Ambition and Ethics, 2011
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women (Wednesday October 26, 2011 at 11:41 am)

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.

24 comments for Ambition and Ethics, 2011 »

  1. Although I am not a climber myself, I can see the excitement in climbing. I believe climbers that have an ambition in climbing create ethical issues for themselves in the sense that the more determined they are, the more they are willing to risk. These risks could include harder climbs, the use of less equipment, and trying to accomplish the “impossible”. In addition to the climber’s individual goals, the pressure of a sponsorship can add even more on their plate. This is due to the fact that the climbers with sponsorships actually climb as their career and get their income from whomever sponsors them. This added burden drives the climbers even further to become the first one to accomplish a difficult climb and not necessarily something they would’ve done without the sponsorship. They put themselves at risk for the sake of their income. Despite this, like you said in this blog, if a climber doesn’t push themselves (when being sponsored) the sponsor will find someone else. I believe the only way to change this system would be to alter society’s opinion of what is entertaining and that is no easy feat.

    Comment by McKenzie Gibson — October 26, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

  2. While my sport isn’t climbing, I can completely relate to the feelings of freedom and pure enjoyment climbers speak about. I love to play golf and have always experienced the drive to push myself further in my game and to compete with others. In this way, the ambitions of climbers is clear to me, yet in examining the sport of climbing, I can’t completely relate to the ability to find happiness and clarity of mind while in a potentially life-threatening position. I understand that it is the sponsorship pressure that pushes these athletes to do daring climbs in order to make a living, and I disagree with their motives. However, we live in a society that is driven by entertainment and monetary gain, which cannot be changed. The sponsors are not looking out for the best interests of their climbers, but the climbers are not completely focused on their personal safety either. Their drive to be the best and obtain/retain their climbing sponsorship has pushed them to disregard their lives, which is an unethical practice.

    Comment by Marlie Fisher — October 27, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  3. I really enjoyed this conversation we had in class, while I do not climb, I do understand doing something you love because there is nothing that can take its place. But when a climber has a child and a family I believe that their love for them should be significantly stronger than their love for a hobby. Because of this belief I find it hard to understand why someone would be willing to put their at risk for a sport, instead of living to be with their family. I understand dying for someone you love but I would rather be with someone I love and give up something that would kill me.

    Comment by Hope Scott — October 27, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

  4. I enjoyed learning about climbing and its ethical consequences. The conversation we had in class encouraged me to pursue a passion as wholeheartedly as Sibylle, though not quite as dangerous. I respect her ambition and obvious adoration of climbing and admire her decision to put her life at risk for something she loves.

    Comment by Jen Abeles — October 28, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  5. The discussion about the North Face climbing team and risks they take for advertising reminded me of the movie Nordwand and the unsuccessful attempt to climb the Eiger. In the movie some of the climbers take dangerous risks so that they can be the first to the top mainly so they can prove the might of their sponsors, the Nazi SS. This made me think of all the pressure put anyone who is paid to perform, because if they do not they could lose their livelihood. I think that when people are climbing, even in dangerous places, if they are well prepared and place protection they are being ethically responsible in their climbing. However, I would agree that other considerations need to be made if the climber has a family and any risks taken need to be judge by all consequences of possible failure.

    Comment by Nicholaus Beaty — October 30, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  6. The conversation we had in class about the ethics of ambition in relation to climbing was very interesting. I think the pure joy and love climbers have for their sport is amazing. Climbing is a sport that comes with the grave possibilities of serious injuries or death and yet so many people would never stop. I agree with Hope that once someone has a family they should have a love and obligation to there family that would prevent them from attempting the very difficult climbs, but that is my personal opinion. My mom’s best friend passed away during a climbing accident in South America just last year and he left behind a son and wife, so this controversy touches close to home. He left a family, but he also died doing something he loved.
    Thank you for coming in and speaking to us about this subject. I really enjoyed the conversatio

    Comment by Ellesse Spaeth — October 30, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  7. When we discuss climbing and the ethical concern for life-threatening ventures, I believe that it is important to consider the largely devotional nature of its practice. When i say this, I mean that climbing is a sporth that has become very residential and cultural; it is a sport in which true communities are formed; moreso than most other sports that I have seen. When we couple this communitative aspect of climbing with the time investment to train for, plan, and complete projects, it seems to be the most time-committed sport to date. In essence, climbing evolves into a lifestyle above a hobby. I believe that this is why the fatality potential is easily accepted by the mountaineering community; death in pursuing one’s life pursuit or career is much more reasonable than death in exploring simple interests. In leiu of such a principle, the acheivement of climbing success demands that such a risk must be taken more and more regularly. The chance of ultimate sacrifice is the price that an ambitious climber must pay to participate to any extent, as must a stuntsperson, fisherman, racecar driver, or bull rider. Simply put, if something is worth a lifetime commitment, it is necessarily worth a risk of life.

