THE MORALITY OF RISK
AFTER A SERIES OF fatal incidents, not just in the mountains but ./~L also during yacht races and other hazardous activities, the press has indulged in a protracted debate about the moral acceptability or otherwise of taking risks as part of a voluntary activity like sport or travel. This lecture was given to the Banff Mountain Book Festival last autumn.
In the Persian Wars, the near-mythological struggle between the forces of dark tyranny led by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes and the shining light of Greek democracy, the battle at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC is the most glorious chapter of all. Three hundred Spartan hoplites, wearied by days of fighting, betrayed and surrounded on all sides by tens of thousands of enemies, fought until they died to delay the advance of the Persian army and allow time for the defence of Athens. Herodotus tells us that an inscription was made where they were buried: 'Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.' More pertinently to what I have to say here about morality and risk, Herodotus also tells us that Leonidas, the brilliant Spartan general who led the action, hand picked only those men who had a living son. Their biological function was fulfilled; they had heirs to their fortunes. They could afford to die.
In England in the late mediaeval period, during the Wars of the Roses, a nobleman was besieged by another in his castle. The man standing outside flinging rocks and arrows at the walls had a secret weapon; the hostaged eldest son of the man sitting inside the walls. When the siege didn't get anywhere, the nobleman outside threatened to have the boy killed if the nobleman inside didn't surrender. The nobleman inside strode to the battlements and shouted down to those outside: 'You may break my sword,' he told them, 'but I still have the anvil on which it was forged.' The anvil, of course, being his wife.
During one of the more politically charged moments in the history of alpine climbing, the battle to make the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, whose conclusion Adolf Hitler followed on the wireless, a Swiss journalist wrote: 'What is to become of a generation to which society offers no social existence and which has only one thing left to look to - a single day's glory? To be a bit of a hero, a bit of a soldier, sportsman or record-breaker, a gladiator, victorious one day, defeated the next.'
These are just three illustrations of male bravado through the ages, confirmation that for most of human history, the risk of a violent and premature death was very real, even likely. All these stories feature men rather than women, I suppose in part because it has been a male-oriented world for so long. (But then Herodotus tells us of the ferocious tribe of Amazons who were more than a match for their male counterparts and in mediaeval England, forging new metaphorical swords was a dangerous business. Becoming pregnant before the age of obstetrics could be and often was a death sentence.) More convincingly, men have a genetic predisposition to take risk, a consequence of evolutionary biology rather than socialisation. Men take risks because we're full of testosterone and like to impress potential mates by pretending we're important or muscular.
This process seems most alarming between the ages of 16 and 25 when we are busy soloing hard new routes or committing crime because nobody gets to go hunting anymore. Women are creators, they grow new life, and have to be protected to give them the best chance of bringing that new life to adulthood so the whole process can start again and the species continues. (It is no coincidence that in every country in the world, with the bizarre exception of Luxembourg, young males are more likely to meet an accidental death than young females.)
But it goes deeper than this. As human beings, as a species, we have a collective memory of risk, that life is a fragile business at the best of times and we cannot know when or where it will end. It's only in recent decades that we have had the luxury of relaxing a little, nor is it a matter of chance that risk sports like mountaineering developed just as life itself became less risky. The fact that we felt a need to manufacture risk in our lives shows how powerfully our evolutionary history speaks to us and how our culture reflects and reinforces that history.
In his new book Consilience and in earlier works, the evolutionary biologist Ed Wilson argues the idea of gene-culture co-evolution, a terrifying phrase for a scientific ignoramus like myself, but which means, I hope, that we are more than the product of our genetic inheritance but are shaped as well by our cultural heritage. It's what makes us unique as a species. Survival has been a struggle and society is one method of giving ourselves a better chance. Motherhood is perhaps the best example of this idea. Motherhood is both instinctive but also defined by society. Mothers, from the mother of Christ downwards, are venerated, cherished.
My original title for this lecture was 'Parenthood and the Morality of Risk', and I was a little alarmed to see it renamed in the programme for this event. But in a sense, I quickly realised, all of society has been structured to create and bring up children and although we read in the papers every day about the collapse of marriage and the nuclear family, the fact that we are so obsessed with the raising of children is a strong clue that as an issue it is central to our identities. More than ever, we still want the best for our children no matter how they arrive into the world.
Of course, I have been ludicrously reductionist in what I've been saying. There is plenty more to life than looking after children. In much of the world, human beings have stepped outside evolutionary biology. Natural selection has effectively ceased. We don't have any predators and the diseases that kill children are largely controlled. Life expectancy is much more predictable, and we have as a consequence more time to explore the world around us, to take pleasure in it rather than to live in fear. But in a curious paradox, we are also a lot more angry and disbelieving when someone dies young.
