for National Geographic News
National Geographic Channels International takes viewers to The Dark Side of Everest through the eyes and minds of those who've struggled with the mountain's powerful and potentially fatal allure. Everest veterans discuss how the mountain's hostile environment can affect the human values of those who dare to challenge its heights. A listing of broadcast dates and times by region can be found at the end of the article.
For some mountaineers, the top of the world also represents the peak of human ambition. But when things go badly high on Everest, as they will sooner or later, difficult moral dilemmas play out in dramatic fashion on a global stage.
The Allure of the Roof of the World
Matt Dickinson was a filmmaker with little high altitude experience and no summit ambitions when he went to the north side of Everestuntil the star of his film was sent down with altitude sickness. Aided by guide Alan Hinkes, Dickinson decided to take his place on the summit attempt and complete his movie.
"Although I consider myself a relatively rational human being, I have to confess that the closer I got to the summit of Mount Everest the more I wanted to be there," he explained to the National Geographic Channel. "And the fact that someone was dying in a tent a few meters away from us really was overcome by the sheer magnetism of that challenge to get to the summit."
That someone was a member of a Hungarian team, in Camp VI at the same time as Dickinson and Hinkes. Though a climbing physician had declared the man a lost cause, his partner visited Hinkes and Dickinson seeking help. The pair determined they were unable to provide the necessary assistance. While a desire for the summit may have influenced their actions, so did the razor-thin margin of survival high on the unforgiving peak, where those who can't walk are left to die.
"I have to say if it was one of my team-members then I definitely would have got up and seen what I could have done," Hinkes said. "And then maybe I would have tried to drag them down. But, I'm just saying that, I mean it's impossible to drag someone at that altitude. You can hardly move yourself really."
While in retrospect Dickson said he wishes that he and his climber partner had personally looked at the stricken Hungarian climber, Dickson agreed that their own position offered them no chance to help and would have seriously endangered their own lives. "I think there is a very strong sense that there is a line, that once you have crossed over it you really are beyond help on Everest. And I think that is where the moral boundaries become very fuzzy indeed."
For physician and Everest climber Ken Kamler at least one boundary is clear and distinct. "I don't think you can justify walking by somebody," he told the National Geographic Channel. "For what purpose? To summit? How important is that? If you've got someone dying in front of you, whatever effort you still have left within you should be expended towards saving that person. You may decide that you don't have the strength or the wherewithal to save that person. But that's a different issue than continuing on toward the summit."
Life and Death Decision Making in the "Death Zone"
When exactly is a climber beyond help? How much risk should one mountaineer be willing to take on in the quest to save another? Difficult questions become especially so when they must be made by exhausted and oxygen-deprived individuals who may have no medical training whatsoever.
Those unable to walk in the death zonethe area above 7,600 meters (25,000 feet) where climbers breathe only one-third of the atmospheric oxygen found at sea levelhave traditionally been considered beyond help. But the miraculous recovery of Texas pathologist Beck Weathers in 1996 called this notion into question.
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