Ethical dilemma is for the climber alone
Hong Kong’s first woman to climb Mount Everest has faced fierce online criticism after revealing that she had passed people believed to be dying. But there is only one person, the climber herself, who is in a position to determine what was right or wrong to do in the circumstances
Ada Tsang Yin-hung, Hong Kong’s first woman to climb Mount Everest, faced an ethical dilemma in attaining her dream of reaching the summit of the world’s tallest peak. She and her party passed people they believed to be dying in what mountaineers call the “death zone”. At heights above 8,000 metres, temperatures, the lack of oxygen and conditions combine to make rescue risky to the point of death. Online criticism has been fierce, with some accusing her of lacking Chinese values and moral principles. But there is only one person, the climber herself, who is in a position to determine what was right or wrong to do in the circumstances.
One Facebook respondent questioned how she could “justify the behaviour of leaving others to die for her own glory?” But armchair mountaineers were not on the peak with her, so are not aware of what she faced. Tsang has pointed that out, saying she and others in her group did not have oxygen to share with the doomed climbers. To offer such help could well have meant dying themselves.
But the late New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 made the first verified successful ascent of Everest, had firm views about helping others in trouble. Asked about a similar incident in 2006 when more than 40 climbers walked past a dying British man to reach the top, he said: “In our expedition, there was never any likelihood whatsoever that if one member of the party was incapacitated that we would just leave him to die”. Not all climbers agree, with some contending that at such high altitudes, it is difficult enough to stay alive let alone save the lives of others.
On several occasions, people have been rescued and survived when other mountaineers gave them up for dead. But each ascent is different and dependent on circumstances. Tsang and other climbers are the only ones able to make that call. Her decision in one particular case will forever haunt her: The man who was dying on her way to the summit was obviously dead when she passed him on the way down.