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Ethics of Guiding at Altitude?

Posted on: July 8, 2008

For the first time, the National Park Service says, a climber died on the Summit of Denali. He was a client on a guided trip, and his guides said that he was fine on the way up. (article here) The Denali mountaineering rangers decided that retrieving the body was too dangerous, and have left the climber on the summit. This brings an important question even closer to home: is it really ethical to guide at altitude? It's a question that has buzzed around Mt. Everest for quite some time now. With countless examples from that mountain, and now the latest on Denali, it's clear that it's impossible to know how individuals are going to react to the extreme environment above 20,000 feet. Even guides have had unexpected reactions to altitude and died (prime example: Rob Hall, Everest, 1996). Is it really ethical to claim to be able to lead and care for marginally experienced climbers in such an unpredictable environment?

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Another thought: has anyone heard of, or know of, complications or massive heart failure resulting from too much Diamox or Dex? Seems to me it might be possible w/ Diamox since its a vasodialator, like Ephedra was (which happened to cause heart failure in some individuals). I'd be curious if anyone has any insight on this....

Regarding the above; Diamox is not a vasodilator and in no way related to Ephedra. Literature does not indicate issues w/HF. Things to watch for with Diamox is the drowsiness, tingling in hands/feet/numbness, metabolic acidosis (think coma), fatigue and overall depression of the central nervous system (slowed breathing, loss of consciousness) and an allergic reaction since it's related to sulfa drugs. If it was used w/other diuretics, then there may already be an underlying heart issue that may have lead to failure. Dex is a whole other animal.

2008-08-03 14:43:03

I think a more relevant question to ask is not whether quiding at altitude is "ethical" (the alternative being what? inexperienced climbers trying to climb mts. they have no prior knowledge/exp. of, sans guides? thats safe...) but instead, what, if any, are the guide services doing in terms of screening clients for health/fitnees/drugs and prior experience? I don't know about the individual from Illinois who died on the summit, but I do know the Indonesian climber had never seen snow prior to Denali and was obviously a very inexperienced high altitude mountaineer (I was camped very near their party at high camp). So to me the question that has to be asked is whether that individual should have been allowed to attempt Denali at all. Most guide services that I know of require clients to have done at least a basic mountaineering or Denali "prep" trip (of course these trips don't typically go to very high elev so its tough to say how much of an effective guage they can be), and the individual from Illinois would have had one of these, but I don't know about the Indonesian. Maybe he did, and maybe he had high elev exp. in Indonesia or somewhere else very tropical or dry, but from where I stood in high camp next to them, both he and his partner seemed fully out of their elements so it begs the question what they were doing there....

Another thought: has anyone heard of, or know of, complications or massive heart failure resulting from too much Diamox or Dex? Seems to me it might be possible w/ Diamox since its a vasodialator, like Ephedra was (which happened to cause heart failure in some individuals). I'd be curious if anyone has any insight on this....

2008-08-03 13:09:46

It's pretty hard to call into question guides on the West Butt of Denali. Through the years, they have been responsible for assisting in the rescues of dozens and dozens and dozens of non-guided individuals who were in way over their heads on the mountain.

The fatalities that took place on Denali this year on guided trips were the exception. Not the rule. I am not aware of any other client fatalities on guided trips on Denali in the last decade... Please correct me if I'm wrong...

When people talk about high altitude guiding, they generally are NOT referring to Denali. Most of the controversy surrounds Everest. The West Buttress route of Denali is very guidable. You pull a sled. You dig lots of holes. You melt lots of snow. The objective dangers are minimal. It's not that hard. As such, it's exactly the kind of mountain experience that many paying individuals are looking for. And heavy use routes like this are also responsible for keeping people away from more interesting fare and providing the solitude that many of us are looking for on lesser known lines...




2008-08-01 22:09:04

Guiding at altitude has a historic tradition stretching back to Edward Whymper and his Italian guide companions the Carrels pushing the altitude envelope in Ecuador in the 1870's. It seems like you're really stretching the credibility of journalistic integrity to posit that the incident on Denali "brings an important question even closer to home," but I guess a blog does not necessarily constitute journalism, even on Alpinist (which I believe is hands-down the best magazine devoted to climbing available).

Ultimately, each time anyone goes to altitude is a crap shoot, but in the sad incident which precipitated your "ethics" question, it does appear that the actions of the guides were nothing less than heroic.

The most important function of a guide at high altitude is to make the difficult judgment calls regarding weather, conditions and a client's ability to continue going uphill. This is where experience and its resultant increased comfort level in dealing with one's own self at altitude really set guides apart from the majority of climbers on Denali. The recent tragedy on Denali might have nothing to do with altitude, guiding or ethics, so please don't call into question a time honored profession simply to stoke the sensationalist flames all too often associated with the media.

If you feel compelled to continue this conversation, please elucidate to your readers the personal experience which makes you qualified to question the "ethics' of high altitude guiding. It is a different world up there, and unless you've spent a lot of time up high, I don't think it's reasonable to try putting yourself into a guide's boots.

2008-07-11 11:44:07


2008-07-10 09:12:35

From the article, it appears that the victim had no problems getting to the summit, and simply collapsed without warning. It doesn't look like his experience (or lack thereof) had any bearing on his demise, so your knee-jerk anti-guide reaction is somewhat irrelevant.

2008-07-09 13:35:33

In my opinion, with that train of thought you could ask if it's ethical for anyone to climb at altitude. Is it ethical for someone who has a spouse and children to climb at altitude? Is it ethical for only children to climb at altitude. What it all comes down to is accepting that risk. People accept risk in different ways. The guides and the clients are both aware of what they are attempting. There is always an "inherent risk" in climbing or any activity. Guides attempt to create the safest environment possible for their clients, but they can't control everything.

2008-07-08 16:57:49
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