Ethics and Everest

[Editor’s note: This post contains a spoiler about the movie Everest]

Ever since I was twelve I have dreamed of climbing big mountains. But I’ve never seriously considered attempting to climb the biggest mountain. To consider Everest is to consider death. So, naturally, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about all of the reasons I shouldn’t be thinking about Everest. There’s the cost (minimum $30000 for an attempt); there’s the possibility of failure (only 3 in 10 climbers reach the summit); and there’s the possibility of never seeing that little smile dance on the face of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen when I walk in the door after work again (to leave my wife alone would be unimaginable). So I tell myself and others that my loftiest mountaineering goal is Alaska’s Denali, a full nine thousand feet shorter than Everest at 20,310’. I yearn to climb big mountains for the adventure, to explore the fringes of creation, and to, in the words of Primo Levi, “measure myself at least once, to find myself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help me but my own hands and my own head.” But just because something is there, I’ve rationalized, doesn’t mean that I have to claim it as my own. Whether it’s oceans so towering and ferocious that no man could conquer its cascading surf, or rock walls so steep and so smooth that we shall never scale them, or mountains too tall to safely stand on top of, perhaps it is best to have a few token reminders that the majesty of God’s creative hands trumps human endeavor.

I recently saw Everest, a film which recounts the ill-fated mountaineering expeditions of 1996, the deadliest year in the eponymous mountain’s history up to that point. The movie specifically focuses on the Kiwi Rob Hall, a commercial climbing pioneer, and the eight or so clients who have paid the handsome sum of $65,000 in exchange for safe passage and better prospects of summiting the world’s tallest mountain.

When watching the film, you’re immediately drawn to Rob. He’s soft-spoken but affable, personally accomplished but seasoned with humility, eager to cooperate, the consummate leader. He’s engaged to be married to his beautiful fiancée, Jan, and the two are expecting a daughter in the coming months.

On summit day everything looks promising. The team members are generally in good health, the climbing has been surprisingly uneventful, and a glorious window of tranquil weather seems to have opened up, promising sunny skies for the crucial next couple of days.

But on the morning of May 10, 1996, as the climbing teams make their way up the icy slopes, things start to go awry. The fixed ropes that facilitate ascension of Everest’s steepest slopes have not been set up for some unknown reason. The crux of the climb is clogged with eager mountaineers, meaning that several parties have to wait for others to ascend first. Progress is painfully slow as the rarified air limits each person’s capacity for coherent thought and forward movement.

The film repeatedly draws our attention to Doug Hansen, a 46-year-old mailman from the Pacific Northwest. This is Doug’s second crack at Everest in as many years and his guide Rob has been kind enough to offer him a discount since he knows Doug’s funds are limited. Like Rob, Doug’s an incredibly likeable guy and we learn that he’s climbing Everest to be an inspiration to the Seattle-area schoolchildren he has the opportunity to volunteer with.

According to Rob, the turnaround time is 2 P.M., no exceptions, because his job as guide is to get climbers not only safely up but also safely down the mountain. Rob’s making his way down after a successful summit bid when he runs into Doug, still a considerable distance from the top. It’s 2:30, past time to turn around. “Sorry Dougy, that’s it,” says Rob, gripped with compassion but trying to remain firm. But Doug is insistent. The summit looks close. He won’t have another shot. Rob acquiesces and again makes his way toward the roof of the world, this time with Doug by his side. A thoroughly fatigued Doug plants a summit flag at around 4 PM.

The nightmare unfolds slowly but persistently. Doug is so gripped with exhaustion that he can barely move forward and Rob is literally dragging him down the mountain. The stashed oxygen bottles have completely frozen over, leaving their elixir completely inaccessible. It’s getting dark.

All of a sudden, a vicious storm unleashes its fury and Doug and Rob are fighting for their lives. Or, rather, Rob is fighting for both of them. He’s now carrying Doug down the mountain in the dark. Doug is fighting hypoxia and H.A.C.E.[1] Rob’s effort is heroic but it’s all he can do to keep from falling off the knife-edge ridge amidst hurricane winds.

It’s abundantly clear at this point that if Rob leaves Doug behind, he can make it down the mountain safely by himself. Doug’s probably dead no matter what, his health has deteriorated so significantly. But Rob won’t give up.

Rob is faced with this impossible ethical quandary. He has a professional obligation to try to save Doug. But he has a marital obligation to Ann, his wife, back in New Zealand. Then again, he has a moral obligation to Doug since Doug is on the verge of death and Rob is the only one who can help. But what about his paternal obligation to his unborn child?

Remind yourself for a second, this isn’t the fictional concoction of some Hollywood screenwriter. This is real. This is a man like you with hopes and aspirations and fears (well, less fears than you and I but you get the point). This is a guy who drives a little further to get the on-sale groceries and frets when his wife comes home late from work and cries during the sad parts in movies and here he is faced with this decision to save himself for the sake of love or try and save Doug for the sake of duty.

