“Mountaineers are selfish”

The accusation came from a man I had recently made acquaintance of at a function we were attending.

This wasn’t the first time I heard this sentiment being expressed, so I wondered whether people had read this somewhere and thought it was an appropriate thing to say, or whether people really believed we were selfish. So I had to examine my own thoughts and respond by means of this article.

There is so much that has already been written about this subject, so instead being repetitive and defending the sport; telling you how it’s a team sport, after sharing one or two of my thoughts about selfishness, I’d rather share with you what “Self-isms” are inherent to mountaineers and how these qualities can improve your life.

My brief thoughts on “Mountaineers are selfish”:
To label every person partaking in a sport as selfish by their choice of sport is rather narrow minded and stereotypical. Many of my team mates on expeditions are by nature decidedly unselfish people; instead they are caring spouses and devoted parents.

I would like to offer that passion for something doesn’t necessarily make one selfish; neither does a drive to achieve goals – because if it did then every athlete and successful person could be classed as selfish.

The definition of selfishness is “being concerned, sometimes excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one’s own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.

In mountaineering, we are extremely aware that no expedition can be accomplished alone. No mountain can be climbed solo – or by definition “regardless of others” – which is often why mountaineering is such an expensive sport. Teams need to be put together, and with them large support teams, meaning we consider others and how we will work together to accomplish a common goal. We are constantly concerned about the wellbeing and safety of our climbing partners, and share very close quarters with them, sharing activities and equipment that keep each other hydrated, fuelled, warm and safe.

We also share our physical and emotional struggles on a level that people seldom reach under the demands of a day to day existence

What about leaving loved ones behind in order to pursue such a dangerous sport? Isn’t that very selfish? 

In the movie “Everest” we feel for Rob Hall’s wife when he makes the final call to her – and assume that mountaineers are selfish to pursue a sport that can similarly end our lives.

I’d like to counter – how is this any more selfish than other acts people take part in on a daily basis that put themselves in harm’s way – smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity and other lifestyle choices many people make that put them at risk of disease and early death? When having a sudden heart attack, this person won’t have the opportunity to call their spouse and say goodbye. Perhaps some points to ponder, particularly for the man at the dinner table with a decidedly unhealthy lifestyle evident from his appearance.

Instead of defining mountaineers as selfish, I’d like to offer some “Self-isms” that mountaineers most certainly are, and upon closer examination, these qualities are desirable in every person’s life.

Definition: “Self-control, an aspect of inhibitory control, is the ability to control one’s emotions and behaviour…..a cognitive process that is necessary for regulating one’s behaviour in order to achieve goals”

Self- control is certainly a quality of mountaineers since regulation of self – your emotions and behaviour – is essential to survival in the extremes of high altitude.

Self-control or willpower is an essential component to achieving goals. At its essence, self control or willpower is the ability to resist short term temptations in order to reach long terms goals. Surely you would want more willpower or

self-control in your life, so that you can achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself.

If so, you can learn from a mountaineer!

Self- Discipline:
Definition: “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses”

Self-discipline is without a doubt a quality of mountaineers – we need to exercise extreme self- discipline when tested physically, mentally, and emotionally in the harshness of the mountains. Preparing for a climb takes self-discipline and this quality often spills over into the other aspects of a mountaineer’s life, whether in business or other daily activities.

This is therefore clearly a really desirable quality to have in life and business! The good news is, self-discipline is a learned skill, and you don’t have to climb a mountain to learn and apply it in your life.

Definition: “able to provide for one’s own needs without external assistance”

In mountaineering we are reminded by our guides that although we work as a team, it’s essential that each one of us is and needs to be simultaneously self-sufficient and able to work alone. If we are unable to continue on a particular course and need to get ourselves down the mountain, we need to able to do so alone. We spend many hours on mountains in solitude, either literally (in tents on rest days) or in our minds. I believe that these hours of solitude while being tested for endurance, one comes face to face with who you are at your core and really gets to know the authentic inner self, who you are and what you’re capable of.

An article in Psychology today says that “self esteem can be very fragile, unless it’s underpinned by self-sufficiency”. The article goes on to explain that self-sufficient people have an inner sense of well being and completeness that makes them more resilient, have more internal focus and control, make their own decisions, and are authentic.

On reading this definition wouldn’t you like to be more self-sufficient and authentic in your own life?

mind is the safety video on a flight – and the instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. The only way to be in a position to help or save others is to be helping, preserving or saving oneself first!

If you’re unable to breathe because you haven’t put your oxygen mask on when the flight is in distress, you’ll be no good to someone else. The exact same principle applies in mountaineering and in life. In the high altitude places we love so much, we wear oxygen masks and use other safety equipment, if we can’t take care of ourselves, we cannot help anyone else either and in fact become a danger to our team. In life, if we are unhealthy – mentally, physically or emotionally we become a burden and a danger to others. It can therefore be argued that not being self-preserving is selfish.

So, the next time you read an article, watch a movie, or meet a mountaineer, reflect on the qualities they do possess – qualities of self-control, self-discipline, self-sufficiency and self- preservation – and you can reflect on how you can develop and apply these qualities in your own life.

Life, like the mountains, is tough and can be harsh, but if you live it like the mountaineer I’ve just described, you’ll be sure to succeed!

Book me for a speaking engagement – you’ll learn more about how you can have a mountaineers approach to achieving goals, overcoming obstacles and flying your flag at the summit of success.

Climb on,


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