Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ethics of the Ascent

Probably a cyclist would be more qualified to write about his, but it’s something that has been on my mind quite a bit for a little while now. We can easily say that Performance Enhancing Drugs - PEDs - are taboo in professional sports. We do not want the athletes we cheer for to be “cheating” by injecting some kind of human engineered substance, of which origin we may or may not know. Baseball players have soiled the precious “record books” that baseball fans supposedly hold so dear. Lance Armstrong won 7 straight Tour De France’s, and that is just impossible without pharmaceutical help - allegedly - and now goes through what seems like annual investigations to get to the bottom of a sport nobody in the USA cared about even before he retired. The US government has spent millions on convicting Barry Bonds (on one count - obstruction - essentially a technicality), failing to convict Roger Clemens, and now up to bat, Armstrong. A huge and utter waste of taxpayers money, to be sure, but yet somehow our politicians feel that it is a necessary expense to defend “the honor” of sport. Or something like that...

Well, what about mountain climbing? People might say “why would anyone cheat at mountain climbing?” Mountaineering by nature is not an organized sport. Yet, for the elite mountaineer, there is money and a career to be had climbing mountains. The more summits one can accumulate, and the method in which those summits are achieved (i.e. - without oxygen, speed ascents, etc) all factor into the reputation and marketability the best of the best have when it comes to sponsorships and endorsements. As for the weekend warrior type climbers, I’ll address that after we take a closer look at those who might be referred to as “professional” climbers.

The main drug that seems to be in question as far as Lance Armstrong and cycling world is concerned is EPO, or Erythropoietin, a hormone that controls red blood cell production. One thing that piqued my interest in this subject, is that during hypoxic stress - that is times when the body is oxygen-starved - natural in the body production of EPO may increase 1000X normal. Obviously, when one climbs to extremely high altitudes, the amount of oxygen available to the body decreases significantly. Since climbing well with a lower amount of oxygen in the blood is dependent on the body’s oxygen delivery system to the muscles, it stands to reason that using such an enhancer would improve a user’s endurance capacity at high altitudes. Now, I’ve read cyclists dismiss this idea that a mountaineer would use such an advantage, but their reasons for doing so (no money in climbing, no competition) don’t really ring true to me. There is a health risk with practicing this kind of doping, especially by a high altitude mountaineer, but just like cheating in cycling there have to be those who will make the trade-off. Also, EPO just happens to be the most known type of blood doping at this time. Who’s to say some scientists somewhere haven’t come up with the next new thing, and are using athletes (and climbers) to carry out their experiments? Does that seem far-fetched? Hey, I cheered when Mark McGwire hit home run #62 also. Since there is no organized competition in mountaineering, there is no institution that might administer and require testing. It’s basically a free-for-all, use at your own risk.

And using drugs while mountaineering is by no means a foreign idea. In fact, everyone who goes on an expedition to a mountain of higher than normal altitude should be bringing something with them. Even the big guide companies will ask you to see your doctor before and get a prescription for diamox and sometimes dexamethasone - drugs which help with complications that can develop in hypoxic (mountains) environments. So where exactly can the line between ethical and non-ethical performance enhancers be drawn? If I take diamox trying to climb Aconcagua am I as much of a cheater as Barry Bonds was? What about steroids and HGH? They help you get stronger and recover more quickly. Why not for the mountain climber who needs to A. Be strong and B. recover quickly? What is there to discourage a top level mountaineer from enhancing his abilities by whatever means he cares to? To just dismiss mountaineering as a non-professional sport is doing an amateurish investigation of the subject.

I’ve noticed the biggest new fad in high altitude mountaineering these days is speed ascents. Specifically, speed ascents of 8000 meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen. One of the few long standing goals of mountaineering that still commands respect is climbing all 14 of world’s 8000 meter peaks without oxygen. Now, in the rapidly progressing world, that isn’t enough. One has to climb these peaks faster than anyone else. Across the Himalaya recently, mountaineers have accomplished stunning, even unbelievable to most, times of ascents on these peaks. Well, how are they doing all this? Are the climbers of today just that much better than the climbers of yesterday? Is it the modern equipment and knowledge of how to climb big mountains that is enabling these speed records to happen? Are we as a human race just evolving into better mountaineers in general? Or is there something else at work here? Many of these climbers are sponsored by the biggest names in outdoor gear and apparell. They aren’t climbing these expensive mountains using funds out of their own pockets, and they aren’t training for these mountains an hour a day or so, after they get off work from their accounting jobs. They are full-time professional mountaineers. And there is nothing stopping them from using PEDs, save for their own ethical “right and wrong” belief systems.

