing Everest and having to forgo their adventure for the sake of someone else.
"Many people have paid so much money to get on Everest and to get to the top, that everything else goes by the board," he says.
It's a moral dilemma of Everest-like proportions those of us whose feet stay firmly planted at sea level can't fathom or truly appreciate.
Samantha Brennan, an associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, says that to some extent, the public is willing to accept actions that in normal circumstances would probably be judged immoral if a climber were faced with a life-or-death situation.
"It would not normally be permissible if someone were dying here on the sidewalks of the West, it would be wrong to walk by them," she says.
"But if they were dying on a mountain and your own life was at stake, I think the public would be prepared to accept that you would choose your own life over that of a dying stranger."
Climbers have their own ethos about rescues, but as mountaineering becomes more accessible to the general public, the number of people who adhere to the ethical code becomes diluted.