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Brotherhood of the Rope

Dsc_002004212 The term Brotherhood of the Rope is not a new one in mountaineering and climbing circles; it refers to the interdependence inherent amongst members of a climbing team, their reliance upon one another for safety, security, and success.

It is also the title of the biography of famed American climber Charles Houston, whose team’s failed 1953 attempt on K2 in Pakistan – the world’s second highest peak – remains one of the greatest stories of the Brotherhood of the Rope.

In a desperate rescue attempt to save the life of altitude-sick Ark Gilkey, the team – ropes together on a 45 degree slope – began a horrific fall on a blinding storm. Pete Schoening made a split-second, miraculous move, jamming his ice ax behind a sturdy rock and, holding it with everything he had, managed to stop the entire team from what would have been certain death. In Houston’s book K2: The Savage Mountain, he describes the Brotherhood of the Rope perfectly:

…men banded together in a common effort of will and strength–not against this or that imagined foeman of the instant, but against their only true enemies: inertia, cowardice, greed, ignorance, and all weaknesses of the spirit.

Sadly, this amazing brotherhood of the rope, this banding together of teammates "in a common effort of will and strength" seems to have dissipated in the current climate on Mount Everest. We saw it last spring in the controversial death of David Sharp, but were inspired only days later at its rebirth with the successful rescue of Lincoln Hall.

Dsc_002904061 The question of why people did not help David Sharp last spring is full of gray area: the realities of altitude, sickness, team objectives, etc. undoubtedly weighed heavily on decisions that day. But, what is obvious to me is that the tradition of the brotherhood of the rope has diminished in modern climbing.

In 2001, my teammates – John Race and Tap Richards – and I were struggling to drag two sick, Chinese glaciologists down the mountain. We needed all the help we could get, knowing full well these men had only hours of life left. We asked a passing team for assistance, but were put off with a shrug:

I’ve been on countless rescues, son, and can tell you your efforts are useless. These men will die. You’ll have to get used to it.

Well, despite that climber’s opinions to the contrary, the two Chinese glaciologists survived their ordeal. I ruined my knee – and the rest of my expedition – in the process, but never gave it a second thought. Simply put, no mountain is worth sacrificing our humanity.

In countless other rescues in the high peaks – Nevado Huascaran in 1998, Everest 1999, Everest 2001, Everest 2002, Everest 2003, Rainier, McKinley…the list goes on – I have always valued the brotherhood of the rope. Our goal on a mountain is the climb, to finish the route, to reach the summit.

But, occasionally an opportunity greater than any summit, a reward far bigger than any pioneering ascent, presents itself. Sometimes, we are faced with a difficult dilemma: Do we sacrifice our ultimate goals to fulfill an objective we know is right? In his blog, David Zinger put it thus:

[The Brotherhood of the Rope] is our willingness as leaders to
recognize and assist others — having a wide angle view rather than
blinders only for results or personal peak performance.

And, author and professor of business at Wharton, Michael Useem, writes about this in his excellent leadership book, The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. He has just described Roy Vagelos’ revolutionary – and costly – decision to provide Merck’s drug Mectizan – which cures river blindness or Onchocerciasis – for free to those in need throughout the world. It would cost Merck hundreds of millions of dollars, but Vagelos pushed on. As Useem writes:

Even in the absence of mutual gains, even without indirect advantages to offset tangible costs, some decisions require a transcending of self-interest, whether personal or organizational.

We can all ask ourselves what our Brotherhood of the Rope is.

  • Who are your teammates?
  • Will they be there for you when you fall? Will you be there for them?
  • What are your goals, and when are you willing to sacrifice them to keep the brotherhood alive?

Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

  1. David Zinger
    David ZingerMay 10,07


    This was a powreful post about brotherhood with stories, values, and perspective.

    Take care and carry on caring.

    I often look at all the strands that are inside a climbing rope and recognize the strength of the rope is based on the strands being together.

    David Zinger

  2. Jake Norton
    Jake NortonMay 14,07


    Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the brotherhood piece.

    Excellent point about a rope not being a single strand, but rather many strands – many of which are unseen and unnoticed – which bind the whole together. Something for all of us to remember!

    Likewise, take care and keep on caring.

    All my best,

    Jake Norton

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