The mountaineers of yesterday were certainly not afraid of taking amphetamines and who knows what else on their pioneering climbs. In 1953, Herman Buhl was descending from the summit of Nanga Parbat. In the darkness and exhausted with threatening weather on the way, the expedition doctor deftly gave him Pervitin, and the surge of energy helped him get off the hill alive. When Stephen Venables completed a new route on the Kangshung Face of Everest in 1988, for two days he had spent the night at over 8000 meters without food. Later he would survive an open bivouac at 8600 meters, and spent a total of 30 hours climbing alone. If not for him popping two prescription strength caffeine pills, he might not have made it as well. These are just two of many heroic deeds in the mountains venerated by mountaineers for being bold and difficult achievements, yet both took substances that an Olympic athlete would be banned for.

So what’s to stop the ordinary Joe weekend-warrior type from doing PEDs? Sure, there is a significant health risk, but many of these drugs can even be purchased online if one desires to do so.  That says to me there is a market, and somebody somewhere is keeping them in business. A friend of mine recently told me a story about how he had thrown his daughter’s boyfriend out of their house, and had found out the guy, an amateur body-builder, was using steroids. The only gain that person has from using such a pharmaceutical edge is for himself, for his own ego. So doesn’t it seem logical that a climber might also think the same way? Personally, climbing for me is finding out how far I can push myself, finding out my own limits. I don’t think of myself as a cheater, even though I’ve used diamox on more than one occasion. I’ve used ibuprofen too. Heck, right now I’m on a diet and I’m drinking a protein shake every morning. I’m getting a lot stronger, and I can tell the difference when I’m in the mountains. Where can the line be drawn? It can’t be just legal and illegal drugs, because even EPO has a legal medical use to it. The use of supplemental oxygen has long been accepted for climbing Mt. Everest. It helps one’s athletic performance at high altitude thus enabling the user who might otherwise not achieve the feat to conquer the summit. This is part of the style of the ascent, and is so listed. Perhaps all ascents should now include all pharmacological aids used, including those injested or taken during training for the event. But would anyone even care?

In the end, we can only climb the way we believe it is right to climb. I do think I’ve changed my opinion slightly on some of these amazing ascents that I’ve heard about in the past few years though. I remember too much the SF Giants announcers going on and on about Barry Bonds’ “all-new fantastic workout regimen” back in the days when I used to listen to their games on the radio. They were lying to the audience, they all knew he was juicing, but me the casual fan could never know that. Call it a casualty of our modern age, but I remain suspicious and cynical of any new mountaineering accomplishments of the 21st Century. If I were to cheat, or do something I believe to be cheating while climbing, then I would just be cheating myself. So the only real accomplishments I can respect are the ones I succeed in attaining myself. Sorry all you heroes, The Skeptic has replaced you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Rant About Everest

Generally, books about mountaineering are not my thing. When it comes to climbing, I’m a doer - not a spectator, and I’ve always found climbing books less inspiring than other books designed to motivate the reader. Maybe this is due to the egotistical slant most mountaineering books just naturally seem to have. It’s hard to write objectively about your heroic deeds in the hills, and most of these books have the tone of an extended Summitpost trip report of self-love. But I did get my wife a couple of books recently, and it did, for once, get me thinking.

The book was “The Will To Climb” by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, detailing Ed’s quest to climb Annapurna - and thereby finish his ‘Endeavor 8000” project, climbing all 14 of the world’s 8000+ meter peaks. What I liked about it was how he detailed all the different routes and attempts that had been attempted on the mountain over the years, and his own attempts to climb one of the deadliest mountains on earth. It also was juxtaposed  for me over the fact that at the time of year I was reading it, was the time when the climbing world is focused on Mt. Everest, as many people were following diligently the news of climbers attempting the world’s highest peak. 

This last year, 2012, some great photos of the huge traffic jams on Everest came to light via social media. I’m sure the same types of photos have been taken in years before, but maybe I just never have been hooked in to as many climbers via Facebook as I am now. These photos went viral, and displayed to everyone what Everest has really become. Phrases like “A Conga Line to the top” were tossed around, along with disparaging comments like “Pay your money and clip in” as the act of climbing Mt. Everest was really shown in a much different light than a heroic climb to the summit. Not since Krakeur’s tale of the 1996 disaster had the mountain been shown in such a derogatory manner..

