I watched the documentary The Summit today, which details the fatal events which saw 11 people die on the second highest mountain in the world, known as K2. The documentary is very similar to events chronicled by John Krakauer in his book, Into Thin Air. Essentially, a group (or groups) of mountaineers scale a deadly mountain and are hit by unforseen circumstances. The interest come in the interplay of the human error with natural events. In The Summit, disorganisation results in the expeditions running out of time. When they are struck by several ice-falls – one of which breaks their rope-lines – things go very wrong. I can’t help but be fascinated by these stories. The extremities of environment, the risk-taking of the individuals, errors in judgement, sheer stupidity, the high stakes – all these fascinate me.
Still, I can’t also wonder just why people want to risk their lives climbing mountains (something I can understand more than, say, swimming across an ocean). Something like 1 in 4 people who climb K2 die. That’s a pretty extraordinary fatality rate. The second question that consistently arises in these cases is: what responsibility do the mountaineers have to each other? There seems to be an unwritten rule that you have no direct responsibility to anyone not in your own group. What’s more, there seems an attenuated responsibility you have even to those in your own group, given you are all struggling to breath and to think. Indeed, the altitude sickness results in a substantial proportion of the mountaineers losing perspective, hallucinating, babbling madly, coughing and vomiting, and so on. In these conditions, it often ends up as each to their own. People are left behind to die or stagger off into the blizzards. Of course, this means that there are stories here of heroism also, particularly from expedition leaders who feel responsibility towards the less experienced.
One can’t help placing oneself in the events, and this is where part of the fascination comes from. Yet at the same time, really, it’s a particular kind of person who sees this physical feat as an achievement. I am fairly ambivalent myself. In some ways, climbing K2 is an achievement of staggering proportions. Yet, is it really responsible to spend all that money, to risk your life, for something so fleeting, temporary, for something which makes the world not one iota better?