Work in Progress: Rendering Aid in extremis

The crowded trail to the Mount Everest summit.

Sometime in the past few months I have a distinct memory of reading about the early explorers of Mount Everest, and their reconnaissance of the several faces of the mountain in order to determine what would be the best way to plan an ascent. In the account I read, one of the mountaineers wrote that the Sherpas in different valleys had different names for the face of Everest that each could see from their valley, and they didn’t make the connection that the different Sherpas in different valleys were all seeing the same mountain from different angles, and that there different names were names for the same mountain.

Since reading that, I have thought of it several times, as it would be an instructive episode to recount (it is particularly interesting as an illustration of philosophical theories of reference, like Frege’s sense/reference distinction and Russell’s theory of descriptions), but now, of course, when I go looking for whatever it was that I read, I can’t find it. This is maddening, but everyone who reads a lot is familiar with the experience. (I have explicitly discussed this experience with my mom, who is always trying to remember where a particular line of poetry comes from.)

I made an effort this past week to find whatever it was that I was reading, and I didn’t find it, but I did go down the rabbit hole of reading about all the mountaineers who have died on their attempt to climb Everest. All of the stories make fascinating reading, and this kind of approach to history is like a shadow history, a counterpoint to most history that is written under the influence of survivorship bias. The history of the dead, the failed, the unsuccessful, the forgotten… all have lessons for us that we do not learn and cannot learn from the survivors, the successful, and the widely remembered.

It is expensive, difficult, and even potentially life threatening to remove a body from Everest, so many bodies of climbers who died on the mountain remain in the open, with climbers walking past them on their way up the summit. Several climbers have themselves died in efforts to recover bodies. A few bodies have been pushed into crevasses, so that they are not in full view of climbers, and some have been buried in snow or in rock cairns. Some climbers have reportedly turned back and abandoned their ascent after seeing these exposed bodies — not out of fear, but out of a sense of propriety. I can understand this, but I can also understand why others push onward.

David Sharp (15 February 1972 — 15 May 2006)

One story of a death on Everest was particularly interesting to me, the death of David Sharp in 2006. Near the summit, Sharp rested in a rock cave that has come to be known as the resting place of an earlier climber — the body was known as “Green Boots” because that is what stuck out of the snow — and Sharp froze in place while resting. According to initial reports, about 40 climbers passed by while he was still alive, but frozen in place and dying. Later more nuanced stories came out, according to which some tried to help, but couldn’t. Still, it remains a compelling story, even when we know more of the details. Sir Edmund Hillary expressed dismay over the initial reports, and was quoted as saying: “On my expedition there was no way you would have left a man under a rock to die… It simply would not have happened.”

It would be easy to dismiss incidents such as this in terms of bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility, and this probably has something to do with it. The relatively large numbers of persons climbing Everest now means that there are enough people on the mountain that bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility can come into play, whereas it would not have been an issue on Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition. Crowds are an emergent phenomenon, and emergent phenomena mean that novel properties emerge. People behave differently in a city than they behave in the country, and I’m sure that they behave differently on a crowded Everest than on a Everest with only a handful of expeditions present. The number of people now climbing Everest also means that less experienced mountaineers are climbing, and that mountaineers are trying to establish new records by taking more difficult routes and climbing without oxygen, etc.

Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary

All of the above are probably constituents of an explanation for what happened in the death of David Sharp, but I don’t think that this is all of it. I suspect, given the extreme conditions of Everest, that a lot of climbers are not operating with all their faculties. I read many accounts of reported supernatural events on Everest climbs, which I would attribute to altered states of consciousness from the extreme conditions the climbers are experiencing. Alongside the altered states of consciousness from physical extremes are what we might call a feeling of the surreal nature of the situation. Most people do not, in the daily business, walk past the dead and the dying while engaged in one of the “peak experiences” of their life. When all your effort is going into merely putting one foot in front of the other, and the only thing you can hear is the sound of your own breathing, as though you are trapped inside your own head, what is going on outside you probably seems distant and not entirely real, even when it is someone dying in front of you.

There are many accounts of the feeling of triumph when summiting a mountain, and the appreciation of a view shared by only a handful of others; the shadow side of this is that the triumph and the view is only to be had through great effort and even suffering. The two are linked, and that is why the success is valued. An easy success is like a consolation prize that brings no satisfaction. One must triumph over oneself first, before one can triumph over the environment. Climbing Everest, one joins a very select group that has endured hardship in order to realize a dream. Great dreams involve great hardship, and we understand that some fall by the wayside in the pursuit of great dreams; not to recognize this, not to acknowledge this, is not only dishonest, it is also a failure to understand human nature and the human condition.

“…shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing…”

Reading about the extremes encountered by those who climb Everest, I began to think about the extremes encountered by astronauts. When space travel becomes as common as climbing Everest, and perhaps, one day, more common, the extreme experiences of space travel will involve many of the same factors discussed above: bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility, exhaustion, the presence of less experienced individuals and those attempting to establish new records, diminished capacity due to the extremes of the environment, and the feeling of the surrealism of one’s situation, as one is sealed into one’s spacesuit and thus walled off from the outside world, which will seem distant and not entirely real as a consequence.

Article V of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty, adopted by the UN in 1967) explicitly provides for assistance to astronauts in distress:

States Parties to the Treaty shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space and shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing on the territory of another State Party or on the high seas. When astronauts make such a landing, they shall be safely and promptly returned to the State of registry of their space vehicle.

In carrying on activities in outer space and on celestial bodies, the astronauts of one State Party shall render all possible assistance to the astronauts of other States Parties.

States Parties to the Treaty shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the Treaty or the Secretary-General of the United Nations of any phenomena they discover in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts.

Given what we know of human behavior in the extreme conditions of climbing Mount Everest, it might be more difficult to act upon this in practice than appears to be the case for those writing such provisions in their offices on Earth, when they are warm, well fed, well rested, and able to pause for reflection without risking their lives.

Signing the Outer Space Treaty, 1967.

Everest, like space, is a harsh and deadly environment, but the initial story of David Sharp’s death was that everyone was so focused on summiting Everest that no one was willing to stop their journey, so close to the summit, in order to help him. One can easily imagine a similar situation unfolding in space: explorers might be so focused on their objective, and, fully knowing the danger of what they are doing, they press on even when others cannot keep up.

I strongly suspect that among some climbers there is a very strong feeling, perhaps not explicitly formulated or even fully understood, that climbers of the highest mountains on Earth are a tightly bound brotherhood, and that this brotherhood will come together to the aid of any one of their number in times of distress (as much is implied in Sir Edmund Hillary’s statement about Sharp’s death). However, when any brotherhood, no matter how elite, becomes too numerous, emergent phenomena arise, and the conditions under which the initial brotherhood emerged no longer obtain. The world has changed. We can view changes such as this as a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of larger social changes. Major historical shifts occur at such junctures when the world changes and the rules that formerly applied cease to apply. Something old dies, and something new is born.

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