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?