Summit 63 Magazine Article. Conquering Capitalism

Early in the summer I wrote and published something here. I admit to rushing the essay and posting it without taking time to cool down and reflect, but still I stand by much of what I wrote. Many people commented on this piece and it was linked to a forum on UKC. In that forum I was called amongst other things, an elitist  tramp. If  you have time, read the original essay and the comments, including my own, before reading this article, written for, and published by Summit as a direct result to the first essay, please do.  

At the end of the essay below I have published a letter that was posted to Summit by Mr Wilson in response to my article and I have posted my reply.  

Please feel free to comment but if it is a personal attack on anyone it will not be published. All I ask is read the essay, but read it properly and carefully and think about it before commenting.  

Conquering Capitalism

“I’ve decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks.” – Andy Warhol

We live in a consumer society. Supply and demand, demand and supply. This is our world, and it is spreading rapidly from West to East. And in this burgeoning capitalist world, increasing numbers of people believe that it’s their right to consume: money can buy whatever you want. Yes. I prefer to live in a capitalist society but I am appalled by the current belief that money can buy mountain dreams, bypassing the long learning curve required to climb with self-reliance in the greater ranges. The greatest assets a person can own are their experiences – it is the hard-won memories from these experiences that are our lasting rewards.  

The damage inflicted on mountaineering by the present fast-track-summit-fever is deep rooted. The environmental damage caused by the high numbers of people – clients, porters, Sherpas and support staff – who are involved in large group commercial mountaineering is well documented. But there are other, more subtle but just as devastating, knock-on effects.

There is the creeping monopolisation of certain mountains, where individual, self-reliant climbers are increasingly seen as an unwelcome hazard. I have actually heard commercial expedition leaders claim that independent unguided climbers – using no oxygen, climbing without fixed ropes or Sherpa support – are “jeopardising the chances of their paying clients reaching summits”. Will there come a time when alpine-style climbers are forbidden to climb mountains in the greater ranges on the grounds of their style being reckless, or simply unprofitable? We need to consider that question very seriously: consumerism is frighteningly powerful at appropriating, that is what it does best.

Another, less understood, by-product of the modern adventure tourist trade is the cheapening of something that remains profoundly important to dedicated climbers. I’m regularly told (by non-climbers) that Everest is no longer difficult to climb and, in settled weather, I’d have to agree. It’s a great shame that this mountain has been reduced to a holiday destination. But take away the fixed rope, the ladders, the oxygen and Sherpa support, and Everest will once again become a real challenge; the only people summiting will be true climbers.

Mountaineering must be one of the few sports cultures in which people are threatened by standards progressing, a culture where people scream of elitism when the standard improves to a level they are not willing to aspire to. Reinhold Messner climbed Everest twice without supplementary oxygen: first in 1978 and in then 1980 (this time solo and without pre-placed camps). Robert Schauer and Wojciech Kurtyka’s 1985 pure alpine style ascent of Gasherbrum IV’s West Face set new standards and proved what’s possible when two people trust each other. In 1986, Erhard Loretan climbed Everest in 43 hours, moving through the night and without the use of supplementary oxygen. With all that for us to be proud of, why is mountaineering culture still advocating a style of ascent that is thirty years out-of-date, the old style of siege and oxygen, literally lowering the level of the challenge until it’s achievable by anyone?

In Britain, ethics and good style in rock climbing are not frowned upon, in fact they are revered. So why is maintaining good style in the mountains any different? If I took performance-enhancing drugs and then chipped, bolted and aided my way up a classic rock climb like Cenotaph Corner then I would be castigated as a cheat and a vandal, and rightly so. There will be a good many honest climbers who will never climb Cenotaph Corner, it will remain beyond their ability, but they will not cry elitism and demand fixed ropes because they feel that it’s they deserve to stand at the top. True climbers desire only to earn the right.

