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genepires

"stop telling ourselves lies about the risk"

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This is something that Will Gadd wrote for Explorer magazine a couple months back. Thought you all might find it helpful and informative. Can be found at his facebook page and at

http://explore-mag.com/2831/adventure/the-grand-delusion

 

We need to stop telling ourselves lies about the risks of mountain sports

 

I recently attended a rare event: a memorial for someone who didn’t die in the mountains. This particular high-achieving friend died of alcoholism, but was his addiction really so different than my own devotion to mountain sports? He knew alcohol would kill him, but chose to drink. And I am increasingly certain that if anyone spends enough time in the mountains, he or she will die there.

 

I often hear friends make statistically insane comments such as, “You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains.” That statement, for the record, is a stinking pile of self-delusional excrement that does not smell any less foul with repeated exposure. The ignorance behind those words makes me seethe internally—because I once believed exactly the same thing.

 

I do a lot of presentations about mountain sports, and sometimes share a list of dead friends to remind myself and the audience that the hidden price for the stunning photographs is all-too-regularly life itself. There are 27 names on my list. Not one of those friends died while driving to the mountains. Not one died on a commercial airline flight. To equate the risks of mountain sports to everyday activities like driving or even the chance of death from cancer is completely idiotic. Every friend on my list drove to the mountains a lot, and some even wrecked vehicles and spent time in the hospital from those crashes. But they died doing mountain sports.

 

As the list grows longer, I have a harder and harder time understanding why I take the risks I do out there. Yes, I’m careful; yes, I use good gear; yes, I run away a lot in the face of peril—but there are always elevated dangers in sports such as climbing, whitewater kayaking and paragliding. Each friend’s death has been a crack in my mental foundation of “managed risk.” And then, two months ago, that foundation was shattered with the sound of someone’s spine breaking. I had launched my glider off Mount Lady MacDonald, north of Canmore, and was 500 feet above my friend Stewart when he plummeted into the rocks shortly after takeoff.

 

I almost puked in the air as I watched and heard him hit. I didn’t think anyone could survive the impact he took, and the spinning fall down the scree that followed. Thanks to prompt first aid from some great people who happened to be hiking in the area, and to a helicopter rescue team from Canmore, Stewart was in a good hospital only two hours after his accident. He remains there, with hopefully temporary spinal damage. I was thrilled when I heard that he had survived—unlike the dead, he would have the opportunity to say what he needed to his friends and family. He might even recover fully.

 

Just one week before Stewart crashed, I had the best flight of my life, straight over the iconic granite spires of the Bugaboos in southeastern B.C. Pure joy is how I’d describe that flight. But I haven’t flown since Stewart’s accident in August; the thought honestly makes me nauseous. Why?

 

Strangely, Stewart’s survival has affected me far more than if he had died. The difference with Stewart is that I can look into his eyes and see the damage. I can talk with Stewart and see the pain he is fighting through. While I admire the hell out of his courage and commitment to fight for every millimetre of progress, I also imagine not being able to hold my own children. Stewart’s wounds don’t fade into memory the way a fatality does—it’s hard to “get over” something that’s still staring you in the face. Some of Stewart’s comments are beautiful even as they are heart-rending: “If I could just get one hand back it would make all the difference.”

 

Some of my own anger probably comes from an ever-greater sense of mortality. I desperately love the fullness of life, and I desperately love mountain sports. I look at Stewart learning to eat again (he does have one arm back!) and feel true happiness that he is able to, but then I look at my glider in its bag and have to look away. I love sharing the mountains with people, but wonder how many of them will end up on my list. My world view is falling apart, and it’s about as comfortable as getting scalded in the shower: I want to jump away, but there’s nowhere to go.

 

No single day in the mountains is worth dying for, so it must be the sum of the days that is worth that risk. I tell myself that, but these days I have more empathy for the religious who have lost their faith. They, too, are often angry. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said there are five stages of grief. If so, I’m only on stage two, anger, and a hell of a long way from the final stage of acceptance. How will I ever “accept” this level of carnage, year after year?

 

This article was originally published on December 5, 2011

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Good find. Having taken an awful lot of statistics classes I always called bullshit when folks say "The drive to the crag is the most dangerous part of climbing." The risk in mountain sports is real.

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when you are driving and eating the mcdonalds breakfast platter, trying to get the butter and syrup where it needs to be, the risk multiplies ten fold. Should really where a helmet when you are driving.

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Perhaps I should consider flying instead.

