We Can't Leave Them - Climbing and Humanity

Mick Ward 9th February, 2022

It may be argued that the greatest act of humanity is to put your life on the line for another. In the climbing world, many have been faced with this situation. Maybe we can learn from some of their stories.

A 40 year question...and the deeply intriguing answer

When I was a child, I devoured climbing literature. As with so many of my generation, I was entranced by Heinrich Harrer's book 'The White Spider' – a magisterial history of the North Face of the Eiger. Clearly Harrer was supremely qualified to write this book; after all, he'd been on the first ascent in 1938. But, no matter how many times I read the book, one question stubbornly remained.

When we're children we have so many questions about life. Naively, we imagine that one day we'll have all the answers and everything will be just fine. Invariably, fate has other plans. Sometimes the answers are ones we wish we'd never learned; rarely do they bring us solace. Occasionally, however, an answer yields a line of enquiry which we'd never envisaged.

My Eiger question was simple, brutally so. Harrer and Fritz Kasparek had met the competing pair of Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg on the face. Famously they combined forces for a successful ascent in terrible conditions. But what if they hadn't teamed up with Heckmair and Vörg? Would they have survived? The first attempt in 1935 had resulted in two fatalities; the second, a year later, in four more. By 1938, out of eight aspirants, only two had come back alive: Mathias Rebitsch and Ludwig Vörg. Harrer and Kasparek were highly talented climbers – no argument about that. But other highly talented climbers had died before them. Could they have made it on their own?

Obviously there were only four people in all of history who'd known the answer to my question at first hand. Vörg's Olympic medal didn't save him from dying on the first day of the German advance into Russia in 1941. Kasparek was killed climbing in the Andes in 1954. Only two people in the world remained; in the end, they died also. I resigned myself to never knowing the answer.

But the question still gnawed away at me. And then finally one day I had a brainwave. Feeling rather foolish, I sent an email to someone I've never met, the marvellously named Luca Signorelli, master historian of Alpine climbing. It began with something like, 'I know this is a silly question, but…' The proverbial cup of coffee had barely been sipped when there was the ping of a return email – the fastest and most comprehensive reply I've ever received. I can no longer find it, unfortunately, but here's the gist of what it said:

'Ha! I asked Heckmair the very same question. And he told me, "If we hadn't met them, the Death Bivouac would have had to be renamed the Harrer Bivouac. I wanted us to go our separate ways. But Vörg said, "We can't leave them..."' Luca also pointed out that Harrer had been doubly lucky. If he hadn't gone to Nanga Parbat and been imprisoned in India, before escaping to Tibet, he'd probably have been killed in the 1941 invasion of Crete.

With four simple words Vörg had probably saved their lives

So, after more than 40 years, I finally had the answer to my question – and more. I could see why Harrer hadn't mentioned it in 'The White Spider'. I could also understand why Heckmair had felt the way he did. He'd come from a harsh background. They were on the hardest and most dangerous route ever attempted. If there was ever a place for the fabled SAS motto of, 'Big boys' games, big boys' rules', clearly this was it.

And yet… and yet… With four simple words, Vörg had probably saved their lives; the cost of doing so significantly increased the risk to both Heckmair and himself. But he'd still done it. Nor was he the only one to have made such a crucial choice. On the eighth ascent of the Eiger North Face, the two Maag brothers were convinced that their hero, Hermann Buhl, was going to leave them behind. He didn't. Not only the Maag brothers but the five man French team all got a toprope on the hardest sections of the route. With everybody's life on the line, clearly it was no time to be prissy about ethics.

When Buhl crossed the Hinterstoisser Traverse on the first day, his climbing partner, Sepp Jöchler, described him as moving with almost unimaginable grace. But, by the final day, he was reduced almost to the level of an animal, with an animal's fierce desire to fight his way out or die. Taking horrible whippers, pushing his body to the limit was the only way. 'The enigma that was Hermann Buhl', in Harrer's marvellously apposite phrase, showed exactly what he was made of. He saved his own life and he saved the lives of eight others. He didn't leave anybody behind.   

Most people would agree that Hermann Buhl, Walter Bonatti and Reinhold Messner were three of the greatest Alpinists of all time. In the celebrated retreat from the Central Pillar of Freney, Bonatti was tested in much the same way as Buhl. Sadly, this time four out of seven died. Messner was similarly tested – with arguably an even more poignant result - as he searched in vain for the body of his brother Günther at the base of Nanga Parbat, exhausted and without food.