    Comment by Thomas Gracie — October 30, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  8. I am very glad that you took the time to come and speak with us in class because the topic hits close to home with me. I spend a lot of time with thrill seekers, and am usually somewhat outcast in my groups because I am way more conservative than most of them in my adventure sports. I know there is no right answer to any of these questions but I personally think that it is not wrong for companies to sponsor athletes. I think that the athletes would attempt the same types of things anyway, and maybe not with as reliable of gear. I am familiar with the thoughts of these types of people, and even with my not quite considering myself one of them I agree with their logic. They simply believe that if you are not living what you love, you might as well not be living. I know that there is more to it, but if that’s how they feel, then more power to them that they can get some money out of it.

    Comment by Ashley Petersen — October 31, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  9. The discussion surrounding climbing, sponsorships and ethics is certainly one that we can continue to debate about. To an average student like me, it is difficult to consider making a devoted climber choose between their love of life and their love of climbing. But that’s just the thing; for climbers like you, Sibylle, and others even more competitive there isn’t a choice because one fuels the other. I believe when our discussion ended we decided that making these sort of ethical decisions is completely dependent upon the individual. For me, climbing will likely never become a sport that I aggressively pursue. However, for individuals like Alex Honnold, this drive and desire came at a young age and only continues to build. I actually clicked on the link you provided for the 60 Minutes interview and watched Alex’s amazing climb. His calmness, control, and ease surprised me as I assumed someone as crazy (in my eyes) to climb a 3,000 foot face without anything to protect him seemed like something only a maniac might pursue. However, his composure is obvious and anyone can see the spark in his eye when he was talking about climbing. For him, he discussed how climbing did not seem as dangerous to him as others feel it is. He did recognize that this might be the fact that he gets so close to death every day that he does not see what’s right in front of him, and though this is a possible reality, I truly believe in his comfort and control of himself. When it comes to other factors such as water, wind, etc. that’s a whole different story and there’s no telling what could happen.
    When considering what effect his sponsorship plays into his drive to climb the biggest and best thing out there, I would say that after seeing the interview, he does not let it determine the routes that he takes. Because he was so antsy and could not wait to get his hands in the cracks of a wall, he climbed that 150 foot face as a sort of warm-up without the attention of the camera crew or his sponsor recording it. He did it because he wanted to feel the control and the passion for climbing that he feels on the wall and I think The North Face just got lucky they nabbed such an adventurous and confident young man.
    It is important to note that Alex seemed, to me at least, to have fairly realistic expectations of his climbing career. He said that he did not think that he would be doing it all of his life and that eventually that love might disappear. You also mentioned that he said that if he had children, it would definitely change things for him. This shows that he has a good head on his shoulders and understands the risks he takes every day, though he doesn’t always acknowledge them. I hope that I could only have a passion and drive for something like this one day and be half as successful as him.

    Thank you so much for coming to our class. If you cannot already tell from my post, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and appreciate your time.

    Comment by Megan Barrie — October 31, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

  10. I think that sponsorship allows many people to completely dedicate themselves to their sport and provides income. However, as with anything, when taken too far it presents a danger. While I don’t think encouraging athletes to preform difficult climbs for sponsorship money is inherently wrong, It becomes a problem when sponsors pressure people without regard to the danger surrounding the circumstances. Both sponsors and climbers must find a workable level of moderation.

    Comment by David Scarr — November 6, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  11. I consider myself to be a moderate risk taker. In other words, I like to do things that are just outside my comfort zone, so there is a very real risk of various injuries ranging from simple scrapes to broken bones, but (at my skill level) a negligible risk of death. Occasionally these risks include climbing, and I’ve never come back after a day of climbing without various scrapes and bruises. If I didn’t take any of these risks, it would have been impossible for me to even walk. Risk-taking is inherent in the way we learn different motor skills.

    In terms of getting sponsored by some large company, I believe many climbers would regard that simply as a way to get paid for doing what they love. Instead of focusing on how dangerous climbing can be, they instead focus on how much they could learn, or how much comfortable they would be with certain skills. It also seems like most of the stunts sponsored athletes perform are suggested by the athletes themselves, it is the ambition of the athletes to be more and more daring, and the sponsors are merely capitalizing on the the opportunity.