I was talking recently with a Sherpa friend in Nepal about his family. A cousin, he was telling me, had had two children but one, he added matter-of-factly, was dead. Or rather he didn't say she was dead, he merely drew a line across his throat. It wasn't that he didn't care, because I understood very well that he did. It was simply that it happens all the time in Nepal; it is a common experience and does not require much examination. In the West, that is no longer the case; when a child dies we are lost for understanding. It is an unimaginable tragedy and more often than not we look for someone to blame.
I remember very clearly the memorial service for my friend Andy Fanshawe, who was killed in a fall while leading Eagle Ridge on Lochnagar in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. Listening to Chris Bonington give the eulogy, I looked around the church and at the memorials of families who had lived and died and were now long forgotten. Right above my head was a stone commemorating a husband and wife and their nine children, all of whom had predeceased their parents and none of whom had lived beyond the age of 16.
It is this kind of cultural memory, of the kind that Ed Wilson believes has evolved our society, which colours almost every response to the life of Alison Hargreaves, the British mountaineer whose career took on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy and whose nemesis on K2 in 1995, if you believe what you read in the papers, was a consequence of overbearing ambition and confidence. As an introduction to the scale of her achievement, conqueror of Everest, mother of two, I'll quote you this. ''A couple of days ago I was reading a profile in The Guardian newspaper of the outspoken Australian-born novelist Kathy Lette who, if you don't know her work, writes satires on the mores of modern society. She said :
Isn't Mother Nature a bitch? The cracked nipples and the mastitis and the mountains of haemorrhoids. And the sleep deprivation and the sex deprivation. And the boredom. You know, growing a yeast infection for a change of pace. Edmund Hillary couldn't scale those bastards.
Edmund Hillary might have struggled, but Alison Hargreaves did all that and scaled the highest mountain on Earth and didn't use gas. Writing her biography, as I have been with the writer and broadcaster David Rose for the last three years, we have discovered much that has been illuminating about her life and the reasons for many of her actions but almost nothing has been as shocking as the response from other female commentators to her life and death. The image of a mother of two young children doing something that appeared to be so perilous through choice and then dying - this was too much for some, and I believe it was for the reasons I've outlined above.
Writing about Alison after she climbed Everest, Nigella Lawson, daughter of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, a popular columnist with The Times and a mother, railed against her, calling her 'ungracious' and 'neurotic' and she concluded her attack thus:
There are those who feel that they are truly alive only when they are risking death. But this is a worrying rather than a laudable trait. Something is wrong with people who feel a pathological need to escape from the everyday here and nowness of life. Some of them become junkies, others go in for mountaineering. I have no time for people who risk their life in a vainglorious attempt to be praised for courage. Everywhere there are people in real danger, who live - though not for long - in famine, with terminal cancer, at war. If the Alison Hargreaves of this world really value life so little maybe we should not worry on their behalf if they lose it.
There are, of course, the children. Alison Hargreaves has two, under six - not that it is any more culpable to be a mother and risk your children's happiness and security unnecessarily than it is to be a father who does the same thing. Either way, it shows a reality-denying self-centredness.
To want praise, to want to achieve something is not so despicable, but it is the disparity between the essential futility of the deed and the breast-swelling brouhaha that greets the achievement that makes this sort of me-first mountaineering so contemptible.
This was written for a newspaper column meant to be provocative and written to a tight deadline but Lawson returned to the subject after Alison's death and showed no interest in altering her opinion. Her comments clearly show that in metropolitan, liberal circles at least, to take unnecessary risks is a moral failure. Lawson's reference to terminal cancer is more poignant than it seems. Her husband and father of her children, the journalist John Diamond was and still is fighting a battle against throat cancer. Diamond was a smoker for many years, but that choice, it seems, is still within the bounds of acceptable risk-taking, in Britain at least. There is much to disagree with in what she says, assumptions about Alison's character which are unfair or untrue, but frankly I can't be bothered. It's not worth the effort. What is more interesting is what it tells us about risk-taking in the late twentieth century.
'Something is wrong with people who feel a pathological need to escape from the everyday here and nowness of life', Lawson wrote. 'Something is wrong... '
I don't know if you are familiar with the work of Primo Levi. I have to confess that I hadn't read a word until I was encouraged to do so by a brilliant lecture the writer Jim Perrin gave some years ago entitled 'Eating Bear Meat'. The title was taken from The Periodic Table and the chapter on Iron which recalled Levi's friendship with Sandro Delmastro, before he was murdered by the Fascists and Levi was sent to Auschwitz. It describes their ascent in bad style and poor weather of a route on the Aiguille de l'M in the French Alps. As they struggle to reach the top in the gathering gloom, frozen and weary, Levi asks Delmastro.