P.Ross on the bivy. FA The 1000' Labyrinth Wall, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire, July 1971.
P.Ross on the bivy. FA The 1000' Labyrinth Wall, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire, July 1971.

Some routes test character, as well as technical ability. Paul Ross on the first ascent of the Labyrinth Wall, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire, in 1971 (Photographic credit: Paul Ross collection).

'Leave no man behind...'

So many Hollywood films trumpet the proud mantra, 'Leave no man behind'. My guess is that throughout history innumerable people have been left behind. Equally there are instances where individuals have staunchly refused to leave others behind even in the face of near certain death. Recently I read an account of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who made something like a dozen consecutive forays to evacuate surrounded troops. Despite being wounded and coming under heavy fire each time, he persisted until he'd evacuated everybody.

Ridley Scott's celebrated film Black Hawk Down depicts the fabled 1993 US raid in Mogadishu, which went horribly wrong. Famously, two Delta Force snipers, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, repeatedly asked for permission to attempt the rescue of a downed helicopter pilot surrounded by a frenzied mob of attackers. The must have known that their chances of evacuation were slim to non-existent. But they still did it. Sadly they paid the ultimate penalty.

The Victoria Cross was created by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to commemorate feats of valour in war. The first recipients, from the Crimean war, received their Victoria Crosses in 1856. The design of the Victoria Cross was heavily influenced by Prince Albert. Up until this time, in Britain at least, the notion was that awards should be as gaudy as possible. Albert felt otherwise. The design of the Cross is deliberately simple – a ribbon and a metal cross. Originally the crosses were made from metal taken from cannon captured in the Crimean War. Albert was inferring that heroism has little to do with pomp and ceremony; simplicity and respect are far more fitting.

The citation for Victoria Crosses reads that they are awarded for, '…most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.' They're not necessarily about killing people. In World War I, Captain Noel Chavasse was awarded two Victoria Crosses; only three people have ever been so honoured. As far as is known, in neither instance did Chavasse fire a single shot. In both cases, his heroism was almost unimaginable.

'All the heroes are dead'

There's a Russian proverb, 'All the heroes are dead.' And there's the rub. The Russians should know. Caveats about Russian militarism aside, they've practically mass-produced heroes. Most of them have indeed ended up dead. Noel Chavasse perished. So many Victoria Crosses have been awarded posthumously.

Does this type of heroism exist in non-military settings? Undoubtedly. Many years ago, Phil Kershaw told me that his climbing partner, Mick Poynton, once soloed up a pitch harder than his leading standard to stop another climber bleeding out. This is classic Victoria Cross behaviour – so far beyond the norm that we struggle to get our heads round it. It's also behaviour which gives you a very high chance of getting killed.

The George Cross is the non-military equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Ken Wilson always reckoned that Chris Bonington and Don Whillans should have received a George Cross for going up to rescue Brian Nally on the Eiger after his partner, Barry Brewster, had been killed. Apparently the stonefall was atrocious. To be raked by really heavy stonefall is utterly terrifying; the instinct is to curl up in a ball, protect the head as much as possible and desperately pray that they miss. To ignore this default mechanism and continue climbing upwards must have been like going through the gates of hell.

When they met Nally, to their astonishment, he suggested joining them and finishing the route. With the benefits of time and distance, it's understandable that Nally, deeply traumatised by the death of his friend, might feel that if he topped out then somehow Barry Brewster hadn't died in vain. Whillans' reply to Nally, "Aye lad, maybe time to go back down th' valley and 'ave a brew," (or words to that effect) is as compassionate as it gets. Famously, Whillans had good days and bad days. I'd be tempted to cut him an awful lot of slack for his bad days after the courage and compassion he showed on the Eiger.

Chris Bonington took this legendary photograph of Paul Ross (foreground) and Hamish MacInnes (background) on the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Drus, in 1958.

So often, in climbing, humanity is a mixture of courage and compassion

And that's really what this is all about. So often, in climbing, humanity is a mixture of courage and compassion. In saying to Heckmair, "We can't leave them..." Vörg was displaying outstanding courage and compassion by accepting a suddenly even greater level of risk. In soloing a pitch harder than his leading standard, Mick Poynton was similarly displaying outstanding courage and compassion.