    Comment by George Grell — November 7, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  12. As with any sport, it seems only logical that as that sport progresses, sponsorship from clothing companies, brands, etc. start appearing. It’s clear that sponsorship, and the desire for sponsorship is driving people to push the limits of climbing with fatal consequences. However, I personally do not believe that sponsorship should, will, or could be removed from climbing. Ethically, it is wrong for someone to be forced into doing a climb that is too dangerous or difficult to handle, as could be argued is happening in the sport currently. Ultimately though, it is the climbers making the decisions to climb. It does no one any good if some of the best climbers in the world are dying or being injured. The sponsors gain nothing and the climbing community as a whole suffers. It is not the intention of sponsors to force climbers into fatal situations, but the competition is so tight that it inevitably happens. Sponsors are not at fault, the inherent danger of climbing and competition are to blame.

    Comment by Will Silkman — November 7, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

  13. I loved the way you shared your enthusiasm with the class by narrating experiences and emotions you have had. I really enjoyed everything you had to say and appreciated your honest and frank depiction of the dangers of the sport. Thank you for coming in to our class and discussing ethics and climbing with us.

    Comment by Robert Erhard — November 7, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

  14. I believe professional athletes have a very precarious lifestyle. Athletes aren’t necessarily the best at what they do, usually just the luckiest. I’m sure climbing takes a lot of practice, but I have no pity for those who want try an make an income that requires no education, no background, and no social skills. This lifestyle is only a result of the benevolence of the groups willing to invest in climbers. In return for the risk of trying dangerous stunts, the lucky few climbers picked up for sponsorships are not only able to win a solid income, but are immortalized as icons to their respective fans. For that reason, whether it be climbing or all the other sports lock-outs that seem to be going on, my opinion is that when the hand that feeds you tells you to jump, you jump with a smile.

    Comment by Patrick Rodriguez — November 7, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  15. Professional climbers live a very precarious lifestyle. Athletes aren’t necessarily to best, usually just the luckiest. Personally, I cannot imagine trying to perform a job that provides no good or service, except maybe entertainment. I’m sure climbing takes a lot of practice, but thinking it is possible to live off of a career that requires no education, no background, and no social skills is a kind of gamble I could not feel responsible taking. From what I understand, the only way to live off of climbing is through the endorsements of companies. In return for risking taking that adds nothing to society except the occasional gasp, these companies keep their lucky climbers in their homes and make them icons to their respective fans. Whether it be in climbing or all the sports lock-outs that seem to be going on, when the hand that feeds you tells you to jump, you better jump with a smile.

    Comment by Patrick Rodriguez — November 7, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

  16. Thanks for coming to speak to our class - I found the way you linked seemingly unrelated things like rock climbing and ethics to be very interesting. I found your personal anecdotes about rock climbing experiences to be both moving and fascinating.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Craig Spalding — November 7, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

  17. While I think that sponsorships do contribute to climbers behaving irresponsibly, I feel that ultimately the responsibility of dangerous actions falls on the person committing them.
    Whether or not a person gets paid to do a dangerous stunt, it is still their choice as to whether or not they perform.
    I appreciate learning about your experiences and hearing a unique perspective! :)

    Comment by Alec Kirkman — November 7, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  18. While the results of ambitious climbing can be catastrophic, and I see how evil it is for adventure companies to literally kill their sponsored climbers I completely agree with the act of climbing ambitiously. It is better to have loved than lost than never loved at all. If one is truly passionate about something then I think very little should stand in that persons way for realizing their dream. A persons life is based on their passions, and what they do with them, so it is better to do something you love, than waste away doing something you dont. Ambition is needed in every career field not just rock climbing be it business, music, medicine, teaching you have to work hard to make your dreams come true. These climbers are taking extraordinary risks, but at least they are doing it following something they love. That is all that matters.

    Comment by John Gossen — November 7, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  19. Thank you so much for coming in and speaking in our Ethics class. Prior to listening to you speak I had always had a closed mind about rock climbing, because I never saw it being something I would enjoy. After hearing you express your passion for climbing I realized how similar your enthusiasm for climbing is to my enthusiasm for trail running and river rafting. Like all outdoors enthusiasts it seems that NOTHING could ever replace your sport of choice. And just like all outdoors enthusiasts you seem to enjoy the risks that accompany climbing. Thank you for speaking to something that I knew little about but was able to relate to at the same time. Thanks again!

