Ethics on Ever­est

Adventure - - Climbing - David McGoni­gal

“What 1996 did for Ever­est de­ci­sion mak­ing, 2006 is likely to achieve for are view of the whole ethics of climb­ing Ever­est” Peter Hil­lary told me in Syd­ney re­cently. “Ever­est has al­ways op­er­ated on dif­fer­ent prin­ci­pals from other moun­tains but now it is re­ally in the spot­light.” The climb­ing sea­son on Mt Ever­est has just con­cluded and, un­til the last stages, looked as if it would mainly be re­mem­bered for the num­ber of peo­ple who sum­mit­ted. Be­ing in the or­der of 500 peo­ple. Then, on Mon­day May 15, New Zealan­der Mark Inglis reached the sum­mit. Inglis is a dou­ble am­putee, los­ing both legs be­low the knee af­ter be­ing trapped in an ice cave on Mt Cook for 14 days in 1982. Climb­ing Ever­est is one of the world’s great­est chal­lenges and to achieve it with­out legs is truly re­mark­able. How­ever, as the ac­co­lades ac­cu­mu­lated, Inglis re­ported that his group had come across 34-year old David Sharp, a Bri­tish climber in great dif­fi­cul­ties as he made his way down from the sum­mit of Ever­est. Af­ter pro­vid­ing some as­sis­tance the group con­tin­ued on­wards to the sum­mit – they had to walk around Sharp to do so. This be­came a stick­ing point in sev­eral me­dia re­ports. How­ever, it be­came a me­dia cause célèbre when Inglis’ fel­low Kiwi and his child­hood hero, Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary, strongly crit­i­cised all the climbers who had left Sharp to die. For a week, Ever­est be­came a topic of con­ver­sa­tion – not just in news­pa­pers and talk­back ra­dio, but in of­fice cof­fee breaks and over din­ner ta­bles. That hasn’t hap­pened since Rob Hall’s death and the events of 1996 fol­lowed by the pub­li­ca­tion of Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air”. But pub­lic and me­dia en­thu­si­asm has lim­ited shelf life. Just as the topic was fad­ing, Lin­coln Hall burst onto the scene. Lin­coln had been a mem­ber of the suc­cess­ful Aus­tralian 1984 as­cent of Ever­est. But while Tim McCart­ney-Snape and Greg Mor­timer reached the sum­mit, Lin­coln didn’t. He was back at Ever­est this year as one of the party at­tempt­ing to get 15-year old Aus­tralian Chris Har­ris to the top and so be­come the youngest per­son to sum­mit Ever­est. Chris had trou­ble at al­ti­tude and pulled out but Lin­coln joined an­other party. So, on Fri­day, May 26 we heard, in turn that Lin­coln had reached the sum­mit, had died and had been found again alive.

The way in which he was found will long be re­mem­bered. Dan Mazur and two oth­ers were half­way be­tween the first and sec­ond steps when they saw Hall sit­ting cross legged on the edge of the 2500 me­tre precipice of the Kan­jung Face. His down jacket was un­zipped to the waist and he didn’t have food, wa­ter, oxy­gen or sun­glasses. He’d spent the night in the open at 8500 me­tres and was se­verely frost­bit­ten. His first words were “I imag­ine you are sur­prised to see me here.”

When Dan Mazur and his party turned back from their sum­mit bid (just three hours short of the sum­mit) to get the ail­ing Hall down to safety, the whole is­sue of ethics on Ever­est was cast into stark re­lief. Peo­ple ig­nored David Sharp and he died; peo­ple res­cued Lin­coln Hall and he sur­vived.

There have been thou­sands of words writ­ten about the events on Ever­est and it seems as if ev­ery oc­cu­pant of ev­ery arm­chair has an opin­ion, never mind that they haven’t ever been higher than the top of the chair­lift at their favourite ski re­sort.

How­ever, there has also been a lot of well in­formed dis­cus­sion that may lead to a new way of think­ing about climb­ing and com­mer­cial ad­ven­tures. Apart from dis­cov­er­ing the in­vari­ably woe­ful free­lance pay rate for ar­ti­cles, it is rare that a mag­a­zine com­mis­sion has brought me near tears. But this one did. If I were af­ter an in­formed opin­ion on a sen­si­ble bal­ance be­tween moun­taineer­ing am­bi­tion and com­mer­cial­ism, aes­thet­ics and eco­nomics, the per­son I would have called first would have been Sue Fear. How­ever, she died two days af­ter Lin­coln was saved – she fell into a crevasse af­ter suc­cess­fully sum­mit­ting 8163 me­tre Mount Manaslu. While climbers and their friends are quite san­guine about the high risks in­volved, Sue is re­garded as ma­jor loss to the world. Un­like oth­ers who re­gard Ever­est as a tro­phy, she would never say she had “con­quered” Ever­est or any of the other ma­jor peaks she as­cended. Tim McCart­ney-Snape pointed out Sue’s great abil­ity to as­sess the risks and to turn back

if she re­garded it as un­ac­cept­able: “It’s a lot eas­ier to push on with­out think­ing than re­treat and have to do it all over again”. Iron­i­cally, her book “Fear No Bound­ary” was co-writ­ten with Lin­coln Hall.