This is where our western way – of wanting what others have, but not being prepared to put in the time and effort – really fails. Despite the actual dangers that exist for everyone, mountains are now believed by many to be mere commodities. There is the absurd belief that you can ‘pay safe’. Mountains are now sold to highest bidders who, in many cases, have no understanding of what and who came before them, no hard-won experience through which to meet the mountains they wish to ‘conquer’. And it still amazes me that there are people who actually believe that they can conquer billions of tons of mountain, that it’s a trophy to be put on a mantelpiece and bragged about, a mere rung on their career ladder.

Why shouldn’t the wild mountains remain as sanctuary for those who are willing, with reverence, to sacrifice and commit? Why shouldn’t the mountains be preserved as a remote arena where people who want to improve on previous standards can be free to try? Why should the mountains become the domain for the select few who can pay? Someone, please answer these questions, have a go at answering them with integrity.

In the past, I’ve been accused of ‘elitism’ because I voice my opinions and climb to the very best of my abilities. But the Oxford Dictionary defines elitism as ‘reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group’.  I do not rely on the ‘dominance of a select group’, nor do I put myself forward as a ‘dominant leader’, I go in to the mountains on my own or as an equal to my partner.

‘Elite’ (without the ‘ism’) is very a different word. It means ‘the best’. In that sense, true mountaineering – depending on ultimate experience and skills – is inherently elite. All walks of life have elites. I don’t expect to be able to drive a bus, manage a bank or perform an operation on a patient. So why do some people climb into some of the most hostile environments in the world, with poor skills and little experience, and then accuse the people who question this foolishness as being elitist?

Mountain Guides are an elite. They are professional, well-trained people but caught in a storm high on a Himalayan hill it is impossible to guide in the true sense. It’s grossly irresponsible to take people with limited experience above 8,000m. In a high Himalayan storm, death or survival quickly become the only options, it cannot be anything other than each for themselves, and only those with enough personal experience stand any chance of escaping alive.

This raises the profound ethical and moral issues involved with ascents that utilise the services of indigenous people. Nepal is a Third World country. Most people’s lives are simply about basic survival and the few Sherpas who are employed for their services do make good money for their families, so who can begrudge them? For me, the most important moral question is: are the clients of the commercial outfits happy to ignore the dangerous, and often lethal circumstances, in which these people work for their livelihoods? Fixing rope on avalanche-prone slopes and repeated carries through dangerous icefalls is not something ‘pay-safe’ Westerners are prepared to do – why do they expect another person to do it for them? Personally, I would never forgive myself if someone died to satisfy my desire to ‘conquer’ a hill.

An inexperienced client who utilises the services of Sherpas also brings about a situation of ignorant dependence: they are placing their life in the hands of a stranger. Occasionally, individual Sherpas will not live up to their collective reputation and the client will scream about being let down, even conned. As in all walks of life, you will get some good, some bad, some indifferent, some excellent, some experienced and some green. It takes experience to recognise that.  

Sherpas are human. They are prone to becoming frightened and confused like any other human. Their flesh will freeze and their bones will break as easily as yours or mine. They cry, sweat and fall ill. They suffer with altitude sickness and they think of their loved ones; they are afraid to die. So I have a message to any disgruntled Sherpa client out there: if you feel let down by someone you’ve paid, because in the end they refuse to risk their life for you, then I suggest you learn more, practice hard and get some self-reliance.

The people most respected in life are the ones prepared to sacrifice for their passion and beliefs. I believe you should chase the mountain dream for the good reasons: the love of the special environment; the passion and the challenge; the opportunity to really see yourself, your weakness and strength, and what you could be; and the intensity of experience: the hurt, discomfort, bewilderment, hope, frustration, terror, elation and awe. Mountains are to be dreamed and fantasised about. Sometimes the dream will materialise, often it will not. Each mountain experience should be for individuals, each experience should differ and the outcome should always be uncertain.

