Everest Ethics

The Ethics of Everest…

Everest season has just come to completion. As usual, it was
filled with stories of success and failure, grand achievement
and broken records. But, with all the fantastic news coming from
the mountain this spring – including Apa Sherpa logging an
incredible 16th (yes, SIXTEENTH!) summit –  there were
disheartening signs of the changing ethical landscape on the
slopes of Everest.


In the following article I would
like to share with you some of my thoughts about ethics and
priorities on the slopes of Everest. I will begin the following
with the caveat that I was not on Everest this spring, and thus
speak from afar, from a perspective of 20/20 hindsight. But,
having been on the mountain 5 times, I feel that even from this
perspective I have some insights into the situation.


On the evening of May 14 and the
morning of the 15th, David Sharp, a 34 year old British climber,
lay dying just below the First Step on the Northeast Ridge
route. Reports indicate that roughly 40 people walked past him
en route to and from the summit. No one stopped to lend the man
a hand. No one was willing to sacrifice their summit, their
dream, to help a fellow human being.


Perhaps there was no possibility
of rescue. Perhaps David would have died regardless of
assistance from other climbers. Either way, the actions on the
mountain this spring beg the question: How much is the summit of
Everest worth? Do mountainous goals legitimize the sacrifice of
our humanity and compassion?


Having had the good fortune to
stand on top of the world twice, I can say with certainty to
anyone caught in a similar situation in the future: The summit
is not worth the sacrifice of one’s humanity. Yes, reaching the
top is a wonderful experience. But, in the end, the summit is
merely a small patch of snow sitting upon a big hunk of
rock…and thus is not material for sacrificing humanity.

On the morning of May 7, 2001, my teammates John Race, Tap
Richards and I had just begun our summit bids on what was my
second expedition to the mountain. En route to Advanced Basecamp,
we encountered Tibetan yak herders carrying two injured Chinese
glaciologists down the mountain. Both men were suffering from
advanced pulmonary and cerebral edema; if left unaided, they
would soon die. Our decision was simple: We aborted our summit
bid and began the arduous task of carrying two men down the
Rongbuk Glacier. I blew out my knee in the rescue, ending my
expedition with a resonant POP…but both Mr. Gao and Mr. Li
lived to see their families again.


Three weeks later, my teammates
were going for the summit via the NE Ridge. During the course of
their summit bid, they ended up abandoning their summit hopes to
rescue 5 people – 3 Siberians, one American, and one Guatemalan.
The final rescue took place a mere 45 minutes from the top. Did
they hesitate? Not a bit. Again, the tiny patch of snow lying at
29,035 feet is just that…a patch of snow. It will be there
next year, and the year after that. And, in the end, standing on
it does not change one’s life. Reaching out to change the lives
of others – no matter how short those lives may last – does.


In his famous book Zen & The
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
, Robert Pirsig writes: To
live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the
mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things
I would add to Pirsig’s observations that it is on the
sides of the mountain where we grow, not on the top. And, there
are times when that growth comes from sacrificing our own goals,
dreams, and ambitions to reach out and assist others.


We must have goals in our lives,
and we must aim for those goals, go after them with everything
that we have and everything that we are. But, the important part
of our goals is not reaching the end mark, crossing the finish
line, but rather the experiences on the sides of our mountains.
And, again, sometimes we must let go of Machiavellian ambitions,
sacrificing our ambition so that we don’t sacrifice our
humanity, echoing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: there
comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe,
not politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is

– by Jake Norton

  1. The Great Ganesha
    The Great GaneshaAugust 10,06

    Hey Jake,

    Returning your visit. Thanks for dropping by.

    Very well-written post. I agree with you completely.

    Another reason (I think) also probably lies in the fact that these days people with little or no experience are being taken to the top of mountains, Everest in particular, by tour guides and so forth. As a consequence, their lack of experience prevents them from having the capability to make cogent decisions when on top. That may also explain why those people did not stop to help Sharp.

    This is not to justify their actions in any way, but I guess it opens a whole new can of worms.

    Just my two cents to add to this.

    The Great Ganesha

  2. schreinervideo
    schreinervideoAugust 7,07

    The time has come to shut down Qomolangma entirely. There’s nothing more to be taken from it. Its dignity and even its recreational value are gone. All that’s left is money and destruction. The death and degradation resulting from the endless line of thrill-seekers are the only tangible results of the human need to exploit and dominate the mountain. The terrible things that happen to climbers of Everest are karma. Good luck with that.

  3. Jake Norton
    Jake NortonAugust 7,07

    Thanks for your comments Ken (schreinervideo). While I agree with you that there are certainly problems on Everest and things need to change, there is a lot to keep in mind here. As you know from your involvement in Tibet, many, many people depend on the tourism dollars generated from both expeditions and trekking in the Everest region. In the early 1990’s, Nepal did put heavy restrictions on climbing expeditions to Everest with almost devastating results for the economy and well being of the local people. While sadly the local Tibetans on the north side of Everest see only a small share of the money that comes into Tibet via tourism and expeditions to Everest, even that little bit is important to them and needs to be taken into account before decisions are made to seal off the mountain. Lots of aspects to consider.

    As for an “endless line of thrill seekers” – not everyone going to Everest can be lumped into the mindless thrillseeker stereotype. There are nuances and reasons why people choose to climb Everest, some good and some bad. But, lumping together and condemning a group based on the actions and intentions of a few never works very well.

    As for the “terrible things that happen to climbers of Everest” being karma, perhaps they are, and you are certainly entitled to that opinion. However, I would be cautious in dismissing tragedy, be it on Everest or elsewhere, as simply karmic penance. My friend Ang Phinjo Sherpa was killed in the icefall last year at age 50, on his 49th expedition to an 8000m peak. He was an amazing, humble, spiritual man who made a puja each morning before climbing and carried his malla with him each day reciting mantras as he climbed. Gentle, kind, and loving, Phinjo left behind a wife and three children. Personally, I cannot think of a single karmic reason Phinjo would have been killed in the icefall that day aside from sadly being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tragic, but not to be dismissed as his own fault.

    Again, thanks for your comments, Ken. Take care, and stop on by again!


  4. v
    vApril 19,10

    I know this is quite a late comment on this blog entry, but I just learned about this incident yesterday. Just wanted to say that your response to it is right on, and well written.

    – v

  5. Jakenorton
    JakenortonApril 21,10

    Hi V,

    Thanks for your comment – never too late to add your thoughts! It was a tragic incident, and hopefully one which will not be repeated.

    Thanks again, and come back soon – your thoughts are always welcome!

    -Jake Norton

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