An Irrational Climb

In chapter one of Ed Viesturs’ book titled K2, he attempts to explain the disaster that occurred on August 1, 2008, when 11 of 30 climbers died rushing to make a peak attempt, making it the single worst accident in the history of mountaineering of K2.  As someone who has personal experience mountaineering (very minimally), this reading was particularly interesting to me.  Although I have never climbed anything as difficult or high as K2, which is also the fourth deadliest mountain in the world, I understand the basics which apply to any climb, no matter how difficult it may be.  I understand that in order to make a peak attempt, you have to make sure that the descent will be started by midday in order to avoid storms; getting caught in a storm on an exposed ridge is arguably the worst thing that can happen while climbing.  I understand that fixed lines have to be put in place ahead of time, and that if something is not working, you have to either go on without it or turn back.  Most importantly, I understand that everyone on the mountain needs to communicate and work together, or all hell will break loose as it did on that fateful August day in 2008.  To this day, nobody fully understands what happened: miscommunications, late starts, poor

K2 bottleneck and serac (the motivator)

decision-making, and the collapse of the “Motivator” are all possible causes of the disaster.  What’s more interesting is what Thomas Hobbes might have to say about it.

On the most basic level Hobbes’ state of nature describes people as self-interested, rational, and fearful.  Hobbes also says that in our state of nature we seek peace, and make covenants with each other to make sure that this peace is carried out.  Additionally, although we are self-interested, the interests of the whole are often in our self-interest.  In Hobbes’ Leviathian, there is a debate made between Hobbes and the “fool” about whether the state of nature is like the prisoner’s dilemma, as the fool says that sometimes we need to break covenants in order to benefit our self-interest.  The state of nature and prisoner’s dilemma are similar in that our actions are based on what others might do, that it is usually in our best interest to keep our covenants, and that we are self-interested and rational in both.  The key difference however, is that in the state of nature one can communicate with others and work out the best course of action, where in the prisoner’s dilemma there is scarce communication, if any at all, and there is only one chance to choose a course of action.  In the state of nature, it is almost always in one’s best interest to do what everyone else does, while in the prisoner’s dilemma this is less often the case.

Looking at the K2 disaster in 2008, the climbers are clearly in the state of nature as opposed to the prisoner’s dilemma.  There was plenty of room for communication; even with some language barriers, there was ample opportunity for communication between teams and the leaders of teams which should have made all courses of action very obvious.  However, they did not act accordingly.  There was scarce communication even though it was readily available.  They made covenants to leave at an

Thomas Hobbes

early enough hour, to help fellow climbers, and to turn back if there was not enough time to make the summit, but they were broken.  Instead of following the actions of the group as a whole and working together, climbers acted on their own.  Some might say that the physical exhaustion and deficiency of oxygen that goes hand in hand with climbing in the Himalayas is the cause of this poor decision making, but it might reveal something about our state of nature. Maybe being fearful, one of Hobbes’ key conditions of the state of nature, makes us too self-interested and perhaps irrational.  On a mountain like K2, the possibility of death is extremely real.  With this very real fear, climbers were inclined to save themselves instead of sticking together which ultimately caused more problems.  The only rational thing to do in the descent of K2 is to work out together how to get down safely, but the fear got to the climbers as panic and an every man for himself type of action action ensued. Perhaps anyone who decides to climb one of the most dangerous mountains in the world is inherently irrational, or maybe Hobbes is wrong about our state of nature: that being fearful actually causes us to act irrationally, as we think that we are acting in our self-interest when we are actually not.


One comment

  1. gretandr · November 11, 2014

    I would have liked to have seen you elaborate on outside obstacles that factor into the choices we make in our state of nature. Maybe you could have wrote about how physical exhaustion affects the brain and how this specifically influences us to change our perception of thinking in a single moment. I liked that you continued to talk about how human fear causes irrational acts in self-interest. However, fear doesn’t directly relate to your previous mention about the effects of physical exhaustion or deficiency of oxygen. Perhaps, you could have reflected on the ways that the state of exhaustion can cause the body to go into panic mode. It’s not always our hearts that want us to act in irrationally in the pursuit of self-interest, but rather our bodies are screaming for help to a point that can’t be ignored. Overall, your topic was very interesting, and you made very strong connections between Hobbes’ philosophy and a climber’s state of nature. It’s amazing how a situation or location can greatly sway our choices in such little time. For instance, those climbers probably bonded before taking on the K2 excursion and trusted each other. Little did they know that they couldn’t expect acts of absolute selflessness on such a treacherous climb.


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