 

Apparently there's a generation of climbers who've never pulled anything but plastic.

 

Proof positive that people are, in fact, getting smarter.

 

I'd rather die...later.

 

When the time comes, I'll probably say the same.

 

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Will shares a lot there. Thanks Gene.

 

Few will pay much attention though.

 

The risk we take casually is simply ignored. Just as cancer or alcohol abuse are. Most simply don't know how to deal with any of it. Or simply chose not to...which is my prefered choice.

 

"Some of my own anger (and fear) probably comes from an ever-greater sense of mortality."

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I climb to LIVE, not to die. I backed off a climb this week, just to slimey and wet and the gear questionable. You got to know when to say when, which is probably also why I don't drink anymore.

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In the last couple of decades, what's been the average on Hood? I think it's a little less than 1 death a year... somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 people climb it every year. Depending on how you run the numbers, you could say your odds of dying on Hood in a 30 year career are 1/15,000...

 

Obviously this is if you're climbing the Dog Routes for 95+% of the time..

 

Every stat I've seen on dying in car crashes shows somewhere between 1 in 6,500 - 6,800... so if all you ever do is Hood, by the numbers, driving to the mountain is a lot more dangerous than climbing it.

 

I have no idea how these numbers change when you start throwing in serious routes on sketchy mountains.. I'm sure the risk probably does go way up. My point would just be that there's climbing, and then there's climbing. We make it what we want. The way some guys climb, I'm quite sure the old adage is accurate. For other guys- guys who need a little more heart-pumping in their climbing... it's probably just how they convince their significant-others (or themselves).

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a little less than 1 death a year... somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 people climb it every year. Depending on how you run the numbers, you could say your odds of dying on Hood in a 30 year career are 1/15,000...

 

 

Every stat I've seen on dying in car crashes shows somewhere between 1 in 6,500 - 6,800... so if all you ever do is Hood, by the numbers, driving to the mountain is a lot more dangerous than climbing it.

 

Without the details in the stats, there might be a problem with your comparison. Given the amount of time spent driving and throwing the dice into the danger game with driving, 1 in 6500 is not much. (assumed this for a year) But 1 in 12000 for a one time pop up hood might actually work out to much more risk if that dice is thrown 365 times in the year. (means you climb hood as much as you drive) Statistics is funny that way.

 

Just remember, how many sports publications have a regular obituary column? For a while I think it was climbing mag that a regualr obituary column, maybe not anymore. And how do ALL of those columns read? Never died in car accident except for Wolfgang.

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I can remember more than a few long drives to go ice climbing or winter mountaineering where the drive was definitely the tricky part.

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Every stat I've seen on dying in car crashes shows somewhere between 1 in 6,500 - 6,800... so if all you ever do is Hood, by the numbers, driving to the mountain is a lot more dangerous than climbing it.

That's a little off. NHTSA lists the US at 11 fatalities / 100,000 / year.

 

I think a better way to look at it is to ask yourself how many of your climbing acquaintances have died in a car accident verses how many have died in a climbing accident.

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Mean statistics may be too coarse of a gauge. Will knows lots of people who died climbing, but his acquaintances aren't necessarily representative of the average outdoor enthusiast. Something similar could be said about driving casualties. I think I personally knew more people who died driving than while playing hard in the mountains.

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This topic is sort of absurd, it is more of an argument of how/when you are going to die. You are going to die period. the stats are 100% chance!, be it in a car, in a crevasse, lung cancer eventhough you have never smoked, lung cancer because you smoke, heart attack because you ate too much horse cock climbing mountains, murdered because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, murdered because you made a bad dope deal, falling off a 6' ladder hanging xmas lights, murdered because you chose to open the door at your house to a stranger, die just because you lived to be too old to live any longer, take your own life because you are old and just got a terminal caner diagnosis, etc. etc. (all real circumstances of people I have known). No one is making it out alive and know one except the suicide case knows when it is coming. Why dwell on it?

Edited by shapp

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If you have to look at statistics to figure out that climbing is dangerous...

 

My approach is to manage risk/reward as best I can on a continuous basis, anticipate as much as possible, and let the chips fall where they will...no pun intended. The vast majority of accidents are avoidable - most result from 3 or more bad decisions beforehand (and no, I don't mean by just staying home).

 

Having said that, attending a friend's funeral is a terrible thing.

