Nick Bullock on: mountains for sale

Posted by Alex Messenger on 13/12/2011
Mountains for sale: from Summit 63.

True mountaineering is under threat: consumers are dragging the mountains down to their own level with oxygen and ladders. It's time to stop pretending that standards haven't progressed and start climbing with integrity, says Nick Bullock.

We live in a consumer society. Supply and demand, demand and supply. This is our world, and it's spreading rapidly from West to East. And in this burgeoning capitalist environment, increasing numbers of people believe that it's their right to consume – that money can buy whatever you want.

Yes, I prefer to live in a capitalist society but I'm appalled by the current belief that money can buy mountain dreams, bypassing the long learning curve required to climb with self-reliance in the Greater Ranges. The greatest assets a person can own are their experiences – it is the hard-won memories from these experiences that are our lasting rewards.

The damage inflicted on mountaineering by the present fast-track-summit-fever is deep rooted. The environmental damage caused by the high numbers of people – clients, porters, Sherpas and support staff – who are involved in large group commercial mountaineering is well documented. But there are other knock-on effects, more subtle but just as devastating.

There is the creeping monopolisation of certain mountains, where individual, self-reliant climbers are increasingly seen as an unwelcome hazard. I have actually heard commercial expedition leaders claim that independent unguided climbers – using no oxygen, climbing without fixed ropes or Sherpa support – are "jeopardising the chances of their paying clients reaching summits". Will there come a time when alpine-style climbers are forbidden to climb mountains in the Greater Ranges on the grounds of their style being reckless, or simply unprofitable? We need to consider that question very seriously: consumerism is frighteningly powerful at appropriating, that is what it does best.

Another, less understood, byproduct of the adventure tourist trade is the cheapening of something that remains profoundly important to dedicated climbers. I'm regularly told (by non-climbers) that Everest is no longer difficult to climb. In settled weather, I'd have to agree. It's a great shame that this mountain has been reduced to a holiday destination. But take away the fixed rope, the ladders, the oxygen and Sherpa support, and Everest will once again become a real challenge; the only people summiting will be true climbers.

Mountaineering must be one of the few sports cultures in which people are threatened by standards progressing, a culture where peoples cream of elitism when the standard improves to a level they are not willing to aspire to. Reinhold Messner climbed Everest twice without supplementary oxygen: first in 1978 and in then 1980 (this time solo and without pre-placed camps). Robert Schauer and Wojciech Kurtyka's 1985 pure alpine style ascent of Gasherbrum IV's West Face set new standards, proving just what's possible when two people trust each other.

In 1986, Erhard Loretan climbed Everest in 43 hours, moving through the night and without the use of supplementary oxygen. With all that for us to be proud of, why is mountaineering culture still advocating a style of ascent that is thirty years out-of-date, the old style of siege and oxygen, literally lowering the level of the challenge until it's achievable by anyone?

In Britain, good style in rock climbing is not frowned upon, it is revered. So why is maintaining good style in the mountains any different? If I took performance-enhancing drugs and then chipped, bolted and aided my way up a classic rock climb like Cenotaph Corner then I would be castigated as a cheat and a vandal, and rightly so. There will be a good many honest climbers who will never climb Cenotaph Corner, it will remain beyond their ability, but they will not cry elitism and demand fixed ropes because they feel that it's they deserve to stand at the top. True climbers desire only to earn the right.

This is where our western way – of wanting what others have, but not being prepared to put in the time and effort – really fails. Despite the actual dangers that exist for everyone, mountains are now believed by many to be mere commodities. There is the absurd belief that you can 'pay safe'. Mountains are now sold to highest bidders who, in many cases, have no understanding of what and who came before them and no hard-won experience through which to meet the mountains they wish to 'conquer'. It still amazes me that there are people who actually believe that they can 'conquer' billions of tons of mountain, that it's a trophy to be put on a mantelpiece and bragged about, a mere rung on their career ladder.

Why shouldn't the wild mountains remain as sanctuary for those who are willing, with reverence, to sacrifice and commit? Why shouldn't the mountains be preserved as a remote arena where people who want to improve on previous standards can be free to try? Why should the mountains become the domain for the select few who can pay? Someone, please answer these questions, have a go at answering them with integrity.

In the past, I've been accused of 'elitism' because I voice my opinions and climb to the very best of my abilities. But the Oxford Dictionary defines elitism as 'reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group'. I do not rely on the 'dominance of a select group', nor do I put myself forward as a 'dominant leader', I go in to the mountains on my own or as an equal to my partner.

