Ambition and ethics
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women (Sunday October 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm)

For several years, I’ve visited Professor Paul Strom’s class, The Ethics of Ambition, to talk with the class about ethics and ambition in the climbing community. In the past, I’ve mentioned various ethical dilemmas climbers encounter and we’ve discussed what would be the better, or best thing to do in a given situation.


On this visit, I began with a discussion of ambition. To clarify this concept, I looked up a few definitions:



1. An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power.

2. The object or goal desired:

[Middle English ambicioun, excessive desire for honor, power, or wealth]


and in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary


1.   an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power


and in

an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment:


I like the last definition best, as it includes “the willingness to strive for its attainment.”


Climbers, like other competitive athletes, train hard, sacrificing much, and risking even more, to attain their climbing goals, such as a coveted first ascent of an unclimbed peak.


So where do we encounter ethical dilemmas – training hard and sacrifice are generally considered beneficial. Training hard may cause us to neglect our friends or family, and we may sacrifice time with our family to devote to our training. With young athletes, such as the Olympic gymnasts, track starts, swimmers and many others, where the most competitive athletes seem to be around 16 (supposed) years old, this sacrifice is made as much by the athlete’s parents as the athlete themselves. But with endurance sports, such as mountain climbing, marathons, and the Tour de France, the older athletes perform better. In this case, the competitor’s husbands, wives, or children often share the burden of sacrifice.


One big question arose:


Should women with children be less willing to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks? When Alison Hargraves died on K2, leaving behind two toddlers, the press expressed outrage at her actions. However, when numerous male climbers died on many Himalayan peaks, the press was much less vocal.

Is it less ethical for mothers, than for fathers, to leave their children to climb in the Himalayas?

I don’t think so!


However, I’d like to hear the class’s opinion on this and other questions I posed.








14 comments for Ambition and ethics »

  1. I think it’s really hard to judge someone’s decision to take a risk because you usually don’t know all of the factors that went into the decision. Personally I think that anyone that choses to take a risk had better think it all the way through and make sure it’s something they really want to do, especially someone in a caregiving position. Taking risk just to take risk for me is a questionable decision because you have your child(ren) depending on you. But I also think this goes for either parent; I personally learned just as much from my dad as my mom and I can’t imagine not having either one. However, if the person has really thought out exactly what they’re doing and why, and they want to go for it, then that’s their decision and they will have weighed the responsibility to their child(ren) in there.

    Comment by Jamie Gay — October 11, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  2. I’m not a climber, but I seem to remember that amid the shock of the Everest tragedy of 1996, there was a degree of outrage that Rob Hall could have left a very pregnant wife to guide a risky expedition. His final call to his wife by sat-phone was a poignant bit of Hall’s final climb. When Jamie Pierre made his epic 245-foot off a cliff off Fred’s Mountain at Grand Targhee and augered headfirst into the snow, he too was taken to task for doing so when he was the father of a 3-month old. His photographer dug him out and he skied away from the stunt, but the “what if he had been killed” criticism was out there. Certainly, a mother gets more attention than a father when the risk is great, but then, women’s accomplishments always have the spotlight shone on them. “The first woman to do such and such” always garners more attention that the second or the tenth or the hundedth man to do the same thing.

    Comment by Claire Walter — October 12, 2009 @ 5:28 am

  3. I am also not a climber but after hearing the thrill-seeking stories in class I want to try climbing and anything else outside I can experience and enjoy. There are many sports and activities today that are very competitive and involve intense and careful training as well as take up a large amount of time. I think it is important if you have a certain desire for achievement in something to follow through with it. I agree that the media may attack woman climbers with children over men just simply because the bond mothers have yet that is not to say men do not have that same bond it is just a large stereotype. Although many of these mothers are risking their lives with children at home, they are also teaching the little ones to find something they absolutely love and enjoy doing in life and doing that with their whole heart involved. I think women with children AS WELL AS MEN should be extra careful and try to make the safest climb as possible but not to completely give up something they love doing. I think it is ridiculous for climbers to not use ropes or any safety measures; that is simply taunting death but when a mother or father is attempting to stay as safe as they can while “striving for achievement” in something that they love doing they are making a difference in the world. There should be no judgement on women more than men in this field. Women are watched carefully in this sport solely because some do not think they can do it as accurately as men do but over the years the women climbers have proved them wrong! I do not think it is justifiable to attack women with children over men, motherhood is very important just as fatherhood is yet somehow women are more observed and criticized for it… so I don’t think so either!

    Comment by Jenny Zeidler — October 13, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  4. I was in the class that you visited, so I thought I’d throw my two cents in. I don’t think that it’s inherently more unethical for a woman to climb dangerous mountains than a man. I do, however, believe that it is more unethical for the stay-at-home-parent (assuming one works and one raises young children) to take risks when he or she has young children, and that role is traditionally filled by the mother more often. The kids bond with this parent more than the one that works, and depend on him or her for much of their affection, as well as for their day-to-day activites. I’m not a parent, so I’m hardly an expert, but that seems logical to me

    Comment by Sean Abramson — October 13, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  5. Without intending to derail the conversation, I would like to add a question for those of you who are risk-takers on the slopes, in the mountains, etc. Does risk-taking in the physical realm lead to willingness to take risks on the highway, on moral questions, etc. If so, can you illustrate with an example?

