Ethics of Ambition
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women (Friday March 17, 2006 at 10:39 pm)


You may wonder why I’m discussing the Ethics of Ambition. Or why I show the book Rock and Roses. Several years ago, Dr. Paul Strom, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, asked me to talk to his class, the Ethics of Ambition.

My climbing partner Tarrie Burnett was taking Dr. Strom’s course, which used Rock and Roses as a text. When Dr. Strom assigned my article “Walls Without Balls” as one of the stories, she mentioned that she knew me … and soon I’d agreed to talk to the class.

Students asked whether it had always been my ambition to do the first all-female ascent of El Capitan, and I replied,
“No, not at all. It was mostly luck.” And it had been. I was in Yosemite in the 70s, when not many women climbed, primarily because my father had started taking me climbing when I was eight years old and I ended up in the Valley as a teen, climbing with my Dad.

My ambition was not to be a professional climber, as they didn’t exist yet. My ambition was to become a scientist, and I went through college and graduate school with that goal. We climbed on weekends and summer vacations, and did it for fun.

Beverly Johnson lived in the Valley before I arrived and was more experienced and a better climber than me. She’d mostly climbed with other men, because there were no other women in the Valley. When I arrived, I was the obvious candidate for all-female ascents. Bev and I got on great, as I looked up to her and was willing to try anything she wanted to climb.

We climbed several shorter routes and eventually teamed up to try El Capitan, after I’d done enough other walls to aid climb well enough. This climb involved little ambition on my part, lots of luck, the right parents and good timing.

Later climbs and first ascents involved more ambition and required some sacrifices. As I climbed with serious climbers in Yosemite, I got to know well many of the top climbers of the 70s and 80s, and hear about their plans and dreams.

As time passed, I lost many of my friends who died or vanished in remote mountain ranges. Bugs McKeith and I did several first ascents in the Canadian Rockies before he was killed soloing Mt. Assiniboine. I’d climbed in the Valley with Reinhard Karl, who went to the Himalaya where an avalanche buried him.

I climbed on the Glacier Point Apron with Alan Rouse, who later died on K2. After losing many climbing partners, and a former boyfriend, I began to question my devotion to climbing. Was it really worth risking getting killed to climb this mountain? Basically, I never believed I would. I always thought that the peaks, the routes, and the climbs I chose to do were safe. Most climbers think that they will survive their current trip, because they are strong, fast, and experienced enough that they can accomplish their objective.

When I spoke to the class about ambition, I’d thought about the costs, and come to this conclusion:
Ambition requires and necessitates great egotism and selfishness.

Even if you’re not trying a first ascent of a Himalayan peak, entailing some risk of death, climbing at a high level requires commitment and dedication. Like any other sport, or perhaps even more so, to break barriers and do new or harder climbs, requires a lot of time training. Competing takes time.

If you spend that much time and effort training and traveling, you don’t have time for other people in your life. Your friends and family will be left.

Society accepts men going off to leave behind their families, as they have in war. But they are less accepting of women leaving behind small children to try hard climbs. When Alison Hargraves was killed in K2, leaving a husband and two small children, a much greater outcry arose than when so many men were killed in the Himalaya, leaving families behind.

Should women take the same risks as men? I don’t know. I chose not to, after Shishapangma. My son was three, and suddenly, when I realized I could have been killed, I decided to give up big mountains and stick to rock climbing. Not all women make that decision, and I think it’s an individual decision.

In the end, I had a lot to talk about with Dr. Strom’s class. They asked many questions, and I’m glad the class gave me that opportunity to think about the issue to a depth that I otherwise would not have done. I learned a lot from our discussions.

4 comments for Ethics of Ambition »

  1. So true, so true! How often does a new mother get to go skiing? Mountain biking? Rock Climbing? (Fill in your sport of choice that takes longer than 60 minutes to complete.) We may be ambitious, but only discreetly, efficiently, and as long as we don’t hurt ourselves.

    Comment by Christine Neff — March 18, 2006 @ 4:20 pm

  2. […] 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: […]

    Pingback by Fun Climbs Around The World » Ethics of ambition, 2007 — March 1, 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  3. I wanted to revisit this blog post today (Oct 8, 2009) after hearing you summarize this in Dr. Strom’s class again, and I wonder about the rhetoric of gender in which we framed it. There was an old expression that gets quickly at utilitarian schools of ethics: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem (male *or* female). What problem is climbing solving? I have my own answer to this but wonder what the community consensus might be.

    Comment by Kass Fleisher — October 8, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  4. […] For the past seven years, I’ve  spoken in a class at the University of Colorado called the “Ethics of Ambition”, taught by Dr. Paul Strom. In the past I’ve written about my talks about ambition and ethics. […]

    Pingback by Fun Climbs Around The World » Ethics of Ambition, 2010 — October 31, 2010 @ 8:42 am

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