'Elite' (without the 'ism') is very a different word. It means 'the best'. In that sense, true mountaineering – depending on ultimate experience and skills – is inherently elite. All walks of life have elites. I don't expect to be able to drive a bus, manage a bank or perform an operation on a patient. So why do some people climb into some of the most hostile environments in the world, with poor skills and little experience, and then accuse the people who question this foolishness as being elitist?

Mountain Guides are an elite. They are professional, well-trained people but caught in a storm high on a Himalayan hill it is impossible to guide in the true sense. It's grossly irresponsible to take people with limited experience above 8,000m. In a high Himalayan storm, death or survival quickly become the only options, it cannot be anything other than each for themselves, and only those with enough personal experience stand any chance of escaping alive.

This raises the profound ethical and moral issues involved with ascents that utilise the services of indigenous people. Nepal is a Third World country. Most people's lives are simply about basic survival and the few Sherpas who are employed for their services do make good money for their families, so who can begrudge them? For me, the most important moral question is: are the clients of the commercial outfits happy to ignore the dangerous, and often lethal circumstances, in which these people work for their livelihoods? Fixing rope on avalanche-prone slopes and repeated carries through dangerous icefalls is not something 'pay-safe' Westerners are prepared to do – why do they expect another person to do it for them? Personally, I would never forgive myself if someone died to satisfy my desire to 'conquer' a hill.

An inexperienced client who utilises the services of Sherpas also brings about a situation of ignorant dependence: they are placing their life in the hands of a stranger. Occasionally, individual Sherpas will not live up to their collective reputation and the client will scream about being let down, even conned. As in all walks of life, you will get some good, some bad, some indifferent, some excellent, some experienced and some green. It takes experience to recognise that.

The people most respected in life are the ones prepared to sacrifice for their passion and beliefs. I believe you should chase the mountain dream for the good reasons: the love of the special environment; the passion and the challenge; the opportunity to really see yourself, your weakness and strength, and what you could be; and the intensity of experience: the hurt, discomfort, bewilderment, hope, frustration, terror, elation and awe. Mountains are to be dreamed and fantasised about. Sometimes the dream will materialise, often it will not. Each mountain experience should be for individuals, each experience should differ and the outcome should always be uncertain.

My viewpoint is not popular these days. The masses and the mass media do not see or understand the truth of commitment and hard-won skills; the masses see the oldest, the youngest, the quickest, they consume reality TV,and support 'charity events'.This circus is what most of the general public think mountaineering is, and when this show runs into trouble they scream for government control, rules and regulation. The insurance companies love this; they are waiting, hoping.

True mountaineering can survive, but only with a continual questioning of style, performance and motivation. To truly meet the mountain, you have to cut to the quick and always ruthlessly question your motivations. Don't try and deceive others or yourself; for a mountaineer, integrity is paramount.

So let us take down all of the fixed rope, the rubbish, the camps, the ladders and the bolts. Let's show the world what we think of our mountain environment and how we care about it. Let us not employ people to climb the mountain for us. Let us meet the mountain and climb it by fair means, learn about ourselves and celebrate our achievement when we find success. And, when it's just too difficult to climb the mountain in good style, let us be humble and accept in life that there will always be places we are not good or experienced enough to reach. Yet we know, with celebration, that it is those impossible places that inspire us to strive.

Nick Bullock has been climbing for 20 years, on solid rock, loose rock, snowed-up rock, ice, in the Alps and Greater Ranges. He's taken part in 18 expeditions all to attempt new routes, often on small unheard-of mountains, all arranged by himself or his friends. Nick is sponsored by Mountain Equipment, DMM, Samsung and Boreal. Read his blog at: nickbullock-climber.co.uk.



« Back

Post a comment Print this article

This article has been read 1080 times

TAGS

Click on the tags to explore more

LINKS

Nick Bullock

RELATED ARTICLES

Celebrating 100 Years of Everest
0
Celebrating 100 Years of Everest

2021 marks the centenary of the first expedition to Mount Everest. To commemorate the occasion, The Alpine Club is hosting a landmark exhibition entitled ‘Everest: By Those Who Were There’ at its premises in Shoreditch, London.
Read more »

The Porter: what it's really like to work one of the hardest jobs on the planet
6
The Porter: what it's really like to work one of the hardest jobs on the planet

Sherpas. Porters. The spine to many a mountaineering mission. Watch the documentary that gives the mountaineering community an eye-opening look at what it's really like to work one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
Read more »

25 mlwyddiant Caradoc ar y Copa
0
25 mlwyddiant Caradoc ar y Copa

Gyda’r holl gysylltiadau rhwng Cymru a Chomolungma, ‘does ryfedd ein bod yn falch o bob cyfle i ddathlu llwyddiant y Cymro cyntaf i gyrraedd y copa. Pum mlynedd ar hugain yn ôl, ar 23 Mai 1995 y cyflawnodd Caradoc Jones o Bontrhydfendigaid y gamp honno.
Read more »