I saw Lin­coln at Sue’s me­mo­rial ser­vice in Syd­ney on June 7. He had flown in from Kath­mandu less than 12 hours ear­lier. Like so many oth­ers, as we spoke I had to touch him. I guess it was to re­as­sure our­selves that he wasn’t just a me­dia con­struct but it was the same Lin­coln we’d known for decades. The con­ver­sa­tion was re­as­sur­ingly Lin­coln as he dis­cussed the prob­lems of mag­a­zine ed­i­tor­ship with frost­bit­ten fin­gers – and that was in a raspy voice from frozen vo­cal chords. Ever­est is tough – and few have done it tougher than Lin­coln who spent the night out alone at over 8500 me­tres. So what are your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a climber? As a start­ing point, I spoke to a lawyer well versed in con­tract and li­a­bil­ity law.

“It is an in­evitable pro­gres­sion from some­thing be­ing un­achiev­able to be­ing a reg­u­lar event,” he said. “Ever­est may have gone main­stream but it’s still a risky ven­ture and you take your own risks. If you go with a com­mer­cial op­er­a­tor and you are made aware of the risks, the onus re­mains on you and you can’t fairly com­plain if things go wrong. How­ever, that is only true if the op­er­a­tor is com­pe­tent and us­ing equip­ment that is un­likely to be faulty. In this, climb­ing Ever­est is no dif­fer­ent from go­ing horse rid­ing.”

“What about if the ex­pe­di­tion leader makes a wrong de­ci­sion?” He mused. “Well, a court is go­ing to be re­luc­tant to ac­cept that a de­ci­sion in such an ex­treme sit­u­a­tion was wrong. Fur­ther, the lack of oxy­gen means you are not think­ing clearly and so have di­min­ished re­spon­si­bil­ity. In fact, it’s not rea­son­able to ex­pect a ra­tio­nal re­sponse in the cir­cum­stances. The army un­der­stands how peo­ple don’t think clearly when hurt or stressed or in cri­sis – much of its train­ing is to en­sure that sol­diers re­act the right way when they are be­mused in bat­tle.” “The big climb­ing ques­tion right now seems to be your re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards some­one out­side your party that you find in dif­fi­cul­ties. The Good Sa­mar­i­tan is a mat­ter of ethics rather than law – the law won’t im­pose a duty of care on a by­s­tander. Rather, if you get into dan­ger and some­one is in­jured res­cu­ing you, you might be li­able for their in­juries.” What of the ethics? If you found some­one lost or in­jured when you were out tramp­ing and you ig­nored their plight and they died, you’d be justly uni­ver­sally con­demned. But as our lawyer stated, Ever­est is not your av­er­age day walk. So how far can you act dif­fer­ently?

Not at all says moun­taineer­ing’s grand state­man. “Hu­man life is far more im­por­tant than just get­ting to the top of a moun­tain,” stated Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary. “There have been a num­ber of oc­ca­sions when peo­ple have been ne­glected and left to die and I don’t re­gard this as a cor­rect phi­los­o­phy,” he said. It’s worth not­ing that Sir Ed was crit­i­cis­ing the 42 climbers who passed Sharp that morn­ing, not just Mark Inglis. In­deed, Inglis was an as­sisted climber who had paid to be led up Ever­est but his leg stumps were so badly chaffed on the climb that they are still re­ceiv­ing treat­ment as are his frost bit­ten fin­gers.

But what about if the climber in dif­fi­culty was as good as dead? Here we en­ter an area of some con­fu­sion. It has been re­ported that Sharp’s legs and arms were frozen when he was found so he could not have been saved. That would have to be the ul­ti­mate prag­matic approach: “he’s vir­tu­ally dead so I won’t try to help be­cause he’s al­ready lost and I’d fail to make the sum­mit”. Ex­plor­er­ asked Span­ish doc­tor Jose Ra­mon, a well-re­garded ex­pert in Emer­gency Moun­tain Medicine for his view. “Def­i­nitely, David would have had many pos­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing saved if some­one had cared for him on the spot, and then helped him down. I’ve seen peo­ple in the moun­tains in a much worse state - and they made it,” he said. “I can’t guar­an­tee he would have sur­vived the res­cue, but at least peo­ple around him would have had the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing they had tried their best!” “Climbers who passed him could have ad­min­is­tered first aid, while a res­cue team was called up. Vir­tu­ally all Ever­est climbers on the sum­mit push carry O2, spare warm clothes, wa­ter, ac­eta­zo­lamide and as­pirin – ex­actly what David would have needed to stay alive un­til a res­cue team ar­rived. But

of course no res­cue team was called; and of course, no one stayed with him to help.”