    Comment by Judith Streit — October 14, 2009 @ 6:04 am

  6. Judith,
    I think your question centers on the concept of “risk”, which I didn’t discuss in class. Research has shown that people’s perception of what is risky does not in any way match actual degree of risk. People perceive flying as more risky than driving, whereas it’s much, much safer. I myself do not view rock climbing as risky - in fact, I think it’s safer than downhill skiing. Most skiers do not view skiing as risky.
    The most dangerous thing any of us do, including climbers, divers, parachute jumpers, etc., is probably driving to and from that activity.
    I’ll try to find statistics and write a post on risk.

    Comment by sibylle — October 14, 2009 @ 8:44 am

  7. I can appreciate Sean’s point. For the situation at hand I think it would probably be fair to say that Alison was not the traditional stay-at-home wife. The fact that she even attempted the peak shows her individuality and zest for a life of her own doing what she loved. If this is true, I don’t think that the media had a right to judge her actions as outrageous. It seems as though society may judge the loss of a mother as more significant than that of a father. I personally regard the losses equally.

    Comment by Becca Perry — October 15, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  8. People are still boxing women into the “housewife” stereotype, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t think that this will go away however, because unconsciously I think people will almost always associate women with children. It takes a lot more thought to instantly think of a man’s children when you are told that a man has died.
    I don’t think that women should be less willing to climb challenging peaks even if they have children. If climbing is their passion, they should do what they love or else they will be constantly longing for it. If men can do it, women can too.

    Comment by Tara Kun — October 15, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  9. Good question! I think it is unethical to take risks that could leave young children as orphans i.e. with no parents. So where there are two parents, which partner gets to climb and when, is a decision the partners have to make together and I’m assuming that such trips are undertaken with full awareness of the realities of the dangers.

    Comment by Mandy — October 15, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  10. There is so much gray area involved when talking about ethics; it’s hard to always come up with a conclusive answer. I don’t believe in the double standard that the press is giving to female vs. male climbers- I think both play an equally important role in the family, and with that said, I think both need to realize that their families safety and well being is more important than climbing. One of the biggest questions that I have is for the athlete that does not have a family to look after. How ethical is it for them to devote all of their time and effort solely to that one sport, and not spend time with their friends and immediate family? I can understand that it is good to achieve these ambitious goals in sports in and I understand how good it feels to accomplish something. But I also wonder how much they are hurting their friends by not maintaining good relationships? Or is there a way to still be ethical by training hard and still keep good relationships?

    Comment by Phillip — October 17, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  11. Judith,
    First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to come to your class to share your experiences. In response to your question I would like to quote Professor Paul Strom, “Change is pain.” Women for the last century have come together to create a new face for themselves in a world that has been dominated by men. In the area of sports women are rising to the top and breaking down barriers between the traditional “civilized women” to the free and “empowered women.” Women have begun to realize their full potential and are no longer constrained by society’s traditional expectations. Take for instance, adventure racer Robyn Benincasa, who has finished in the top five of more expedition races than any other competitor. This challenge on the traditional system is why I think women have received just negative criticism when it comes to dangerous sport. As a parent both mother and father share EQUAL responsibility. If climbing is what you love weigh your risk. Don’t free climb a mountain. If surfing is what you love don’t go out and surf 50 foot swells. What I would like to know is if climbing is what you love to do and you are willing to take the risk, then is enlisting in the army (acknowledging the risk if not probable death) because serving your country is what you love to do any different?

    Comment by Carola Belton — October 19, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  12. […] Other examples of sponsored rock climbers and mountaineers daring difficult climbs include Alison Hargraves, who perished on K2;  […]

    Pingback by Fun Climbs Around The World » Ambition and Ethics, 2011 — October 26, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  13. […] First, ambition requires a great deal of egotism and selfishness, as I’ve discussed before in previous year’s classes. […]

    Pingback by Fun Climbs Around The World » Ethics of Ambition, 2013 — October 29, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  14. This is a very interesting ethical question that I have somewhat mixed views on. I am conflicted because while I do believe that there is a risk of death when climbing dangerous mountains that needs to be carefully considered, I don’t believe that a climber who loses her life should be scrutinized because she leaves behind a family. As tragic as this is, just because someone has a family doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to live as fulfilling of a life as they want to live. Some people find meaning in their lives through their job, others find meaning in their day to day activities;for professional female rock climbers, the thrill of achieving a feat on a rock face rendered not-achievable is where the question of meaning and identity is answered. That alone should justify that a mother shouldn’t have to give up on her dreams and her means of finding meaning because of a child that could be left behind in fatality.

    Comment by Dan Steinhauser — October 31, 2013 @ 9:45 am

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