May 24, 2006

"The people just want to get to the top. They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn't impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die.": Sir Edmund Hillary (and many others) weigh in on the ethical issues involved in a recent fatal incident on Mount Everest. British solo climber David Sharp collapsed and later died a short distance from the summit; of the estimated 40 climbers who passed Sharp while he was still alive, only one party attempted to help him.

posted by lil_brown_bat to extreme at 03:44 PM - 32 comments

I don't know a huge amount about mountaineering and wouldn't like to judge, not having been anywhere so extreme myself, but it does seem very sad. The article appears to be pointing towards selfishness and an uncaring attitude amongst modern-day climbers. But as Muir says, if he was close to death at that altitude on that mountain you wonder what anyone could do for him. A few weeks ago I would probably have pilloried the 40 climbers who passed him by on that mountain. However, I watched Touching The Void recently and that taught me that serious mountaineers seem to work to a different code of values - driven by the danger of the circumstances. See Touching The Void if you get the chance. It's superb.

posted by squealy at 04:03 PM on May 24, 2006

"Obviously if someone is in trouble you should help them, but your first responsibility is to your own group." As cold as it sounds I think this is how a lot of these groups rationalized leaving him there. Anyone qualified to lead a group up the mountain would endanger that group by going down with Sharp and anyone inexpierenced could end dying themselves in a vain attempt to save an already dying man.

posted by HATER 187 at 04:26 PM on May 24, 2006

That is what is so callous about the decision. It is more important for a group to continue their journey than to abort their journey to save someone's life. You would hope that nothing would be more important than saving a life, which would include reaching the top of Mt. Everest.

posted by bperk at 04:42 PM on May 24, 2006

Mountaineers are a weird bunch. I think it's hard for non-mountaineers to understand them completely. Even the critically acclaimed and fascinating Touching The Void is a subject of debate among them. Incidentally, I have an acquaintance who was attempting to climb the Everest the last few weeks, "by fair means", which means alone, without oxygen, using the Tibetan way. He may have crossed the unfortunate David Sharp, albeit lower on the mountain, as he stopped at 7500m.

posted by qbert72 at 04:51 PM on May 24, 2006

This is a sad story but I completely understand the circumstances involved in leaving him there. I and probably most of us are just as likely to go to the moon as we are to climb MT. Everest, so think of those who have that dream and have been waiting there entire life for it. They should give it up? I myself would like to think I would stop to help. But I dont know.

posted by PGHTOS at 04:55 PM on May 24, 2006

I think what makes all of this so murky is that we live in the age of guided expeditions...which is something of a contradiction in terms. Used to be if you wanted to summit Everest, you had to not only be an extremely skilled and dedicated mountaineer, but you had to have expedition skills: the skills to survive and thrive in situations where there are no signposts and no rescue. To take part in that kind of expedition, you had to be the sort of person that others knew was going to pull his/her weight and then some. You couldn't buy your way onto a trip...and now you can. There are a lot more names on the register at Rum Doodle now; a lot more people slap down a lot of money and do it, and a lot more people think they can do it. And if you took a bunch of these "summit expeditioneers" and said, "Okay, you're a party," they wouldn't be able to make the summit, because they don't collectively have the chops to do it. Each is pulling something less than his/her own weight as far as what it really takes to summit, and taken together it adds up to a deficit. To make it to the summit, they have to rely on the experience and knowledge of guides; they buy that rather than earn it. So it's not just a matter of not giving a damn, as Hillary says. What's changed is skill, and while you can argue that deciding to summit Everest without that skill is one form of not giving a damn about others, an expedition in earlier times would have been more likely to stop IMO not because they were better people, but because they were better equipped to be there.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 05:04 PM on May 24, 2006

Most of the people up there are among the very wealthy. It costs a lot of money for permits and equipment. I would find it difficult to leave someone in obvious distress behind, but I am not a mountaineer either. It takes one moment of indecision or lack of forethought to die up there. As a resident of Jackson Hole, the best skiing in north america I have heard this guys name a lot, even met him a couple times. Extreme skiing and mountaineering can be deadly, even on gorgeous bluebird days. He wouldn't have left anyone alone up there.

posted by GoBirds at 05:07 PM on May 24, 2006

It is more important for a group to continue their journey than to abort their journey to save someone's life. I've never climbed anything higher than Mount Si, so I may not be knowledgeable about this sort of thing, but I doubt that this statement is correct. Mountaineering is a ridiculously dangerous activity, especially on Everest; the calculus for a climber that comes across a dying man seems to me to be, "well, there's a guy in front of me who is already almost dead; can I get him down before he dies, and can I get him down without both of us dying or me killing him in the process?" And from what I've read, the answer to those questions is almost universally no. Thus, the dying man is left to die, and the expedition continues on. That may not make it fair, and may exact a karmic price later on if you believe in that sort of thing, but it's a completely rational decision.

