Are mountain climbers morally obliged to save each other?

The view that people risk their lives for

The view that people risk their lives for

Two Polish climbers are missing presumed dead after making the first ever winter ascent of the 12th highest mountain in the Himalayas called Broad Peak, the expedition leader says. Tomasz Kowalski, 27, and Maciej Berbeka, 51, were among four Poles who summited the 8,051 metre peak. Climbers dying above 8,000 metres, in what is often referred to as the death zone is a common occurrence. Whilst Kowalski and Berbeka went missing without a trace, it is often the case that  climbers will collapse in plain sight of others who continue on without attempting to help them. In this post I will investigate to what extent, if any, does the  death zone change what one person is entitled to expect from another?

On the 15th of May 2006 a 34 year old Englishman named David Sharp sat dying, during the last few hours of his life as many as forty people walked past him without helping him to safety or making any great attempt to save his life. Controversy followed his death as people who heard the story of Sharp’s demise found it difficult to fathom how people could be so cold towards another human, perhaps  imagining that they would have done differently in the same situation. However, Sharp didn’t merely lie dying on the corner of a quiet suburban street, he was over 8000m above sea level, a few hundred meters from the summit of the tallest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest. When you’re above 8000m you are in what climbers refer to as the death zone as at this altitude the oxygen in the atmosphere isn’t plentiful enough to sustain life. In this essay I will investigate whether or not being in the death zone changes what one person is entitled to expect from another person. I will start by looking into the case of David Sharp and whether the inaction of his fellow climbers was morally permissible, I will then assess what we can expect from another person in a normal situation; specifically from the point of view of Kantianism and will then apply the situation David Sharp was in to the Kantian view of morality.  I will end by concluding that a person cannot be expected to risk their own life in pursuit of saving another.

The story of David Sharp drew international media coverage and with it condemnation and defence from within and outside of the mountaineering community. The question being asked was ‘why did no one stop to help?’, it is not entirely accurate to say none of the 40 or so climbers who passed Sharp failed to stop and help. Whilst descending, Lebanese climber Maxime Chaya stopped to offer Sharp oxygen, and radioed to base camp to ask for advice on what they should do and was told by the coordinator of his expedition, Russell Brice, ‘there’s nothing you can do, Max.’ Chaya stayed with Sharp for an hour pleading with those at base camp for help, but eventually left as his oxygen began to get low (Breed & Gurbubacharya, 2006).Other climbers also attempted to rouse Sharp or radioed to base camp for advice, but all were told the same thing, and left him to die. Before passing judgement it is important to understand the conditions in the death zone. Lack of oxygen is the major problem, in the death zone the body cannot survive for an extended period of time without supplementary oxygen. Lack of oxygen can cause conditions that lead to a climber becoming delirious, reports from those who came across Sharp state that he had removed his headgear and unzipped his jacket when they found him; removal of clothing is not uncommon for those who are suffering from the lack of oxygen (Woods, 2006). Given the mental stress of climbing it is very important to stay focused as a loss of concentration can lead to a fatal slip up, another important factor when organizing a rescue in the conditions experienced on Everest is the time it takes to get up there; once a climber has reached the point where they are unable to move under their own power it is highly unlikely they will survive long enough for a stretcher to reach them and then carry them back down; as Russell Brice said in the aftermath of Sharp’s death: ‘If you can’t walk, you can’t get people [up] there. It’s a major rescue with stretchers and God knows what – a lot of technical gear to do traverses in steep terrain’ (Heil, 2006).  David Sharp was climbing without supplementary oxygen, was climbing solo without the help of a local Sherpa guide or any other climbers to help him if he started to get into trouble, nor was he carrying a radio to let people know where he was or that he was struggling (Breed & Gurbubacharya, 2006).

To assess whether what we can expect from others changes when high on a mountainside it is important for us first to ask: what are we entitled to expect from another person in a more normal situation? This essay is concerned with whether the actions of those who left sharp were acceptable form the Kantian point of view. The Kantian view of ethics is concerned not with actions but with the motives behind actions, believing that rationality is the most important part of deciding how one should act. Kant defined his ethical theory in his categorical imperative; stated below in its three formulations:

  •  Formula 1: Formula of Autonomy or of Universal Law: I ought never to act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should be a universal law.
  • Formula 2: Formula of Respect for the Dignity of Persons: Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, always as an end and never as a means only.
  • Formula 3: Formula of Legislation for a Moral Community: All maxims that proceed from our own making of law ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature. (Kant, 1993, p. 30)

