In the past, when speaking on ‘Ethics and Ambition’, I’ve concentrated on ambition — clarifying what ambition entails for climbers, and the potential consequences of ambition.
This year we concentrated on ethics— what are the ethical dilemmas to which ambition drives us?
First, without ambition, climbing poses few or no ethical dilemmas. It’s a climber’s ambition to be the best, or the first to climb an unclimbed peak, or a new route on a mountain, that puts her at risk.
I’ll state two (dictionary) definitions of ethics:
1. A branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.
2. moral principles, as of an individual
Why would striving to become one of the best climbers cause ethical dilemmas?
In one word: sponsorship.
As an example, North Face (TNF),
the world’s second largest expedition funder, pays a team of 71 athletes to — basically have adventures. Conrad Anker, a climber who helps decide which athletes’ projects become ad campaigns, looks for people who are among the top athletes in the world.
Other companies that make climbing gear, clothing, and camping equipment also sponsor climbers. Receiving such a coveted climbing sponsorship becomes a highly desirable goal for young climbers, and they attempt more and more daring feats in their quest to join the ranks of sponsored climbers.
Sometimes climber’s attempts to climb a new route ends in tragedy. Micah Dash,
Jonny Copp, and the photographer Wade Johnson died in their attempt to scale a new route on the southeast face of Mt. Edgar.
Chinese authorities had called the climbers before their trip to advice them of very bad weather and conditions on the mountain, and suggest that they not go at that time. Copp replied that he was booked for the next three years, and it was now or never.
This pressure to perform for sponsors, and to attempt new and daring feats, may cloud climber’s judgment and cause them to try climbs that they would perhaps not go on were there no pressure to retain a sponsorship.
Other examples of sponsored rock climbers and mountaineers daring difficult climbs include Alison Hargraves, who perished on K2; and Charlie Fowler, who disappeared climbing in China.
Solo climbing — without use of a rope — another way to do something new. Alex Honnold,, recently featured on “60 Minutes”, became the first person to climb Half Dome entirely unroped (TNF sponsors Honnold).
The ethical situation remains confounding. The quest for publicity and income encourages climbers to attempt potentially fatal climbs. However, the public watches the videos, much like the Romans watching the gladiators. Should climbers attempt dangerous feats? If they don’t, then someone else will, to whom they might lose their sponsorship.
Should outdoors equipment manufacturers sponsor climbers on dangerous trips? If one doesn’t, another will — but that’s not generally a good answer to ethical questions.
A third factor is young climber’s belief in their invincibility. I went to Shishapangma in 1994, despite having a 3-year old son, convinced that because it was “a small 8,000-meter peak, it was safe.” I even said that while Everest, K2, and others were dangerous, that Shishapangma was perfectly safe. Arriving at Camp 3 at 7,350 meters to find three corpses frozen in their tent disabused me of the notion that it was safe.
But when the Austrians invited me on the trip, I thought it would be safe, and I went. Likewise, many of the climbers who attempt climbs with a fatal end go on the trip firmly convinced of their potential success.