Is mountaineering ethical? And is the pursuit of the Crown of the Himalayas the Hunger Games?

The great explorers who went to sea centuries ago risked more than today’s mountaineers, and we consider their actions morally justified. But what if someone takes a risk so great that it almost looks like a suicidal act?

Although an electronic engineer by profession, her greatest passion were the mountains. She was the first woman to summit K2, the first European (and the third woman) to climb Mount Everest. She reached the highest peak on Earth on 16 October 1978. On the same day in the Vatican, the conclave elected Karol Wojtyła as Pope. A year later, when Wanda Rutkiewicz, the climber in question, met John Paul II during his first pilgrimage to Poland, the Holy Father said: “The good Lord made it possible for both of us to scale the heights, on the same day”.

She presented herself well in the media, knew foreign languages, she was eloquent and unusually talented. At the same time, she was extremely ambitious, which translated into her project “A Caravan to Dreams”. She wanted to climb the so-called Crown of the Himalayas and Karakorum (all fourteen eight-thousanders) and the Seven Summits (the highest peaks of each continent). She said: “I never doubt that I will come back, that I will do everything to stay alive”.

Unfortunately, she did not return from this expedition. She was last seen on the night of 12-13 May 1992. She was resting (without bivvy gear) in a small snow pit below the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. In the so-called death zone, i.e. at an altitude of over 7,900 metres, where there is little oxygen and very low pressure, as well as strong wind and terrifying frost. The longer the climbers stay in these conditions, the smaller their chances of survival.

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Wanda Rutkiewicz, exhausted, was found in a snow pit by Carlos Carsolio, her partner from the expedition. Younger and much faster, he was already returning from the summit. She did not return to base camp with him. She did not curb her ambitions for the “Caravan to Dreams”. She disappeared. She remained forever on the slopes of Kangchenjunga.

Exactly 30 years have passed since those dramatic events.

The „why”

Wanda Rutkiewicz was the most outstanding female Himalayan mountaineer of the 1980s – the decade referred to as the golden age of Polish Himalayan mountaineering. It was a time of many achievements of our alpinists in the highest mountains, thanks to which they gained world renown. Unfortunately, these successes only came at a great cost. Apart from Wanda Rutkiewicz, among those who remained in the mountains forever were Jerzy Kukuczka, Eugeniusz Chrobak, Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich, Andrzej Czok, Wojciech Wróż, Tadeusz Piotrowski and many other outstanding Himalayan climbers.

After the “golden age”, Poles did not stop exploring the highest mountains. They continued to achieve considerable success. However, the last three decades have not been without tragedies either. And each of them has reignited discussions about the sense of dealing with such an extremely dangerous profession. “What for?” is a frequently asked question among mountain climbing objectors.

One of them is Professor Jacek Hołówka, a philosopher and ethicist from Warsaw University. – I don’t see any appeal in climbing. It seems to me that it is an idle activity. I would compare it to walking on a footlog over a deep river – he says in an interview with the Weekly.

In the context of mountaineering, the professor refers to a motif from adventure films: a rope bridge suspended over the abyss. – If someone crosses such a bridge to the other side because he is escaping from muggers, then everything is fine from the ethical point of view. If he is practising running away from muggers because he expects to be forced to do so one day, that is almost OK. But if he does it just to avoid having a boring afternoon, it is very trivial. It is more or less the same game as throwing a bottle up in the air and standing in place, so that the bottle falls on one’s head: the pleasure is not great, the behaviour not very intelligent, but it is difficult to forbid it – says Prof. Hołówka.
Monument commemorating Polish climbers – Rafał Chołda, Czesław Jakiel and Jerzy Kukuczka – who lost their lives on Lhotse. Near Chukhung, the south face of Lhotse in the background. Photo by Surendra Pai – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
– But I know that there are people who have a different approach to mountain climbing – the ethicist points out. And he cites the example of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was a lover of mountains (“he said that «it is beautiful to see the country from a position above the clouds»”).<

The noble art of human improvement

On the one hand, mountaineers’ overcoming their own weaknesses, their courage and determination are admirable. On the other, this is an extreme passion where one mistake, or even a non-human factor – such as a sudden change in the weather, an avalanche, faulty equipment, etc. – can cost lives. This begs the question: is mountaineering ethical?

Professor Jacek Hołówka suggests that the question should be formulated differently, more generally (mountaineering aside). Namely: do we have the right to live in such a way that our lifestyle destroys our future, our professional ambitions, education, that it brings us down in the administrative hierarchy? – My impression is that if one acts in a careful and prudent manner, then a dangerous lifestyle must be acceptable. But two arguments are important – says the scholar.

