Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Death of Basic Human Decency

I was checking out the news today and had my early morning shock while reading Sir Edmund Hillary's recent statement expressing his dismay that "dozens of climbers" had left a British man to die while they attempted to scale Mt. Everest.

First of all, did anyone else know that Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive? I had no idea, but you go, Sir Edmund. Just goes to show that exercise is indeed the key to a long life.

Second, my hat's off to him for his statement. Someone needed to say it, and who better than the first man to climb Everest?

What happened was that 34-year-old David Sharp was about 1,000 feet from the summit on his way down Everest, but he began to struggle for air in what AP calls the "low-oxygen 'death zone'" of the mountain. And here's where things get horrifying: According to AP, "More than 40 climbers are thought to have seen him as he lay dying, and almost all continued to the summit without offering assistance." The New Zealand Herald says that Sharp was seen over the next TWO DAYS "in various states of confusion and distress."

Among those 40 who passed Sharp were members of the climbing party of one Mark Inglis, a New Zealander who became the first double amputee to reach the mountain's summit.

I can only hope that Mr. Inglis will be remembered for all eternity not for being the first double amputee to reach the top of Mt. Everest, but for being a first-class wanker (in a climbing party of first-class wankers) who chose to walk past a dying man rather than give up his shot at fleeting glory.

You often hear people bemoaning the death of civility (screaming public cell phone conversations in otherwise quiet areas, anyone?), but when did basic human decency die?

Inglis defends himself by saying that "there was virtually no hope that Sharp could have been carried to safety from his position about 1,000 feet short of the 29,035-foot summit" and that "his own party ... had to put the safety of its own members first."

Right. To be fair, Inglis's party did offer Sharp some oxygen and sent out a radio distress call, but then they just kept on going. As for putting the safety of its own members first, maybe instead of going up that remaining 1,000 feet and coming back down it again, Inglis and his party could have used that time and energy to, oh, help the guy who was struggling for his life for two freaking days?

Inglis continues by saying that "I walked past David, but only because there were far more experienced and effective people than myself to help him." Sure there were, Mark, but apparently, they just kept going, too. All 40 of you.

First of all, I'm assuming Inglis isn't a doctor, so how would he know that Sharp couldn't have been carried outside of the low-oxygen area of Everest? The New Zealand Herald points out that University of Otago scientist and mountaineer Dr Phil Ainslie said it might have been possible to revive [Sharp] with bottled oxygen and even get him down to safety. If he'd been given enough oxygen, he could have recovered about 80 percent of his capacity, Ainslie claims.

And regardless of whether Sharp's chances of survival were great or not, wouldn't it have been worth it to try? Even if Sharp had only a slim chance of survival, wouldn't it have been worth being able to tell his parents that everything that could have been done to get their son off that mountain was done?

As Sir Edmund says, "... if you have someone who is in great need and you are still strong and energetic, then you have a duty, really, to give all you can to get the man down and getting to the summit becomes very secondary." The difficulties posed by operating at high altitude were not an excuse, he says. "You can try, can't you? This is the whole thing."

And here's what I can't deal with--even if Inglis, his party, and the other mobs of people who passed by couldn't have saved David Sharp, why, WHY would you let a suffering man die alone, lonely and cold without someone to hold his hand or offer some comfort for as long as possible?

Sir Edmund Hillary apparently talked to reporters from Inglis's home country (Again, you go, Sir Edmund!), telling them that he would have abandoned his own pioneering climb to save another's life. And really, isn't that how it should be? I'm not a perfect person by any means, but I know for certain that I would NEVER have walked past David Sharp just to reach the damn summit of Everest.

"I think the whole attitude toward climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying," Hillary told the Otago Daily Times. "The people just want to get to the top."

In sharp contrast, New Zealander Jamie McGuiness, director of the Everest Peace Project, told the New Zealand Herald about his conversation with a sherpa named Dawa, who gave oxygen to Sharp and "tried to help him move, repeatedly, for perhaps an hour." Apparently, this sherpa couldn't by then get Sharp to stand alone or lean on him, so, crying, he left him, abandoning his climb to the top because he'd given his surplus oxygen to Sharp. And at least he knows he gave a good faith effort to help--it wouldn't have been possible for Sherpa Dawa to get David down the mountain on his own or even with another person. (McGuiness himself recently directed the rescue of a climber on Everest that took 18 people.)

I think the New Zealand Herald says it best in a May 25th editorial. Speaking of the 40 who passed by Sharp, it says, "To get so close to their goal, then to sacrifice it for the sake of someone in peril, would surely be a memory as proud as the assisted trek to the top.

