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ARTICLE: We Can't Leave Them - Climbing and Humanity

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 UKC Articles 09 Feb 2022

Mick Ward reflects on altruism, heroism and the ties that bind climbers - and ultimately human beings - together. 

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In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent and thoughtful article, I really enjoyed it

btw the photo of Eric "playing Jenga" at Swanage was very appropriate.  He is the epitome of the "we can't leave them" attitude and has helped many people ( including me) over the years, shepherding many safely home in the dark! 
 

Post edited at 11:16
 barbeg 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great writing as always Mick, and much to ponder on....

Andy

 AddledGeezer 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Aye, that was something else again. 

Well done!

 BRILLBRUM 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Copied from my earlier post which I can't work out how to delete . . .

I'm not ashamed to say that all the way through this article by Mick Ward (an awesome piece of writing) I had a lump in my throat, and finished with a tear in my eye.  Being very interested in the history of climbing and having devoured lots of the books/stories that Mick refers to I already knew most of the incidents he writes of. But what I'd never done, and what Mick does so succinctly, is apply the overarching understanding of the humanity of every considered action in every one of the stories he refers to, and how this might play out beyond the realms of climbing.

I'm supposed to be writing a PR piece for work right now, it's not going to get done as I'm too busy over-thinking things, in a good way!

S

In reply to UKC Articles:

Brilliant article Mick, which outlines the best of mountaineering camaraderie and responsibility, in stark contrast to the summit at all costs and leave people to die attitudes of sham mountaineering prussiking hobbit commercial trips, which are in reality a vicarious undertaking off no consequence. I,ll take issue about who’s best placed to judge Maestri though having climbed a considerable section of his disputed Cerro Torre route and having discussed it with Cesare himself. His whole life had been blighted by this episode and when eventually I said to him “Cesare if you’re telling me you climbed Cerro Torre in 1959 I believe you” This proud Italian guide just broke down, cried and embraced me. How bad had his life been because of the one mistake and the subsequent pain he suffered.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great stuff again Mick.  I met Anderl Heckmair many years ago at a CC or it may have been Alpine Club Dinner.  Unfortunately I was so awe struck that I was rendered speechless and just mumbled something along the lines of  "I'm very pleased to meet you. I've always been a great admirer." He was in fact one of my heroes and I'm not one that is prone to hero worship

Al

 profitofdoom 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article, really enjoyed it. For me it made a couple of key and core points about climbing

Really quality writing

 David Alcock 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent as ever Mick. It's a defining moment. I once had to make the decision to swim down into the Wye to get a rather large outward bound instructor from a Finsbury Park Mosque youth camp at Biblins. I'd jumped straight in on instinct and got my leg jammed in a tree under the water. While getting it free he sank out of sight, long enough for rational thought (and fear to grab me.) I did, and thankfully he'd gone unconscious. I thought he was called Abdullah when I'd got him out and awake, but years later I realised he was probably trying to say alhamdulillah. Point is I realised it was better to die trying than leave him. I wonder now how much self-interest is involved - I'd have hated myself ever after if I left him. Thanks - a really thoughtful piece. Dx

In reply to David Alcock:

I think this altruism can be found in many fields of human endeavour (especially those involving life and death choices). It may just be that we are familiar with the outstanding examples from climbing. Mick addressed the wartime examples (my mate is a Chavasse, and Noel would have been his great uncle). I think sailors could come up with a lot of examples, for instance.

For all the selfish cynicism apparent in the world today, I don't think you have to look too far for everyday acts of altruism.

ps. well done.

In reply to Gaston Rubberpants:

On one occasion I had a long talk to him at a BMC conference? about his life and the Eiger in particular. He claimed, though I’m not sure about that, that they had curved picks back then. Very interesting man.

 Jock 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

That's a fantastic piece Mick. Thank you.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Thank you Mick, lovely writing as ever. Love is not a cosy feeling but a verb, and a tough one at that.

 John Foster 09 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

What a brilliant article. Thank you.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article Mick. Extremely thought provoking.

Edit: 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.'

That struck home. Can't help thinking I'm starting to fall into that category.

Post edited at 23:13
 pilates 10 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Another engrossing, thought provoking article. I look forward to reading more of Mick's keen observations. He matches Perrin as a wordsmith. His critique of Margaret Thatcher was balanced, in my view. Though, as is always the case, context is everything: 'There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first'. This suggests to me that before you can constructively contribute to society you must have the capacity to do so by having a solid base of self-reliance. As Jordan Peterson put it, ' If you want to change the world tidy your bedroom first.' Mick hit the nail in the head for me personally when he stated: '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'. Bravo.

1
In reply to UKC Articles:

Superb writing and a most evocative article Mick!

Cheers 

Dave

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In reply to UKC Articles:

Outstanding Mick, truly outstanding. Thank you for taking the time to put your reflections to paper for the benefit of us all.

