Ethics of Everest

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

After doing countless hours of research into climbing Mount Everest in preparation for my attempt in 2012, I have found it harder and harder to discuss the topic of climbing Everest without stumbling over the endless pitfalls of the current ethics of climbing the mountain.  It seems almost everyone has an opinion, from Everest summiteers, to adventure athletes, and even a surprising amount of journalists. There are several contentious areas for debate, such as an appropriate lower age limit, the technological advancements around the mountain, the guided expedition issue, and the timeless debate as to whether it is easier now than when Hillary and Tenzing first summited the majestic mountain.

An age old question
A tough question to answer is what is too young to climb Everest. Is 13 years too young? Is 20 years too young? In fact, can you ever be old enough to be able to fully comprehend and fully grasp the decision to climb Everest? 2010 saw an influx of young people attempting the climb; and within a few days, a 22 year old became the youngest British female climber to have climbed the mountain, and a 13 year old boy became the youngest boy in the world to have summited. The former sparked the unavoidable media frenzy, which asked the question is it morally acceptable to take a person that young, who may not be able to fully appreciate the risks involved, to the top of Everest? Personally I think it depends a lot on the situation. Take for example Bonita Norris. She summited Mount Everest in 2010, becoming the youngest British female aged 22. What makes this more compelling is the fact that she was a novice climber only a few years before climbing Everest. You may then argue that this was a reckless attempt on the grounds of lack of experience, however, after following Bonita and reading about the training she did to overcome this experience deficit, it then becomes apparent that this was not as reckless as it appears on the surface. It would be easy for a non climber to say the 2 years Bonita spent training was completely inadequate and left an attempt on Everest irresponsible. Bonita was in fact, by far the most experienced climber at high altitude on Kenton Cool’s team, and much more experienced than most others on the mountain, who may be deemed older and wiser by non climbers, however this was most certainly not the case.
Jordan Romero was the 13 year old boy, the youngest in the world to climb Everest as of 2010. My concerns lie not with Jordan, but with the ‘challenge’ he has inadvertently created. From hearing interviews by Jordan and his Dad in particular, the climb comes across as quite a clinical operation, with Jordan proving himself on big mountains such as Aconcagua before attempting Everest. By all accounts, and in all honesty, what he achieved was an amazing feat for a person of that age.
However, soon after the climb, there were reports that a Sherpa was planning to take an 11/12 year old boy, or failing that, take his own 10 year old son to reclaim the record!
When you hear statements like this, you have to ask; is it in the spirit of Mountaineering? After all, that spirit is why everyone started climbing in the first place. Furthermore, from everything that I have seen and read, Everest is certainly no place to ‘mess about’.
Fortunately, both Nepal and China have imposed age limits at 16 and 18 years respectively. This does at least show a degree of responsibility from the bordering countries.

Technology
The spirit of mountaineering brings me on to the point of technological advancements on the mountain. This article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11651509 explains how there is now 3G at Everest! This mix of technology and nature is definitely not in the spirit of mountaineering, when one of the qualities of mountains is they are normally in remote areas, and give people a chance to escape the modern society of the western world.

Guided Expeditions
The issue of guided expeditions is certainly one that has raised a substantial amount of press, ever since the 1996 climbing season on Everest. The conclusion from that season is that too many companies were offering to literally ‘guide’ you up the mountain for money. A simple concept, however a deadly one when you read reports of people who were being taught to use crampons at base camp! This takes the ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ motto to a whole new dimension.

First Assents
As to whether it is easier now than when Hillary and Tenzing first summited Everest, if you ignore all other arguments, you have to remember that one of the most important elements of a first assent is route finding. Thanks to Hillary and Tenzing, climbers aiming to summit by the southeast ridge follow the same route Hillary and Tenzing first made over 50 years ago. Route finding is no longer such an immense part of the Everest climb as it was in the first assent. The speed climber Ueli Steck sums this up well when he says he is no better than Heckmair, Vörg, Harrer and Kasparek, the first people to climb the North Face of the Eiger, even though he summited the face in 2 hours 47 minutes, compared with the 3 day first assent.

My Expedition
This makes me think about, and gives me the unfortunate need to justify my own expedition. Starting with the age argument, it is very hard to justify whether you are old enough to undertake such an expedition; however, I do believe in my argument that the specific situation counts for a lot. As Bonita, and even Jordan showed, although they were young, they made up for the lack of age by climbing big mountains, and gaining vital experience at high altitude. In my preparation to climb Everest, I will be amongst others, attempting Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world, in an effort to gain much needed knowledge about how my body will cope at that elevation.
As for the technology, I am a big believer that the magic of mountaineering has a great deal to do with the solitude and separation from the hustle and bustle of the city. For me, there is nothing better than waking up in a deserted valley in the Lake District, and feeling like you have the whole place to yourself.
There is also the issue of the guided expeditions. I think I have found a good compromise, in a well known and respected company called Adventure Peaks, based in Cumbria. Their expeditions are professionally ‘led’ rather than guiding, meaning only people with experience at high altitude and on similar peaks are deemed acceptable for the expedition. This means all their climbers are self sufficient, and whilst there is the invaluable support of Sherpas, at no point are the climbers rigidly guided to the top.
Finally, after seeing Conrad Anker free climb the 2nd Step in ‘The wildest Dream’ without the Chinese ladder, I have only admiration for people who make the first assents. I hope one day I too can muster up the courage needed, when route finding takes you into the unknown. However, there can only be one first assent of the actual mountain itself, and that has already been accomplished, but surely, that shouldn’t degrade subsequent attempts, or stop people from wanting to climb the mountain; after all, this is Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and that has to count for something.
Ultimately, and having only scratched the surface, the ethics of Everest is a lengthy debate which I don’t intend to revisit in a hurry, but by far the most important message I can offer, is to climb with the same spirit with which you first climbed, the same spirit by which the first mountaineers and explorers climbed the world’s most magnificent peaks:

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is no use'. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for” George Leigh Mallory, 1922.

I hope you found this remotely interesting! And I would love to hear your feedback.
You can read more about Bonita Norris’s Everest expedition here: http://www.bonitanorris.com/
Adventure peaks can be found at: http://www.adventurepeaks.com/