The Los Angeles Times ran a story the other day called "Morality on a Slippery Slope" that was about life, death, beauty, adventure, courage and, most of all, life-and-death moral choices. There wasn't a hint of religion in it, which is what caught my attention.
Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air or visited an IMAX theater to see Everest already knows what kind of disasters can take place at the top of the world in what advanced climbers call "The Death Zone." At the heart of reporter Pete Thomas' story was a simple question: When is it acceptable to pass another climber -- a climber who, perhaps, is minutes or hours from death -- in order to complete your own journey to the top of a famous summit? How do you decide whether to attempt a rescue? Are you allowed to think about your own ambitions, safety and finances, weighing those factors against the value of an endangered human life?
Think of this as the Parable of the Good Samaritan -- acted out at 28,000 feet.
At the center of the story is Mark Inglis of New Zealand, the first double-amputee to climb Everest. The problem is that, just before reaching the summit, Inglis and his team passed a 34-year-old British climber named David Sharp, who had collapsed in a snow cave and was, witnesses said, nearing death. In all, an estimated 40 climbers decided that Sharp was already too far gone and, thus, climbed on to make sure that they reached the summit. Thomas notes:
Some in climbing circles bemoan what they perceive to be a diminished moral code caused, in part, by overcrowding and by commercial outfitters adopting a summit-or-bust attitude to justify the high fees they charge clients who, in some cases, lack adequate climbing experience. The cost of joining an expedition can run from $10,000 to more than $40,000.
Others, however, say that high ethics are still maintained among the veteran climbing fraternity -- of which Inglis has been a respected member -- and that situations vary. Conditions are extremely harsh in what is known as the Death Zone, above 25,000 feet, where oxygen is sparse, winds are fierce and temperatures reach 100 below. Judgment can be impaired and rescue attempts are difficult and can be perilous.
The Death Zone is very much on the minds of climbers this year, with 10 confirmed fatalities on Everest among an estimated 300 summit attempts so far. Thomas notes that this is second only to the reported 19 deaths in 1996 -- the deadly year described in the breathtaking Everest film and Krakauer's bestseller.
Here's another question: Why is everyone focusing their wrath on Inglis? Because he talked openly about why he took the course of action that he did? What about all of those other climbers?
Meanwhile, the world's most famous mountain climber -- Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary -- has clearly stated his stance on the doctrinal question raised by this morality tale.
Hillary expressed his disgust on New Zealand television about the Sharp incident, implying that his 1953 summit might not have occurred had his party found a climber in distress. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain," Hillary said.
Another climber, named Myles Osborne, took part in a recent rescue of a frostbitten, struggling climber on Everest. Osborne stated his views in even more personal terms, saying:
... "I could not help but wonder how in any way is a summit more important than saving a life? The answer is that it isn't. But in this skewed world up here, sometimes you can be fooled into thinking that it might be. But I know that trying to sleep at night knowing that I summited Everest and left a guy to die isn't something I ever want to do. The summit's always there, after all."
Like I said, the article is totally faith-free in terms of language. The climbers do not speak in religious terms and Thomas did not consult any religious leaders about the choices involved in this tragedy. I am not saying that I blame the reporter, in this case, for failing to do so.
Then again, perhaps religion is at the heart of this story anyway. If people are this serious about mountain climbing, the act of climbing Everest may be a religious experience for them. They were on their way to their temple and could not pause to help the man by the side of the road. They followed the doctrines of their chosen faith.
Maybe this is a religion story after all.