Indecent success

Indecent success

In the year 2006, in the sports section in some of the media, there was an item of news which was shocking at the very least. Mark Inglis, a New Zealander who became the first person with two amputated legs to read the top of Mount Everest, revealed that forty climbers had passed by a British thirty-four year old climber, David Sharp, who was agonising 300 metres away from the summit, without offering him any assistance. Sharp finally died.

I had to check the news in several sources before I could believe that what I’d read on paper and the digital media was true. Forty people had passed by a young mountain climber in the throes of death, and had kept straight on along the path up to the summit. Not a single one decided to stop and help him.

When this was made public, different mountain climbing and sports forums on the web ran with opinions and comments from experts, which went from indignation –Basque climber Juanito Oiarzabal said, “Many of them can’t be considered to be climbers, – to those who brandished long arguments as to why it was impossible to help David Sharp at all, as he was in Everest’s notorious Death Zone, eight  thousand metres high, and, according to them, it would have been “impossible” to move him down to a lower area.

The ethical debate was heated: everyone seemed to have strong arguments to justify the possibility or impossibility of saving Sharp’s life. But there was one opinion that put a stop to many: Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who reached the top of the mountain in 1953 with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, spoke out. “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” he said. “The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by.” Climbers today, he said, “don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn’t impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die” and that, “I think that their priority was to get to the top and the welfare of a member of an expedition was very secondary.”

As it happened, it wasn’t just one, or two, or three, or even ten people: forty individuals took a quick look at Sharp, and saw pain, death, suffering and impotence, but they didn’t go near him. They passed by him just metres away and went on: incredible; outrageous, it makes me nauseous.

The day after the incident was first reported, the media came up with another piece of news, which added a significant note to the disaster. Dawa Sherpa, who was the guide on another expedition, stopped, gave David Sharp oxygen, and repeatedly tried to help him move for nearly an hour. Apparently, Dawa tried to help in extreme conditions, at thirty-two degrees below zero. His efforts were in vain: David, unconscious and weak, could not even stand up, not even with the help of the other men with Dawa. It was too late. The Sherpa, frustrated and powerless to do anything, had to leave him there, crying with disappointment and rage. Even with two expert climbers, it would not have been possible to take David down the mountain and guarantee the survival of all three. Finally, a human dimension had appeared in the dramatic story: compassion, which arises in the worst surroundings; the repeated attempt to help; strength put to the service of another rather than one’s own vanity; and then frustration, resignation and tears. The second part of the story made the shock I felt the previous day a little easier to bear. At least there had been one man among forty who had acted like one: someone who went to David and tried to help until he was forced to give up and leave.

The sad story from the summit of Everest is a powerful metaphor for what is happening to the human species today. Long ago Everest was considered a sacred mountain. Today, it is a cemetery which holds two hundred corpses, and a rubbish dump for the hundreds of people who have gone up it and not given a second thought about discarding their oxygen tanks after using them to get to the top. They weigh too much to carry down, don’t they. Nothing is what it was, not even on the highest summit in the Earth. And apparently, this wasn’t the first or second time something so atrocious had happened near a summit higher than eight thousand metres. But until Mark Inglis spoke out, the secret had been well kept.

Where are our ethics, our sense of others, our common sense, our compassion? Where is our human quality? It seems that the vast majority of those who aim for the summit, whatever the nature of it, care for nothing but their own success.

When I read the article, I thought that if people are prepared to go to such selfish extents to reach geographical peaks, how could it not be the same at the peaks of political or business power, or any other. Only when we are deeply cynical and selfish can we find “reasonable” arguments for neglecting to do the most basic good because it might go against effectiveness, efficiency or our own success. It’s easy to find “logical evidence” to defend that compassion, gentleness and charity are sterile. There will always be reasons for psychopaths’ and narcissists’ infinite greed and vanity in ignoring the problems of others and disregarding their fellow human beings’ suffering, returning home to a hot meal and warm bed with no regrets, and even thinking they’re wonderful.

Anything seems to be acceptable to get your photo taken at the top and think you’re someone important. Your fifteen minutes of fame can’t be frustrated by the party pooper who decides to die right by the winner. What counts, for those who walk by and focus solely on their own success, is their smiling image. Who cares if their hair has been ruffled in the wind –they’re proud of themselves, handsome and cool. That’s how we’re going. What a sad future for our species if we carry on like this, and I don’t mean just the future of mountain-climbing, of course. There are many photos of unscrupulous characters with ruffled hair at the top of huge peaks who have left a trail of corpses behind them –which, of course, aren’t in the photo – they’re much less important than a first division goal, aren’t they?

But after reading this story we are left with the hope of the one man among forty; of one decent human being among forty indecent ones. And here, he happens to be a Sherpa among forty Westerners. It is at least a consolation to think that two and a half percent of people will stop and do everything they can for another to lessen his or her suffering or keep him or her alive. Let’s not lose hope.

PS. When I read about David Sharp’s death, I remembered a fragment of Dr. Viktor Frankl’s extraordinary book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. In it Frankl, an Austrian doctor, speaks of the terrible experiences and also the profound learning experiences he had at Auschwitz. “From all this,” he says, “we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race”- and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.”


Álex Rovira

Alex Rovira