Does moral obligation change with altitude? That’s the root question pondered but never answered as Michael Kodas retells his and Nils Atezana’s quests in 2004 to summit Mt. Everest. He recounts also the famous death of David Sharp early on to illustrate his points. The tales of lies, abuse, theft, fraud, and more when ultimately lives are at stake and most look to shirk blame leaves one more fearful of the humans on the climb than the environment in which they climb.
I never got mountaineering. I get a nice walk in the woods, no not like Bill Bryson’s but truly a walk. I don’t get spending a fortune (about $100,000) to go around the world be miserable, risk your life, all to spend 15 minutes in a place we’ve all seen. It’s not me but for those who are truly into adventure working up to it as a lifetime challenge I get. Well as much as I shrug and think that’s their thing not mine. But the hobbyist like Nils Antezana and others who have died and succeeded I don’t get.
What I took away from the book was I think less of anyone who has submitted since 1990 really. The commercial wild west fiasco that takes place in both camps is horrifying. Life is cheap and money is king. Fraudsters are there to glean all they can. There are bad guys in the story definitely Antezana’s hired guide Gustavo Lisi is one. Another is George Dijmarescu the in fact but not in name leader of the Connecticut Everest Exposition that Kodas accompanied is another. There are others along the way, the man who refills used oxygen canisters with no controls or certifications and sells them as new under a trusted brand name. The clean up expositions that only clean up their own garbage but photograph it first. The list goes on and on. Sadly so does the list of the mountain’s dead and injured as a result of this. Those who come on the cheap planning to steal from better funded hikers higher on the mountain. Sherpas and guides who beat and/or extort more from their employers once in the death zone in order to get out.
Yet I did find myself pondering – when in a place where oxygen is life and to put one foot in front of the other a mind and body consuming effort what is your responsibility to the hiker who came back the third time unprepared? Should you attempt to save him at great risk of dying? Sure it’s easy to save someone when you aren’t at risk how about if it means you don’t get that 15 minutes on top of the world you paid for and struggled to get? Does moral obligations flex with conditions? What would I have done had I been in the position of those who passed these dying?
We’d all like to think we’d be one of the good guys like the Benegas Brothers are in the story. Though honestly I don’t know, I hope that when my personality is stripped bare as such adventures do to those who undertake them I am one who would be there doing all I could to help. Just what is all one could is the questions though isn’t it. When the Benegas Brothers struggled to save a Sherpa they found in distress to have expedition after expedition decline to help because they couldn’t only to find once they got to camp with a dead body those who claimed they had no more to give on the mountain had energy to party in camp, the ones who really did all they could were the ones bloody, crying, and beaten by the mountain returning with a servants dead body.
The book left me with more questions than answers about such things. It is a tale of harrowing events even before entering the death zone and how troubles of the mountain don’t just follow people home but change them. I am left thinking if for some unfathomable reason anyone I know ever considers an Everest expedition I’ll insist demand hound them to my last breath to read this and take lessons learned. Don’t scrimp, if you can’t afford to do it with the best chance of returning alive – sufficient food, oxygen, medical care available, best gear, etc. Then don’t because you can’t depend on those you pay to help much less those you don’t. Not everyone is like the Benegas. Know the life history of your guide from sources independent of the guide and call certifying agencies to be sure the paperwork you are being shown is legit. Then be prepared for betrayal from those whom you think you know and help from those you never met but don’t count on either. Be prepared for the worst.
It was a view into the underside of something I’ll never do. It was a shock and thrill to see how something portrayed as so noble has become so cut throat and practical. Though Everest is still the highest peak, the ceiling of the world it has been brought down in my eyes.