Ethics revisited
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Thursday March 1, 2007 at 9:32 pm)

Ethics of ambition, 2007

Today I once again had the great pleasure of talking at the University of Colorado to Dr. Paul Strom’s class, the Ethics of Ambition. When I met with the class the last several years, I focused on barriers to women climbing that Bev Johnson and I had broken on our first female ascent of El Capitan. I discussed some issues regarding women climbing in last year’s post here.
A partial synopsis of that talk is that:

Extreme ambition demands limitless egotism and selfishness.
First ascents, especially of Himalayan peaks, often entail risking death. Breaking barriers to do new, hard climbs requires tremendous time, commitment and dedication. Climbers then don’t have sufficient time for other people and leave behind friends and family.

This year I changed my talk’s focus. Four of my friends and climbing partners died in 2006 – Walter Rosenthal, Jeff Schoen, Charlie Fowler, and Todd Skinner. This followed my climbing partner Chris Hampson dying after a fall when we were climbing together in Yosemite in 2003; and after carrying out a body while working on YOSAR in 2001. Two days later I found out it was Tom Dunwiddie, with whom I lived for three years while we were at UC Irvine.

This year I talked about the accidents my friends had died in, what led to those tragic consequences and asked what, if anything, they could  have done differently.

Walter was the first, and one of my best, friends to die last year. He died attempting to rescue two ski patrollers at Mammoth when they fell into a volcanic vent. His accident differs from the others in that he was working and trying to save his freinds and colleagues, not pursuing a dream of far off mountain conquest.
Walter left behind his widow, Lori, and daughter Lily. I posted Jim Stimson’s tribute here.  Lori commented that:

“I do want you to know that Walter never would’ve jumped in to rescue the other two patrollers if he had thought there were any gases at toxic levels. He was always the safest and most thoughtful of climbers, mountaineers, workers, etc. and never would have thought of leaving his daughter fatherless in such a cavalier manner. It is difficult enough for me and Lily to deal with his death, without the thought that people might think he was a silly hero. He only thought that James and Scott had suffered head injuries.”

Lori’s statement supports my suggestion above that he was responding to help others, not attempting difficult climbs or other selfish or ambitious aims.
This still leaves us with the following questions:
Should he have gone after the patrollers? Or sent someone else?  Or waited for more safety equipment (gas masks, oxygen)? What is the right thing to do when someone falls into a hole, you don’t know what is wrong with them, they don’t respond, and they are exposed to cold temperatures?

6 comments for Ethics revisited »

  1. As a student in the Ethics of Ambition class, I felt very fortunate to have Sibylle visit our class. She raised some interesting and difficult issues regarding the risk involved in climbing. Of course, those issues are also applicable to any other activity that is considered “risky.” We examined questions that all began with “should I have…” “should he have…” and tried to determine what action would have been the ethically right one. After our discussion, I was left with an overall impression that we can analyze these questions until we are blue in the face, and yet we will never change what has already happened. As a lover of the outdoors, I have training in safety and preparation, and I know that all the climbers we discussed were well trained and took safety precautions. When a risky activity results in catastrophe, that does not mean that someone did something “wrong.” Hard as we try, life cannot be contained by any set of rules, and sometimes things happen that we don’t necessarily expect or desire. Does that mean we should play it safe by avoiding anything risky? On this question, I find myself in agreement with Sibylle: “You’re not alive if you don’t take a chance occasionally.”

    Comment by Rachel Gioscia — March 3, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

  2. Thank you again for coming into our class to talk about your climbing. It is unfortunate that you have lost so many friends recently. I must say though, I would have done the same things as Walter. I believe that I would have gone in after the two fallen men. I believe that what he did was selfless, and he wasn’t thinking of himself at the time.

    Comment by Kelvin Dunn — March 4, 2007 @ 6:57 pm

  3. Sibylle - I knew about your (obvious) connection with your climbing partner and remember your horrific experience at Yosemite when he died. I had read about the deaths of some of the others too, but didn’t realize you had a connection with them. Perhaps I should have, because the climbing community is so small. And of course, I particularly heard about the deaths of Mammoth patrollers and Walter too when he tried to rescue them.