posted by Toxteth O'Grady at 05:11 PM on May 24, 2006

LBB, wouldn't the guides be able to get everyone back safely if the group decided to abort their trip? The thought that they don't have the expertise and haven't worked as hard as they used to do makes it an even more troublesome decision for me. It is one thing to pass up something that you have been working to achieve your whole life, it is something different to be out a whole ton of money.

posted by bperk at 05:14 PM on May 24, 2006

bperk, I think the issue for a guide in that situation was, can I get my group plus an incapacitated person down. The answer is probably no for a group like that, and probably it's no for a lot of "real" mountaineering groups too. If you take a wilderness first aid class (a lot of fun, btw; I highly recommend it), they'll tell you that it takes 18 people minimum to carry one person; then they'll make you do it, and in under five minutes you'll believe them. I dunno, this may just be a case where the outcome would have been the same in any era. Maybe, back in the day, if there had been anyone else up there, they would have also figured there was nothing they could do and walked on past the guy. Maybe it's just that forty people walked by him that is making people ask questions. If you wreck your car beside a busy highway and forty drivers drive by, is that worse than if you wreck it by a less traveled road and one driver drives by? I don't know.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 05:36 PM on May 24, 2006

Tons of humans are selfish and im not talking about the ones that passed the guy and also how do you know they saw him what if they didnt see him If I saw 200 dead bodys on the ground I would just leave them there and not tell anyone and its not cause im selfish its cause most of the people are selfish they dont give a damn about anything except themselves an other humanns

posted by houston2006 at 07:09 PM on May 24, 2006

with the O2 level at that height, the pain, thought is liminted. One must have only one thought, the mind does not work. Zombies have more ideas than most climbers. Take care of yourself, fuck everyone else, good luck you climbers if you expect help from others. You can't call 911. jim

posted by jim webster at 09:02 PM on May 24, 2006

Ogrady hit it right on the button

posted by ggermanctl@sbcglobal at 11:02 PM on May 24, 2006

Damn SpoFi for not having the ever-cool "Fave" option. Fantastic link and discussion.

posted by Ufez Jones at 11:51 PM on May 24, 2006

He was a solo mountaineer, that meant he'd accepted the risks of doing what he was doing and that if he screwed up, anything, he was dead. He must have known he didn't have enough oxygen to make it back down and was just hoping to top out before he died. At least that's how I'm seeing it. As for other climbers not aborting thier climb to help him, what good would it have done? And what happens if someone in the party that tries to help him dies because of the effort? What if several die? Sorry but the cold calculus says he is a lost soul and other climbers have to carry on. Bummer he was so close to the top. I might have helped him to the very top before he died.

posted by fenriq at 11:53 PM on May 24, 2006

Well said Fenriq... I never climbed much of a mountain, but it seems to me we're comparing this to walking down the street and seeing somoene dying. Like they could have pulled out their cellphone and called 911, or have tossed him in the trunk and driven him to the ER. I've never been that high because i realize if i did it and got in trouble i'd die. I have to figure this guy understood that too. I do feel for the guy with the prosthetic legs. He accomplishes the amazing feat of climbing Mt Everest and all anyone asks him about is the guy who didn't make it.

posted by SummersEve at 06:27 AM on May 25, 2006

Updated story: David Sharp, 34, died apparently of oxygen deficiency while descending from the summit during a solo climb last week.

posted by SummersEve at 08:04 AM on May 25, 2006

The Journey is never so important that you can't stop and help someone. Remember "It's all on the wheel, It all comes around"

posted by vetteman at 08:31 AM on May 25, 2006

Damn. I've seen Touching the Void and read a few books on extreme sports and from what I gather, this is absolutely the price that can be paid. I also agree that Everest has become a damn tourist destination that doesn't facilitate any true ideal anymore. Buy your icket and get carried to the top. Seems like cheating to me. And I agree that this lack of skill means no deviation from the path or plan. Many are incapable of helping - I'm also sure many aren't interested. I am like none of these people. I have no desire to conquor the mountains or ride the big waves. However, I admire those that are compelled to and really can't put myself in a position of judgement, because I've never been close to that kind of a situation.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 08:35 AM on May 25, 2006

I'm wondering what the difference is between helping a guy not in your party, and helping a guy IN your party. Professional 'ethics'? If its impossible to help the guy that you find on the side of the mountain, how can they do anything for a climber in distress in their own party? Am I going to pay a guide that won't do this? To me the only question is whether he was too far gone to help at the time.

posted by sfts2 at 10:31 AM on May 25, 2006

The calculus is simple: 1) If they are on the way down and the survival of their party is at stake, they were right to leave him. 2) If they passed him on the way up and didn't stop to help or abort their climb, they are partly responsible for his death. They still had resources to spare if they are attempting to summit. If helping him would have endangered the party on the way up, they have no business continuing the ascent, anyway. Standing on top of a big rock versus leaving someone to die? That decision shouldn't take more than 2 seconds to make, even allowing for oxygen deprivation. As for the argument of him being too far gone, ask Beck Weathers about that one.

