Climbing, ethics, and ambition
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Sunday October 12, 2008 at 10:37 am)

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.

16 comments for Climbing, ethics, and ambition »

  1. I was so glad that you came and spoke to our class. It’s really cool that we both have a strong connection to Germany and also to hear in person about some of your climbing endevours. I have to say that you’re honestly one of the most inspirational people i’ve ever met. All of your accomplishments in life whether they be physical or educational are really motivational for me personally as a confused college freshman. Thank you for outlining some ethical questions about climbing and once again thank you for coming to our class to speak with us.


    Comment by Nicholas Vetter — October 13, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  2. I appreciate you coming and speaking with us. Its always great to be able to meet with who you are reading about and ask questions and clarify important ideas. Your accomplishments not only in climbing and being a leader in breaking the gender role of climbing are outstanding, but the fact that you share your experiences and are open to any and all questions is outstanding. Even though I am not as athletic as others or yourself, you are an role model in forming the body-mind connection. Thanks again for coming!

    Comment by Dustin Buccino — October 13, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  3. I really appreciated your insight into the upper echelons of the climbing world. Your stance on backing down from the great Himalayan peaks helped me to justify my own personal stance on climbing, with respect to not pushing myself to a point of recklessness just to climb harder. Enjoy the rest of the family trip!!

    Comment by Maverick Bolger — October 13, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  4. Thanks for coming and talking to our class. All of your stories were great, although somewhat sad. Climbing isn’t a world I will probably ever get into, which made hearing about it even more interesting and educational

    Comment by Robert Ranney — October 13, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  5. Thank you so much for coming to our class last week! I really enjoyed hearing about your stories, both amazing and tragic. I was still skeptical about why climbers were so willing to risk losing their lives and their family members, but you made it very clear that most climbers, especially those with families, will set boundaries as to how far they are willing to go. I now understand that although there is risk involved, you climb for your own pleasure and enjoyment and possibly even for sharing your stories later on in life, as you did for our class. Thanks again!

    Comment by Cathryn Houdek — October 13, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  6. Thank you so much for coming in a visiting our class last week. It was a great experience to be able to hear you talk about your adventures first hand. It gave me a much different perspective on the control it takes to be a climber. You have to be confident in your own abilities and not let your emotions get in the way even when someone is dying right in front of you. I think that in order to pursue ambitions we have to sacrifice things because they can and will over take our entire lives. It is when we refuse to continue to sacrifice those things, like leaving our families, that our ambitions change. I agree climbing, because it is so dangerous, is a rather selfish sport but the love you clearly have for it appears to be worth it to me. I learned so much from your visit and you inspired me to find something I love as much as you love climbing so thank you so much. You gave me a whole new perspective to the ethics of ambition!

    Comment by Kailey Petersen — October 13, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

  7. Hey I thoroughly enjoyed what you had to say to class the other day! I have probably never met anyone as focused, hard working and determined as you. I think, to answer the ethical question raised, that it seems that when you are climbing, the question raised is not whether or not you are risking your life for this turns the concept negative. However, it is amazing to me how it appears that when you are climbing you feel as if you are truly living! I also see a respect payed towards your son as well and how much you care about him. Again, it was a real pleasure to hear all your incredible stories. Thanks you so much for coming!

    Comment by Eric Durham — October 13, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

  8. Hi just wanted to repeat what all of my classmates have said in thanking you for coming in to speak with our class on thursday! It is one thing to read the books and hear the stories, but it is something completely different to have someone telling you about their experiences in person. I loved hearing your insight into the meaning and ethics behind climbing, because we have been reading this stories of climbers that seem to be too caught up in climbing to take a step back the way you have done. It was really interesting to hear you talk about the selfishness associated with the practice of rock climbing once you have a family or dependents.

    Thanks again! I’m so glad that you stopped back by boulder on your trip climbing around the world and I hope that the rest of your year is fantastic!

    -Susanna Moore

    Comment by Susanna Moore — October 13, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  9. Many thanks for coming and speaking to our class! The many tales of your struggles and your ability to persevere through the difficult times you’ve experienced were definitely an inspiration. Your knowledge on mountain climbing and what it means to be truly dedicated to a cause has enlightened me, not only on mountaineering, but also on my own goals. Have fun on the rest of your journey, wherever your climbing ropes may take you. Once again, thanks.

    Comment by Tianyi Lu — October 13, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  10. Thank you very much for coming in to speak to us about the degree of ambition required for climbing. Your stories help put the lessons we learn in class into perspective. I was fascinated to hear of the exotic locations that climbing took you to, but even more intrigued about your decision to give up Himalayan climbs after the birth of your son. Your choice to put your family first is an inspiration and shows that although personal accomplishments are great the things that stay close to your heart will always be most important. I have the utmost respect for your achievements as a climber and one day I hope to have amazing stories, similar to yours, that I can reflect on for the rest of my life. Thanks again for speaking to our class!

    Comment by Kevin Chansky — October 13, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  11. It was both interesting and inspirational to hear what you had to say about your impressive climbing career. It was very exciting to meet someone who participated in the Yosemite climbing scene during the golden age. Thank you very much for taking the time to come and share it with us. I think it’s awesome that your passion for climbing is still such a big part of your life. Enjoy the remainder of your climbing world tour!

    Comment by Jill Carlile — October 14, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  12. Unfortunately I was not able to see you speak in class; however, I was able to read your work. It was fascinating reading “Wall Without Balls” and to get the perspective of a trailblazer such as yourself. I wish I could’ve seen you in person, but I would still like to thank you for coming and speaking.

    Comment by Jordan Salzman — October 15, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  13. Thanks for coming to our class! I know that we all loved hearing about your experiences, they were intriguing and admirable. I cannot believe how much you have dealt with and how strong you are when it comes to losing people close to you. I admire your courage and respect the fact that you stopped climbing such dangerous mountains. I loved the fact that climbing was not your entire life, but just something that you love to do. It was nice hearing from someone who loved to climb, but also had a family and lot’s of work experience. Thanks again for coming, we really enjoyed it.

    Comment by Vicky Grunberg — October 16, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  14. I would like to thank you very much for coming to class to speak and answer all of our questions. I thoroughly enjoyed your stories about climbing in amazing places like the Himalayas and Yosemite National Park. Your stories about the dangers of rock climbing and the friends you have lost made me respect you and your strength of character very much. You seem like a great mother and a great person. Thanks again.

    Comment by Sam Ecenia — October 19, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  15. I really enjoyed learning about your life’s work. I think your background in biology and your path to climbing provided very useful insight to us seeing as we are just starting to figure out what we want to get out of our lives. From what I heard about your relationship with your son and other climbers, it is clear to me that your life’s passion is something that we should all strive for in our own lifetimes. To have accomplished so much and still going strong is an inspiration to us all. Thanks for coming in!

    Comment by Hank Williams — October 20, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  16. Thank you for coming to our class and delivering a very interesting speech. Though I am not a part of the climbing world, I know can understand why some climbers love it so much. It was really nice to hear about your personal experiences around the world. Your life story is most certainly one that caught my attention immediately.

    Comment by Josh Cherniack — October 21, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

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