He mentions that, firstly, the meaning of life is chosen by each individual. And everyone is guided by principles related to their own individual sense of what is interesting and important to them. And secondly, in practice, the restriction of such activities by institutions will always be flawed, because it is not very clear who should restrict them and on what basis. – In this way, it is very easy to create unbearable paradoxes that some people are allowed to do something because they are healthy, while others are not, because their lung capacity is too small or they are old, etc. – says Prof. Hołówka.

PhD Kazimierz Szałata, an ethicist from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw (UKSW), is more understanding towards the sense of alpinism. He tells the Weekly that alpinism is a noble art in itself, which shows the possibilities of humanity; the art of overcoming difficulties and, at the same time, perfecting human nature, the mental, spiritual and biological aspects. – As long as mountaineers – he emphasises – have a sense of responsibility. And they do not expose themselves to danger in a senseless manner.

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At the same time, Szałata stresses that alpinists are prone to ordinary human temptations. – Sometimes it is the temptation of bravado, to shine in front of the whole world, or the desire to do something spectacular to gain fame. Then we have to deal with manifestations of egoism, without considering those for whom we are responsible, our family (if we have one) – he says.

The mysticism of mountains

One might also wonder how mountaineering should be judged, for example, through the prism of Christian morality, which is so attentive to issues of protection and respect for life. Is it something inappropriate from this point of view?

Rev. Prof. Witold Kawecki, a theologian, ethicist, media expert and specialist in the theology of culture (also from UKSW), argues that the opposite is true. – The attitude of the Church to mountaineering is positive. It’s because climbing is a great challenge, a school of life and character, a struggle with oneself. Thanks to such experiences the mountaineer sometimes becomes a better person, precisely because he tests himself. He faces the mysticism of mountains, he delights in the beauty of nature which was created by God. By the way, many alpinists are very religious and they pray while climbing – he says in an interview for the Weekly.

– Please see how many biblical and evangelical scenes took place in the mountains. We have for example Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo, Carmel, Zion, Mount of Beatitudes, Hermon, Tabor, Mount Olivet, Mount Calvary and many others. Thus mountains are the space in which God revealed Himself and performed miracles; they are inscribed in Christian spirituality – stresses Prof. Kawecki. And on that subject he recommends Rev. Roman E. Rogowski’s book “The mysticism of mountains”.

However, there is a caveat here – there are boundaries that should not be crossed. And there is no need to refer to Himalayan mountaineering right away, as “there are many disciplines which, if practised unwisely, can result in the loss of health or even life”.

– Wherever the risk is too great, when human life is endangered and there occurs a contestation of one’s existence, we should recall the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”. Because it is not allowed to create life-threatening situations in a reckless, unnecessary way (and this is a very important word). Sometimes there are necessary situations in which we take a risk in order, for example, to save the life of others; here we can also refer to rescue operations in the mountains – Rev. Kawecki continues – and then the ethical evaluation is completely different than when someone, especially inexperienced and unprepared, without proper equipment, goes into the mountains craving adrenaline or fame. There is nothing wrong with mountaineering, as long as you limit the risks and do not behave in a nonchalant manner.
1909, expedition to the Karakorum of Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzo (1876-1933). Camp XII on the Chogolisa (Bride’s Peak). Photo taken by Vittorio Sella. Biella, Fondazione Sella Istituto Di Fotografia Alpina Vittorio. Photo DeAgostini/Getty Images
He adds that he knows cases when alpinists took such big risks, knowing the danger, that one could even say that they were looking for death in the mountains, and these were almost suicidal acts. – It could be linked to the psyche of these people, to their failure to come to terms with the world, with themselves... We do not fully know their motivations. Nevertheless, these are ethically reprehensible situations. And extreme ones at that, which sometimes happen – Rev. Kawecki points out.

Thinking about the risks of others

Professor Michał Wojciechowski, a theologian and biblical scholar from the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, who climbed in the Alps in the 1980s while living in France for several years, has some experience in mountain climbing. – Climbing as a physical effort did not give me much satisfaction. Above all, I was captivated by the beauty of the mountains; the desire to admire them from places that otherwise cannot be reached – he tells the Weekly.

The theologian stresses that people have the right to decide about their lives. And if they act responsibly and do not make crazy decisions, then, according to him, there is no reason to discourage them from doing so. – Generally, we take risks in life. It seems that there is more risk involved in driving a car fast than in a careful climb. However, you have to take responsibility for the risks you take. And think about the risks taken by other climbers too. Then it is morally right. But unfortunately there are sometimes problems with it because it happens that climbers who are too hot-headed, thinking about themselves endanger the health and life of their colleagues – says professor Wojciechowski.

