Ethics on Everest
“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”. Explorersweb.com 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.