    There are so many aspects to high adventure/risk/responsibility. I attended a panel at the American Alpine Center in Golden after “the awful year” on Everest, where the discussion revolved around the contrast between old classic expeditions of equals with modern expeditions where the key is the client/guide relationship. The main question there was how strong the guide’s motivation to get his clients to the summit, no matter how great (or obvious) the risks. That too presented an ethical dilemma. And just as Walter left a widow and child, Rob Hall and Scott Fisher left families behind when they perished on Everest. The difference might be that Walter Rosenthal probably didn’t know he was going to perish in a volcanic gas chamber, while Hall and Fisher misassessed the risk in their effort to get clients to the top of the world and paid dearly for it.

    Comment by Claire Walter — March 5, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  4. I very much appreciated the fact that Sibylle took the time to come and speak to our class. Her adventures and the challenges that she has faced in her life are truly amazing. However, when Sibylle began to tell us about her friends that had died and about the risks associated with climbing, I quickly found myself judging her and those other climbers. I found myself thinking, “How could they do something so foolish, so reckless? How could they put themselves in so much danger when they have families and responsibilities?” Then I stopped myself. I told myself that I couldn’t judge those people- how can you judge a person when you know nothing about them or their circumstances? I wanted to say that those people were wrong for pursuing something so dangerous and for ending up hurting the ones they loved, but I couldn’t, because I would never want someone to judge me and tell me that I was wrong to pursue my passions. The lesson that I learned from Sibylle’s talk was that you cannot judge another person’s actions when you have never been in their shoes.

    Comment by Areti Athanasopoulos — March 5, 2007 @ 2:40 pm

  5. Thanks, Sibylle, for your openness with the class at CU. It was a remarkable experience, with a dramatic mixture of the history of women and mountaineering, personal experiences, and candor regarding the losses you have experienced.

    While I no longer engage in anything that could be called “climbing,” I do live in the mountains adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and I manage to make it up some of the trails in all seasons and even to the top of some peaks. There is some measure of risk involved, of course, and I no longer consider myself to be invincible so I have to think a bit about what I am doing and why.

    After some reflection on the wonderful conversations we have had in the class, I would like to risk some observations about ethical matters related to climbing. These are tentative and certainly open to rebutal.

    I believe that it is fair to say that we are in agreement about some things related to climbing and risk taking. First, accidents happen despite the best preparation and discipline. Accidents are a part of all our lives and, if we are fortunage, they can provide “glimpses of truth” as Sally Moser and other have observed.

    Second, we all seem to share in some form an appreciation for the sanctity of life. This understanding leads to affirmations that may come into conflict for those considering risky adventures: the obligation as individuals to make the most of the gift of life we have, and the obligation to recognize that the gift of life is also a consequence of our intimate social relationships. In other words, we are obligated to “find our bliss” and we are obligated to live in ways that honor the sanctity of the social dimensions of our lives. As you have pointed out, “there is no life without taking chances.” And, as your own experiences reveal, you cherish the lives of friends and family.

    These affirmations do not lead, as far as I can tell, to the defining of any hard and fast boundaries for risk taking. They might suggest, however, that we have ethical obligations to be both reflective about our chosen actions and to negotiate boundaries with those we love and who are most concerned about our lives. I suspect that all of us have someone who would appeciate this sort of negotiation following the admission that we are not invincible.

    Thanks you again for your contributions to the class and for your blog. Its all very entertaining and valuable.

    Comment by Paul Strom — March 6, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  6. Thank you for taking the time to speak to our class. I grew up reading about climbers in Outside magazine. Until this class, I never really considered it an ethical issue. I just assumed climbers and mountaineers accepted the risk of their sport. However, I now see the responsibilities climbers have to partners, clients, friends, and family. I really admire that Sibylle has been such a big part of women climbing, but she still manages to be a mother. I really respect that she gave up the riskiest part of her passion for her family.

    Comment by Alex James — March 6, 2007 @ 8:45 pm

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