A Mount Everest thought experiment.

There’s an inevitably clueless commentariat that comes along with any article written about Mount Everest. In particular, about death on Everest and the ethics of leaving dying climbers on the mountainside, or leaving corpses indefinitely upon the mountain. The comments propose that other climbers stop to assist injured or dying climbers and suggest that those who don’t are egotistical barbarians with no morality or humanity. Some wonder why they don’t just fly a helicopter up the mountainside to liberate those suffering from hypoxia, hypothermia, frostbite, pulmonary embolism and a variety of other altitude and climbing related ailments that can rapidly become fatal during the ascent to the summit (or more frequently back down, according to statistics.)

Previously, I would have wondered too. I would have felt what seemed like justifiable outrage over the deaths during the 1996 Everest disaster, popularized largely due to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.  When you hear that ambitious mountaineers who had paid hefty sums to be present on the mountain passed by dying climbers from other expeditions, or even their own, it comes across poorly.

Here’s the thing, though- when presented with the basic information about the scenario, e.g, “Climbers left behind climbers in distress in order to summit,” the natural reaction is outrage. We should all know by now, though, that nothing is that black and white and that media reports simple, easily relayed information swiftly, before it loses relevance. A lot of nuance is lost, stories are levied toward us with an intent, an angle.

Delving deeply into Everest lore in the footsteps of my mother (she intends to at least visit base camp, if not make a bid for the summit), the seeming ease of denouncing climbers who continued climbing becomes muddled. In the Death Zone, above an altitude of 26,000 feet, the human body essentially shuts down. Not only does every physical function take an extraordinary amount of effort but the lack of oxygen to the brain impairs judgement, decision making capability and memory. Walking a hundred feet can take upwards of an hour. The chill of the air can be so extreme that exposed flesh freezes in seconds. People with the physical capability of Olympic athletes are reduced to their most basic survival instincts.

The question of assisting those in dire straits within the Death Zone becomes a question of your own survival. Some climbers have been left for dead (Beck Weathers wrote a book by that very name after making a miraculous descent from Everest during the 1996 disaster), seemingly beyond the verge of comeback or salvation.

Leaving aside the complex ethical and moral issues of climbers being unable to assist those in peril, at risk of putting themselves in the path of death, helicopter rescue at altitude is simply unfeasible. In 1996, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau were retrieved by helicopter near Camp II, above 21,000 feet. The air is too thin to reliably support a helicopter at altitude. The land, undulating at laced with crevasses, is deeply risky for even the most skilled of helicopter pilots to land upon. The weather can often prohibit even considering the attempt.

So, with that information, let us consider the two sides of the potential scenario, and this is a purely hypothetical situation:

Two climbers are stranded with hypoxia and severe frostbite within the Death Zone on Everest. They are climbing with an independent expedition. Three other climbers and a guide, making a summit bid with a professional outfitter, come upon them. The three climbers and the guide are perhaps 3 and 1/2 hours roundtrip to the summit. They are within the realm of deadly fatigue and not functioning at 100% capacity. They leave behind the dying climbers to complete their summit bid and on their way back, the suffering climbers are deceased.

Did the stranded climbers really stand a chance, even with the aid of those attempting the summit? Is it wrong to not almost certainly sacrifice yourself in the aid of others who have undertaken the climb with a full understanding of the risks associated? Is morality altered upon the slope of the mountain when the stark reality of life and death and self preservation stares you in the face?

My point here is simply to consider a variety of possible angles to any story or moral quandary. Not everything is as cut and dried as you might think. It does seem, to the casual observer, that leaving behind dying climbers is a callous act, clearly separated from any kind of civilized morality. But diving deeper into it, the layers are revealed and we must think of the complexity of the situation and factor in the specifics of the environment, the risks and all of the associated vectors of personal survival and martyrdom.


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