Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Morality of Mountain Climbing

I approached Touching the Void through the lens of morality and the conflict between traditional morality, or what Simpson and Yates would describe as "armchair morality," and the ethics, or common sense, of mountain climbing.  I was fascinated by the emotional aftermath of Simpson's injury and Yate's ultimate decision to cut the rope, which literally became Simpson's lifeline, linking himself to his partner.

Although Simpson and Yates believe themselves to be completely isolated from the moral standards of "armchair" society, this isolation is merely an illusion.  Yates's emotional turmoil following his decision to cut the rope clearly demonstrates this.  Yates claims to feel “no guilt, not even sorrow” after cutting the rope.  “Where Joe was,” Yates writes, “or whether he was alive, didn’t concern me in the long silence after the cutting” (103).  His emotional struggles in the aftermath of the cutting, however, undermine his assertions and, in doing so, demonstrate the power of traditional morality.  Although he knows that he had “no other option left to [him]” and that the circumstances on the mountain made the decision for him, Yates still feels guilty for cutting the rope (103).  “Plagued with endless thoughts which turned madly upon themselves in vicious circles” and unable to sleep, he spends the night after the cutting ruminating on the course of events that preceded it (104).  Despite his claims to the contrary (106), Yates clearly still feels responsible for Simpson’s apparent death.  He repeatedly attempts to marshal arguments in support of his actions only to be left with intense survivor’s guilt.  Rationally, he can construct and acknowledge the logic behind his choice to cut the rope; however, his conscience - his connection to traditional morality - convinces him that it was “a blasphemy” and that, “It went against every instinct; even against self-preservation” (126).  In other words, traditional morality denies Yates the comfort offered by the logic of mountaineering ethics, thereby leaving him with feelings of shame.  H e believes that he needs “to atone for leaving him dead as if simply surviving had been a crime in itself” (126).  

Nevertheless, in the postscript he adds, both Simpson and Yates dismiss the criticisms of "armchair adventurers" and maintain that Yates made the right decision in cutting the rope.  In fact, Simpson credits the decision with his survival.  How then does Yates's emotional turmoil and intense guilt fit into this statement?  Does morality apply on a mountain?

No comments:

Post a Comment