And so when I think about climbing Everest I think about Rob up there at 27,000 feet, stuck in what’s quite bluntly referred to as ‘The Death Zone.’ And I ask myself, “What would I do?”

And what would I do? As a Christian, I think of when Jesus tells his friends, “My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends.” And so I think: if I only have one life to live and one life to give than it would be an honor to give my life on behalf of another, to die that they might live. But that’s just it: I only have this one life to give. I can pour it out all at once for a fellow mountaineer on Everest, empty the whole bottle in a second. But I can also give it slowly but surely to my wife and my kids, to my friends and my neighbors, to the lost and the hurt and the orphaned and the sick. Each act of service is a slow dying to myself so that others may live the abundant life.

Perhaps the reason I don’t think seriously about climbing Everest is because I don’t want to have to make that decision. As long as I stay here, in the relatively safety of my nine-to-five and two-bedroom home, I can (insofar as my character permits it) choose the longer path; I can slowly give my life to those around me that I love. If I don’t climb Everest, I never have the obligation to try and save the desperate climber. But even that’s an unusual way to think about it, isn’t it? Because if I don’t climb Everest, what happens to that climber? Does he just die because there was no one there to help him? Or does someone else, then, have to make the impossible decision?

And lest you think we are immune, there are other Everests out there too. There’s the Everest of poverty as we try to decide how much is enough for us and how much is for others and should I take my wife out to a nice dinner or help put food on the table for a malnourished child. There’s the Everest of war where innocent people have to decide whether or not to put their life on the line to free someone from the shackles of oppression; it’s the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer deciding between a long life spiritually nurturing others as a theologian or risking death in an assassination attempt against a tyrannical führer. On these Everests there are no rights and wrongs. Every decision is defensible and indefensible all at once. And no ethical system will stand up against scrutiny once and for all.

It was never meant to be like this. We were never meant to choose between love for a family member and love for a stranger, food in our belly versus food in another’s belly. Christians have faith that the world that God created was good and that there was enough for everyone to live in plenty. But because evil entered the world through the first sin—and when it re-enters the world every day through your and my wrongdoing, our little egos, our attempts to achieve meaning through accomplishments and not through our identity as children of the King—we have these impossible ethical decisions. They are a by-product of brokenness. We wanted responsibility and we thought we were mature enough to make choices of good and evil on our own. We had no idea what we were getting into.

So let’s face the truth. You and I aren’t capable of making these choices; our ethical systems crumble under their weight. Ethics is for tea time and liberal arts colleges and the line at the DMV. It never was enough for wars and poverty and Everest.

The French philosopher Derrida writes, “I am responsible to any one only by failing in my responsibilities to all the others, to the ethical or political generality…Whether I want to or not, I can never justify the fact that I prefer or sacrifice the one to the other.”[2] Talking more specifically Derrida later asks, “How would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the world to the cat that you feed at home every day for years, whereas other cats die of hunger at every instant? And other people? There is no language, no reason, no generality or mediation to justify this ultimate responsibility which leads us to absolute sacrifice.”[3]

This is what it is to be finite people in a broken world. We can never do enough to call ourselves good for there is always the other to whom our good is left undone.

And yet a hundred times this year I will go to bed at night and allow myself to sleep with a sound conscience because I think I did enough that day. As long as I frame the picture just right—forgetting about the good left undone—I can justify myself according to my own standard. But I know I can only call myself good because I haven’t had to—or chose to—face any Everests. What then? I would hazard that the vast majority of people believe that they are good folks according to their own ethics. But then, look at the world around us. What do we make of it all?

I’ll be direct: the Christian life is an invitation to be loved and accepted not because you jumped over the hurdle you set for yourself but because the God who is love called you by your name. This is its simple beauty and it’s a place where I find peace and rest in those moments when I allow it to take deep root in my heart.

[1] High Altitude Cerebral Edema (swelling of the brain)

[2] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Willis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 70.

[3] Ibid., 71.

3 comments

  1. Well done, BIL 😊
    Thanks for making me think! I’ll keep this part for easy access:
    “This is what it is to be finite people in a broken world. We can never do enough to call ourselves good for there is always the other to whom our good is left undone.”
    Xoxo!

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading and reflecting SIL! Let’s tackle some giants this weekend. I hope I can keep up!

      Like

  2. Really enjoyed reading this piece, Andy~ It explains many of the conflicting ethical gray areas arising from problems in today’s society and leads me to reflect on the fact that the line of morality justifying right and wrong can’t be determined by our ethical system, but that the line draws back all the way to God.. In the past with all the Old Testament laws, and now with freedom granted us through Jesus and his redemptive sacrifice.

    Like

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