Monday, October 17, 2005

False Heroics

I've been reading Jim Perrin's new biography of Don Whillans, "The Villain," recent co-winner of Britain's Boardman Tasker Prize. One passage jumped out at me—but not because of what it said about Whillans:

"Something of which the watching public — the audience for mountaineering — often seems unaware is that there is no intrinsic merit, no heroic value, in the mere struggle for self-preservation, however prolonged it may be.... As mountaineers, if we want to touch the void, we should make sure that, in the event of our falling into it, we get ourselves out; and having done so, we should not pose as heroes, should never believe in the constructs and the erroneous values that a public...may put on our actions. To get through by dint of our own efforts is why we choose to climb."

Perrin's words made me think of Tomaz Humar and his helicopter rescue on Nanga Parbat in August. As a reporter, I strove for balance and objectivity in my write-up on Humar's escapades, which appears in the new issue of Climbing (No. 244). I've never met Humar, but by all accounts he's a super-nice guy, and I can't fault him for calling for help when his situation proved dire. I can't even blame him for starting up the mountain alone and in atrocious conditions, though his decision put others at risk and I wonder if he wasn't pressured into an ill-advised attempt by the arrival in basecamp of Vince Anderson and Steve House, who were intent on the same line (and subsequently climbed it). Most of us have made poor choices in the mountains and just been lucky to get away with it. But Humar crossed a line by posing as a hero—or at least by failing to quash or object to the media-driven (and perhaps sponsor-encouraged) hero-worship that followed his rescue. The pilots who saved him surely are heroic; Humar should only be embarassed by his ignominious retreat. Instead, he has launched a lecture tour and a book undoubtedly will follow, and thus he fails to heed Perrin's words of wisdom.

When I was reporting the Humar story, I called his cell phone many times. His message starts with a recording of Queen's "The Show Must Go On." Make of that what you will...

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