Ethics on the World’s Highest Peak

The climber’s code of ethics, issued by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, specifies “helping someone in trouble has absolute priority over reaching goals we set for ourselves in the mountain.” Most take this to heart. “Saving one life is more important than summiting Everest 100 times,” says Serap Jangbu Sherpa, the first person to climb all eight of Nepal’s 8,000m peaks, and the first to summit K2 twice in one year. “We can always go back and summit, but a lost life never comes back.”

“To say that everyone should look after himself, that no one should help another team is nonsense,” adds Captain MS Kohli, a mountaineer who in 1965 led India’s first successful expedition to summit Mount Everest. “That is absolutely against the spirit of mountaineering.”

That simple rule becomes more complicated, however, when commercial clients are involved. After paying many thousands of dollars for safe passage to the summit, it’s less clear what those climbers’ role is, should they encounter someone in need and likewise, it’s also unclear to what extent a guide can be depended on to save a client’s life at the possible cost of his own.

—Rachel Nuwer, in part one of a two-part BBC series about the grim reality of dead bodies on Mount Everest. Nuwer also notes that decision-making and critical thinking skills become “severely impaired” at altitudes above 8,000m, further complicating the tricky ethics of extreme mountaineering.

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