GUEST OPINION: Judicious alpinism

By on September 1, 2015

Weighing the risks of an exceedingly precarious sport

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Three weeks ago, I was climbing on the Exum Ridge and witnessed 10 people being rescued off the Petzoldt arete. Two weeks ago, my climbing partner and I were about two hours ahead of Tyler Strandberg and Catherine Nix on the east face of Teewinot Mountain when we saw the helicopters circling, indicating another bad day in the Tetons. This week, I was on Cloudveil Dome and across the valley saw an injured climber being hauled off of the Middle Teton. Part of me wants to scream and yell, “Don’t you people realize this stuff is dangerous! Why don’t you stay at home?” However, the more rational part of me realizes that climbing should be open to everyone, not just the “proven few.” I forget that I was in their position once as someone just starting out and that one of the joys of climbing is the uncertainty of success. Yes, people should be prepared when they venture into the mountains, but we sometimes like to forget that no matter who you are, climbing is an inherently risky sport in a less than predictable environment.

Therefore, I’m never surprised to see the yellow rescue helicopters in the sky, mainly because nature is pretty unforgiving and the mountains are indifferent to the needs of those who enter their territory. It’s typical after an accident like the deaths of Tyler and Catherine to “blame the victims” and say they should have done this or shouldn’t have done that, mostly verbalized in a desire to encourage the illusion that such an instance “could never happen to me.” The bottom line, however, is that it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest ego in town or an inexperienced climber — any trip into the mountaineering realm is a roll of the dice.

Just the other day, I was climbing the Grand Traverse with another experienced climber and we both misjudged the east face of Teewinot and got off route. Teewinot is riddled with cairns that scream, go this way or that, providing a false sense of safety that leaves the climber confident that “this must be the way.” In the moment, uncertainty hit me like a ton of bricks as I found myself on tenuous holds and small ledges in the dark, most likely not far off from where Catherine and Tyler fell. I paused and tried to imagine what they might have felt like one week earlier in the same spot. Fear and anxiety must have filled their internal world as they debated their next course of action. I did not know Catherine or Tyler, but I do understand what it feels like to suddenly be in over your head, it can happen to any of us. In these instances and preferably before them, I find it best to pause and breathe and ask myself one question: “What would my mom want me to do?” Sometimes this question makes me uncomfortable, because it might mean that I have to sacrifice my ego and backtrack, admit that I made the wrong choice, or God forbid ask for help.

In addition, while looking up at that crack in the wall that looks doable I try and forget the question of “can I do that?” but instead ask “should I do that?” These internal questions are important because our behavior has consequences beyond ourselves. Those two young ladies who died had parents that had to be called and friends that will be forever changed by that day. Climbing unroped is dangerous. As recent research by a GTNP ranger indicates, it is the most likely way to die in the park. It is dangerous, however, not because there is nothing to catch you, but because you feel only responsible for yourself, when nothing is further from the truth.

Mistakes that lead to death and injury in the mountains are part of the package, no matter what your resume or precautions. If you want to give yourself the best fighting chance in the climbing world, however, you must come to terms with the fact that gravity doesn’t make exceptions if you get off route, nature doesn’t care about your Facebook posts, and the mountains don’t give you free passage if “you’re kind of a big deal.” Your chances of dying while climbing, according to the Russell Newcombe and Sally Woods Centre for Applied Psychology, are one in 1,750, not great odds. But Harvard School of Public Health alleges your chances of dying in a car wreck are one in 6,700.  Mainly, life is a risky endeavor no matter what activity you’re doing. Yes, climbing is more dangerous than driving to your job, but there is a much better view from the top of the Grand Teton than from the asphalt. I will not belittle the deaths of Catherine and Tyler by saying they died doing what they loved, because I didn’t know their motivations, but I will say that the greatest risk is to risk nothing at all.

The question that undoubtedly comes up in climbing deaths is “was it worth the risk?” Inevitably, the answer is “no” if someone dies and “yes” if everyone comes out unscathed. The same rationale, however, could hold true for “necessary” risks, like driving to the grocery store, the ice cream wasn’t worth dying over but it would have tasted really good if nothing had gone wrong. We all risk our lives everyday when we step out of the front door. Climbers just realize that in such an uncertain world it becomes paramount that we independently and individually choose the way in which we risk our lives on a daily basis. PJH

Ryan Burke just completed a 24-peak traverse of the entire Teton Range from Mount Moran to Buck Mountain via the Grand Traverse, summiting all the major peaks and many sub peaks in four days.


About Ryan Burke

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