Mark Twight is Wrong.

There's No Crying in Baseball & No Cheating in Climbing

One of the most influential alpinists in the English-speaking world is Mark Twight. He has authored two of the most popular and highly-regarded books about mountain climbing, Extreme Alpinism and Kiss or Kill. Now he owns a gym Salt Lake City and focuses mostly on bicycling. Twight wrote widely-read statement in light of Lance Armstrong's admissions that Lance had knowingly violated explicitly-written rules of his sport, and had repeatedly lied about it.

This news compelled Twight to publicizing an attack on people who use bottled oxygen or Diamox while climbing. Twight tells us that these people are cheaters who must be opposed. He never describes how one should manifest this opposition, but perhaps an oxygen-bottle embargo or public excoriation are due. The important thing is that Twight is 100% right. But he just didn't go far enough. 

His argument:

the use of oxygen has no place, is cheating and overrules all other claim to achievement. Supplemental O2 is doping - without question. It is not a medical necessity, which is proven by many, many ascents of 8000m peaks without supplemental O2. 

If O2 allows one to accomplish a task that he or she otherwise could not do or was not willing to do then O2 is a performance-enhancing drug and should be treated as such. 

Sadly, our skeptical reaction further imprisons us within the limitations we set for ourselves or accept from others who set limits for us. If we greet every great performance with suspicion what becomes of its potential to inspire? What means will we use to unlock our own potential? Who will plant the guideposts along the trail? What new level of performance by one or two individuals will free the hundreds struggling just beneath them? 

This is what the cheaters have done to us. It is why we must expose and oppose them whenever it is possible.
The closest Twight comes to explaining why supplement O2 is "cheating" is stating the fact that it is not a medical necessity for climbing. It also makes climbing easier, and in some cases allows one to accomplish what they could not have done without it. So we have: The use of a substance that makes climbing easier, but has been proven not necessary for everyone, equals cheating. 
 He adds a further condition in which O2 is cheating.
"If O2 allows one to accomplish a task that he or she otherwise could not do or was not willing to do then O2 is a performance-enhancing drug and should be treated as such."
So if you were willing and able to do something without a substance, then using that substance wouldn't be cheating. Tank-up, Ueli, you've earned it! 

I initially found this justification awfully thin. But as my brain came to life over a morning cup of coffee during my last alpine start, I began to see the wisdom in Twight's words. After all, he's Mark Twight! He was writting climbing manifestos before I was born. And then it hit me! I was cheating at that very moment by fueling up for a 2AM drive and pre-dawn snow slog with a thermos of hot coffee. The impossible had been murdered, no mystery about it. It was Blake, in the driver's seat, with a double Americano. Surely others had done this climb without caffeine to speed their reaction times and make them more alert. I hung my head low in recognition of my own performance-enhancing shame. I had failed before I'd even stepped out of the car. But my cheating didn't stop there. I had brought along a vitamin-c tablet for my water bottle, since I'd been fighting off a head cold. But by adding this foreign supplement to the water in my pristine (though seldom-washed) nalgene, I was really just stealing from the future. If I was unable to handle this climb without coughing up a lung, then my body was just not ready and I should have dealt with getting sick and going home. Instead, I was making a deplorable attempt at bringing the climb down to my (phlegm-filled) level. I'm sure that this climb had been done  without supplement vitamins, echinacea tea, or other immune-boosting cheater pills. Surely this, too was desecrating the climb.
As the sun finally rose and glare from snow and ice burned my eyes, I cheated once again by donning my fancy photo-chromatic sunglasses. These served to alter my body's perception of reality, facilitating my travel through an environment for which my body would have performed very poorly. In fact, I am 100% certain that I would have been unable or unwilling to continue if I'd been snow-blinded and suffering headaches, so I stooped even lower, and kept on my shades. But surely some team of hardmen, climbing at night or amid only dense clouds, will embrace the mountain on its own terms and make a sunglass-free ascent, exposing all others as cheaters.
As I retreated from the mountain in contempt of my own ethical depravity, I recalled a 10-year-old I'd seen out climbing the other day, hangdogging in sneakers and having a blast swinging back and forth on a tensioned top-rope. I wondered, at the time, if anyone had told him about free climbing, or tried to explain any of the "rules" of an ascent to him. But 10-year olds generally aren't interested in rules, and to be honest, climbing doesn't have any to offer. Its difficulties are self-imposed contrivances, and we "fail" or "succeed" each time based solely upon the parameters we create for each climb we attempt. As long as we're not lying (and even 10-year-old non-climbers already know that rule) we should construct and pursue our climbs however we see fit. After about 20 minutes of frantic clawing, panting, hanging, rope-pulling, and 5th-grade ferocity, he reached the anchor, peered past the rope to his belayer,and shouted "Dad, I climbed it." He had. And without cheating one bit.

1 comment:

  1. If cheating is described as gaining an unfair advantage over your opponents, I have to wonder, are there any opponents in climbing? Surely most alpinists today don't consider the mountains an opponent to be conquered? The phrase "you're only cheating yourself" comes to mind amidst this shadowy discussion, especially when considering what it is you're using to cheat, what you're cheating, and whatever is the reward? In an era where climbing and environmentalism combine to evolve our understanding of "clean" alpinism ethics, this discussion begs the question, what the fuck does it matter if you're using bottled oxygen or bolts to summit an 8000 meter peak if you've already burned thousands of gallons of fuel just to get to base camp?