Everyone is fascinated by Mt. Everest it seems. People just want to know this stuff, and more importantly, they want to find out how cheaply they can climb Everest. Also this year, like 1996 on Everest, there were a number of deaths. Several of these deaths happened on the mountain - on low-budget expeditions. While the prices of the major operators climb higher and higher, the cost-friendlier outfits still remain a popular choice. Without a strong leader (guide) many of these end up being the climbers who get in trouble, and sadly, the ones who end up dying the most, by far. It’s easy for me to say if the big companies made the climb more affordable - somehow - and took on more climbers, that these accidents could be reduced and lives saved. But it goes without saying that IMG, RMI and Himex/Russell Brice, etc are not opening their books to the public, so we have no idea what kind of profit margins they are operating on. Maybe they just break even or lose money on Everest - I doubt it, but without hard facts it is an undefendable stance to take and so I won’t take it. 

I really wish I could be like the elite mountaineers of the world, and climb for the route. The big problem with that mindset, obviously, is that I’m not an elite mountaineer. Oh, I think I could be - in my mind - if I could climb all the time and didn’t have a regular job, family or life. An endless supply of money to take me anywhere in the world I wanted to climb would help too. It is great fun to climb a more challenging route, as I have done a few times. Its these times when all the lessons you have learned come into play. They’re like an exam in school. I used to love to take tests. All the time you spend learning and practicing things in theory, during a test you finally put them to use. I bet a lot of mountaineers feel that way - the thrill of testing your abilities. It’s just too bad that the opportunities for a test only come so often for me.

I do like getting to summits. Tests are great, but they are only really cool when you get an “A”. In mountaineering, getting an A means getting to the summit. There are easy A’s and then there are A’s you have to really earn. I’m not proud, I will take an easy A quite often. It’s still an A, after all. If I ascend a mountain via the Class 2 route, and you go up the Class 4 route, we both summitted, we both are equal, at least in my mind. You can trumpet how you went up the harder route, but that only means something to people who care about that sort of thing. The truth is, the vast majority do NOT care about that sort of thing, only whether or not you got to the top. 


So most everybody else is mostly like me, that is, they want to get to the top of the mountain. They may enjoy the experience and the adventure of it, but in the end getting to the summit is the actual goal. I’ve got to think though that the method one gets to the top still must count for something to a great deal of people. When the uneducated talk about climbing Mt. Everest, a disproportionate number of them will talk about the book Into Thin Air. These conversations are always fun for me. They always say, “Hey, if you pay enough money the Sherpa will just drag you to the top.” I really don’t remember the part of the book where this happened - I did read it like everybody else. Even if you have the money, you do have to have a certain amount of physical ability and climbing acuity to make the top. So I can’t just dismiss all those hundreds of people walking in a line to the summit of Everest in those photos this year. They definitely know something about climbing, and they must possess the physical and mental fitness necessary to withstand a 2-month expedition and still have the power to keep moving up until there is no more up left to go.

But they all get 0’s for style points. There is something to be said for style. Now, besides being a climber, I also happen to be a musician. Music is an art, and all sports - climbing included - in my opinion, are forms of art. (and so is blogging *cough cough*) Now, as a musician, I can look at it this way. Do you want to make it big by playing generic, formulaic poser rock? Or do you want to be the Metallica of the mountains? Do it your own way, no compromises to anybody and damn the critics? Well, definitely then you would find me in the latter category. But does that really answer the “Why”? Well, actually I think it kind of does. I do things to be different than the norm. I truly hate the status quo. Do I admire more Unsoeld and Hornbein for climbing the West Ridge or Everest summitter #274 in 2012? These questions are easy. Among climbers maybe the routes I’ve chosen haven’t been remarkable, but amongst the general population, just going up into the mountains separates me from them.

So mountaineering to me isn’t just about the summit, also what figures into it is how you got there. I climb though at my ability. I’m not good enough to climb the West Ridge of Everest, nor am I good enough to climb a 5.14 rock climbing route. That’s why many of the mountains I’ve climbed I’ve done so by the regular (normal) or most common routes. I’m just not very good. I’m not a liar or full of myself. I’m as good as I am. I think I’m better now than I used to be, and I also think I’m improving, but I would never pretend to be a great climber. I’m just not. So for me, climbing by the common route is climbing by the most difficult route that I can also summit. Let me break this apart. Say there is a mountain. This mountain has a Class 2 (walk-up) route, but that route is 24 miles long. Also there is a Class 3 scramble route. I’ve done quite a few Class 3 scrambles, and feel confident doing them. This particular mountain also has a 5.9 face one can rock climb. My route of choice is most likely going to be the Class 3 route, that I can do in one day. It’s just within my abilities, but still challenging and most importantly - fun. I don’t want to camp, if I can help it, and long approaches are not really my thing. Rock climbing up a face? I don’t know how to do that. Most rock climbers I’ve met are kind of douchebags anyway. In this way they are similar to ski mountaineers. Is it a rule, to be a ski mountaineer you have to pass a “How to be a giant douchebag” test? But I digress...

