I wanted to take a moment to post some thoughts that were brewing over the past few months regarding elitism in sports. Before I begin, let me be clear about one thing - I firmly embrace a meritocracy where the top among us hold the most influence. The question I have below is what merits "top" billing or "elite" status and how do we assess merit? I have some strong reservations about how we assess merit these days and suspect that many problems in the hills come from an artificial meritocracy. Here are my thoughts in detail:
What makes a mountaineer elite?We define elitism in sports and recreation in different ways. The assumed defining characteristics of the elite mountaineer are ill-suited for true elite status. I am concerned about this definition because it affects everyone on the mountain. Clients hire guides who claim to be elite, expedition leaders offer variable services but claim elite status, and climbers ask for preferential treatment based upon these assumed elite characteristics. I think we - as a group - have poorly characterized the elite and this post clarifies my thinking. Perhaps this was an exercise for me but by writing it out, I hope others benefit from my thoughts. I begin with a simple story....
Shortly after my son was born, I began reading him Dr. Seuss books; one, in particular, was the "Sneetches and other stories." In that book, Dr. Seuss created a wonderful story about conjured up elitism in the form of "Stars on thars."
|Phelps: The true elite performer|
We - as a society - do not allow athletes to "self-report" performances. Rosy Ruiz, Lance Armstrong, and many others misrepresented their performances. Trusting athletes to compete fairly and to honestly report their performances might be too much of a stretch given the great rewards (personal, financial, social, etc.) that come from top (all-time) performances. Thus, elite status comes only from verifiable performances on standard routines (e.g., marathon, high jump, etc.) without external aids (e.g., public transportation, drugs, wind, or other assistants).
Elite MountaineersElitism exists in mountaineering too for reasons that escape me. Mountaineers are athletes to be sure but their performances are measured not in competition but by some strange amalgam of outcomes. Most elite mountaineers get recognition by successfully reaching the summit - largely by self-report - of peaks varying in difficulty and the most difficult are the ones that garner the greatest recognition. Both the summit (a binary outcome - success/failure) and difficulty are easily corrupted or manipulated to favor the climber. I discuss these outcomes below with summit success first followed by difficulty.
|Ed Viesturs: A true elite performer for all the right reasons (read on).|
Some may argue that there are many uncontrollable factors in competition and those factors dictate who wins. While that may be a true statement, these factors do not exert the same influence in most sports as they do in mountaineering. A person may not win a competition when other stronger competitors come to the same event but the performance may still be judged by a time or distance. When placement or relative performance stands as the only measure of success then the comparison between mountaineering and other athletics becomes more relevant.
The Role of Luck: Back to mountaineering, if one of the main components in evaluating elite status is one that falls outside the control of the mountaineer then it seems as if successful summits might be a less informative metric. A truly elite mountaineer may suffer from bad luck and never reach the summit due to time, money, weather, and other unfortunate events. Thus, I would contend that the successful summit may not be a good marker for elite status but rather of luck. Louis Pasteur once claimed that "chance favors the prepared mind" and I embrace that quote as if it were part of my core being. Sometimes, however, no preparation can counter the vagaries of Mother Nature.
"False" Summits: Not only are successful summits likely the result of chance (and skill), the actual outcome may be corrupted by the person reporting the event. There are countless numbers of "false summits" reported by climbers who either mistakenly thought they were on the summit or who reported a successful summit when, in fact, they did not and knew they did not reach the summit (Check out this page just for some additional entertainment). Regardless of the cause, a false report is a false report. Elizabeth Hawley and Richard Salisbury - the people who document all Himalayan climbs - often ask climbers to take pictures of themselves on the summit. Moreover, Ms. Hawley even goes so far as to ask the person to describe what was visible from the summit. These two pieces of evidence corroborate the self-reported success. Funny that we need to verify this outcome even though there is nothing really at stake for the person. People like to brag about their exploits but I do not see how bragging about something you never did would be even remotely satisfying. The binary outcome of a successful summit can be corrupted and we ought to be wary of any self-claims of elitism based upon these corruptible outcomes.
DifficultyThe second outcome that often defines elite in mountaineering is difficulty. Climbers who successfully summit the most difficult mountains get hailed as "elite" and I think their status might be well deserved if it were not for the fact that difficulty is very difficult to understand. Difficulty, it would seem, is a matter of risk. The riskier a climb, the more difficult. The problem is that there are two types of risk - objective and subjective. Let me elaborate on these two briefly and come back to my point.
Objective risk: Hazards exist in every environment - heat, cold, altitude, crevasse, snow depth, avalanche, rock fall, slope pitch, existing handholds/footholds, etc - and the more likely these hazards affect us, the riskier the environment. Climbing offers many objective risks including but not limited to these mentioned previously. A more difficult climb tends to have more objective risks. Assessing these risks in combination, however, can be quite challenging - particularly since these risks are not always equally probable nor do the act in isolation of one another. Some of these risks interact (i.e., work together in some synergistic manner) such as pitch, snow depth, and heat/cold; combined in particular ways, these three risks produce avalanches. Objective risk, however, is not the only thing that defines difficulty.
Subjective risk: The second type of risk involves the climber. Many of the aforementioned objective risks may be altered by the climber but the climber is responsible for far more. Climbers must pay attention, keep their equipment in working order, climb efficiently to save energy, and make reasonable decisions based upon skill and objective hazards. Prior proper planning and preparation reduce subjective risks but never eliminate them. Climbers who are careless, inattentive, and reckless offer far greater subjective risks - not just to themselves but often to others on the mountain. This latter point is one I will come back to shortly but remember it as if it were gospel: MOUNTAINEERING RISK IS ALMOST ALWAYS RELATED TO THE CLIMBER(S). I might be alone in that statement because many (e.g., Ted Lemon's excellent blog post from 2005) contend that we maintain illusions of control in uncontrollable situations like mountaineering. There are countless other psychological theories I could cite but I won't bore you with those details. Regardless of the disagreement, we can all agree that risk get modified by the climber. Perhaps the lowest level of risk is defined by the objective risks but the subjective risks - those we bring to the table - amplify those objective risks.
So why am I going to all this length to elaborate on risk? Simple. Risk defines difficulty. The more a climber introduces subjective risks and affects the objective risks, the higher the overall difficulty of the climb. We all introduce risks into climbing. The lesser skilled climbers increase the risks; the ill-prepared increase the risks; the reckless increase the risks. Skill or lack thereof is not the only factor that makes climbing risky. It is precisely the interaction between objective risks and the humans in the environment that leads many to claim that some mountaineers are "elite" whereas others are not elite. Again, skill only stands as one factor. There are many who consider themselves elite who make foolish decisions. Those climbers who act in a way to increase risk to themselves or others - I think most of us would contend - are not elite. These climbers may possess abilities beyond others and skills well-honed after many expeditions but their decision-making alone relegates them to no more than sub-elite.
Re-Defining Elitism in Mountaineering
|The Benegas Twins - Damian and Willie|
There are too many instances of expedition leaders who think more about their own personal and professional goals than their clients' safety; clients who care more about their own successes than the safety of those around them; and guides who climb for their own glory than serving those who paid for their ventures. An elite person is a person who rises above all these petty things and behaves in a way that increases the safety for all. I have tremendous respect for those people and I think we all ought to commend them for their actions. The rest who lay claim to elite status for their sole conquests remain - as far as I am concerned - nothing more than novices who still do not appreciate what it means to be elite. Many of you know I really like Mark Horrell's travel writing. He posted an excellent bit on "The people who give Everest a bad name." I strongly encourage you all to read his post.