In reply to UKC Articles:

A good read, the only thing that popped out to me as a bit out of place feeling was the mention of the US Delta soldiers. Whilst they were undoubtedly very brave themselves, the "Battle of Mogadishu" was very brutal urban combat where the foreign forces poured huge amounts of ordinance into a built up area, likely killing hundreds of civilians - women, children and non-combatant men, leaving aside the likely thousands of Somalis killed who were involved in the fighting, and even they could be seen to some degree as defending their home. I guess there wasn't equally brutal urban fighting like that until the Russians retook Grozny in 94. 

Post edited at 19:11
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 Mick Ward 12 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

My gratitude to people for their feedback. Apologies for not replying before; I was suffering from a bad case of redpoint nerves. Luckily the wind was blowing in the right direction...

Will try my best to do justice to some of the points raised. (Will probably fail but better to try than not.)

First off though, a huge thanks to Luca Signorelli. If it wasn't for him, I'd still be no wiser.

Mick 

 Mick Ward 12 Feb 2022
In reply to David Alcock:

> Point is I realised it was better to die trying than leave him. I wonder now how much self-interest is involved - I'd have hated myself ever after if I left him.

Hi David, Freud wrote, 'All actions are selfish.' But I've never seen that as getting us very far. It's selfish if we stay and face things; it's selfish if we run away?  Maybe. But that scarcely means that facing things and running away are the same. Clearly they're not. 

You did the best thing you could possibly have done: you put your life right on the line to save another person. It doesn't get any better than this. You should be proud of yourself for as long as you live. 

Mick 

 Mick Ward 12 Feb 2022
In reply to Philb1950:

> I,ll take issue about who’s best placed to judge Maestri though having climbed a considerable section of his disputed Cerro Torre route and having discussed it with Cesare himself. His whole life had been blighted by this episode and when eventually I said to him “Cesare if you’re telling me you climbed Cerro Torre in 1959 I believe you” This proud Italian guide just broke down, cried and embraced me. How bad had his life been because of the one mistake and the subsequent pain he suffered.

Your attempt, with Tom Proctor, was inspired and futuristic; you certainly earned the right to judge Maestri. That your judgement was so merciful is even more to your credit. 

Mick 

 Mick Ward 12 Feb 2022
In reply to TobyA:

> ...the mention of the US Delta soldiers. Whilst they were undoubtedly very brave themselves, the "Battle of Mogadishu" was very brutal urban combat where the foreign forces poured huge amounts of ordinance into a built up area, likely killing hundreds of civilians...

Absolutely. I would make a sharp distinction between heroism in combat and the results of such combat. Slightly later I wrote, 'Caveats about Russian militarism aside, they’ve practically mass-produced heroes'. The  heroism of so many Russians in no way justifies Russian militarism. And they'd probably agree. Again and again they were stuck with situations in which they had little if any say.

Wilfred Owen was undoubtedly very brave and also seemingly a highly effective soldier. Put bluntly, he seemed very good at killing people. In my view this does not negate his poetry which argues strongly for the futility of the war in which he fought. To the best of my knowledge, he didn't have a say in things either. 

The relevance of war to the essay is that, even more so than climbing, combat forces people into dire situations in which the best - and the worst - of human nature comes to the fore. 

On a personal note, I've always been immensely grateful to Harold Wilson. If he hadn't stood up to LBJ, I'd probably have gone to Vietnam. Not something I'd have wished on anyone. 

Mick 

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 Pekkie 12 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article, Mick. Instead of trying to make the reader think 'what a great guy, Mick Ward is' or 'what a fantastic climber Mick Ward is' (accompanied by a 1980s photo of Mick Ward in tight lycra), true to form he makes us think. Outside war and natural disasters, climbing brings us closer to physical risk shared with a buddy than any other activity. I've noticed that even when you fall out and a buddy exits your life you still share a bond and, for instance, hesitate to bad mouth them. The reference to David Hooper was a surprise - yet another nice guy taken before his time. And then there's Sophie Scholl, a young girl with her life ahead of her. Look at her photo and do not doubt that the Nazis were evil.

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 Mick Ward 12 Feb 2022
In reply to captain paranoia:

> I think this altruism can be found in many fields of human endeavour (especially those involving life and death choices). It may just be that we are familiar with the outstanding examples from climbing. Mick addressed the wartime examples (my mate is a Chavasse, and Noel would have been his great uncle). I think sailors could come up with a lot of examples, for instance.

I'm sure you're right and there are many examples in many different fields of endeavour. It's just that climbing is the world I know best and I wanted to see whether we can draw lessons from climbing which have wider applicability. Certainly the sea provides an opponent as worthy as any mountain. Take the sea for granted and you may not live to regret it. 

> For all the selfish cynicism apparent in the world today, I don't think you have to look too far for everyday acts of altruism.

I'd agree. To date, the human spirit has proved remarkably resilient. We have somehow crawled out of barbarism. But... I think that these are particularly difficult times. My parents got two World Wars and the Depression. But at least you could tell who the enemies were. 

Today I don't think the enemies are so obvious. For instance, in my view neoliberalism is a virus which has poisoned every facet of our society and yet most people are relatively unaware of it. (The International Monetary Fund - hardly Socialists - seem to agree.) In essence Sophie Scholl identified 'learned helplessness' and, God help her and her friends, gave their lives fighting it. 