As he explains, on Himalayan expeditions, when conditions are difficult and ambitions are bubbling up, when the expedition leader’s decisions (which are not always fair!) and his attitude to the participants are controversial, someone may lose their cool. This leads to conflicts, which can have a negative impact on the safety of the expedition’s participants.

The Poles’ attempt to climb K2 in the winter of 2017/2018 can serve as an example, when conflicts arose within the group of strong individuals. In addition, at the end of the expedition, when its leader Krzysztof Wielicki saw a chance for a summit push in March, Denis Urubko – in line with his irrational view that Himalayan winter ends at the end of February – made an independent attempt to reach the peak despite poor weather conditions. In doing so, he endangered his fellow expedition members who were waiting on standby in case a rescue operation was required.

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When following the personal histories of Himalayan climbers, one can get the impression that sometimes the scale of the risk taken is enormous. Also, in the times of the aforementioned “golden age”, there was no lack of bravado, thanks to which Polish Himalayan climbers managed to conquer many demanding routes in the mountains. Let’s just mention the feat of Krzysztof Wielicki, who on New Year’s Eve in 1988 made the first winter ascent of Lhotse – alone and in an orthopaedic corset (he had broken his spine a few months earlier).

Years later, in a conversation with the Polish Radio, Wielicki referred to the successes from that period: – This was not a mere “sabre-rattling”, but was connected with a deeper need to make history. We simply had a hunger for success, and where could you achieve success in the 1970s or 1980s? In your job, your profession? Not necessarily, because careers were very slow to develop.

In 2021, shortly after Nepalese climbed K2 in winter, Wojciech Kurtyka dropped a bomb on to the mountaineering community in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza. He picked Polish Winter Himalayan Mountaineering to pieces. – Storms, low temperatures and the virtue of patience in waiting for the weather window are not the essence of mountaineering, neither is ice swimming. Winter Himalayan climbing commands my respect but, for God’s sake, the way it has been carried out by its creators has driven us for 20 years into a position of a trash sport and plunged us into ethical decline – he said, criticising, among other things, the choosing of classic routes on eight-thousanders or the use of altitude porters.

Kurtyka also criticised the project of the Crown of the Himalayas, which he compared to the Hunger Games. He did not spare Jerzy Kukuczka either, accusing his tragically deceased colleague of getting involved in a media race with Reinhold Messner for the title of the first conqueror of the Himalayan Crown. As well as the fact that at times he was the beneficiary of the whole team’s work – installing fixed ropes, setting up camps – while he himself did not participate in preparing the way to the summit (“Jurek was entering a ready-made rope park”).

In another interview – also for “Wyborcza”, from 2014 – Kurtyka stated in turn that “Kukuczka’s attitude to risk was unacceptable to me. It was one of the reasons why our partnership fell apart”.

It should be noted, however, that Kurtyka’s achievements also came at the cost of great risk. Let us recall, for example, the ascent (together with Robert Schauer) of the Shining Wall, Gasherbrum IV (without ascending to the summit), in alpine style (i.e. fast, with equipment limited to the minimum), from which there was no return.
During a solo climb up the south face of Dhaulagiri, Czech Tomaž Humar did not use safety gear... Photo by Bojan Brecelj/Corbis via Getty Images
– There is no reason to forbid people from taking risks if they believe that they gain various benefits from doing so; for example, a sense of achievement, adventure or a satisfaction with the beauty of nature. Great explorers who set out to sea centuries ago risked more than today’s mountaineers, and we consider their actions to be morally justified – assessed Professor Michał Wojciechowski.

And he adds that in the Bible we find the remark that human life is a struggle. – We fight with ourselves, with evil, with nature. This cannot be avoided. Of course, one should not overexpose oneself. But neither should one sit at home for fear of danger. Courage is a virtue, both in secular and Christian morality – the theologian points out.

An undignified show

In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza in 2014, Wojciech Kurtyka also recalled the figure of Tomaž Humar, a Slovenian Himalayan climber, who, during his ascent of the very dangerous Dhaulagiri south face, kept an account of it on the internet. – At critical moments [Humar] was posting every ten minutes or so. He was creating a dramatic situation with no way out. He was filming a horror movie. This time he did not collapse and there was no blood on the Internet – Kurtyka commented, adding that “this death teasing, playing with one’s own life for the purpose of such a show, is undignified”.

Tomaž Humar was known in mountaineering circles for taking huge risks. In 2005, he miraculously avoided death during a solo ascent of the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat. He got stuck in a snow pit, and the retreat was made impossible by very bad weather conditions and descending avalanches. After several days, the exhausted Himalayan was rescued by Pakistani helicopter pilots (who dropped him a rope to which he could clip on to).

