Saturday, August 04, 2007
Mind Over Mountain 4
Of Mountains and of Morality
My second book by Joe Simpson is Dark Shadows Falling (Vintage 1998). If anything, Joe Simpson is a romantic at heart, obsessed with mountains in their dangerous splendour and their treacherous beauty. Climbing mountains for him is not merely a matter of some ego-trip but rather an encounter with both the depths of his own psyche and the rich, if dangerous, beauty of their rocky fastness. Only secondly is it anything to do with the ego per se.
The Tibetans, and indeed the Nepalese, look upon their Everest which is located on their borders as a sacred mountain that looms large with craggy splendour over their beautiful countries. Tibetans, like the Nepalese, are a very spiritual people – practically all Buddhists. We only have to call to mind that wonderful world figure of peace the Dalai Lama to remind us of this simple fact. I loved the small quotation on the frontispiece of the book. This quotation runs: “…what is Everest without the eye that sees it? It is the hearts of men that make it big or small.” It is from Tenzing Norgay (May 1914 – 9 May 1986), often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, a Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer. He and Edmund Hillary were the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. This is a typically Buddhist sentiment. I have already referred to this fact before in these posts that the perceiver brings so much to the phenomena he or she perceives. Buddhism was always aware of this fact, and has long been practising meditation techniques to lessen and ultimately, if possible obliterate the ego which would see Everest as a prize to be won as it were.
All great climbers, and indeed Joe is among the greatest would agree with these humble sentiments. This book Dark Shadows Falling deals with the morality of modern day climbers who are more ego-centred thrill-seekers with little respect for themselves, others or indeed the sacred mountain which is, as it were, a physical symbol of their very own deeper selves if they had thought long enough about it. These last are my sentiments as I write from a meditator’s and a Buddhist’s point of view and are not necessarily those of the author of this little gem of a book.
In 1992, an Indian climber was left to die alone high on the South Col of Mount Everest by other climbers who watched his feebly waving hand from the security of their tent thirty yards away. Why did these onlookers not hold the dying man’s hand and comfort him? In short, Joe Simpson feels that the noble caring instincts that once characterised mountaineering has been lost and lost for good. Why? Well, Everest has become in our modern world that keeps on looking for further thrills a playground for the rich, where commercial operators now offer guided tours and these have the cheek to camp amidst the detritus and unburied corpses of previous less fortunate climbers. Worse still, they are seemingly immune to dying climbers on their way up the tallest and noblest mountain in the world. At the end of the Introduction, Joe puts the lonely death of one climber succinctly in these words: “They let him die alone for reasons best known to themselves. Perhaps they did not want to face his dying; maybe the finality of it was too intimidating for them to face.” (p. 14)
On page 23 Joe presents us with a beautifully poetic and moving prose passage on dying alone in the open: “I can only guess at how close I came to dying in Peru in 1985 when Simon Yates cut the rope and I plunged into the crevasse on Siula Grande. I have spoken to a number of doctors since, all of whom have suggested that, given the circumstances, I should have died. Although there was a lot of pain and anguish and hardship during the four days in which I struggled to survive, it was the dreadful loneliness that still deeply unsettles me. Much of what I did at that time was instinctive; or due to experience, but what kept me going for so long when all seemed lost was the desperate desire for company. I went beyond caring whether I lived or died so long as I did not have to die alone. I wanted a hand to hold, a voice to hear. I craved for some human contact that might alleviate the terrifying emptiness of those days spent slowly dying.”
This verbal record of Joe’s conscience, which essentially to my mind this wonderful little book is, serves as a clarion call to a morality or an ethical code for mountaineering, and is a priceless piece of writing in comparison with the Dutch mountaineer Ronald Naar’s unsympathethic, dispassionate and cruelly egotistical comments in his equally egotistically named book Only The Summit Counts. Admittedly I haven’t read Narrs, but I’m an unapologetic follower of Joe Simpson. He goes on, “Because I felt myself balanced on the edge of nothingness, I have already partly died, and I don’t look forward to the day when I have to do it again. Because of that, I think I have some sense of what the Indian climber on the South Col may have experienced. A little imagination and a degree of compassion is all any of us needs to understand his plight.” (p. 23)
On pages 46 and 47 Joe recounts how some Japanese mountaineers climbed past three dying Indian climbers and not once went to offer any aid (the mid 1990s I think). In Joe’s own words: “The Japanese did not speak to the Indians or examine them in any way. They carried on for another 50 metres before stopping for a brief rest and to change their oxygen bottles. They even took in a little food and liquid nourishment within the sight of the dying Indians.” (ibid., p 47) Read the following as a sad commentary on basic everyday ethics and morality: “By 2:30 p.m., after a further three and a half hours’ climbing, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuki Shigekawa had fulfilled their dream – one that they were prepared to stop at nothing to achieve. Helping others had no part in that dream into which they had bought.” (ibid., p. 47) Undoubtedly, one has to agree with Joe and with the best legal advice that no one is ever obligated to go to the aid of another human being, but surely it is a basic value of our society to desire to do so. What has happened that the prizes of the ego outweigh the ethical values we as a society hold dear? On page 48, Joe quotes Shigekawa as saying: “Above 8000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality.” Sad comment on morality indeed!
One can only agree with Joe where he writes, “Frankly, I find it unimaginable that they possessed such a narrow-minded, almost insane obsession with the summit that they could find it in themselves to ignore a dying man.” (p. 50)
I loved these few lines a little later in this book as they appeal to the Buddhist in me: “After reaching the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, Sherpa Tensing said that as he climbed he craved forgiveness for every step he cut into her side. To the Sherpas the mountain is the abode of the gods, a place for reverence, not something to be conquered for the sake of personal glory and the embellishment of the ego.” (ibid., pp. 61-62) Unfortunately today, this holy mountain is littered with the detritus of years of climbing by Westerners mostly. As of the end of the 2006 climbing season, there have been 3,050 ascents to the summit, by 2,062 individuals, and 203 people have died on the mountain. The conditions on the mountain are so difficult that most of the corpses have been left where they fell; some of them are easily visible from the standard climbing routes. Apart from this, there is a horrible picture at the centre of the book of a terrible insult to nature which shows loads of rubbish abandoned at the South Coll – hundreds of empty oxygen cylinders, old tents, various poles, old sleeping bags as well as the body of a dead Sherpa which I could not make out etc.
Without a doubt death and high drama have always been synonymous with high altitude climbing. This, as I’ve delineated in a previous post by referring to Reinhold Messner, is all part of its very magnetism. Mortal man desires to push his mortality to the brink and desires to come back safe therefrom. Eleven climbers perished on Everest in the spring season of 1996 while 87 reached the summit. Cold statistics worth meditating upon because they show us the very nature of humankind. On page 197 Simpson muses: “Some climbers have risked their lives, others have died, selflessly attempting to rescue fellow mountaineers, regardless of faulkt and criticism. Others have sat by and zipped the door shut on a man’s final lonely end.” I think I know which of the two kinds I’d lake to count myself a member. Who can say as I’ve never been in that situation? I only hope and believe that I should belong to the former group. Joe Simpson asked the simply question – since when did means ever justify the ends in mountaineering? The same question can surely be asked of all human life worth its living!
Above I have placed a picture of a relatively small and safe mountain at Delphi on the borders of Connemara and Mayo which I took March 2007. It would pale into insignificance beside the giant Everest but its symbolism is surely the same!