posted by joaquim at 10:48 AM on May 25, 2006

Is he still up there? If not, it would be interesting to know what kind of operation was required to recover his body - that would give us some indication of what it would take to carry someone (dead or almost) off the mountain. I suspect, as LBB said, it would take a whole lot more than it's possible to imagine if the closest you have been to those conditions is falling on your face in Aspen. I suspect (but have no frame of reference when it comes down to it) that if you think you'd stop and save him, you have watched one too many crappy Hollywood movies in which Bruce Willis carries someone slung over his shoulder like a jacket across the Sahara to escape the villainous Nazis. People die on mountains. It's a shame, but every last one of them, no matter how much they paid to get up there, either know that before they set off, or find it out far too late. I heard a rumour the other day that people die in wars too - but I've seen the A-Team and that's not how guns work.

posted by JJ at 11:19 AM on May 25, 2006

I think Inglis' group had the right approach, the stopped to see if they could help, discovered the couldn't, then went on their way. But, out of the 40 climbers, only one group even stopped to assess the situation to see if they could help. What about those other groups? Is it too much to expect them to at least find out if providing help is reasonable?

posted by bperk at 11:39 AM on May 25, 2006

Replace the second and third "the" with "they". I 'm stupid. I hate myself.

posted by bperk at 01:02 PM on May 25, 2006

This interview with David Breashears gave me a bit of understanding. Excerpt. "...You mentioned in our last interview that it was going to be difficult passing the bodies of your friends on the way up."

posted by tselson at 01:35 PM on May 25, 2006

sfts2: I'm wondering what the difference is between helping a guy not in your party, and helping a guy IN your party. Professional 'ethics'? If its impossible to help the guy that you find on the side of the mountain, how can they do anything for a climber in distress in their own party? Am I going to pay a guide that won't do this? Well, part of the job of a professional on the "guided adventure/guided expedition" is to assess the ability of the participants -- in fact, that may be the single most important thing they do. Sometimes they guess wrong. Sometimes their assessment is, shall we say, optimistic, because they want to put the trip on -- they need the paying customers to make a living. In all cases, however, my feeling is that many guided trips are put together without a huge margin of safety, and when you start taking people who paid their way with money rather than with sweat on expeditions that are inherently very unsafe, you've got almost no margin at all. In such situations, you can rely on a guide to tell you what to do to stay alive and hopefully accomplish your objective; you can't rely on a guide to keep you alive if things go wrong. There are a couple of interesting reads that touch on the ethics of "guided adventure", peripherally -- Richard Bangs' The Lost River and Tracy Johnston's Shooting the Boh. These are whitewater, not mountaineering, and both of these detail first-descent expeditions with paying customers along for the ride (brought along in large part to help finance the expedition). One book is written from the perspective of the expedition leader, one from that of the "guest". If this subject interests you, there's a lot of food for thought in both these books. The Bangs book, at least, you can probably find in the library.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 04:04 PM on May 25, 2006

I don't know anything about mountain climbing, but it seems to me that there should be a philosophy that everyone on the mountain looks out for each other, regardless of the groups you're in. How satisfying can it be to reach the top of Mount Everest if you had to pass by a dying man to get there? Kinda puts a downer on the whole "crowning life achievement" thing.

posted by rcade at 04:37 PM on May 25, 2006

I don't know what happened to the article I linked to. It was a long interview and he went into great detail about the condition you are in when you are at that altitude. You can get to the real interview by clicking here and then clicking on the "enourmous task," link. It is a very interesting interview.

posted by tselson at 05:05 PM on May 25, 2006

Thanks for the FPP lil brown bat (extreme indeed) and everyone else for the additional links. Very interesting stuff. I have never had an urge to climb Mt Everest, and this certainly makes me file it under: Things I will never attempt. As far as the passing by people and leaving them for dead, I will not pass judgement on anyone. I know that I don't know what I would do in those circumstances, until actually being in them.

posted by MrFrisby at 06:36 PM on May 25, 2006

it seems to me that there should be a philosophy that everyone on the mountain looks out for each other, regardless of the groups you're in That's my default reaction because it seems like something my dad would have taught me, but I have to disagree with you after having seen a Nova episode on climbing Everest (I think that's the episode, it was on this season). You need a different frame of reference for being up that high. You're basically killing yourself to be up there. Picking someone else up and trying to bring them back is condeming both of you to death. Anyone who goes up there should be aware of the risk they are taking. There are no Marquis of Queensbury rules 15,000 feet above the planet floor. As an aside, I've left it alone because I don't want to derail this thread, but I think there are some spot-on comments in here about the Disneyfication of "fun" in Our Modern World. How the vast majority of us are willing to accept a sure-thing, just-ok prepackaged time to prevent not having fun out on our own. It blows and it makes me want to trade my vacation time in at work for "Straight cash, homey". Fantastic post. Thanks.

posted by yerfatma at 07:13 PM on May 25, 2006

Mountaineers are a weird bunch. I think it's hard for non-mountaineers to understand them completely. Non-mountaineers like Sir Edmund Hillary?

posted by rodgerd at 06:05 PM on May 26, 2006

I was talking about me.

posted by qbert72 at 11:28 PM on May 27, 2006

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