Before leading four companions up into Asia's treacherous Karakoram mountain range last month, Dr. Keith Warburton, a 31-year-old English physician, wrote in a Pakistan newspaper: "For most of the climbers it is their first time in the high Himalaya; may they acclimatise well to the altitude and may the weather hold fair." The weather did not hold fair, and last week search parties had to assume that Warburton's expedition, two weeks overdue, had perished in blizzards or avalanches high on the frozen landscape of a nameless 25,540-foot peak.
Unfortunately, the Warburton tragedy is not unusual, for, of all sports, mountaineering is by far the most perilous. For every outstanding peak ever conquered by man, the price has always been correspondingly high. Mont Blanc has lured more than 60 men to their deaths. Mt Everest has taken a smaller but still significant toll. And, ironically, the dangers of climbing rise with its popularity. Experts court death when they scorn the routes already mastered by others. Striving to force a passage where no passage exists, they frequently fall afoul of their wish for uniqueness. The novice invites disaster when, in order to hasten his seasoning, he undertakes climbs beyond his ability. The sport is safest for a solid middle group: respecting a mountain's treachery to the full, the middle-road climbers rarely overextend themselves, they rarely suffer undue physical hardship and, almost always, they return.
If the methods of mountaineers can be roughly classified, their motives cannot. All seemingly find their serenity enveloped in a mystique never fully explained by them or fathomed by outsiders. Quite bluntly, a British psychiatrist declared last week that "climbers are driven by an unconscious impulse that is definitely suicidal." More acceptably, another psychiatrist spoke of mountaineers' desire to "put themselves to the test, place the decision about their own lives in God's hands. If they come back, they consider themselves worthwhile." Maybe Wilfrid Noyce, a British poet and climber, makes the most sense when he speaks of mountaineers beset by a "streak of madness...descended from the stars on which they fix their eyes."
Keith Warburton has left as good a valedictory testimony as any in words he wrote for the Pakistan paper. In two brief articles he dwelt on the hard work, the comradeship and the joys of the climb. Suicidal tendencies and feelings of inadequacy, at least, are concepts remote from these words: "Dawn in the high mountains has a beauty all its own. To the east, the sharp rock peaks become slowly rimmed with light, and the sky, above and beyond Yarkand and China, becomes a pale water-colour green. Tomorrow, in the first light of day, we plan to carry our loads through this short, unpleasant and rather dangerous region to the greater safety of the snows above."