'The Bond', Simon McCartney's remarkable book about cutting edge super-alpinism contains a harrowing account of when things went badly wrong for him on the first ascent of the south-west face of Denali. His life was saved via an almost unbelievably complicated network of climbers willingly accepting - as Vörg willingly accepted -  a much higher level of risk.

Similarly, things went badly wrong for the late Ed Drummond when he went back for a solo attempt on his nemesis – the menacing North America Wall on El Cap. Trapped in a bivouac, with the crack systems above and below hopelessly sheathed in ice, all Drummond could do was endure for as long as possible and pray for a rescue. In his estimation, his prayers were unlikely to be answered: 'I had heard that there were two others in trouble on the Zodiac. And some haunted, hurt part of me knew, just knew, they'd go for double, rather than one on the North America Wall.' 

As it transpired, Drummond's prayers were answered – in no uncertain terms. Werner Braun, in my view one of the most impressive people who have ever lived, was lowered 500 feet from the summit of El Cap. He found Drummond in a terrible condition. Slowly they jumared out. Afterwards Drummond wrote a letter of thanks to the Parks Department. In similar vein to Simon McCartney, Drummond tried his best to list the complex network of climbers and support staff who'd pulled together to save his life. Although the guys on Zodiac were also rescued, two Japanese climbers froze to death on the Nose. In the poignant words of a visiting climber pulled into the rescue operations, "Experiences like these never really leave you..."

Ed Drummond in 1970. In this photograph, Ken Wilson catches Drummond's visionary character and also something of his mental strength.

He survived epics on the first ascent of the Long Hope Route (Hoy), the first ascent of Arch Wall (Romsdal) and the North America Wall (El Capitan). 'Mirror, Mirror', an extended essay about the FA of Arch Wall is arguably the best ever depiction of climbing obsession. 

There are no easy answers

In all of this, there are no easy answers. Rob Taylor's 'The Breach: Kilimanjaro and the Conquest of Self' recounts a daring attempt on the then unclimbed Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro. Taylor rationalises what he inwardly knows to be a serious error of judgement. Almost immediately he pays a terrible price. His companion, Henry Barber, displays the most astounding mental and physical fortitude in saving Taylor's life. What he doesn't give is compassion. Recovery from bad illness or injury is so often a time for reflection and renewal. In his hospital bed, with the coveted first ascent lost forever, Taylor reflects on climbing and the conquest of self, achievement and humanity. He has no easy answers; there aren't any.

In a bitterly ironic aftermath, the climbing community denied Barber the very compassion they accused him of denying Taylor. For several years he was somewhat of an outcast. Then Jeff Lowe organised a famous climbing competition at Snowbird in Utah. The only person to top out was the French star, Patrick Edlinger, proving conclusively that he was the best rock climber in the world at that time. As he was being lowered off in victory, he saw, through the perspex wall, Barber walking down the stairs, just a few feet away. Impulsively, Edlinger shouted, "For you!" As with Whillans' comment to Nally on the Eiger, this was utter compassion – and a gesture of respect from one great climber to another.

There are no easy answers. When Maestri stumbled into the base camp below Cerro Torre after his Austrian partner Toni Egger was killed in an avalanche, all he could mutter was, "Toni. Toni. Toni…" These words were heartachingly poignant; sadly they also perhaps represented a crucial turning point in climbing's loss of innocence. Over the years, the tortuous saga over Maestri's questionable summit claim unravelled. In Jim Bridwell's last interview, he was repeatedly pressed to denounce Maestri. Each time he refused, staunchly insisting on giving Maestri due respect. Bridwell was in a better position than any of us will ever be to judge Maestri. In a spirit of compassion, he still refused to judge him.

'Don't become the next victim'

Sometimes, of course, compassion is notable by its absence: the treatment accorded to Bonatti on K2, Hermann Buhl on Nanga Parbat, Reinhold Messner on Nanga Parbat, René Desmaison and Serge Gousseault on the Grandes Jorasses. And sometimes action may be ill-advised. A classic mountain rescue mantra is, 'Don't become the next victim'.

I well remember an incident in the Alps, long ago, trying to shepherd three people, one badly injured, to safety. The stonefall grew steadily heavier. At one point, Steve, my climbing partner, confided: "If the stonefall gets any worse Mick, we've got to leave them." And Steve was absolutely right, no argument about it. But I was damned if I was going to leave them. Fortunately we were lucky. Suddenly we found ourselves on a relatively sheltered ledge at the junction of another route. Unexpectedly, two mates turned up to help. Shortly afterwards a helicopter rose in the still air over Chamonix and headed straight for us. We were so lucky. It could all have turned out very differently. 

