Sherpas and Supplemental Oxygen: cheating?

The on-line climbing world seems to be in a bit of a buzz over this particular blog post by well known climber Mark Twight. It started as a comment on another post, but he then turned it into a full post. Read it here.

His main point is that the use of oxygen at high altitude, in order to successfully summit a peak, is cheating. He adds the use of fixed ropes (sometimes) and porters and personal porters to this characterization of cheating as well.

I’ve never climbed anything high enough to (a) need supplemental oxygen or (b) hire a personal porter to carry gear. But I certainly don’t begrudge those who do use such features of the modern climbing world. Does it lessen the significance of your summit if you had a sherpa with you the entire trip? Or if you jumar‘d up a fixed rope system that others emplaced for you?

I think a compromise point is that those who rely on such significant assistance had a higher chance of success prior to even setting foot on the mountain, as compared to those who essentially go it alone. Let’s imagine two individuals who were going to make an attempt on Everest. They were going to depart base camp at the same day at the same time. One would have a personal sherpa accompany him (as part of a larger group), and this personal sherpa would carry gear (thereby making the climber’s load lighter) and carry oxygen canisters. The other climber would have no oxygen and no personal sherpa, just him/her and their pack. Looking at both of them, at the most basic level, one would argue that the one with the additional support would have a higher chance of reaching the summit. Their pack would be lighter, allowing them to move faster. And supplemental oxygen would also allow them to move faster, and also lessen the risk of oxygen-deprivation issues once at altitude. It’s of course important to note that in this hypothetical exercise we’re ignoring the climbers themselves, i.e. their physical and mental condition. This of course makes an enormous difference.

Twight does make note of the current conditions on Everest, where you will almost always utilize fixed ropes (the rope system that the sherpas install on the mountain prior to the arrival of the “western” guides and teams”).

I think that in the end it comes down to the fact that there will always be climbers who will see the oxygen and porters and sherpa support as “cheating,” that it minimizes and degrades the experience and the summit itself. Those folks will usually be considered the “diehards” or some other similar term. But the benefit that they are ignoring is that these modern elements of climbing have allowed a much wider swath of people to take up the sport and become involved in it. They actually might see this as a negative (interlopers!) but this is a significant positive. More people means more attention paid to it, more opportunities for professional climbers to get sponsorship, larger and more popular efforts for preservation, more companies offering higher quality gear and equipment and services, etc. While there will always be some negatives from this, I think the positive far outweighs the negative.

Ultimately, Twight has a valid point to make, I just think he’s a bit far to the extreme. To me, those who climb 8,000 meter plus peaks without oxygen and without significant sherpa or porter support are of a more impressive caliber than those who use said support. But I am no less impressed or inspired by those who climb with oxygen than those who don’t. Ed Viesturs is amazing and awe inspiring is his ability to climb the worlds highest peaks (all without oxygen), but Alan Arnette is no less inspiring in his seven summit achievement (some done with oxygen). The amount of mental and physical toughness required to climb Everest is huge, the chances of success are not terribly high, and the danger is extreme. Is it cheating to find ways to increase your chances of success? I think not.

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One thought on “Sherpas and Supplemental Oxygen: cheating?

  1. Hiring Sherpas is not cheating as long as they get equal credit and mention for the climb as the climber doing the hiring does.

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