For the past several years, Dr. Paul Strom invited me to speak to his class, the Ethics of Ambition.
I’ve spoken to the class about ethical dilemmas arising from the risk involved in climbing. This week, I met with the class after seeing Joe Simpson’s film, ‘The Beckoning Silence’. Simpson struggled with some of the same issues: how can we justify spending so much time and energy in an activity which has little benefit to the world and may even kill us along the way?
Climbing differs from other endeavors, such as competing in the Olympics, the Tour de France, or World Cup ski racing primarily in the higher degree of risk. All these sports require that the participants leave their families for months. Riders in the Tour de France often move to Europe months before the race to train on the course. Lance Armstrong moved to Spain for long time periods in order to ride the key alpine passes until he knew the road perfectly.
Ambition demands a great deal of time and energy and generally entails neglecting other people and activities.
But most other activities don’t entail as great a risk of death. Few Olympic athletes die in competition; only rarely do ski racers and bike racers crash and die during competition.
Climbers die much more frequently, often leaving behind a spouse and several children.
About 74 of K2’s 280 summiteers died – or 26 per cent of those who reached the top died on the descent. The death ratio for two other 8,000-meter peaks, Nanga Parbat and Annapurna, is 28 per cent and 40 per cent.
My questions are:
Is this justifiable risk?
Is there an ethical question in order to be this ambitious?
For myself, I gave up ice climbing and Himalayan expeditions after
I had a son (and took a bad fall on Shishapangma). But then, I wasn’t a professional climber dependent on fame and sponsorship for my income. I could afford the choice to be safe. Many professional climbers don’t feel they can afford that choice.