"If not, then Sir Edmund is right. Something has gone terribly wrong in the Everest experience. By all accounts the mountain is now littered with the frozen remains of those who have died there. If the bodies are witness to the difficulty of the climb, we now know they may also testify to a lack of human help."


Jen said...

What a sad story. I think we have conditioned ourselves to persevere only in our own pursuits and expect others to do the same with no help.
I was in a very busy, self-bagging grocery store and a woman was there with a baby that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. I don't know why she was there alone, but she was trying to bag a huge amount of groceries herself. Her baby started to cry and no one would stop to help her. I went over, leaving my own groceries to themselves and started helping her. Her first response as I reached for one of the heaviest items?
"That's mine!"
She thought I was going to steal it while she was helpless and couldn't stop me.
I thought her response was the saddest thing.
I didn't help her because I was some kind of do-gooder. I have the impulse to help and often don't do it. Fear of entanglement or being duped seems to be the dominant reason.
I made a commitment some time ago to follow those impulses--to not be one of the 40 who walk by. Probably all of them thought to help, but none of them did.
I can't imagine the guilt that goes along with that choice.

Carrie said...

I think this happens emotionally too, right here at sea level. People go without hugs, smiles, or the encouragement that keeps them from sufficating on their own grief or loneliness. Thanks for the post.

MaryF said...

Wow. I hadn't heard about this. How horrible.

Tracy Montoya said...

Jen, that's so sad about that woman. : / I bet she felt silly after you helped her and walked away.

Carrie, thanks for visiting. I think you're right--and it is tragic, though emotional distress can be hard to detect in a stranger. I wish there was some easy way for people like that to get the help and friendship they need.

Tracy Montoya said...

Mary, the story was here and gone pretty quickly, though it's all over the NZ papers online. It IS horrible.

Brenda Coulter said...

Hi, Tracy. My 19-year-old son is a climber who has been mentored by mountain guide Andy Politz. (Andy was one of the guys who found explorer George Mallory's body on Everest a few years ago. You might recognize his name if you're familiar with the NOVA and National Geographic specials about the first and second Mallory expeditions.) I've talked to Andy at length about his experiences on Everest, and one thing he has made clear is that in the Death Zone, it is all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. There is no question of helping another climber to walk--and carrying someone is outside the realm of possibility. Even if two men were found with sufficient strength to support a third person, that would be a horribly dangerous way to descend.

Every climber is aware that he must make it down on his own, even if sick or injured. If you can't walk, you must crawl. Anyone who tries to help a disabled climber will probably die right beside him, either from an accident or from exhaustion and exposure. (Bodies are never recovered from the Death Zone. They're just left on the mountain.)

I was dismayed to hear that 40 climbers walked past David Sharp on their way to "glory," but there are a couple of things to be understood here. First, the Death Zone is a barely survivable altitude. Yes, the climbers use supplemental oxygen, but it's the low air pressure that kills. It affects the blood flow to the climbers' brains, slowing their reflexes and markedly decreasing their cognitive skills. Also, they're coughing constantly, like people with severe bronchitis. They can barely breathe, so they don't talk much. Every step is painful and s-l-o-w, but they zone out and just keep going.

The 40 people who walked past poor David Sharp couldn't have carried him to safety. They all knew that. They might have stayed with him, offering oxygen and comfort, but they all thought somebody else would come along who would be better able to do that. Some didn't have enough oxygen to share. Some were so tired that if they'd sat down for half an hour, they wouldn't have been able to get up again. Some couldn't deal with the horror of sitting with a man who was about to die. Some weren't sure he was going to die--surely somebody in the next group of climbers would have some extra oxygen bottles and David Sharp would regain his strength. (Why don't people carry extra oxygen? Because it's all most can do to carry the amount they need for themselves.)

The 40 climbers on the top of the mountain that day were just ordinary people. Most were exhausted, inexperienced, and not thinking clearly. What happened is tragic, but maybe not quite as shocking as the media has portrayed. It's easy for us to call those climbers selfish and uncaring, but I think the truth is more complicated than we've been led to believe. The severe altitude had to be a major factor in the bad decisions that were made up there. Unfortunately, none of those people was heroic enough to overcome the physical and psychological strain.

These days, anybody with money ($40,000 and up), athletic ability, and guts can climb Mt. Everest. Unfortunately, nobody checks to make sure you're hero material. And I think somebody should.

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks, Brenda, for your informed perspective. Of course, I'm the last person to know what conditions are like on Everest--I hate climbing up things. Too much effort. It definitely makes their actions more understandable. Although if Sir Edmund thought it should have been possible to TRY to help, I still have to wonder at the sheer number of people who didn't make even a small effort.

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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