Post a Comment

Posting as Anonymous Community Standards
3000 characters remaining
Submit
Your comment has been posted below, click here to view it
Comments are currently on | Turn off comments
9
Anonymous User
24/01/2012
An excellent, thought provoking article. To an extent it applies at lower levels too. Even if I am hiking up a 1000 m mountain in the Lake District, reaching the summit under my own power is an achievement. I feel I've earned the view from the top. Despite the fact that many people may be on the summit, there are many more people who do not have the physical ability to hike up even a small mountain. I may begrudge these people who can see a similar view when the have driven to a similar summit or high pass. Yet sometimes I do visit places by car, when it is not possible for me to hike there. And I am grateful of the view, yet I feel somewhat hypocritical.

Clearly putting other people's lives, e.g. Sherpas, at risk should not be a tolerated fact for professional guided mountain climbing. Yet it is quite likely workmen died building roads around our lower mountains.

Can you stop wealthy people from paying their way to the top? Unfortunately money talks, but perhaps regulations can be used to limit it. Fortunately these people are only likely to be interested in a select few mountains, e.g. Everest. There are many other remote mountains where these people will not wish to venture. Bernie Thornton @bernieT36
Anonymous User
24/01/2012
What an extraordinary post! It's certainly at the extreme end of the spectrum, and I presume that by publishing it BMc hope to provoke debate rather than alienate a significant portion of its members ;-

As a hill walker, one of the non-climbers Nick Bullock so despises, who will be attempting to climb Everest this spring with a commercial operator, it will come as no surprise that I don't agree with the above. My route to Everest has been via Kilimanjaro (~6000m), Mera Peak (~6500m), Aconcagua (~7000m), Muztag Ata (~7500m) and Manaslu (~8000m), as well as a number of other commercial peaks and 3 further attempts at 8000ers before making it up Manaslu last year. I feel entitled and ready to make an attempt at Everest, but I also feel very privileged, and in Nick's world I would never have had the opportunity to climb any of the above. I wonder if I would even have been allowed to do a guided climb in the Alps where, of course, poor helpless mountain guides risk their lives leading inexperienced clients up dangerous rock faces.

Although to date I've only been on three 8000m peak expeditions, I can understand the opinion of some of the expedition leaders Nick has been talking to. In my experience, the problem on these more popular mountains is not the well-supported commercial operators, who have the resources to fix rope and look after their climbers in an emergency, but the so-called independent climbers, who are rarely what Nick defines as 'elite'. They stick to the standard routes, use the ropes that are fixed by the commercial teams' Sherpas, invariably wait for the commercial teams to break trail after fresh snow, and hang around for their commercial teams' weather forecasts before setting off up the mountain, increasing bottlenecks. More seriously, they invariably rely on the commercial teams to bail them out when they get into trouble, and this is why leaders justifiably complain of so-called independent climbers jeopardising their own clients' safety.

On previous expeditions I have experienced 'independent' climbers using our tent when we're not at a higher camp and putting a hole through it with their crampons, stealing our food and gas so that it's not there when we show up and need it, and causing a potentially dangerous bottleneck during a blizzard on Gasherbrum's Banana Ridge by listening in to a conversation between our leader and another operator, and only descending when we did. On the summit of Manaslu this year an elite climber who has climbed all of the 8000ers was in trouble and needed to ask us for oxygen. It's hard to argue that he had any more right to be up there than we had.

Mark Horrell
www.markhorrell.com
Anonymous User
24/01/2012
continued

None of this addresses Nick's main gripe about the purity of climbing, but I don't think I need to. There are plenty of virgin mountains where you can try new routes. Even on Everest an elite climber can avoid the crowds by trying the Kangshung Face or West Ridge. Of course climbing Everest up a fixed rope supported by a team of Sherpas isn't like climbing a challenging new route unsupported on a mountain nobody's ever heard of. Neither is a gentle stroll in the South Downs and stopping for a pub lunch in any way comparable to a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

And yes, Nick's right to highlight the employment we give to Sherpas. A significant portion of Nepal's economy is built on tourism, and for many it's a route out of poverty. If you take his argument to its logical conclusion, you shouldn't even employ trekking guides and should instead carrying our own kit and do your own route-finding to maintain the purity of the walk.

