“Why did you go up there to die?” the man asked of the rescued mountain climber.
“I didn’t go up there to die, I went up there to live,” he replied.
A meaningful quote from one of my favorite movies, the 1997 survival thriller “The Edge” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. These words are powerful because of how true they are.
Mountaineering can be an unequivocal adventure for those seeking higher ground both literally and metaphysically. It can with crystal clarity bring into focus the meaning of life, and just as frequently, death.
This latter point often is overlooked by many, though, possibly as a result of the few books devoted to the darker side of the sport compared with a multitude of mountaineering stories with grandiose titles which glorify how exciting it is to “conquer” a mountain, for those who believe such things can even be done.
However, as Australian climber Lincoln Hall recently found out while attempting to scale Mount Everest, the danger associated with high altitude expeditions is very real.
For those unfamiliar with his story, Hall was rescued roughly 80 feet from the summit by an American guide who abandoned his own summit attempt and subsequently that of his two clients. Hall had been left for dead by his own guide, not to mention he was passed by many others blinded by their quest to reach the top.
While horrific, this account is far from unusual on this and many other high altitude mountains. In fact, just a week earlier on Everest, British climber David Sharp froze to death just below the summit, passed based on some media accounts by as many as 40 climbers, while he huddled there dying.
And, few could forget the gut-wrenching account of the 1996 Everest tragedy made famous in Jon Krakauer’s “Into thin Air” when American Beck Weathers was forsaken by fellow climbers in a storm that claimed nine lives. He managed to survive and felt lucky for it, despite losing his nose, entire right hand and part of his left to frostbite.
While seemingly despicable, it’s important to contextualize these events and not be too quick to criticize the guides and the scores of other climbers who didn’t stop to assist these unlucky few.
After all, these incidents took place on a part of the mountain frequently referred to as “the death zone” where the air is so thin and the level of climber’s exhaustion so high that making the right decision is not always clear, if even possible.
Also, rescue attempts at this altitude are exceptionally dangerous due to the difficulty of trying to carry or drag another climber down steep slopes of rock and wind-crusted ice. Attempts to save one often can end in the deaths of many.
However, it can be done as Daniel Mazur the guide who came to Hall’s aid proved, even though he blew his own summit attempt and that of his two clients, which likely paid the going rate of $60,000 to $100,000 each in the hopes of making it to “the top of the world.”
To use another quote from “The Edge” “We’re all put to the test ... but it never comes in the form or at the point we would prefer, does it?”
Mazur was put to the test and passed, and has no regret about it, either, as evidenced by what he said to the press in an interview afterward. “You can always go back to the summit, but you only have one life to live. If I had left that man to die, that would have always been on my mind ... . How could you live with yourself?”
There are many possible answers to the question of why someone wouldn’t help Hall or anyone else in that situation, but here is one take on it. While still dangerous, we’ve entered an era where Everest is no longer the stomping ground soley of professionals properly experienced and prepared for a climb of such extremes.
People skinny on mountaineering experience, but fat with greenbacks in the bank, can now rent gear, hire guides and rely on Sherpas to get their gear, and often themselves, to the top.
Something has been lost in this process, though, and if nothing else it is the unspoken “code of the hills” which dictates helping others in need of help. But, how can people helpless without someone doing almost everything for them, truly be expected to be of help to anyone else?
While I’m sure those who succeed by being pushed, pulled and dragged to the top by others still impress their flat-lander friends with the deeds of their derring-do. It seems it would be hard for them to feel real accomplishment.
Perhaps perceptions have changed, though, and now it is telling people of an experience that is more the reward than the experience itself. If that’s the case, then it would be clear to see how bragging about a benchmark like summitting Everest would be more important to those who passed Hall than saving someone’s life.
Whatever their reasons or excuses, it is sad to see that in attempting to climb to where few humans will be, some lose what it means to be human.
Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.