What's heroism got to do with climbing mountains?


MountEverest.netYesterday, Australia's top female climber, 43 year old Sue Fear, was believed to have died after falling into a crevasse on the world's eighth-highest mountain. Ms Fear was the second Australian woman to climb Mount Everest, and a friend of Australian mountaineer Lincoln Hall, who was rescued from the mountain at the weekend after being presumed dead.

This followed last week's debate surrounding the decision of double amputee mountaineer Mark Ingliss to leave a stricken climber he passed, to die.

There’s something profoundly disturbing about the idea of a man dying, freezing, alone in a cave, 800 metres below the peak of Mount Everest. Knowing that 30 or 40 other people saw him huddled there, and felt there was nothing they could do but leave him to die. 

I should say that I’ve never faced such extreme conditions as those described at the top of Everest. Temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero, frostbite gnawing away at limbs. Climber Stephen Venables wrote in the Telegraph that at that altitude, the landscape is a ‘rarefied, desolate place where the human body is effectively dying; where the longer you stay, the more you deteriorate.’ 

Climber's Everest decision agonyIngliss, whose achievement was overshadowed by the dying man on the mountainside, said it was hard enough to focus on keeping yourself alive at those altitudes. He said they did everything they could to help, but there was no hope of him escaping the ‘death zone’. 

The death zone. It’s as if life was never meant to exist in these environments. I can’t help thinking about people up at that altitude, slowly dying as they trudge towards a peak, while around them lie the bodies of others who stayed too long, who let the death gnaw away so much of them that they were left lying there forever. 

The rules are different in the death zone, the climbers tell us. 

But we’ve heard the ‘rules’ argument before. We’ve heard it used as a refrain to cover actions in times of war and insecurity. We’ve heard it used to justify actions to clamp down on undesirables, or to condone actions such as torture. The rules are different in these circumstances, the perpetrators tell us. 

Perhaps the rules are different because life was never meant to be in that way. These zones of death are completely foreign to everything we love and cherish about life and living. Perhaps we need to question not the acts of these people in these places, but whether human beings really should be putting themselves in these places in the first place. 

Going up a mountain is about personal triumph. It’s a selfish act. No one else will benefit from the experience but the climber. Yet people who go on these journeys are often glorified, while every day acts of kindness that actually have an impact on people’s lives go unheralded.

Disaster areas, too, are places where death often prevails over life. Yet in the midst of these cataclysmic events, there are also stories of great heroism, or great humanity, that shine through. Some may use the excuse that the rules have changed to justify acts such as looting and theft, but others reach out to help the injured, give homes to people who’ve lost everything, and sometimes even sacrifice themselves to save others. These people transcend the death around them. 

People can talk about the environment they find themselves in, and say that the circumstances encouraged them to act as they did. I doubt I’ll ever climb a mountain, and I hope that I never find myself in a war or a disaster situation. If I do, though, I’d hope that I’d find the courage and strength inside me to transcend the situation and help make a difference to people around me. 

Perhaps heroism isn’t about overcoming mountains. Perhaps it’s about overcoming the environment you find yourself in. 



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Existing comments

Too bloody right. Every word of it.Pity it's not to be re-printed in the Tele & the Herald-Sun.Thank you.
Daniel Flesch | 31 May 2006

As a regular bushwalker with some book reading interest in the Himalayas I thought Michael McVeigh's article was a helpful reminder of 'everyday heroism' in contrast to the mountaineers, who, like athletes, sporting 'heroes' such as socceroos and celebrities, contribute little to others in pursuit of their own goals.
My own bushwalking is, in some sense, a selfish act. I could be using the time to feed more hungry people, visit more inmates, etc. But this seeminly selfish act does actually change me. It changes the environment within my spirit in a way that those near to me find helpful, that enriches my vocation, even though it too can be described as selfish elitism. I've not yet 'passed by on the other side' from a stranded/injured walker, and without knowing the details of each person's situation on Everest's 'death zone' I'm not willing to run them down as 'bad samaritans.' There is something of the "fix you own mask first, before attending to others" situation. The extent of injury to oneself is a factor in determing to what extent one is able to help another. Being capable of walking does not necessarily mean one is capable of carrying someone incapable of walking themselves. Would the Good Samaritan have still been able to be neighbourly if he had no donkey, money, and medicinal resources? Climbers in the 'death zone'are not necessarily able to carry someone else down. The 'rules' would normally be 'if you have the capacity to help another, then help them as much as you can.' But if faced with the choice, 'stop here and sit with them as an expression of your compassion and human solidarity, and we will both die' or 'leave them here and walk on, and at least I will live' then the choice to live may not be the 'heroic' laying down one's life dying with a stranger, but I don't think it can be dismissed as callous of selfish. Should people climb Everest? Perhaps not, but people do for a whole variety of reasons, most of which would not fit Michael's definition of 'heroic.' Should we have a soccer world cup, football every weekend, excessively large cathedrals? Pehaps not, but we do many 'unheroic' activities, sometimes even in God's name. The proportion of people, even among climbers, who climb everest, is quite small. Many more already volunteer to feed the hungry, rebuild homes after tsunamis, etc. Perhaps it says more about the journo's limited vocabulary than the number and type of people's lives who inspire Christlike qualities in us.
Grant Finlay | 01 June 2006


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