Ethics of Ambition 2016: Risk
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Wednesday October 28, 2015 at 11:24 am)


Dean Potter on a slack line without a tether (safety line)

When, and under which conditions, would the risk taken by climbers pose an ethical dilemma? I’ve discussed this issue in the past with Professor Strom’s class, Ethics of Ambition. Today, I presented three cases of risky activities:

1. Wing-suit flying and BASE jumping

2. Guided climb to Mt. Everest

3. Sponsored athletes who perform stunts for Red Bull and others

Dean Potter held the world record for the longest base jump, from the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger. In his wingsuit, Dean flew for almost 3 minutes over a distance of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers).

On May 16, 2015, I was cat sitting for one of the ranger’s in Yosemite National Park. About 10pm that evening, I answered a knock at the door. It was Dean’s mate, and another woman.

“Dean and Graham jumped tonight, and we haven’t heard from them,” Jen said. “Is it possible they were arrested and can’t call?” she asked.

The ranger, Mike, who was packing to leave town the next morning jumped up.

“C’mon, we’ll go over to SAR (search and rescue) and see what’s going on.

With a sinking feeling I watched them leave.  Base jumpers and wingsuit fliers not showing up usually means one thing: they crashed. I was afraid that Dean, whom I’d known for over 20 years, was dead.

They had not been arrested (BASE jumping is illegal in national parks), nor did they call that night. The next morning,  SAR sent out a  team  which found and recovered the two bodies.

Potter’s goal was to break barriers and do what no one had done before. In an interview with Dan Duane (the Last Flight of Dean Potter), he says “”I love having these ultimate goals out in front of me,” …. “But the number one goal… — is that I don’t ever get taken out by fucking up. I want to live to be a grandfather….”

Sadly, Dean did not survive to see his grandchildren.

Still, Dean followed his dreams uncompromisingly. He pursued new goals as his art, and did not bow to the demands of sponsors.

Unlike Potter, would-be Everest summiters face different ethical dilemmas.

Mountaineer Leanna Shuttleworth passed the bodies of dead and dying people on her ascent. Leanna Shuttleworth  and her father Mark headed for the 29,035ft summit on May 19-20, 2012. Almost 200 climbers tried for the top; six died. “There were quite a few bodies attached to the fixed lines and we had to walk round them”, Shuttleworth said. “There were also a couple who were still alive.” Shuttleworth describes coming across one man who she assumed had perished. “As we passed he raised his arm and looked at us,” she said. “He didn’t know anyone was there. He was almost dead. He was dead when we came back down.”

In an era when climbing Everest has become a form of extreme tourism … has human life come to count for less than the fulfillment of a personal ambition.

In May 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal, killing  8,000 people, including at least 19 climbers—10  Sherpas—at  Everest Base Camp.This started one more debate about the commercialization of Everest and the ethics of climbing it.


Red Bull has been increasingly criticized for sponsoring extreme events and competitions in which numerous people are injured or killed.

Büchel and Deutsche Welle looks at the dark side of extreme sports and sponsorship in “the Dark Side of Red Bull - the Perils of Extreme Sports.”

In 2009,  three athletes died while doing (paid) stunts for Red Bull: skier Shane McConkey, parachuter Eli Thompson and basejumper Ueli Gegenschatz - who was  filmed when he was killed. Robb Gaffney, a medical doctor,  described Red Bull marketing as unethical.

In a recent story,” When Does Risk Outweigh the Reward?”, 

The author criticizes the Red Bull Rampage  mountain bike competition.
He describes it: “This is MADNESS.”  It  costs the Pros money to enter and
riders bring their own insurance , and are required to sign a liability waiver freeing Red Bull of any responsibility.”

I’ve described three very different types of extreme activities, with very different ethical considerations. Potter base jumped for his own fulfillment, with little or no pressure fro sponsors.

Would-be Everest summiters pay huge sums to risk their own lives as well as those of others - many Sherpas and guides have been killed trying to get the wealthy to the top.

And for Red Bull, athletes risk life and limb to get the sponsor more publicity.

I’ll let you decide which of these activities pose  greater ethical dilemmas, and which are purely a personal decision.

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