It's really important to combat the apathy of learned helplessness. Any good action is worth it. Just saying hello to a homeless person, simply acknowledging their humanity. A smile. A kind word. Picking up litter at the crag. Getting peoples' gear back to them. It doesn't have to be great or glorious. The illusion is that these things don't make a difference. But they do.

mick 

 Andy Hardy 12 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

"Like" seems pitifully inadequate. Can we have a "thank you" button?

In reply to UKC Articles:

A great read.   I wonder where the picture of James Riggs was taken? It's the only one where the location is not given and my curiosity is totally piqued.  It reminded me of climbing out on the Dandle (Buckbarrow) in similar weather some years back.  

 oureed 13 Feb 2022
In reply to TobyA:

> A good read, the only thing that popped out to me as a bit out of place feeling was the mention of the US Delta soldiers.

The phrase that raised my eyebrows was "big boys' rules" which is most commonly used to justify -  or even glorify - torture, civilian casualties and summary executions. I don't think there's a climbing equivalent to war crimes!

But for the record, during WW2 Heckmair participated in an attack on a group of French resistance fighters holed up in the Torino hut. Several people were killed on both sides before the Germans took the building, capturing 6 resistance fighters in the process. According to witnesses, Heckmair had to be refrained from executing a French prisoner by one of his fellow soldiers who told him: "We don't do this with other alpinists".

Post edited at 13:51
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 Mick Ward 14 Feb 2022
In reply to Andysomething:

Hi, it's Amphitheatre Buttress. My apologies. I should have made it clear. I love that photo - keep going back to it. A route I should have done but sadly still haven't. Maybe wait for a wet day? In Wales?? Surely not! 

Mick 

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 Mick Ward 14 Feb 2022
In reply to oureed:

My understand is that when the two teams met on the Eiger, the Germans had been moving massively faster and with far greater energy efficiency. They had first-rate crampons (for the time). I can't begin to imagine the labour and loss of energy step cutting on the Second Icefield alone - never mind the rest of the route. So even if the teams had been equally matched otherwise, surely the crampons would have put the Germans in a much stronger position? In such circumstances speed and energy efficiency are your friends. 

This would have been obvious to all four. The default position was that all four participants had chosen to be there - on the hardest and most dangerous Alpine route ever attempted - with no guarantee of success or even survival. So I can quite understand Heckmair feeling that it was up to each team to get on with things as best they could. Nobody had been injured; nobody needed rescuing. I'm sure that if either/both of these situations had prevailed, he'd have immediately got stuck in and helped. 

I didn't know about the incident at the Torino hut. While I can sympathise with the poignancy of the combatants being fellow climbers, the fact remains that under the Geneva Convention of 1929 (the version then operating):

Article. 2. Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile government, but not of the individuals or formation which captured them.

They shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, from insults and from public curiosity.

Measures of reprisal against them are forbidden.

So Heckmair would have been in the wrong anyway - and thank heavens somebody stopped him. 

However from the security of my armchair, more than 75 years later, I'm not going to say he was a bad person - even though the attempted act was wrong. We all make mistakes in our lives. War puts people under terrible pressure. I don't know what state of mind he was in. I don't know if I'd have done any better. War brutalises people. The decades following World Wars I and II were filled with ordinary, decent people who'd done terrible things. That's one of the reasons hardly anybody talked about it. 

Mick 

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 Simon 14 Feb 2022
In reply to Mick Ward:

A thought provoking article and great writing Mick as always and the vignettes are wonderfully threaded around your discussion and questions for our humanity. 'Win at all cost' came into my mind as the antithesis of the discussion and in other sports we see this sadly becoming more apparent, almost as humility and humanity is cast aside in search for glory.

But what price is that to our soul and in terms of cognitive dissonance, how do we square the circle and justify the means to take the rewards of the ends, in a rationality that only one can imagine. No doubt some can and do and live with it, but under the shadow of it's ever knawing presence.

As you mused, doing the right thing doesn't come easy in life at times but when we do, our relationship with ourselves and others often wins the argument above and beyond whatever acheivement and glory was lost along the way.

 rogerwebb 14 Feb 2022
In reply to oureed:

Where does the information about the Torino hut come from?

In reply to Mick Ward:

Cheers thanks for the info!  Looks out there!

 oureed 14 Feb 2022
In reply to rogerwebb:

> Where does the information about the Torino hut come from?

https://c.ledauphine.com/france-monde/2014/07/13/souvenirs-de-bataille-dans-la-montagne

 rogerwebb 14 Feb 2022
In reply to oureed:

Interesting article. Thanks.

 tutbury 14 Feb 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent Mick, a very thought provoking essay.  Unfortunately our current political culture seems devoid of the compassion and altruism that extreme situations bring out in many climbers. The irony is that climbing is often seen to be one of the most selfish pursuits by loved ones left behind. And thank goodness someone else can see the immense contribution Harold Wilson made in keeping us out of the Vietnam war.


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