Difficult Decisions and Difficult Comments....

8th Feb 2018

Last week I reported on the rescue and tragedy that was, at the time I was writing, unfolding on the Himalayan giant Nanga Parbat.  On the upper slopes of the mountain, in blistering winter conditions, French Alpinist Elisabeth Revol and Polish mountaineer Tomek Mackiewicz were fighting for survival.  You can read my blog post here, but against all the odds a Polish team flew across from their base camp on K2 and climbed up to guide Elisabeth to safety before deciding Tomek, positioned much higher up the mountain, was beyond reach.  It was a story of devastating tragedy, but with the joy of at least one life saved.

I wrote about it and yet, as events have continued to unfold since the rescue, I felt compelled to write another piece about this unique situation.  In truth, when I heard the initial reports that the rescue had only resulted in one life saved, I sighed.  Much as it was clearly amazing and fantastic that anyone could be rescued from this precarious situation, I also felt certain there would be ramifications and this has indeed proved to be the case.

I feared that people would question the rescuers for leaving Tomek behind and this kind of emotional response would be easy to understand.  I have, as I’m sure many others have, had many dark moments imagining this poor climber left in that icy wilderness waiting out his final moments alone.  I also imagined Elisabeth would face criticism for leaving Tomek and continuing down the mountain just as there might be comments about their decision making on the mountain during their ascent.

I haven’t followed up on the story online too much since the rescue efforts ended as I really don’t want to get sucked into any dissection of events, but I have spoken to enough people who have kept abreast of developments to know that there has been the expected criticism.  It is hard to imagine being in such a heartbreaking situation and both Elisabeth and the rescuers faced a decision none of us would ever want to deal with, although mountaineering history has many past tales of climbers who faced very similar situations.  

In 1996, for example, Kiwi guide Rob Hall was stuck just below the summit of Everest with an exhausted and disorientated client and Rob decided to stay with his client.  Ultimately both died. Another situation with similar decision making dilemmas and yet a different outcome happened in 1985. Simon Yates, with his injured partner Joe Simpson pulling him slowly off a belay stance, took the decision to cut their connecting rope.  Simon descended to where he thought Joe might be and, after searching for some time, took the difficult decision to descend alone.  In the event Joe had fallen into a crevasse and, against all odds, managed to escape the icy tomb and spent several days crawling down the mountain.  It was a story Joe later shared in his bestselling book Touching the Void.

In both these cases the press, commentators and even other climbers passed comment on the decisions made.  Some felt Rob should have saved himself and others thought he was upholding the highest guiding principles by not leaving a client behind.  Similarly, Simon was supported by some and criticised by others.

A big focus of my blog post last week was how the rise of the internet has allowed the quick passing of information and so, correspondingly, allows the quick passing of comment and so, in some cases at least, the quick passing of judgement.  That is certainly true, but both the Simon Yates and Rob Hall situations also had no shortage of people giving their opinions and that was at a time where the internet was nothing compared to where we are at with it now.  The internet has changed things and yet people have always had view points and have always been keen to share them.

The problem with any of these situations is that, unless someone is actually there, it is really impossible to have enough detail to comment accurately.  The rescue team had flown to a point on the mountain, raced up 1200 metres of technical ground and guided an exhausted and frostbitten climber down to a point where a helicopter could collect her.  It was an amazing feat that could only have been completed by such a group of elite mountaineers who were well acclimatised.  

It was a groundbreaking rescue but surely the decision making process these climbers had to undergo was very complex.  Among so many others,  factors such as the current weather, altitude, terrain, equipment available, time available, Tomek’s condition, the time of day, predicted weather, Elisabeth’s condition, helicopter availability and their ability to do anything for Tomek if they reached him were all surely discussed.  The only people that could could weigh up these factors had to be that team in that place - much as anyone wanted Tomek to survive it really isn’t possible to know the full circumstances for any of us so distanced from the situation.

My understanding is that Elisabeth’s decision also prompted a lot of discussion.  I am writing this just a stone’s throw from the Sallanches hospital where Elisabeth is being treated for frostbite on her hands and left foot.  She has now given interviews and, although this has given the opportunity to explain what happened high on Nanga Parbat, there is a danger it also fans the flames of comment.

But her decisions were ones only Elisabeth could make in that place at that time and any attempt to judge her actions, I would suggest, is ill judged.  I value the writing and observations of mountaineer and blogger Alan Arnette and, as usual, he succinctly and yet sensitively nailed it in his recent post.  Alan predicts the potential for comment and opinion from others when he writes, ‘only Revol will know what she felt, what she said and how the weight of her decision will bear on her for the rest of her life.  For others to criticise is an exercise in ignorance and arrogance’.  Alan has a way with words

Posted by Paul

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