Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I wanted to pick up on the ideas of morality that we found in Into Thin Air. Many of us were struck by the idea that "morality does not exist above 8,000 meters," though I feel we are simply confusing utilitarian morality with immorality, because many of us are uncomfortable with utilitarianism, where everything is simply a means to a larger end of the highest net happiness.  It is hard to imagine, however, adopting anything other than a utilitarian perspective on top of the mountain.  While Krakauer does not expand on this section much, I think Simpson's texts bring more light to this.

When the narrative switches and Simon takes over, he says of Joe, "I watched him quite dispassionately.  I couldn't help him, and it occurred to me that in all likelihood he would fall to his death. I wasn't disturbed by the thought. In a way I hoped he would fall. If I tried to get him down, I might die with him...it just seemed a waste.  It would be pointless."  While Simon's cold calculations might turn some readers off, I felt that his sentiment was valid.  It wasn't necessarily that he didn't want to help, but in extreme circumstances, the likelihood was that two lives would be paid for the price of one. What's more, there is something admirable about the fact that he could take stock of the situation so quickly.  Obviously, it is even more admirable that he chose to help anyway, but it would be false to apply the "lack of morality" on the mountain to this situation--it's simply a type of morality we are uncomfortable with because it is not one we are forced to face.  Simon was, and I don't begrudge him that.

One final thought--I really appreciate this shift in narrative in this text.  As they both survived, it would have been easy to write this as a heroic tale of two friends who survive the conditions.  They didn't need to put Simon's cold and calculating thoughts in there.  It doesn't fit the "story of miraculous survival" or match the feel good factor the publishers were probably aiming for.  But it makes the book much more real and engaging for the reader.


  1. I think the idea of multiple moralities is really interesting. Krakauer seemed to be inviting us to make a moral judgment on the actions of his text, but then simultaneously told us our morality was not applicable. In Simpson's narrative, however, Yates seems to be straddling two moralities, which empathize with and distance ourselves from his actions

  2. I agree with Dan and Claire. On mountains there seem to be two moralities at play - those of the armchair adventurers and utilitarianism. I know that I was pretty harsh in my judgement of Blum's expedition not to bring down the bodies of Vera and Allison when we read Annapurna. Now, however, I realize that I was being too judgmental. Utilitarianism on a mountain makes complete sense. Nonetheless, I think the situation that Krakauer describes on Everest was a bit different from the one that Simon and Joe experienced. While Simon and Joe could only rely on each other -Richard certainly would have been incapable of helping - Everest was more crowded during the 1996 season and there were multiple people, including guides and Sherpas, capable of mounting rescues. Of course, those would have been dangerous as well. I'm still not sure what the answer to the question is, but I certainly didn't judge Simon or Joe. I think both made the right decision in the situation they faced and that the inclusion of "Simon's" internal dialogue made the book a more powerful narrative than Krakauer's.