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Rescue Affecting Judgment?

I have to wonder how the ever-increasing proximity of rescue is changing the face of mountaineering. This year, we’ve seen lots of examples of climbers being plucked from mountainsides by helicopters and swooped down to safety–from Nanga Parbat to Denali to the Tetons. What does it mean that climbers now have cell phones, sat phones and radios? What are the implications of climbers thinking that should something go wrong, they will be rescued?

Granted, this isn’t always the case. Every year, there are expeditions that strike off into the remotest corners of mountain ranges seeking unclimbed peaks. I don’t think that they expect to be flown home should they twist an ankle. Somehow, accepting that level of risk seems to echo the philosophical roots of exploration and mountaineering.

I’m not suggesting that rescue is purely good or evil. For example, I was thrilled that the Italian climbers were rescued from Nanga Parbat earlier this year–they put up a hell of a fight in awful conditions. Had they not been highly experienced and skilled climbers, they would have died up there. But what about the opposite? It’s not an unfamiliar story: inexperienced climber, beautiful mountain range, makes mistake, breaks lots of bones, calls 911 on cell phone, rescued by National Park or Search and Rescue. If that climber didn’t have a cell phone in his or her pocket, and the National Park didn’t have a helicopter waiting, would they really have made that climb?

I guess the real question is whether or not knowing that rescue is an option affects judgment. I don’t think that it tempers the decisions of those climbers out to make first ascents and push the limits of mountaineering. Ed Hillary and Tenzing knew that if something went wrong on their quest for the top of Everest, they were on their own. Obviously, that brand of adventurers will go on those expeditions regardless. It’s the middle ground that I’m concerned with: is technology encouraging insufficiently experienced climbers to go places that they shouldn’t be?