There's a rather lovely story of Oliver Perry-Smith who, in little over a decade (1902–1913) established himself as the father of hard climbing. On a big wall in the Dolomites, his companion, Rudolf Fehrmann, was staring at a long Factor Two fall onto a pretty much non-existent belay. He shouted down to Perry-Smith to unrope; better that one should die than both. Perry-Smith shouted back up, "What do you think I am – man or beast? Either I hold you or I drop with you." Afterwards Fehrmann commented, "Is it any wonder that, despite his mistakes and weaknesses, I loved this man like a brother..." 

The brotherhood of the rope

These days we don't hear too much about the brotherhood of the rope. Self-evidently, however, when we belay someone we hold their life in our hands. For nearly a century, until the advent of modern protection, the correlate was that the belayer was also putting their life on the line. The psychological tension of doing hard routes made for incredibly close relationships. There's a charming vignette in Peter and Leni Gillman's 'Extreme Eiger' where, on the first ascent of the Harlin route, the most hardcore member of the German team, an enigma even to his companions, unexpectedly pushes a piece of chocolate into an exhausted Dougal Haston's mouth. But it's what people do; it's exactly what they do.

Some years ago, Davy Agnew died. Among many other noteworthy things, he did the first ascent of The Needle at Shelterstone with Robin Smith – Smith's last new route in Scotland. Agnew was a hard guy, even by 1960s standards. When he died, someone recounted a tale about going to Arran with his cousin as a young lad. They had an epic and got their precious rope stuck. Gutted and perilously close to tears, they came down to the valley and happened to meet Agnew. He quickly realised something was wrong. When he found out what had happened, he reassured them, "Come back here tomorrow evening. Your rope will be behind that rock." Not really daring to believe him, they came back; the rope was indeed there. Agnew had gone miles out of his way to retrieve it. To two poor, downtrodden lads from Glasgow, an action such as this – a tangible affirmation of the essential goodness of humanity – may well have been life-altering.

Very often on sea cliffs, once you abseil in, the ice-cream van might as well be on another planet. Whatever happens, you need to be able to deal with it. Once again, technical ability is often less important than what Hemingway memorably termed 'grace under pressure'. Swanage is notorious for epics and accidents. Here Eric Pouget plays Jenga above the waves. (Photographic credit: Jeremy Donaldson)

The essence of civilisation

And surely humanity is the very essence of civilisation? Famously Margaret Mead noted that, in her view, a broken femur which had mended was the first sign of civilisation. If an animal breaks a leg in the wild, it dies. It can't hunt, it may not be able to graze, it's easy prey for predators. A broken femur which has mended requires help from others. The wounded needs taking to a place of safety, needs their wound tending, needs feeding, needs protecting.

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher famously declared, "There is no such thing as society." Defending Thatcher comes very hard indeed to me – but absolutely everyone deserves fairness, even she. I believe Thatcher was trying to make a valid point about not relinquishing personal responsibility. But I also believe that, in a far more fundamental sense, she was wrong - terribly wrong. If we disavow society, what remains is individual selfishness – and in Britain sadly this has come to pass. Selfishness is the antithesis of altruism. When Mick Poynton was soloing a pitch above his leading grade to save a man's life, one thing's for sure – he was acting out of altruism, not selfishness.

I remember once reading an account of a lady doing a management development exercise. She was asked to imagine herself in a boat that was sinking and to prioritise what could be flung overboard. She reckoned that she could fling integrity overboard, survive and somehow get it back later. But of course you can't; integrity isn't a commodity to be bought and sold. Yet the hegemony of neoliberalism would reduce everything – even human qualities – to commodities, to be traded for cash in the marketplace.

Humanity, in the 21st century, is in a parlous state. Sure, we grow misty-eyed about Hollywood films where 'no man is left behind'. Next day we go out and shamelessly buy as much fuel as we can if we fear a shortage. Our individual selfishness is replicated in politicians shamelessly lining their pockets. Governments grow ever more right-wing, abject slaves to global capitalism. Permanent economic growth (for whose benefit exactly?) is lauded over the quality of people's lives, over the state of the environment, over global warming, over well-nigh everything.

