Highest-Stakes Adventure

When an athlete -- and parent -- risks his life, does his calculation make him a hero or a zero?

On May 25, Erik Weihenmayer was sitting on top of the world. Well, technically speaking, he was lying near the top of the world. With his stomach convulsing. He'd just yanked himself over the 39-foot rock face called the Hillary Step, the last technical hurdle on the way to the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.

"I celebrated with the dry heaves," he told a reporter later, after he'd trudged to the top and then, after a celebratory moment of victory, made the equally treacherous descent.

Weihenmayer, of course, is the climber from Golden who, two months ago, became the first blind person to conquer the 29,000-foot peak. It was a day of records for the 33-year-old motivational speaker and his support crew. The team, heavily sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, also boasted the oldest person ever to summit (64-year-old Sherman Bull), the second father-and-son combo to top out (Sherman and his son Brad) and the largest group to bag the peak (nineteen members of the team made it all the way). The whole saga will appear later on a documentary video.

Mark Poutenis

Weihenmayer has received more good wishes and accolades than he can count. Of course it has been gratifying, yet he is the first to insist that his disability is but a small part of him. To hear him talk about the feat is a lesson in how truly to appreciate the magnificence of nature, visible or not. "The mountain is totally beautiful," he says, "whether you can see it or not. You can feel it under your hands."

He is, as he must be, ambivalent about the feat. There will always be the familiar tension between knowing you're different and spending a lifetime convincing people that you're not, really. He is aware that what he did was historic, and that it will be an inspiration to many. But he will be sure to tell you: "I honestly don't think it was any more dangerous for me to climb it than for a person with sight."

In a way, though, that assessment misses an important point. It may not have been any more dangerous for a blind person to climb Everest than for a person with sight. But that doesn't make it safe. There are numerous ways to die on the Himalayan slopes, as the 165 climbers who have succumbed to the mountain have discovered. There are avalanches and icefalls to crush you, bottomless crevasses to swallow you, and hypothermia and cerebral edema to drain the life out of you from within, to name only a few. It is skydiving with a bedsheet, running the high hurdles over landmines. In short, despite innovations in climbing safety, climbing the world's highest mountain remains a perilous undertaking.

And so I couldn't help wondering: Weihenmayer's climb was inarguably a huge success, but was it responsible? Not because he was blind and needs our collective caution to keep him safe, but for a much simpler reason: He has a wife and infant daughter who expect him to come home. In life's complicated math, how does one weigh risk against obligation? Is a father who freely undertakes a personal adventure -- with only slightly better odds for survival than those in a game of Russian roulette -- an inspirational hero or a reckless daredevil? So I asked him.

In the closing days of World War II, a boating accident occurred in New York harbor. Amid the bustling traffic created by the war effort, a barge called the Anna C, loaded with flour, broke loose of her moorings and drifted into a tanker. The tanker's propeller ripped into the barge, and within minutes, the boat sank. The owner of the barge sued the tug company charged with the care of the barge; Carroll Towing's bargee had been ashore, and so the job of tying up the Anna C had been left to a less qualified worker. As it turned out, he did a lousy job.

The lawsuit made its way through the courts. In 1947, the famous federal judge Learned Hand wrote an opinion that was to become a classic of modern torts. He concluded that Carroll Towing had been negligent in the sinking of the Anna C. Yet what history remembers better is the way he decided. Applying the rules of mathematics to the law, Learned Hand came up with a formula: BPL.

Translated, it meant this: If the probability of harm (P) multiplied by the importance of the loss (L) is greater than the burden needed to take adequate precautions against an accident (B), then there has been negligence. The hardship of having a trained man on board to tie a proper knot was less than the likelihood the barge would bust loose and lose its valuable cargo -- hence, negligence. Learned Hand's formula has come to be known as the calculus of risk.

There is a calculus of risk in everything we do, although we don't always make a conscious decision about it. At some level, most of us have concluded that the potential peril of getting into a car crash is low enough to take a chance on driving. On the other hand, most of us over the age of nineteen have also concluded that drag racing down a lonely dirt road at 120 miles per hour is stupid.

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