'And how do we get down?'
'As for getting down, we shall see,' he replied, and added mysteriously, 'The worst that can happen is to have to taste bear-meat'.
Their fight to escape the mountain, their struggle with themselves and nature was, for Delmastro, as exotic and dangerous as eating bear-meat and, Levi concludes:
Now that many years have passed, I regret that I ate so little of it, for nothing has had, even distantly, the taste of that meat, which is the taste of being strong and free, free also to
make mistakes and be the master of one's own destiny.
Nigella Lawson, caring for her children, giving her famous dinner parties, reading books and visiting her friends, may believe that there is ''something wrong in eating bear-meat'' but there are people in this room who believe otherwise and that's good enough for me.
Mentioning Jim Perrin reminds me of what climbing has given me personally, the chief and most important things being friendship and shared experience. The feeling of absolute freedom, of accidentally on purpose seeking out a modicum of peril and, half-laughing, half-gripped with fear, living through it. I remember with precise clarity few things. The birth of my children is one of them, lying in a tent high on a ridge of Shivling next to Jim Perrin is another, gossiping like two old crones and laughing at the mountain-sized joke of thinking we were up to climbing in the Himalaya. Apart from introducing me to Primo Levi, Jim, an essayist himself, encouraged me to read that master of the art, William Hazlitt, who wrote:
A life of action and danger moderates the dread of death. It not only gives us fortitude to bear pain, but teaches us at every step the precarious tenure on which we hold our present being.
The 'everyday here and nowness of life', in Nigella Lawson's graceless phrase, has always seemed to me sweeter for knowing how fragile the base on which it rests can be.
Of course this may just be a boy thing. Lawson was not alone in attacking Alison Hargreaves' apparently selfish behaviour. Polly Toynbee, an influential British liberal commentator, wrote after her death:
Danger for its own sake seems to me no better than taking drugs as a social activity. Danger can be powerfully addictive, and those of us with no taste for it at all consider it as appalling as a taste for crack. It would be better not to glamorise danger, not to prize foolhardiness.
In Toynbee's view, tolerance of a way of life beyond the conventional is not to be allowed.
The most powerful sentence in Toynbee's column, however, was also the most revealing of the criticisms made about Alison. ''What is interesting about Alison Hargreaves,'' she wrote, ''is that she behaved like a man.'' By considering her behaviour as typically male, Toynbee was able to condemn it. Her words relieved the sisterhood of the inconvenience of doubt. Risk-taking, she argued, is a male choice, to do with testosterone and machismo and was therefore inherently wrong, immoral, to be condemned. Toynbee continued: ''She put danger first and her family poor second. Equality means, I am afraid, men behaving as well as women, while women sometimes behave as badly as men''.
Within a few days of her death, Alison's memory had become a battleground of sexual stereotyping and ill-considered moral pronouncements. The photographic image of a mother pictured with her children alongside a story pronouncing her killed was too powerful to ignore. The person Alison had really become irrelevant: she was now a symbol, an icon, to be fought over and discussed. At the opposite end of the twentieth century, the story of Robert Scott and his disastrous expedition to the South Pole acquired a similar mythic status. His death and those of his companions became the quintessential symbols of an age of collective goals, of Empire, of greatness achieved through Nation. Eighty-four years later, Alison was being alternately vilified and venerated, held out as the ultimate representative of an age which had replaced shared glories with the primacy of Self. The subject of motherhood and risk was just too much for some people to contemplate.
I don't know what I find more offensive about Toynbee's article. The idea that men are stupid, lumbering adrenalin-junkies, purely victims of their own hormones and incapable of sensitivity or the idea that Alison was like that. Neither are true. Men are, and always have been, capable of emotions and attitudes as caring and subtle as those of women and women have shown themselves capable of cruelty and monomania. The truth is that Alison grew up in a climbing world that was unreflective and ambitious, that was more about achievement than the more philosophical side of mountain climbing. Her agenda, her need to succeed, was both innate and a consequence of the world she found herself in. Sexual stereotyping is still everywhere in climbing and the false assumptions about Alison were not limited to the crass conclusions of Fleet Street. She got a raw deal from the British climbing scene as well.
