Stuck between heaven and earth
Ten years after the tragedy that inspired the bestselling book
``Into Thin Air,'' a recent death on Mount Everest has rekindled debate
over the ethics of mountaineering.
According to news reports, British climber David Sharp sat dying in
the freezing snow while dozens attempting to reach the 29,035-foot
summit passed him without offering to help. Sharp was one of 11
fatalities reported this year on Earth's tallest peak.
But his death, on May 15, has aroused visceral feelings about
Everest and those who attempt to climb it. Sir Edmund Hillary, who led
the first successful summit, in 1953, sparked an outcry last week when
he told New Zealand reporters, ``Human life is far more important than
just getting to the top of a mountain.''
Some say the incident underscores the changing ethic of climbing,
which has become highly commercial since dramatic narratives such as
``Into Thin Air'' have romanticized the sport. This season's death toll
is the largest since 15 died on Everest in 1996.
As shocking as Sharp's tale seems, mountaineers say it is unfair to
judge decisions made at high altitude, where one mishap can mean the
difference between life and death. Even as they discussed issues of
individual responsibility and moral choices, climbers were slow to
criticize the actions of the some 40 people said to have continued
upward while Sharp clung to life 1,000 feet below the summit.
``To understand you have to have been there,'' said Palo Alto's Nick
Clinch, who last year received the American Alpine Club's second-ever
lifetime achievement award. ``It is one thing to pontificate when you
are safe and warm.''
Sharp, who was attempting a solo climb, was said to be so close to
death when others found him that nothing could have been done to save
``When you are that high on Everest rescues are nearly impossible
unless you have someone who is somewhat capable of helping
themselves,'' Lance Trumbull of Sunnyvale wrote in an e-mail from Nepal
last week. ``It seemed that David was unable to move or to help himself
-- and it is literally impossible to carry someone down from that point
on the mountain.''
As expedition leader of the Everest Peace Project, Turnbull met Sharp at base camp before the ordeal.
``It is tragic and incredibly sad -- and unfortunately, it is part of what Everest is about: death and heroics,'' he wrote.
Attitudes old and new
Trumbull recounted a 36-hour ordeal two weeks ago in which his group
rescued one of its climbers at the summit. That climber was resting in
Katmandu, he said.
Clinch, who four decades ago led the American expedition that made
the first ascent of Mount Vinson on Antarctica, said the effect of high
altitude on decision-making cannot be overstated.
``You are not running on all cylinders,'' he said. ``The higher you go the worse you get.''
Clinch, 75, also supported Hillary's outrage. He said it expressed the feelings of most old-time mountaineers.
``There was this feeling that you would help your friends and they
would help you,'' Clinch said. ``I've rescued people and have been
rescued -- there was no question.''
Clinch calls the current attitude the ``big city syndrome'': with so
many tramping on Everest now, climbers don't stop to help because they
think someone else will do it. But he will not judge those who passed
Sharp. ``I wonder if I would have done it. I wouldn't swear I would do
it unless I did it.''
Linda McMillan, a past vice president of the American Alpine Club, shares Clinch's view.
``When do you draw the line?'' she asked, referring to the issue of attempting to rescue someone who already might be gone.
McMillan, of San Rafael, said her group sends a message about
climbing ethics by honoring those who make extraordinary rescues. It is
considered one of the most prestigious awards in mountaineering, she
Still, some lose sight of the climbing code when blinded by the ambition to conquer Everest.
Michigan attorney Lou Kasischke understands that powerful draw as
well as anyone. Ten years ago, he paid the late Rob Hall, a famed New
Zealand guide, $65,000 to reach the summit. Four hundred vertical feet
from his dream, he turned around.
That decision perhaps saved his life and became one of the lessons
of ``Into Thin Air,'' the book by Jon Krakauer, which chronicled two
disastrous Everest expeditions in 1996 in which eight people --
including Hall -- died in one day. Among them were four of Kasischke's
six friends who continued climbing when he turned back.
``The biggest challenge on Everest isn't Everest, it is yourself,''
Kasischke said last week. ``Are you strong enough inside to have the
strength to make the right decision? That was a bad decision on my
part'' to go on the trip. ``I wish I had never been there.''
Kasischke will not go back.
``I learned the dark side of the goal process,'' he said. ``It can
lead you to do bad things. It was reckless, selfish and irresponsible
for me to take those risks. I was in denial, as climbers usually are.''
A matter of priorities
Kasischke sees parallels between the 1996 tragedies and the latest
missteps on the snowy ridges of the Himalayas. What, he asked, should
one do under the circumstances?
Sharp, 34, was an engineer and, according to friends, a strong
climber. Kasischke said that Sharp might have shirked responsibilities
by climbing solo with inadequate gear. But, he added, that would not
exonerate those who failed to help him. One of climbing's ethos is to
be prepared for emergencies -- yours and others'.
``That absolutely has 100 percent priority over reaching your own goals,'' Kasischke said. ``It's just a sport for God's sake.''
Kasischke said it is too easy to suggest that Sharp would have
perished even if someone stopped to help. ``How can they know?'' he
One of the protagonists of the ``Into Thin Air'' story -- Beck
Weathers -- was left for dead before awakening and being rescued. More
recently, an Australian climber pronounced dead on Thursday was found
alive the next day. A rescue party brought him off the mountain this
Kasischke knows there are no pat answers when it comes to
catastrophe on Everest. But he has a different perspective than many.
One of most transforming moments in his life is something that never
``I never stood on the summit,'' he said.
He didn't need to do it. Not as long as he is still standing on the ground.
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