He was well aware of the scale of the risk he was taking. In fact, we read on the portal that in one of the interviews before this expedition Tomaž Humar said: “I’ve decided to make a solo attempt because I don’t want to lose a partner”. Unfortunately, four years later, he was not so lucky. He died while climbing alone on Langtang Lirung in Nepal. He had a wife and two children.

The burden of family

“Should a Himalayan climber start a family?” – is another issue raised in discussions about extreme mountaineering. Many observers are outraged by the fact that one can leave one’s family for a risky expedition lasting several months. Their relatives must then experience horror, waiting for good news and worrying sick about them. Let alone if a tragedy occurs.

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Climbers often cannot give up their love of mountaineering. They themselves sometimes admit that they are characterised by egoism, self-centredness, that they are individualists and difficult people. Although a few years ago Anna Czerwińska told RMF FM (a private radio station in Poland) that some of her friends, as a result of a tragedy in the mountains (especially when someone close to them died in it, e.g. a climbing partner), gave up their expeditions or now they climb in safer places.

Monika Rogozińska, a journalist, a traveller and a Himalayan mountaineer, in her text for Rzeczpospolita, written in 2009 after the tragic death of Piotr Morawski (who was only 32 and fell into a 20-metre-deep crevasse in a glacier near Dhaulagiri), an outstanding Himalayan mountaineer, a PhD of chemical sciences, and a researcher at the Warsaw University of Technology, shared her memories of one of the Himalayan expeditions in which Piotr Morawski also took part. She described the moment of his return to base camp: “He began to tell us with delight: «It was so fabulously beautiful up there! I wish you could have seen the sunrise. I was terribly reluctant to descend. As soon as I heal my fingers, I’ll be right back up, in a few days…». He was happy. I thought then of his wife, of the work he liked so much. I realised that the mountains had absorbed him irrevocably. He could no longer climb on that expedition. When he returned home, his toe had to be amputated”.

In another place Rogozinska recalled: “He [Piotr Morawski] said with embarrassment that now they would probably finally expel him from the university because of the next expedition. His wife was also losing patience. They parted ways and came together again. They had two sons. Piotr would give up the expedition for the sake of his family, and then return to the mountains”.

According to PhD Kazimierz Szałata, mountaineering passion can be combined with starting a family, provided that certain conditions are met. – If a mountaineer has a family, children, he should minimise the risk. It’s also important for children that their dad is doing something important that people can only dream about. This is how authority is built. But it can collapse if the climber acts irresponsibly. For example, if he leaves his colleague in the mountains or if he foolishly endangers his own health and life – the ethicist judges.
Professor Jacek Hołówka is, of course, less forgiving of mountaineers in this respect. – If someone is single, has no children, and does not have to look after other family members, he has the right to squander his life. It is difficult to forbid someone from taking part in car races if he feels that he is an expert in this field, although it is dangerous. On the other hand, if someone decides that they want to have children, they need to think ten times before doing stupid things. And take on the burden that will be carried for 20 years, or even 25-30 years in the current conditions – Hołówka puts it bluntly.

He adds: – So you can’t sell your flat in a rash manner, drive your car like a madman, drink too much, associate with aggressive and dangerous people. Nor squander your money and your health to satisfy your ambition or your desire for adventure, thereby leaving your children to fend for themselves. I believe that this is unacceptable.

Danger: the man himself

PhD Kazimierz Szałata notes that the decisions of mountaineers are similar to our decisions in everyday situations, only they are more sharply focused. – Of course, when climbing a mountain, the risk is greater than when crossing the street, but in both cases we have all sorts of temptations: “maybe I’ll make it?”, “I’ll show off in front of someone”, etc. And then we don’t think that we put our lives in unnecessary danger. There always is a risk. The point is that by making wise and responsible decisions we should minimise this risk and act within reason – he says.

Prof. Michał Wojciechowski, on the other hand, stresses that although in the mountains we are threatened by danger from nature, the greatest danger is man himself: – The same is true on the road; there may be an accident caused solely by some technical weakness of the car, but as a rule it is the driver who fails. Let me stress that again: the most important thing is responsibility for oneself and for others. Some people go uphill when they should be turning back. But this does not only apply to mountaineers. It concerns, for example, tourists who go up Giewont when it is thundering and there is a threat of a storm.

– Łukasz Lubański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Jan Ziętara
Main photo: A frame from Martin Campbell’s 2000 film “Vertical Limit” (Columbia Pictures). Nicholas Lea plays Tom Mclaren, a high altitude expedition leader, who despite dangerous weather conditions tries to summit K2 at the urging of his client Elliot Vaughn. Photo: Getty Images
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