As we started up Mont Dolent on Monday it was hard to know if our launch was wise or simply ambitious.
It had rained all night and was still drizzling in the morning. To add to the foreboding, the night before we'd been heavily warned by a drunk Swiss mountain guide that going up Dolent with a group was not only dangerous but foolish - perhaps even criminal. He told me directly and forcefully that I would be responsible for anything that went wrong. His strong condemnation of my enterprise stole a bit of my thunder. It also clashed with the climber's code that most of the group had lived with for all of our lives. This code makes each of us responsible for our own actions. As free-thinking individuals, we make our own highly personal decisions about what risks are worth taking. By this way of thinking, everyone in our group of mostly skilled climbers could and should decide for themselves when to turn back, whether or not the rest of the group wants to continue.
It's a good code that I can happily apply when everyone has a similar level of mountain experience. But ours didn't. We had five climbers who might be called experts, and three with considerably less experience. With the guide's slurred words still ringing in my ears, I wondered what I should do. Today would be the final day of a very long trip, and I was determined to finish. But I understood well the conflict between wisdom and ambition. My ambition was to summit. After 105 days on the border and having organized this party of friends, I really wanted to finish. But on this drizzling morning with little visibility, I wondered if my ambition was blinding me to personal and group safety. Should I feel responsible for those with less knowledge and fitness, even if they jeopardize my own summit ambitions?
The climber's code of personal responsibility and the guide's code of leader responsibility are both right. As group size grows, the need for clarity does also. Too many judgment calls can go unspoken and unchallenged in the confusion of interpersonal dynamics. It is far too easy for experts to assume that everyone knows what they're doing, no matter how slowly they do it. It's equally easy for non-experts to put their trust in the experts and thus blindly go into places they shouldn't. What should I do on a rainy morning with the summit 1,100 metres above and with a local guide's warning that this mountain is dangerous?
In the end things sorted themselves out. Two of our group decided for themselves that the peak was too much for them under these circumstances. The third person with less experience was still fit and game, so the rest of us gladly took her under our wings. We would one or all have turned back if protecting her became necessary.
By the time we reached the glacier the weather had turned resplendent. The whole day unfolded as gloriously as we could possibly imagine. Reaching the summit of Mont Dolent - where three borders come together and my round-Switzerland journey symbolically ended (the real ending came after the successful descent) - brought great joy to us all. What's more, we all felt that the event was considerably enriched by being able to share it with a budding young climber whom we'd challenged just enough but not too much. This last day provided everything we could ask of it, and far more than we expected.
But what if the weather had turned worse instead of better, or if the less experienced person had not been up to the task? Would wisdom have prevailed and one or more of us so-called experts have turned back to guide her to safety? I'm sure the answer is yes, we would have done the right thing. Judgment calls like that are more important in mountaineering than any technical skill. In the end, no matter how great our ambitions, we must learn to make wisdom prevail. And we must learn to understand, respect, and even love our partners so that their safety becomes more important than any dream we might be attempting to fulfill.
This all sounds so obvious. In theory, the words hardly need saying. And yet there are countless times in real life when the right course is not obvious at all, or when personal ambitions trump personal relations. The need for such delicate judgments leads some people to climb solo, where personal responsibility is entirely theirs. And it leads others to proclaim that the "brotherhood of the rope" is the best thing about climbing.
Mountains are rich beyond measure, and climbing them brings out the richness in ourselves.