The res­cue of Lin­coln Hall from above 8500 me­tres – 100m me­tres higher than Sharp and who also spent the night out­side on the moun­tain sug­gests he was right. He then went on to mir­ror the words and feel­ings of Sir Ed. “From my point of view as a Doc­tor and most of all as a climber… all words seem too soft to de­scribe this kind of be­hav­ior,” said Ra­mon. “It is an aber­ra­tion! I guess I am too old, I guess th­ese are not my times any­more, and Hi­malaya is not what it used to be. But not so long ago (let’s say 15 years), in a sit­u­a­tion like that, all of us present would have jumped to the res­cue. And if we saved a climber’s life, we re­turned home ut­terly proud and sat­is­fied, with or with­out a sum­mit.” Sir Ed put it more baldly: “They just don’t care whether he’s alive or dead but they just pass him by. Their aim is to get to the sum­mit and the wel­fare of any­one on the way is just too bad.” It’s ironic that the only group to ap­par­ently of­fer any help, Mark Inglis’ party, is cop­ping the most flack. What about the dozens of oth­ers who passed? A Malaysian climber who was one of those now ad­mits re­morse. T Ravichan­dran’s words are more chill­ing be­cause he had known Sharp over the past 45 days, shared the same climb­ing per­mit and re­garded him as “my climb­ing friend”. Even so he says that when he did en­counter Sharp in dif­fi­cul­ties “it did cross my mind to stop but I was ad­vised by the oth­ers to move on”. He went on: “I was think­ing of help­ing him and thought of for­get­ting about reach­ing

the sum­mit. Then again, I was just a few hun­dred me­tres short of the peak and, thus, I de­cided to reach the sum­mit and leave David be­hind.” He sub­se­quently learned an­other climber in his party had also died and says that “I have been go­ing through some sleep­less nights think­ing about them. I should have taken the other de­ci­sion to help them and I feel some guilt for not hav­ing done so.”

There’s a clever ver­bal trick that some climbers have used to jus­tify their ac­tions. They say that on the way down they just would not have had the en­ergy – or oxy­gen - to carry David Sharp to the rel­a­tive safety of a lower al­ti­tude. But that’s on the way back down from the sum­mit. Sharp was only two hours out of North Face Camp Three so the climbers were rel­a­tively fresh when they passed him on the way up. The res­cue of Hall showed it could be done from even higher on the moun­tain – but the res­cue couldn’t be achieved while still leav­ing enough time and en­ergy to sum­mit. The role of the or­gan­is­ers at the lower al­ti­tude camps also de­serves some scru­tiny. In the case of Hall, five Sher­pas re­ported that they had been bat­tling to bring him down the moun­tain but he had grown weak and they could not longer dis­cern life. So Alex Abramov, the ex­pe­di­tion leader, or­dered them to leave him, rather than put their own lives in even more dan­ger by stay­ing ex­posed and at al­ti­tude with a corpse.

That was a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion. Of course, many have mem­o­ries of a climber who wouldn’t leave his ail­ing as­so­ci­ate – and the poignancy of Rob Hall call­ing his preg­nant wife be­fore he died on Ever­est in Oc­to­ber 1993. Giv­ing his life for what he re­garded as his duty want an heroic sac­ri­fice.

On the other hand, we have the role of Rus­sell Brice of Hi­malayan Ex­pe­ri­ence (Himex). He says that “at no stage dur­ing the as­cent did I know there was a man in trou­ble.” That is hard to rec­on­cile with the state­ment by Mark Inglis that on the way up the moun­tain “over 40 peo­ple went past this young Bri­ton. I was one of the first, ra­dioed and Russ said ‘look mate you can’t do any­thing. You know he’s been there X num­ber of hours, been there with­out oxy­gen, you know he’s ef­fec­tively dead’”. So, like the Malaysian climber, the very well equipped mem­bers of the Himex group left David Sharp and con­tin­ued up the moun­tain. A mem­ber of the Himex party re­ported that, on the way down, they met Sharp again and he was still lu­cid enough to state that “my name is David Sharp and I am with Asian Trekking.” By now they were ex­hausted and they left him and he died. Eric Simonson runs Ever­est ex­pe­di­tions each year. In 2001 he res­cued two mem­bers of a Rus­sell Brice ex­pe­di­tion from a point much higher up the moun­tain than where David Sharp died. When he heard of what hap­pened on Ever­est he stated: “Climbers can be too self­ish. I don’t know how th­ese peo­ple can sleep at night. It’s ab­hor­rent.”