So how do the actions of those who left David Sharp to die measure up to Kant’s categorical imperative? Firstly what would happen if the act of leaving Sharp to die were universalized? Kant thought that society was extremely important, and that anything that could lead to the break down of society should be avoided. For example we should not lie, because if  lying were universalized (everyone lied to each other) our systems of communication would cease to function which would be detrimental to society. This may seem to create some problems, the act of leaving someone to die when they could potentially be saved were universalized it could lead to the breakdown of society as an important part of the way people function involves helping others when they are in need and being able to expect that others well help us when we are in trouble. Indeed David Sharp himself intimated that he would be able to rely on the help of others during a conversation with his mother before he left for his fatal attempt to summit Everest he reassured her that he would be fine climbing solo as ‘You are never on your own. There are climbers everywhere’ (Breed & Gurbubacharya, 2006).  It is tempting to argue in response to this that, if they had left him to die in a more normal everyday setting you would say that it would not be a good action to universalized as it would lead to many people dying needlessly, however when it takes place in the death zone it makes perfect sense for the action to be universalized as it would lead to the least amount of people dying, given how risky attempted rescues are and how slim the chances of survival are for stricken climbers at that altitude and in such harsh conditions. But Kant’s categorical imperative is about reasons behind the action not the action itself, and if we were to apply a counterfactual test to the situation whereby dozens of people walked past Sharp leaving him to die and say that it were not taking place on top of a mountain then it can be argued that it was wrong to leave Sharp to die as people have the right to expect help in such a situations and that universalizing their actions would, as mentioned above, have very bad implications for cooperation and community.

Sir Edmund Hilary was critical of climbers being left to die on Everest

Sir Edmund Hilary was critical of climbers being left to die on Everest

But it is questionable whether or not leaving those to die who we could have saved would be detrimental to society if it were universalized. As cynical as it may sound, leaving people to die could help ease concerns about overpopulation. That is not to say we should get rid of all medical care. But saving people who are dying would not seem to lead to the destruction of society.

Another solution is to add a caveat to the universal rule. Perhaps make the addition to the universal rule: Don’t walk past people who are dying, leaving them to the mercy of the elements. This addition could be something similar to: Unless that person is in such as situation where any attempt to save him would put yourself and others at a very high risk of death. This brings to light one of the major problems with the Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative: what rule are we universalising? Without knowing where to draw the line, the categorical imperative could be made as specific as we want to meet our own needs making it unhelpfully arbitrary. It could be argued that the rule universalised should be as broad as possible. But if this is the case then presumably it would be required to assess whether or not we can universalise the maxim “I should act” regardless of what the situation is, in which case the answer would likely always be yes as the other option is to not act and not doing things would be worse for society than doing things.

Furthermore it can be argued that if Sharp were to wish to be rescued in such a situation, given how much of a risk that it would be to other people, then he would be violating the second formulation of the categorical imperative by using people merely as a means of being rescued with no regard for their personal safety. It might seem tempting at this point to go a step further by questioning the rationality behind the decision of Sharp to climb Everest to begin with as it put such a huge risk on his life, and that if everyone were to climb Everest many people would put their lives in great danger and possibly die, which could not be universalized. But this once again is getting caught up in the action and not the reasoning behind the action. Mountain climbers climb for recreation, if we were to apply a counterfactual test where no mountains were available they would be doing other activities to provide themselves with recreation, the reason would remain the same. The Kantian model of what we can expect from others comes to the conclusion that the actions of those who walked past Sharp were reasonable, and given the perils surrounding any attempt at rescue it is not reasonable or rational for multiple people to put themselves in a situation where there is a very real risk of death in exchange for the slim possibility of saving one person.

What must also be taken into account is that whilst on the mountain is the majority of the climbers who passed Sharp were in the hands of the guides whom they paid to take them up there, the decision to stay with or leave sharp was not their own. So what then of the decisions and actions taken by the guides? They had a duty to honour their contracts with their clients and do everything in their power to keep them safe whilst getting them to the summit of Everest. For to universalize the breaking of contracts and agreements would render the practice completely pointless, a practice on much of society is based. And there are the obvious non-moral obligations in terms of business practice and potential lawsuits. Arguments against this may come in the form of people saying that if they had co-ordinated themselves then it would have been possible to get their clients to the top and help sharp down as whilst assisting a stricken man down a mountain may be difficult, with upwards of 30 people it surely would have been much more achievable. However as stated above the conditions in the death zone are very different to those encountered closer to sea level. It is difficult to concentrate hard enough to place one foot in front of another, let alone co-ordinate climbers of several different nationalities into a team of mountain rescuers. One could push on and point out that there were other climbers much further down the mountain and thus, free from the affects of extreme altitude, who were capable of attempting to co-ordinate a rescue, but the only information they had to go on was being relayed to them by people who were doing their best to stay alive and complete their journey without succumbing to the affects of altitude and thus could not be relied upon. Once again their obligation was to the safety of his own clients, both morally, and financially in terms of running a successful company.