Alison Hargreaves was ambitious, she could be self-centred and self- deluding, but no more so than many other climbers. She could be contradictory and inconsistent, taking minute care as a mountaineer one day and launching herself on a major climb the next without bothering to check a readily available weather forecast. She believed that if she was sufficiently prudent she could avoid the disasters that happened to other climbers, cocooning herself in the mistaken belief that all hazards in the mountains can be planned for. I think what I am trying to say is that she wasn't perfect.
On the other hand, she came alive in the mountains, was good-humoured and bursting with enthusiasm. And while, as happens to many climbers, the here and nowness of life could drag in comparison to the brilliant, scintillating world of high altitude, she could nevertheless spend hours watching her children as they grew and marvel at it. Towards the end of her life everything she did was dominated by her plans for their future, for taking care of them as well as pursuing her chosen career as a professional mountaineer. She wasn't a junkie, or pathological, or deluded. She just wanted, like most of us, to feel that she was alive and not, in the poet's phrase, 'dying with a little patience'. The Independent on Sunday ran a leader on the issues surrounding her death and concluded:
It is a debate which only this cautious, risk-eliminating, mortality-obsessed century would, or could, entertain. Our increased ability to delay death seems mostly to have increased our fear of it. From that, at the very least, we can exempt Alison Hargreaves, who, along with all the other dead, deserves to be remembered as a courageous climber, not as an 'issue.'
It is interesting to compare these modern moral views on risk to attitudes a hundred years ago. Then taking risks was widely praised and the heroes offered as role models to the young included explorers and adventurers.
Queen Victoria may have questioned the sense of mountaineering, but the life expectancy of missionaries and colonialists alike shows how important those prepared to risk their lives were to the nation. Compare those attitudes to sexual mores a hundred years ago, when apparent deviation from the norm was strictly censured. Recent political events, where the private lives of ministers have been picked over, illustrate that while complete tolerance does not yet exist, fewer people are now prepared to criticise the choices we make about our personal relationships. As one commentator wrote last autumn: ''A liberal country is a country that values liberty, the right of individuals to lead their own lives in their own way.''
That right wasn't afforded to Alison Hargreaves and other parents that allow an extra element of risk in their lives. The responsibilities of a parent to the children they bring into the world are so fundamental that even so-called liberal commentators like Polly Toynbee cannot allow ''individuals to lead their own lives in their own way''. It is a difficult question and I know plenty of climbers, men and women, who have given up climbing or curtailed the riskier elements when they became parents. Plenty of mountaineers view their activity as selfish and delay or end relationships to allow them to continue climbing until they have had enough. The reasons Alison did not were partly from a lack of fulfilment and partly because of a difficult personal situation which I will not discuss here. It is certainly true that she was contemplating withdrawing from the extreme world of high-altitude mountaineering and hated being away from her children.
For myself, I like to turn the question on its head. Climbers may avoid becoming parents while they are running greater risks because they imagine it is unfair on children, but what about their parents. I remember, a few weeks after my daughter was born, phoning my mother and apologising for everything. I had not understood that every breath and every step could be so filled with imagined perils. Cars can suddenly shoot up on the sidewalk. Night-lights can explode and start fires. Meteorites can fall from the sky. I'm not neurotic, it's just that I worry.
As much as children need parents, parents need to see their children survive and flourish and even to have children of their own. There is, of course, nothing wrong in remaining childless but in justifying the choice of remaining so on the basis of sparing some theoretical human being pain is pretty mean to Mum and Dad. Alison Hargreaves was a climber, it's part of what made her who she was. She learned to love the mountains in the company of her father and mother, and shared a passion for climbing with her sister. The feeling of space and freedom and self-expression in a family which otherwise found it difficult to acknowledge those things gave her the chance to live her life more fully. Morality cannot overcome fate. However much we protect ourselves, the end is still the same.
I started by mentioning the Persian Wars. One of the Greeks who resisted Darius and his army was Aeschylus, the playwright who wrote the Oresteia. According to legend, Aeschylus, who despite his courage was as nervous about mortality as the rest of us, consulted the oracle at Delphi about the nature and timing of his death. He was warned he would be killed by a house falling on his head and concluded that he would spend the rest of his life out of doors. Aeschylus, the hero of the battle of Marathon, the first playwright in history worthy of the term genius, was struck on the head and killed by a tortoise that slipped from the talons of an eagle flying high overhead.
There seems to be much argument about the meaning of life, but I'm here today to tell you the answer is easy. The meaning of life is procreation and worship. Procreation takes care of the biology, worship takes care of the soul. Not why, not how - just thank you.
Views on risk taking in mountaineering and morality.