My viewpoint is not popular these days. The masses and the mass media do not see or understand the truth of commitment and hard-won skills; the masses see the oldest, the youngest, the quickest, they consume reality TV, and support ‘charity events’. This circus is what most of the general public think mountaineering is, and when this show runs into trouble they scream for government control, rules and regulation. The insurance companies love this; they are waiting, hoping.

True mountaineering can survive, but only with a continual questioning of style, performance and motivation. To truly meet the mountain, you have to cut to the quick and always ruthlessly question your motivations. Don’t try and deceive yourself; for a mountaineer, integrity is paramount.

So let us take down all of the fixed rope, the rubbish, the camps, the ladders and the bolts. Let’s show the world what we think of our mountain environment and how we care about it. Let us not employ people to climb the mountain for us. Let us meet the mountain and climb it by fair means, learn about ourselves and celebrate our achievement when we find success. And, when it’s just too difficult to climb the mountain in good style, let us be humble and accept in life that there will always be places we are not good or experienced enough to reach. Yet we know, with celebration, that it is those impossible places that inspire us to strive.

Naked arrogance, in reply to the essay above by Mr Rod Wilson.

The naked arrogance and selfishness of the elite sportsman was on full display in Nick Bullock’s article, Mountains for Sale, in Summit 63. His blinkered viewpoint was as narrow as a laser beam, like the superstar in his Ferrari who thinks that others should be removed from the road so that only he can have fun.

I am 73 years old, a climber with almost 60 years active experience (past President of Manchester University Mountaineering Club, an early leader of Cenotaph Corner in the 1950s, first ascencionist of The Troach on Cloggy with Hugh Banner, and Crucible on Cwm Silyn with Barry Ingle, and several successful Alpine seasons).  I live in the Peak District and still climb gritstone 5a and alpine D/AD – for all the same reasons, and to experience all the same sensations, as Mr Bullock, and I wish to continue to do so, despite the inevitable decline of my ageing body.

In his article, Mr Bullock says “I believe you should chase the mountain dream for the good reasons,” as if he is sole arbiter of your motives. He also says ‘”Let us not employ people to climb the mountain for us.” Do we sit at base camp waiting for our guides to bring us the summit?).

In July 2011, despite a week of awful weather, I climbed five routes in the Alps in six days, all AD or D- on peaks of 3,600 to 4,000m, whilst many climbers were securely ensconsced in the bars of Chamonix or Zermatt. To paraphrase Mr Bullock, “I chased the mountain dream,” so that I could again experience the silent beauty and isolation of the high mountains, and feel the exhilarating insecurity of an exposed alpine ridge.  But, to allow my ageing body to do so, I climbed with a guide. Jacques navigated through the thickening clouds and blustery snowstorms, provided companionship and encouragement on frozen slopes with wind chill at -20, and gave me the freedom to use my fitness and all my old skills to reach the summits and savour the wild mountain environment. If this was tramping on the pastures of the elite, I offer no apologies.  Were the mountains beyond my ability?  Should I be at home in my carpet slippers?  Was climbing with a guide, cheating?

I am simply grateful that Mountain Guides can provide me with the wherewithall to continue my alpine career into my twilight years.  40 or 50 years ago, I too was outspoken: condemning the ‘whack and dangle’ men who pegged their way up pioneering unclimbed Peakland limestone, but now I have a broader and more eclectic viewpoint.  I will not be around when Mr Bullock enters his seventies, but I warrant that, by then, his hymnsheet will contain some very different words.

In reply to Mr Wilson: I am most disappointed that he has not actually read what I wrote. At no time have I ever made an argument against mountain guides working in the Alps. I respect all good mountain guides and their highly professional attitude, and again, I have never said that people should not make use of their services in the Alps. If Mr Wilson had read my article, read it properly, paused to think about my arguments, then hopefully he would’ve realised that I am not selfish and arrogant, but instead deeply concerned about what I feel is an abuse of environment, climbing ethics, and local cultures in the GREATER RANGES. Many of my friends and climbing partners are mountain guides, and because of the integrity of their profession are in full support of what I wrote in my article. Mr Wilson’s very serious failure to properly read and understand my argument, and his knee-jerking personal attack on me illustrates perfectly what I meant when I say people accuse me of being elitist whilst … and at times it seems almost wilfully … they misinterpret what I say. I wish Mr Wilson the best of luck with all his Alpine endeavours. To be climbing as he does at his age has my full respect.

