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Rules of the range
Deciding whether to help climbers, like the one who died on Mt. Everest, isn't a simple decision.
The lone climber stops, then staggers in the middle of Aconcagua's Canelta, the infamous field of loose, basketball-size boulders that guards the final ascent of South America's tallest mountain.
Our little team of two climbers and one guide slowly gains on the soloist, taking more than an hour to make our way up 1,000 feet. We are nearing the summit of this 22,840-foot behemoth, and every step is tough, with less than half the oxygen of sea level.
We started out as a team of 10. Hartmut Gau, an experienced German alpinist, was the latest to turn around, hallucinating at 21,000 feet. As with every climber before, a guide escorted him to safety. Each of us has paid $2,000 for the precaution. The fee includes food and group gear during the 18-day expedition.
As we come even with the solo climber, now about 20 yards to our left, he suddenly collapses into the dangerously wobbly rocks. Our Argentine guide breathlessly calls out. Features masked by layers of clothing, the man slowly stands but doesn't respond. We move on and up.
No one died on Aconcagua that day. But others have, as well as on lesser and greater mountains. David Sharp, 34, a British climber on Everest, was the latest casualty, with media reports last week stating, "Dozens of people walked right past him, unwilling to risk their own ascents." Sir Edmund Hillary called the incident "horrifying."
Wondering about the criticism, I called James P. Clarke, 42, of Costa Mesa. I last talked to Clarke shortly after he finished climbing the Seven Summits. Single, he jets around the globe and now also calls Hong Kong and Shanghai home in his new job as chief operating officer for Internet Gaming Entertainment in Asia.
"It's easy to sit here in Orange County and ask why didn't they take (Sharp) down," says Clarke, who summited Everest in 2003 with a team. "But you're taking eight, 12 breaths for every step. You're wearing four layers of gloves. Your ability to help someone else is extremely limited.
"Moving along exposed ridges trying to carry someone is putting yourself in a life-threatening situation."
It was 30 degrees below zero when Clarke's team began what climbers call "Summit Day." Translation: 20 hours of heart-pounding exhaustion, starting in the middle of the night.
The climb went according to plan until the descent. Then Clarke's supplemental oxygen system broke. "I'm lucky to be alive. I was fighting to stay conscious for five to six hours."
Clarke points out that under high-altitude circumstances, "time is limited, especially when you try to carry someone down who is ambulatory."
To be sure, Summit Day involves a series of interlocking factors, each with consequences. Summit too late and you might face a storm, which typically start in the afternoon, regardless of the mountain.
Climbers travel as light as possible, meaning if oxygen is involved it's only the minimum amount. Same with water. Finding camp in the dark can be impossible for returning climbers.
"Part of mountain climbing is making the decisions and assuming the risks for your actions," Clarke explains. "It's not something in everyday life we're comfortable with. We have a lot of safety nets in everyday life."
But Clarke doesn't throw caution to the wind, either.
"I climb with people with whom I can put my life in their hands and vice versa - even if everybody doesn't summit," he said. "The obligation to your teammates is first and foremost. If you make the call to deviate from the plan, it has to be a team decision."
John Dahlem, principal at Western High and climber of six of the Seven Summits, is blunt when I call: "I don't care how good you are, how tough you are, if you have a problem (and you're alone), then you're cooked."
Don't misunderstand. Climbers such as Clarke and Dahlem would have helped Sharp if they could. Books are filled with stories of heroic rescues. At least one team stopped and reportedly gave Sharp oxygen. And all climbers would agree with Hillary - up to a point - that what happened to Sharp is horrible.
But the ethics and realities of high-altitude climbing in the 21st century are not what they were 50 years ago, when big mountains were the sole terrain of professional climbers, a close-knit group that relied upon one another to stay alive.
Better equipment, guided teams and an extreme ethos has changed high-altitude mountaineering - as well as opened it to part-time enthusiasts. Managed risk is the aesthetic, and some choose to push the envelope further than others, even attempting solo climbs on Everest.
CONTACT US: David Whiting's column on people and places appears Thursdays. He climbed Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, in 2001 and Aconcagua in February. He can be reached at 714-796-6869.
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