I have some sympathy for where he's coming from when he talks of the "intensity of experience: the hurt, discomfort, bewilderment, hope, frustration, terror, elation and awe." Yes, this is what it should be about, and certainly for too many people it's instead an exercise in box ticking. But I've experienced all of these emotions on commercial trips, perhaps not as intensely as Nick has, but that doesn't matter. Yes, I do feel wistful when I read the works of people like Shipton and Tilman. These were extraordinary people doing extraordinary feats of mountain exploration, but they were also extremely privileged. That more of us are now able to experience the things they did is not a cause for regret.

I admire Nick for his more adventurous outlook, but not for his attitude to the rest of us, which is unapologetically elitist. It's also old-fashioned. Times have moved on; commercial operators have instead pioneered ways of making mountains more accessible. This is a good thing. There's room in this world for all of us.

Nick, you're talking Bullocks.

Mark Horrell
www.markhorrell.com
Anonymous User
25/01/2012
Below is a quick fire attempt at answering the questions posed midway through this article.

"Why shouldn't the wild mountains remain as sanctuary for those who are willing, with reverence, to sacrifice and commit?"

Well, I can't climb Scottish VIII nor do I have the will nor the inclination to haul myself up the Kangshung Face, but having been on several commercial expeditions on standard routes I certainly felt that I did commit and sacrifice several things in my life. Not everyone is professionally involved in mountaineering, nor does everyone have the time or the privilege to remove themselves from the daily grind and commit to self led and self organised expeditions. Despite the author's obvious hang up about paying clients, every commercial expedition I have been part of has involved massive sacrifices - on financial, employment and relationship level. All because of a huge desire to spend time in a high mountain environment - a truly wonderful place. The underlying theme of this article is that paying clients are ignorant and wealthy trophy hunters who can simply throw cash at the 'next life challenge'. There appears to be no consideration of the fact that clients are often competent mountaineers, but due to various life pressures, choose a commercial expedition to make life a little easier when it comes to transport, logistics and general organisation.

So the answer to your first question - mountains can be places which remain the sanctuary for those who are willing, with reverence, to sacrifice and commit? Why this question is tied in with an article bemoaning commercial expeditions, I'm not quite sure.

Why shouldn't the mountains be preserved as a remote arena where people who want to improve on previous standards can be free to try?

I'm not quite sure why this question has been posed. There are still vast numbers of peaks across the globe which are untouched by the apparent filthy hand of commercialisation. There are still countless unclimbed faces on well known peaks which mere mortals like me wouldn't touch. Therefore a 'natural preservation' process prevents such mountains/routes becoming popular. If it's a frighteningly difficult route, people will stay away.

To suggest that all mountainous areas should be preserved only for those who wish to better previous standards is a ludicrous notion. If I were to roll up at my local golf course to be told I couldn't play unless I showed evidence that I could beat the course record, I would feel a little aggrieved (actually, I wouldn't. I hate golf). The point is clear however; suggesting that only those who wish to improve on previous standards should be allowed into mountainous areas is a little short of ludicrous.

Why should the mountains become the domain for the select few who can pay?

There's a laughable irony in this question. "Yes I prefer to live in a Capitalist society" states the author in the third paragraph. I need not continue.

Simon, Congleton.
Anonymous User
09/03/2012
Beautifully Written,

Joseph Khoros
Anonymous User
27/04/2012
wow good discussion guys! I am new to mountaineering, unfortunately I found the joys and labours of the steep hills and rock faces later in life, I am now middle aged and will never attain the title of 'elite climber' but today I don't have to be elite in anything because of the magic of capitalism. Capitalism says that I don't have to be a farmer to have fresh eggs for breakfast, nor a butcher to have bacon with my eggs or even a baker to have hot buttered toast on which to lay my bacon and eggs. no, I just have to have the money to buy them.

Capitalism for all its faults, (although I struggle to find any fundamental issues) provides people, including you Nick (I imagine that you didn't make your own, clothing ,equipment ropes ect...) with the ability to reach places formally the domain of the elite, let me explain why this is a good thing.

Man is an amazing creature, where he goes he creates. Some would argue with me on this and say the opposite, but in reality, man is a force of nature and there are only two rules to nature; things always change and only the fittest survive!