Nick Bullock.

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10 Responses to Summit 63 Magazine Article. Conquering Capitalism

  1. Tom Briggs says:

    Nick, there are moments of brilliant writing in this, and many points few would argue with. For example, I hope there are very few people who think they can buy a summit, but they do exist, I know. Not many people though Nick, really there aren’t (well, maybe a few on Kilimanjaro!)

    The ‘honey pot’ issue – Mera Peak being a classic example – is definitely an environmental problem that cannot be ignored. People will always want to climb the ‘highest’, whether the highest mountain in the UK, trekking peak in Nepal, highest point in Western Europe or highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. All we can do is be pragmatic about this and try to protect the environment. The high camp on Mera is a disgrace, for example, and companies who take people there regularly need to do something about it. But it’s a pointless, losing battle to try and convince people to spread out across the Himalaya in search of esoterica.

    Your argument about style is extreme and this is why people accuse you of being elitist. Fixed ropes, Sherpas and 02 are still the norm on 8,000ers, unless you’re the elite (and ironically, those that eschew the 02 and Sherpas aren’t actually as elite as they think they are and often shout for a top rope). There are a handful of mountaineers who can rock up and do a new route on an 8000er in your purist style. It’s like saying that there’s no place for top-roping E8 anymore. The pre-practice ascent is still valid, though we all know it’s a long way off the pure on-sight.

    Your questioning about employing local people in a hazardous environments is an interesting one. There are many levels to it. First off, who are you to tell an impoverished Nepali how to earn a living? Anyone, whether it be a company, or an individual, has a responsibility to the local staff that they employ. Of course they do. They need to equip them properly and they don’t need to send them off across a loaded slope! Have you ever spoken to any Sherpas who regularly work on Everest? Yes, it’s dangerous work going through the Khumbu Icefall, but they get paid A LOT. Really, they do. They are Premiership footballers. Is it not a bit patronising to tell them that they should stick to a safer, poorly paid job? Who lives longer and provides a better life for his kids, the Sherpa who lives at 5000m herding yaks, breathing in smoke each day from the fire that warms his hut, or the Sherpa who speaks fluent English, has summited Everest 17 times and sends his kids to school in Kathmandu? I’m not trivialising how dangerous working on big mountains is, but when the male life expectancy in many parts of Nepal is 40-odd, what would you do? In reality, those at greater risk are porters being employed by poorly organised groups, or independent trekkers who have little knowledge about altitude illness, or who don’t equip them with decent clothing and shelter. A better drum to bang is the porter one.

    The people most respected in life are the ones prepared to sacrifice for their passion and beliefs. I believe you should chase the mountain dream for the good reasons: the love of the special environment; the passion and the challenge; the opportunity to really see yourself, your weakness and strength, and what you could be; and the intensity of experience: the hurt, discomfort, bewilderment, hope, frustration, terror, elation and awe. Mountains are to be dreamed and fantasised about. Sometimes the dream will materialise, often it will not. Each mountain experience should be for individuals, each experience should differ and the outcome should always be uncertain.

    Beautiful. Amateur mountaineer and elite mountaineer alike can identify with that. How far one is willing to sacrifice is very personal though. I don’t understand why you can’t appreciate that. Or why you can’t empathise, nor understand that an amateur mountaineer might have an experience, just as intense as yours, on something you wouldn’t even consider a ‘proper’ climb?

