Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ethics on Mount Everest

(Note: absolutely no mention of trains in this post. Well, except this one.)

I've always had a minor fascination with Mount Everest. It started when I was maybe 10, and read John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, the account of the expedition that put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the summit, 53 years ago. Since then I've managed (without particularly trying) to read a few other works -- some title-forgotten history of explorations of the mountain from its first discovery by Europeans, Chris Bonington's Everest The Hard Way (first ascent via the forbidding South West Face); and followed the progress of the 1982 Canadian expedition. However as with so many other things, what was once unique and remarkable becomes almost commonplace: according to the Everest History site, 2249 people had reached the summit by the end of 2004 -- over 300 in that year alone. From being among the most inaccessible spots on earth, it seems that Everest has gone to being a sort of esoteric (albeit expensive) tourist trap. It's no longer news.

But lest we get blase about what climbing the mountain entails, realize that the "Mother of the Universe" (as the mountain's Tibetan name Chomolungma means) exacts her own stern tithe from the tiny humans that crawl about her -- the history site also records a total of 186 deaths on the mountain. In round numbers, for every 12 people that have stood on the summit, there is one corpse -- many of which still lie where they fell overcome by cold and hypoxia, or buried beneath tonnes of ice in the Khumbu glacier. Chomolungma is well-guarded. The local weather means that she is only climbable for a few weeks in Spring and Fall -- the rest of the year it is either snowing like hell, or lethally cold and windy. Then there are the approaches to the mountain, through fields of unstable ice. Finally, the air pressure on the upper reaches is barely one-third that at sea level -- the top 850 meters lie within the "death zone", where no human can live for long without supplementary oxygen supplies. At that altitude, even with oxygen the body deteriorates quickly, and climbers cannot linger for long at the highest camp -- they make a quick push for the summit and return to base. This is not a Sunday scramble up the Niagara Escarpment: those who climb Everest are among the best in their rarified and highly technical sport, and are driven, focussed and determined people. You have to be to subject yourself to that level of discomfort and danger, for the privilege of standing atop what is after all, a very large lump of rock and ice.

All of which is just a long-winded way of leading up to the point of this blog post:

This collision of human ambition with sublimely indifferent lethality brought Everest back into the news the last month, with a pair of Good (or Not-So-Good) Samaritan stories. First, on 15 May climber David Sharp died at the 8500m level while descending. Controversy flared when it came out that some 40 climbers had passed him by without attempting a rescue -- the argument is covered in this Wiki article, so I won't belabour the point further. (I also won't take a position: having never been in anything remotely like that situation, I am in no way qualified to comment).

But I'm interested in the sequel: a week later, Australian climber Lincoln Hall also ran into trouble at the 8700m level on his descent. His Sherpa guide was forced to abandon him, and he was assumed to have died in the night. However, the next morning Canadian Andrew Brash found Hall still alive during his own summit attempt. As Brash relates, he immediately abandoned his quest and turned to aiding the stricken Hall, now delirious from hypoxia, with the result that he was eventually brought down alive. The CBC program As It Happens interviewed Brash, and along with his account of events, he expressed his disappointment and frustration at not reaching the summit -- a chance he may never have again. I was particularly struck by Brash's attitude: it was "the only thing to do". No question; no hesitation -- just do what you must, period. (Both the sense of obligation and the frustration come through with greater force in the radio interview than in the news item).

Now here's a thought experiment: suppose that Hall had not been there; that choosing whether or not to save him wasn't even an issue. Presumably, Brash would have gone on to the summit and returned. From that achievement, he would have obtained an enormous sense of personal satisfaction; the respect of his fellow climbing enthusiasts; the admiration of his friends and family; perhaps some awe from his students -- and the rest of us would probably never have heard of him. Being the 2687th (or whatever the count is now up to) to reach the summit of Everest is, as I say above, not "news". Instead, he's famous. Not as in movie star-famous or politician-famous; not famous because he wanted to be (because he didn't); but famous for a great moral achievment, a selfless act of compassion. And in that he has set a very public example -- to all of us; to the kids he teaches -- of the best that humans can be, in a world where we daily hear far too much of the worst. Andrew Brash will have to make his own peace with his "failure" to reach the highest point on earth; as a non-climber I cannot empathize with his disappointment except in the most abstract way. But for my money, what he did achieve is far greater.

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