One of hundreds of dead bodies that litter the slopes of Mt. Everest

Another Kantian argument for leaving Sharp to die is that, just as the murder should be executed as he kills knowing what punishment awaits him, sharp should be left to die because he know the dangerous inherent in climbing; to save him would be to take away what attracted him to the climb Everest in the first place. The argument is that sharp chose to climb in a way that was dangerous, without a guide, without oxygen, because he saw it as a pure form of climbing and his challenge was to conquer the mountain on his own. If the danger wasn’t there climbers like Sharp would not be attracted to Everest. I disagree with danger being the a major motivator to climbers of Everest, perhaps there is an element of it but I would think that the fact that it is the tallest peak in the world is the major motivating factor which makes it such a prestigious accomplishment, if danger were the major motivating factor then presumably these climbers would rather climb Annapurna, the 10th highest peak in the world but the most deadly with a fatality rate of 41 climbers dying per 100 who summit, compared to Everest’s 9% (Bisht, 2008, p. 63). The argument goes that if you were to save him you would be mollycoddling him; which is not what he was seeking on the mountain, to leave him to die was to respect his choices. As Nick Agar puts it; it is as if you were to play rugby, you don’t want to be tackled, but you are aware of the risk of being tackled and you are not going to take tackling out of the game because it is part of what attracted you to the sport (Agar, 2010). Certainly Sharp knew the risks involved in climbing Everest, does this mean wanted to die, or at least would not have wanted to have been saved? To tweak Agar’s sports metaphor slightly; an American Football player does not want to be tackled nor does he want tackling removed from the game, he does however want his team mates to block for him to avoid being tackled, I think this would better sum up the mindset of a climber as they do not want the danger removed but they do not want to die and would like help if they are in a state where help is possible. Given his comments to his mother about never being alone on Everest one could certainly assume that Sharp was confident that other climbers would come to his aid should he have needed it, though it could of course be argued that those comments were merely made to placate his worried mother. What I think cannot be denied is that as an experienced climber Sharp knew the risks involved and knew that if it got to the point that he was in such a condition that he could not move under his own power he would indeed be left to die. Regardless of whether attempting to save him would be an insult to his climbing ethos he knew what he was getting himself in for, and what fate would behold him should anything go wrong, as it did.

In the immediate aftermath of David Sharp’s death opinions were divided over whether it was right or wrong for as many as forty climbers to pass him as he sat dying high on the world’s tallest mountain without any rescue attempts being made. Some, like the first westerner to climb Mt Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, reacted by stating that it was deplorable to leave a man to die, and that it would have never happened in his day (McKinlay, 2006), others, like veteran climber Chris Bonington, blamed the increasing commercialization of Everest for distorting peoples priorities as guides were paid large sums of money to get clients to the top and felt pressure to deliver at whatever costs to those around them (Woods, 2006). On the other side of the debate were the climbers who passed him, and those who had experienced the harsh reality of death on Everest, those like Russell Brice, who argued that to attempt to help anyone in such poor health as Sharp would have been to needlessly risk the lives of many more for the almost non-existent chance of saving one man (Heil, 2006). In this essay I have argued that when put in the position of David Sharp it is unreasonable to expect others to put their own lives at risk in the pursuit of saving your own.  I have argued that the Kantian should also come to this conclusion given that whilst as a rule leaving someone to die may not be able to be universalized, if we are open about the fact that is irrational for several people to risk their lives to save another in a highly dangerous situation then we do not contradict the categorical imperative. Though this comes up against familiar problems for Kantianism. It would however, contradict the second formulation of the categorical imperative if we were to use others as a means of survival when we have put ourselves in an extremely dangerous situation and then were to expect them to come to our rescue. Whilst it may not be a nice thought that the right course of action in any situation is to leave someone to die, when in the death zone, 8000m above sea level the risks are so high that there is no other morally acceptable outcome.


Agar, N. (2010, June 6). Ethics 202/302. (N. Agar, Performer) KK 301, Wellington, New Zealand.

Bisht, R. C. (2008). International Encyclopedia of Himalayas. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

Breed, A. G., & Gurbubacharya, B. (2006, 7 16). Everest Remains Deadly Draw for Climbers. Retrieved 5 15, 2010, from USA Today:

Heil, N. (2006, 7 23). Left to Die on Everest. Retrieved 5 15, 2010, from Mountain Zone.

Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. (J. W. Ellington, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Korsgaard, C. M. (1986). The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil. Philosophy and Public Affairs , 15 (4), 325-349.

McKinlay, T. (2006, 5 24). Wrong to Let Climber Die, Says Sir Edmund. Retrieved 5 17, 2010, from NZ Herald:

Shea, T. (2005). Climbing Mount Everest : Understanding Commutative, Associative, and Distributive Properties. New York: Powerkids Press.

Woods, R. (2006, 5 28). Focus: Has the Once Heroic Sport of Climbing been Corrupted by Big Money? Retrieved 5 15, 2010, from Times Online:


2 thoughts on “Are mountain climbers morally obliged to save each other?

  1. The code of the mountains demands that people give up their own goals to assist someone else in need. It’s alive and well; you can tell this is true in part by learning that (in the US, at least) search and rescue is done almost entirely by volunteers. Also, if you read accident reports, it’s very common to find one climber coming to the aid of another. Even on Denali (in Alaska), guides will find a safe place for their clients to remain, while they assist a fallen climber.

    Both of the opposing views you present are right, at the same time. People shouldn’t be left to die. Everest has been commercialized too much, to the point where guides fear being sued if they stop to help somebody who isn’t a client. Finally, rescue is a “best effort” sort of thing, it isn’t guaranteed.

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