    (P.S. Good to see you at the weekend : ))

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Thanks for that Tom, food for thought in much you say and when i’m not sitting outside Ray Woods house scabbing his internet i’ll ingest and think and let you know. Much of what i write is to make people think, give them another angle, another viewpoint, and when they write or talk to me about it expressing another opinion to my own i listen and learn and try to understand. Sometimes I will change my view, sometimes I will not.

      Anyway, like you said, it was great to catch up at the weekend, always enjoy a blather and chewing the cud with you. Nick

  2. mark goodwin . gone ground says:

    Ay up Nick! very impressed with your reserve and respect towards Mr Wilson. It is really a very serious thing to publicly set down in print such an accusation of selfishness and arrogance, and your not responding angrily rather flies in the face of that accusation. It is ironic that someone should be so careless and then accuse you of being selfish!

  3. mark goodwin . gone ground says:

    Ay up Nick! The following letter, sent to Summit mag, may be of interest:

    Dear Summit, I’m writing regarding Rod Wilson’s and Andy Warren’s response letters to Nick Bullock’s article, ‘Mountains For Sale’. These distinctly contrasting letters both very seriously miss the article’s point, and both needlessly provide emotional fuel that only helps to smokescreen the important agruments.
    I’ve heard others express dismay (similar to Rod Wilson’s) about this article’s point of view, or rather what they ‘think’ is the article’s point of view. Within our climbing communities, this failure to read (or listen) carefully and apply considered thought will only exacerbate the threats to what we think is our ‘right’ to climb. The world is changing fast, and climbers better pay more careful attention and more respect towards where and how they climb.
    Bullock’s article is a bold ATTEMPT to grapple with a profound and complex constellation of ethical problems relating to the greater ranges (clearly stated at the start of the article and somewhat given away by photos of distinctly high-altitude mountaineering!). It is such a waste of time if people fail to hear his essay’s arguments and then knee-jerk over-emotionally. To ‘get’ this article requires basic skills of reading comprehension that must be easily within the grasp of most minds that can cope with the huge range of skills required to climb a short rock pitch, never mind a mountain. So, I don’t think the silly misinterpretations of Bullock’s stance is due to a lack of intelligence.
    In the bigger scheme of things, on a planet of rising sea-levels and economic disasters, arguing about climbing ethics is not that important; but Bullock’s article is not just about simple climbing ethics – we privileged, British climbers have a responsibility to think and argue carefully about our impact on other countries’ cultures and environments. ‘Mountains For Sale’ is a wake-up call; it is time to pay more attention. Lets have some intelligent debate!

    Dismayed, from Leicester!

  4. Alex Parker says:

    Hi Nick,

    I have been joining in a debate about your writing on the recent video posted on UKC and I have to admit to being one of those who think you come across as an elitist snob. I am certainly not saying you are, just that you come across that way to me and clearly others too. After a dressing down from one of the members of UKC i thought i would see if your writing has the same effect on others, not just me. This is the first thing i came across, so i do not doubt there will be more.

    The only thing i can suggest is that with such extreme views, you are always going to upset people by putting them on paper. People read things and interpret them how they see them. It is not that they have not read them, or tried to understand them. Perhaps it is your writing that has lead to this misunderstanding. Three times in your reply to Mr Wilson you tell him he has not read your article. That is a little patronizing. Maybe you have written it badly and your points have not come across very well?

    I am sure you are not an elitist snob, simply doing what you do and being so good at it proves you have a huge amount of talent and mental strength, which does not marry itself to snobbery. You have worked to get where you are, not been given it.

    I am also sure that if i met you i would change my opinion, from what others have said about you. I hope at some point our paths cross and we can have a beer as I love controversial people and you certainly tick that box.

    Let us be honest, i am sure you couldn’t give a hoot about my opinion, but it just seems such a shame for some people to take such a disliking to you, myself included. i hope i am wrong!

    One thing i would like to say is that i think you are an incredibly gifted human being and i admire your physical and more importantly, mental strength to get to where you are today.