Climbing... and the courage to be

In her celebrated 1950s novel, 'One Green Bottle', Elizabeth Coxhead has her heroine, 'whining Cathy from Birkenhead' using climbing to find the courage to renounce climbing altogether. Although Cathy is almost certainly making a disastrous life choice, it's her choice, according to her moral values. She's being true to herself. Similarly, in real life, Coxhead was true to herself in the last achingly sad choice she made.

In a 1970s essay, Jim Perrin made a broadly similar point. From what I can see, he's pretty much the only other person to have done so. What if one could take the qualities so hard-earned from climbing and put them to use in Thatcher's much despised society - what then?

The legendary Irish climber Clare Sheridan wrote that each scary trad lead gave her a chance to produce a better version of herself. That better version need not be confined to climbing. Pete Livesey mused that when he grew old the memories he'd cherish would be of people, not routes. Sadly Pete never lived to grow old – but he was absolutely right. David Hooper, late of this parish, reckoned that the point of life was to have fun and leave this world a slighter better place for your passing. 

Humanity can't be bought and sold

Humanity can't be traded. It can't be bought and sold. It's either there or it's not there. Vörg didn't do a cost-benefit analysis on the Eiger. If he had, he'd never have opened his mouth.

It seems to me that, in our present times, the human spirit is under attack as never before. So often, for instance in politics, it's shrunken, diminished. Politics becomes less the art of the possible, more the art of the passable. And passable simply isn't good enough. The temptation for all of us is to relapse into what Martin Seligman aptly termed 'learned helplessness', the feeling that we can't really make a difference, so why even bother trying?

Our climbing world is an enviably broad church. Within that church, though we occasionally squabble, generally speaking we get on pretty well together. It seems to work much better than society as a whole. But of course we're vulnerable to wider trends in society. Commoditising and remorselessly monetising climbing may swiftly rob it of its distinctive identity. It's easy for us to aid and abet this process, becoming simply passive consumers of climbing. In reality, there's always a way to give back. It may start with something as simple as picking up other people's litter at the crag. 

In bad conditions, routes can be a very different proposition indeed. Here James Riggs enjoys 'proper mountain weather'. The team expected it and got it. Going out on bad days – as long as you scale back objectives and exercise a great deal of caution – can be excellent training for when things go wrong in the hills (as they will). And it can be great fun – at least in retrospect! 

One way of viewing climbing is as an enhanced series of lessons on earth

One way of viewing our lives is as series of lessons on earth. One way of viewing climbing is as an enhanced series of lessons. Climbing can be a hard school. You can learn things about yourself, high above the screes, that you probably wouldn't learn otherwise.

The Japanese concept of budo views a martial art not merely as a system of combat but also a means of self-development. Likewise, climbing can be a means of expression, of communication, of self-development. The lessons so hard won from climbing don't need to be confined to climbing. They can be taken from our little climbing world into the greater world. They can make a difference.

In 1942 some students at Munich university created a non-violent resistance movement in Nazi Germany. They went up against one of the greatest political, industrial and military complexes that the world has ever seen. Clearly they didn't believe in learned helplessness. One of their number, Sophie Scholl, who was eventually executed by guillotine, wrote, 'It's so easy to become callous and indifferent… The real damage is done by those millions who want to 'survive'. The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don't want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves.'

A Turing test of humanity?

I'll leave you with a question, not an easy one I'm afraid - perhaps a Turing test of humanity?

Imagine you're Ludwig Vörg on that fateful day in 1938. You're one out of only two people who have attempted the north face of the Eiger and survived. You know full well how hard it was to retreat. You know that there's a point above which retreat will no longer be viable. You stare up at the dizzying thousands of feet of unclimbed ice and rock. Can there possibly be a way through? You gaze back down the valley, ponder when the next Eiger storm will arrive. You look at the Austrians. You know they're good, very good indeed. And yet. And yet...

Lastly you look at Heckmair. You know that, if you don't say anything, he won't say anything. And they won't say anything. But if nobody says anything…

So - are you going to do it? Do you dare? Once the words escape your lips, they can't ever be taken back.

Are you going to say, "We can't leave them..."


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following for invaluable help with photographs: Chris Bonington, Jeremy Donaldson, Rob Kinsey, James Riggs, Paul Ross and the late Ken Wilson. I would also like to thank Ian Parsons both for his editing skills and his meticulous historical research. Any remaining errors are most definitely mine and not his.

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