I was on vacation when all the summit attempts happened this year, and the photos of the snake lines hit the world’s consciousness. Upon returning to work my co-workers, non-climbers all of them, asked if I had seen them. They also asked if I had heard about the deaths. Of course, I knew all about these since my wife and I follow these sorts of things. But it really illustrated to me what a joke Mt. Everest has become, to the general populace. They didn’t look at any of those throngs of folks in line as conquerors of a great mountain, or as exceptional athletes performing a daring deed. The overwhelming opinion is that these are all rich people, who bought themselves the top, and unfortunately it was so crowded up there that a few of them died. And there is absolutely no sympathy for such blatant self-centeredness, that may have cost some their lives. The world’s most expensive circus ride, complete with actual life and death consequences. A climber might read those last couple of sentences and state how untrue they are - that’s not really the point. This is the opinion people have of it, and whether you agree or not it IS the general opinion. Step outside your own head for a minute and you’ll see it’s true.

There is talk about limiting the number of climbers on Everest. Well, when each climber pays the government of Nepal $10,000 each just for the permit, not to mention the tourist dollars all bring in, and the added allure that climbers will bring in trekkers too - I scarcely think the leaders of this small country are going to put a self-limit on their cash flow. That just isn’t realistic. Many of the top companies have only so many spaces available in their expeditions, but there are so many different companies that if one fills up, a would-be climber always has other available options - there will always be someone willing to take a climber when these many thousands of dollars are at stake. (That part kind of makes me doubt that Everest Operators are losing money on all of this. Again, I have no proof, only opinion.) That means that next year, just like this year, we wil see the conga lines of crowds as seen on the Southeast ridge during the rare climbing windows that open up. Somebody else will hire a cut-rate expedition to take them to the top of the world. (But this “cut-rate” will probably represent a large sum to the person. Money is all in the eye of the beholder. For the rich man, $55,000 may not seem like a lot. For the less-rich man, $30,000 could represent his entire life savings.) They won’t listen to their sherpa leaders and since there will be no powerful leader other than the one paying the bills, they won’t turn around. Then people will die. So 300-500 more people will be able to say they climbed Mt. Everest, and then the next year it will all be repeated over again, with almost the exact same results.

Is that climbing? Is that mountaineering? If I go to my local mountain, I only spend whatever it takes me in gas to get there, plus my food and maybe a small permit cost. Then I go do some mountaineering. Maybe I want to go climb something else, something new, and so for that I have added transportation costs. Maybe I want to do something even bigger, and longer, like an expedition up a really big mountain, like Denali or Aconcagua. Now in addition to the transportation costs, I must pay for additional logistics necessary to climb the mountain, as well as higher permit costs. Still, these mountains can be climbed for well under $10,000. Heck, even a mountain such as Cho Oyu, the 6th highest in the world, can be climbed for around $15,000 depending on the company/quality of logistics chosen. So if a mountain like that can be climbed for that cost, why does Everest cost at a minimum 3 times that amount?

Somebody is getting rich here.

The veterans of Everest blame the press and media for blowing this year’s events out of proportion. Perhaps that is true, but it doesn’t change my feelings for it. Just because “crowds happen every year” on Everest doesn’t mean the argument that the mountain is overdone suddenly becomes invalid. I do respect that people who have climbed it - it’s quite an accomplishment. But that one summit does not make me respect them as mountaineers by itself. Now many, if not most of them, have also climbed several other peaks as well. That’s what makes them good or great mountaineers. There’s scores of great mountaineers who never summitted Everest but still achieved many awesome feats. There are also plenty of “climbers” who summitted Everest but I have no reason to think of them as great at what they do. They were not. To them, I respect them like I respect any other person who completed a grueling physical challenge - such as a marathon. It’s an achievement, but not necessarily a climbing achievement per se.

The Defenders of Everest also have more arguments. There is their insistence that crowds do not cause the deaths, insufficient summit days do. Solid logic, to be sure. But what are the dynamics of those summit windows, crowds, and subsequent deaths? When you pay that much money, you have to be pretty determined to get what you paid for. Most people don’t pay that kind of dough just for the experience. They are paying that much money because they want to get to the top. So when that summit window opens, what does it take for the climber who has to turn around to make that decision? Are you going to wait in line for as long as it takes?

Obviously, if the cost to climb it where less, than crowds, deaths, and summits would be even more. I really don’t care about the big picture though. I only really care about ME. And I don’t care for any of that crap.

I don’t climb for those reasons.

Everest ride at Universal Studios