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  Everest 2006: To Help or Not to Help, That is the Question by Gary Giss

There has been a lot of press, and debate as of late, about recent deaths on Mount Everest. The debate centers upon the nature of some of these deaths. We all know that high altitude mountaineering is ripe with dangers, which we accept, but what is not acceptable is how many climbers are ignoring other climbers in obvious need of assistance, in order to continue towards their own goal of reaching the summit. Perhaps no death this season exemplifies the issue more than that of David Sharp, the 34 year old British climber who lost his life high up on the mountain. The issue at hand is why did so many climbers who climbed by him (approximately 40), and reportedly in some cases over him, at various stages of his distress not help him? Sir Edmund Hillary himself has sharply voiced his opinion on this recent loss, making it clear that he believes more could have, and should have, been done to assist David Sharp. Hillary’s main argument is that many Everest climbers have reached the point of doing nearly anything to summit, even ignoring fellow climbers in need, or just offering token gestures of assistance so that they can move on with their own egomaniacal objective of saying that they have stood on top of the world (but at any expense).

Altruism versus egoism - this struggle is hardly new, and is a dynamic that we have seen many times before in a variety of contexts throughout human history. Just look back at the infamous Kitty Genovese murder that took place in New York City in 1964. It was discovered that thirty-eight people witnessed (saw or heard) various aspects of her rape and murder, which took place on a public street over a period of about a half an hour. After much analysis, instead of villainizing the witnesses who failed to act, sociologists coined the term explaining this dynamic the “bystander effect”. I believe this is what really took place on Everest. The bystander effect is a dynamic where there are a sufficient number of other people around to help, so each person assumes the others will address the problem. Often, the result of this dynamic is that nothing, in fact, is done to help the person in need. I am afraid this is what is happening all too frequently on Mount Everest. The big difference between the Kitty Genovese murder and the death of David Sharp, however, is that climbers on Everest know very well that the extreme high altitude can kill. They all know to be seriously concerned when they see climbers laying in the snow, having trouble moving, or acting strangely (e.g. symptoms of high altitude pulmonary and/or cerebral edema, hypoxia, frostbite, etc.), yet most of 40 climbers reportedly just left him for dead. In essence, they each passed the buck.

Another applicable term from Social Psychology is “pluralistic ignorance”. This refers to a sense that one’s thoughts are different from everyone else’s around them, even though everyone is likely thinking along similar lines. Maybe the few people that did briefly stop to look at David Sharp figured that since nobody else seemed to be too concerned for David, their own concern was maybe an overreaction (since everyone later stated that there was nothing that they could do), so they also just trudged along on the mountain like the others around them, leaving David to die cold and alone.

The growing crowds on Everest present an ever increasing environment ripe for the diffusion of responsibility amongst climbers that has lead to, and will continue to lead to, many deaths on the mountain (some possibly preventable). How glorious is a summit if you have to step over, and ignore, a dying fellow human being in order to snap that summit picture? When showing off that picture, how many of these climbers will also brag about how they left a climbing comrade to die on the mountain in order to get their prized picture? After closely following yet another tragic season on the mountain, I am left with a sad outlook on many within our mountaineering community. I am left asking myself, what is really more dangerous, the mountain or our fellow human beings climbing it?

The author is a doctoral student in health psychology and behavioral medicine, and an instructor of undergraduate psychology and sociology. He has climbed Cho Oyu (26,906 feet), reaching the summit on September 25, 2005, and is an avid mountaineering fan.

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