Mountaineering will evolve there is no question and any who think that they can keep things the way they are or have been are sadly mistaken, no one can stop evolution of any kind, sorry Nick, but this is also a good thing for you to because elite climbers of 100 years ago would look at your Mountain Equipment Gortex and your multi-ply ropes and your alloy crampons, karabiners, cams, quick draws and nuts and shake their heads in disgust at your shortcuts, cheats and lack of dedication to the craft, much the same as you are doing to us.
Mark and Simon both make good arguments as climbers, myself as a capitalist and humanitarian but extreme viewpoints are rarely correct Nick and I would suggest you start seeing the good in bring new fresh blood into the still select world of mountaineering, because behind it will be the giant of capitalism, making new advances in equipment, survival and opening up previously locked doors for pioneers like yourself, this will only support the human spirit of adventure. Come celebrate this with us non elitists!
Anonymous User
30/04/2012
A while back now I wrote a letter to Summit in response to letters published by Summit about this article. Both letters I was responding to were 'sensational', and publishing them for 'sensation' could perhaps be described as a wee bit 'tabloidy'. Here is the unpublished letter that I wrote:

Dear Summit, I’m writing regarding Rod Wilson’s and Andy Warren’s response letters to Nick Bullock’s article, ‘Mountains For Sale’. These distinctly contrasting letters both very seriously miss the article’s point, and both needlessly provide emotional fuel that only helps to smokescreen the important agruments.
I’ve heard others express dismay (similar to Rod Wilson’s) about this article’s point of view, or rather what they ‘think’ is the article’s point of view. Within our climbing communities, this failure to read (or listen) carefully and apply considered thought will only exacerbate the threats to what we think is our ‘right’ to climb. The world is changing fast, and climbers better pay more careful attention and more respect towards where and how they climb.
Bullock’s article is a bold ATTEMPT to grapple with a profound and complex constellation of ethical problems relating to the greater ranges (clearly stated at the start of the article and somewhat given away by photos of distinctly high-altitude mountaineering!). It is such a waste of time if people fail to hear his essay’s arguments and then knee-jerk over-emotionally. To ‘get’ this article requires basic skills of reading comprehension that must be easily within the grasp of most minds that can cope with the huge range of skills required to climb a short rock pitch, never mind a mountain. So, I don’t think the silly misinterpretations of Bullock’s stance is due to a lack of intelligence.
In the bigger scheme of things, on a planet of rising sea-levels and economic disasters, arguing about climbing ethics is not that important; but Bullock’s article is not just about simple climbing ethics – we privileged, British climbers have a responsibility to think and argue carefully about our impact on other countries’ cultures and environments. ‘Mountains For Sale’ is a wake-up call; it is time to pay more attention. Lets have some intelligent debate!

Dismayed, from Leicester!
[Mark Goodwin]
Anonymous User
22/11/2012
Thoroughly enjoyed the article. Thought provoking. Reminded me of the quote: "Take only photographs. Leave only footprints"
What I'm not clear on in my own head is: Where's the line? (actually, more accurately where is my ethical line?)
- 4000m? 5000? 6000?
-Solo? Trad? Sport? worse still Via ferrata? - I'm more a trad climber, but I enjoy sport and always appreciate a bolt when I get to it. I even enjoy Via Ferratas - and what involves more fixed rope and ladders than those?
- Learn from experience?, relatives? Friends? Commercial providers? - Mostly I've been lucky enough to learn from friends, relatives and personal experience, but I've been on commercial courses and guided hollidays in order to learn, rather than trying to work it all out for myself as I go along.


So where is the ethical line?
Anonymous User
19/11/2013
This is as clairvoyant an article can be. Chapeau to Nick Bullock for the well put word. If this was spread in more main stream channels it would do much good.

I'd be interested in Bullocks thoughts on the spectacle on Nuptse this past spring.

RELATED ARTICLES

Celebrating 100 Years of Everest
0

2021 marks the centenary of the first expedition to Mount Everest. To commemorate the occasion, The Alpine Club is hosting a landmark exhibition entitled ‘Everest: By Those Who Were There’ at its premises in Shoreditch, London.
Read more »

The Porter: what it's really like to work one of the hardest jobs on the planet
6

Sherpas. Porters. The spine to many a mountaineering mission. Watch the documentary that gives the mountaineering community an eye-opening look at what it's really like to work one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
Read more »

25 mlwyddiant Caradoc ar y Copa
0

Gyda’r holl gysylltiadau rhwng Cymru a Chomolungma, ‘does ryfedd ein bod yn falch o bob cyfle i ddathlu llwyddiant y Cymro cyntaf i gyrraedd y copa. Pum mlynedd ar hugain yn ôl, ar 23 Mai 1995 y cyflawnodd Caradoc Jones o Bontrhydfendigaid y gamp honno.
Read more »

BMC MEMBERSHIP
Join 82,000 BMC members and support British climbing, walking and mountaineering. Membership only £16.97.
Read more »
BMC SHOP
Great range of guidebooks, DVDs, books, calendars and maps.
All with discounts for members.
Read more »
TRAVEL INSURANCE
Get covered with BMC Insurance. Our five policies take you from the beach to Everest.
Read more »