Sev­eral climbers re­ported that to go past Sharp they had to un­clip from the rope to get around him. That is a very con­scious act and turns the man into a mere in­con­ve­nience. Philoso­phers ar­gue that there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween a jus­ti­fi­able act and an ex­cus­able one. If the climbers could show it was the right thing to do, it’s jus­ti­fi­able. If the act is wrong but there are cir­cum­stances where you shouldn’t be blamed, it’s ex­cus­able and there should be no blame at­tached. It was a very cold day when David Sharp died and he was up in what is known as the Death Zone. Per­haps that makes their con­duct ex­cus­able. Oth­ers think that he took his chances climb­ing Ever­est on the cheap and so shouldn’t have ex­pected bet­ter equipped, bet­ter sup­ported ex­pe­di­tions to save him.

Climb­ing Ever­est is much harder than any­thing most of us will ever do. My friends who have done it hardly try to ex­plain what it en­tails be­cause those of us who haven’t just can’t un­der­stand. Sue Fear came clos­est when she gave an old fash­ioned slide show at her place for her friends soon af­ter she re­turned from Ever­est. She was mat­ter-of-fact but the re­al­ity of what it took for her to reach the sum­mit had all of us look­ing at her as an alien, higher be­ing. So maybe the rar­i­fied heights of Ever­est do op­er­ate on dif­fer­ent moral prin­ci­pals. It’s cer­tainly a place where dy­ing is a strong pos­si­bil­ity. Some 2500 peo­ple have reached the sum­mit of Mount Ever­est since Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing first set foot on the sum­mit in 1953 – and some 200 peo­ple have died on the moun­tain. In the “Into Thin Air” hor­ror year of 1996 12 peo­ple died there – this year at least 13 did. Climbers re­port on step­ping over long-dead corpses or see­ing well pre­served bod­ies in the same places year af­ter year.

With so many peo­ple who can now claim to have sum­mit­ted Ever­est, it’s no longer such an exclusive club to be in. How­ever, Hil­lary feels that the mod­ern age of celebrity has re­sulted in climbers who “just want to get to the top.” Be­cause Ever­est is the high­est, it’s the one that at­tracts those who aim to achieve the ul­ti­mate. This year we had the first man to stand naked on top of Ever­est – a mile­stone in­deed. Jochen Hemm­leb, an Ever­est his­to­rian, re­cently wrote: “For decades Ever­est was seen as the epit­ome of hu­man chal­lenge. In re­cent years, how­ever, its role has changed. From a test­ing place it has been trans­formed into a stage on which hu­man van­i­ties and other habits are put on dis­play. As Ever­est his­to­rian Walt Unsworth once wrote, ‘Ever­est can bring out the best and worst in peo­ple.’”

You’d like to think that your moral core was strong enough that you would make the right de­ci­sion in a mo­ment of cri­sis. I’d like to think that I’d step aside to give some­one else the last space on a lifeboat of the Ti­tanic. Or that I’d find the courage to knock on the doors of the sur­round­ing rooms if I woke to find my ho­tel on fire. And I’d like to think that I’d set aside a ma­jor goal in my life to save a per­son’s life. One of the men who turned away from the sum­mit to get Lin­coln to safety re­ported with some hon­esty that “Com­ing back down the ridge,” he noted, “feel­ings were of noth­ing but dis­ap­point­ment at not mak­ing the sum­mit; Ever­est is a pe­cu­liar moun­tain in that the sum­mit is so highly prized and sought-af­ter that noth­ing else seems im­por­tant.” But later he re­flected that “I could not help but won­der how in any way is a sum­mit more im­por­tant than sav­ing a life?”

The last month has been tu­mul­tuous. With Lin­coln, I thought I’d lost a friend but he was mirac­u­lously brought back from the dead. Then I did lose a friend in Sue Fear, on an easy, but un­ex­pect­edly treach­er­ous, part of a nearby moun­tain just 48 hours later. I also gained three new he­roes: Dan Mazur of Sum­mitClimb, his fel­low Amer­i­can, Myles Os­borne and Cana­dian Andrew Brash. They put aside per­sonal am­bi­tion to give us back our friend.

Oh and I hear that on the same day they did it, quite a lot of peo­ple added their names to a long list of peo­ple who had climbed a moun­tain.

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