    Comment by Nathan Zick-Smith — November 7, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  20. While I do agree that sponsorships have been pushing climbers to attempt dangerous climbs, I think that it is inevitable that this would happen and that it is up to the climbers as individuals do decide what is ethical. This can be seen in many sports, that companies push athletes to their limits just to get attention and bring in a profit. Whether this is ethical or not is still up for debate. I think it all varies with each climber because there are many factors, such as if they have a family or not.

    It is hard for me to say whether intentionally putting yourself in danger by climbing the peaks of the world is ethical because I have never tried it. But after hearing your explanation of why you love climbing so much I saw a new perspective. I think that in order to really evaluate rock climbing I will have to get out there and try it!

    Comment by Nicole Kelm — November 7, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  21. First I’d like to thank you for coming into the class and having the discussion with us - since the vast majority of us had never climbed, the discussion opened new doors to our discussions of ethics as it relates to climbing. In class, and in you piece above, you spoke significantly about three things: whether or not climbers should do more and more difficult climbs for sponsorship, whether or not sponsors should sponsor more and more difficult climbs, and the delusions of infallibility - if not invincibility - that some climbers have. Personally, I believe that the rational that the former two ethical questions can be resolved through logic of: “if not me/us, then someone else will”, is fundamentally flawed. With everything else equal, taking action, hypothetically defined as “bad” or “unethical”, is still “bad” or “unethical” no matter who commits the action. This seems to fit climbing, in that everything is equal. Since there is not a single, definable threshold that a climber must reach to gain sponsorship, that goal must be reached through innovation - and in most cases risk - giving everyone a level playing field. Further, the sponsor who is funding the theoretically dangerous climbs is looking for profits through exposure and brand appeal, which also lends itself to the same, level playing field of innovation and risk. Therefore, the ethical analysis ought to be done on a case by case basis under a veil of ignorance, judging whether or not that action or climb or sponsorship of a difficult climb is a meta-ethically “good” or “bad”. As for the third and final topic, youth, inexperience, and delusion of grandeur only make the aforementioned ethical dilemma more extreme (if an excess of ambition violates Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”, then delusion and youth accentuation this excess will only cause an individual to stray farther away from that ethical “Mean”). Thanks again for coming in to class!

    Comment by Nick Shaffer — November 7, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  22. Unfortunately I was absent on the day you visited our class. But knowing all that I do about climbing (enough to know its awesome and extremely dangerous) I’m sure you are a pretty rad lady. Hearing about people dying for the sport in the name of sponsorship and pushing new boundaries makes me cringe and,frankly, sad. I can’t say I have the desire to strive for that kind of accomplishment…it doesn’t seem worth it. To me, rock climbing is best as a hobby, that’s all I’d ever consider it for myself if I were to start climbing. It’s fun, sure, but I think that should be about as far as the significance goes.

    Comment by David Stanek — November 8, 2011 @ 1:17 am

  23. First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to come to our ethics class. I found our discussion of ethics and ambitions with regards to sponsorship very interesting. I was a competitive figure skater for eleven years and I can relate to the passion and determination most athletes experience. In this way, it makes sense that an athlete wants to push the boundaries. For skating it is putting more triple jumps into your program, working on quadruple jumps, inventing new spins, or simply pushing the limits with presentation. No matter how good you are there is always room for improvement and innovation. It appears the same thing goes for rock climbing. Climbers enjoy what they do and want to experience new challenges in order to keep things interesting and be at the top of their game. While I do believe that sponsorship may play a part in pushing those “ambition buttons” in athletes, those “buttons” are already there. Just give an athlete a challenge and they will want to accomplish it. It doesn’t matter where that challenge comes from, it could be from sponsors or peers or from internal drive.

    Comment by Grace Lincenberg — November 15, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  24. Thank you for taking the time to come to our Ethics of Ambition class, taught by Professor Paul Strom. I know that many of us had a better understanding of the ambitions of climbers after we met you. When you mentioned the issue of sponsorship, I became very interested. I had never thought of sponsorship as an ethical issue. Is it right for climbers to be doing more dangerous climbs in order to satisfy the craving masses? I don’t think so. I also took interest in your comment about how during your peak of climbing, you did not have instantaneous video and your cameras were big and inefficient. With instantaneous media now, more and more pressure is put on the climbers to do something radical. Agreeing with you, I don’t approve of sponsors pressuring athletes and I don’t see a resolution to this problem in the near future.

    Comment by Taylor Vallee — November 16, 2011 @ 12:22 am

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