    I would love to know your thoughts and in no way was this supposed to be an attack on you. If your reply is simply to tell me to get lost, that is fine.

    Thanks for providing me with controversial reading material, even if i do not always share your view!

    Alex Parker.

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Alex,

      you should read Pitfalls of a peroni super model, coming down, looking through anothers eyes, slings wires and red wine, into the shadow and old country for old men, these hopefully will give you another view to me and my writing.

      As for the other stuff, you obviously enjoy the controversy and it gets you thinking so job done 😉 A lot of my writing comes from wanting to give people another side to that which is often quoted, and if they dont agree, well that’s fine, but people today from behind their laptops do tend to get very personal and attacking and that is not very nice and there is no need as you have shown with your post above.

      And yep i’m a total nubmnut who failed English o level so it possibly is my poor writing that is to blame for confusion.

      By the way I do give a hoot about what people say and how they say it is very important, it makes me think and gives me a view different from my own which may change my opinion.

      All the best, mine’s a Stella 😉

  5. Alex Parker says:

    Genuinely brilliant,

    To respond to what may have been deemed as insulting from me, in a manner portraying that I was perhaps very wrong has made my evening.

    At the end of your second paragraph, I hope you meant that I showed people can respond without being insulting whilst not agreeing with you.

    I am surprised to receive a response at all, let alone so quickly. You have showed that you only come across as a snob in your writing (if people read it the way i do) and that you are clearly far from that in person. That is what i was hoping. Thanks for the reading info, I will get straight on it.

    Rest assured, a Stella it will be should our paths cross.

  6. Nick Bullock says:

    Haha, nice one Alex,

    Yes, sorry its that bloody English o level failure again, that was exactly what i meant, disagree, but with humour and intelligence, not with agression, i like that.

    Glad I made your evening, wish everyone was so easy to please 😉

    All the best

  7. Simon Ash says:


    I have read the original article and this one and the UKC thread (as well as the fabulous ‘Echoes’ of course), as well as quite a lot of your other blog posts…

    The essay in Summit makes the same valid points as the original article without the need for personal ad hominem attacks on people – especially those you have never met; which makes me wonder why the first post was even necessary…or should it at least have been amended to reflect that. Simon Richardson did that when he wrote his piece on Dave MacLeod’s controversial winter ascent in Scotland…

    I am a historian, and LOVE controversy and getting people to think and challenge/defend their pre-conceived ideas. On the same note, I am 100% in favour of freedom of speech and people’s right to say what they believe (and I actually agree with most of what you wrote although I have zero experience of high altitude mountaineering) – I just think that there are ways of doing that and I think you went a little too far with your personal attacks…..

    Btw – the English ‘O’ level defence is rubbish – your writing is clear and superbly written (I have an MA and am jealous!!).

    Just for the record – to the best of my knowledge I have never met either of the people concerned (although I might once have seen Nick in Pete’s Eats!)

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks very much for this well thought out and complimentary response.

      I think with the natural progression from the original post to the final post, I did respond and move forward and progress and I did say this in the introduction to the final post. “Early in the summer I wrote and published something here. I admit to rushing the essay and posting it without taking time to cool down and reflect.”

      Sometimes blogs are written from the hip and then, after the original impetus, lead to more balanced and controlled thoughts, as in this case and then I will follow-up with a more controlled response and if needed an apology, so pulling me up is possibly a little behind the times although its always good to be reminded that none of us are perfect.

      You are correct, personal attacks are not needed within writing and I have learnt much over the years and of course I am still learning, but in defence I will use the continuation of the definition to ad hominem from Wikipedia, ‘Ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, for example, when it relates to the credibility of statements of fact or when used in certain kinds of moral and practical reasoning.’

      I, like you, love to use writing to stimulate discussion and thought, including expanding my own, look at us now several years down the line and still going on about this subject, thanks for that, 😉 but I’ll finish with the final part of the above quote of my own, “I stand by much of what I wrote.”

      All the best

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