 

One of the best decisions a climber can make to avoid becoming a sprig of broccoli on life support is to sport a helmet on technical stuff. I see a whole lot of folks who don't, particularly craggers. I know, they're not very hip...but neither is being spoon fed cream of wheat for the rest of your life.

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is life so fucking awesome that dying is all that bad? maybe most climbs are just failed suicide attempts? :)

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maybe most climbs are just failed suicide attempts? :)

 

Might be close to the truth... surely we must carry a notable degree of self-hatred to treat ourselves the way we do.

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This topic is sort of absurd, it is more of an argument of how/when you are going to die. You are going to die period. the stats are 100% chance!, be it in a car, in a crevasse, lung cancer eventhough you have never smoked, lung cancer because you smoke, heart attack because you ate too much horse cock climbing mountains, murdered because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, murdered because you made a bad dope deal, falling off a 6' ladder hanging xmas lights, murdered because you chose to open the door at your house to a stranger, die just because you lived to be too old to live any longer, take your own life because you are old and just got a terminal caner diagnosis, etc. etc. (all real circumstances of people I have known). No one is making it out alive and know one except the suicide case knows when it is coming. Why dwell on it?

 

:tup:

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I know way more people who died from alcohol and driving than mountain sports but I know they all spent way more time drinking and driving (sometimes not at the same time) than in the hills and I have very few acquaintances who jump off the tops of mountains. I am sure it is more dangerous in the mountains than driving to them, I'm not so sure about driving home sometimes. That is also in line with the drinking thing. But the bottom line is as long as we think we're getting more out of the mountains than we're risking we'll keep going up there. Mountaineering may be a disease or condition like alcoholism but the side effects seem highly beneficial to me.

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Why dwell on it?

 

Isn't risk assessment part of many decisions we take?

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In the last couple of decades, what's been the average on Hood? I think it's a little less than 1 death a year... somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 people climb it every year...

After 25 years in the NW (and a couple before in NH with Mt. Washington) I'm of the firm opinion that people - collectively (socially) and individually tend to badly underestimate the risks involved with climbing NW volcanoes. The ease of access and quasi-technical scope of the climbing lends itself to success for most all of those 10-12k people who do the trek each year and, sure, most all of them can get up and down if nothing goes wrong - but what percentage of those same 10-12k people are actually capable of responding appropriately in the case things go south? I'm guessing an astonishingly low percentage of them.

 

I also think that same dynamic pervades personal, social, and online attitudes among NW alpine climbers as well. The high success rate for summitting makes for some pretty cavalier social attitudes around "running up Hood" from what I've seen over the years. And year in, year out accidents happen on the mountain to cc.com members variously related to weather, equipment, conditions, etc. which, from my perspective, and almost to an incident, all boil down to failures of judgment, with, I suspect, attitude playing a role in the mix more often than not.

 

Overall, mountain climbing turns the mix of objective and subjective risk you experience in rock climbing on its head - instead of low objective risks, mountain climbing exhibits comparatively high levels of objective risk even on a good day. That change in the subjective / objective risk ratio towards higher objective risks basically and undeniably equates to mountain climbing entailing a greater or lesser degree of gambling around those objective hazards (weather, conditions, avalanches, falling rocks and ice, etc).

 

In the end, being a wise gambler means learning quick, always being on your game, and knowing when to fold them. Being cavalier about climbing Hood, whether its your first or fiftieth time is likely not a smart approach to dealing with the mountain.

 

That all said, if shit goes south really badly I'm with the old adage, "the deader, the better."

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Good find. Having taken an awful lot of statistics classes I always called bullshit when folks say "The drive to the crag is the most dangerous part of climbing." The risk in mountain sports is real.
You obviously never driven to the crags with some of my climbing partners... :shock: I remember being terrified several times going out to Red Rocks in my buddies Iroc Z-28. It was always such a relief to get out of the car and rack up. At least I had some control over the risks once I got to the climbing.

 

IMO the whole risk assessment is such a case by case, moment by moment thing. However, the higher/bigger the mountain(s) are, the higher the perceived (and real) risk is.

 

As soon as someone mentions the term "free solo", climbers and non-climbers alike tend to react with "all soloists die" or "there are no old/bold climbers". Which I find to be a load of shit. If I'm up on my roof top doing some chores, I never rope up but rarely get the same schpeal as if I were free soloing some easy rock route. The danger is always relative and must be evaluated on an individual, moment by moment basis. Sometimes I also drive without my seat belt on and don't think of it as insanely dangerous since I would only be doing that when doing "easy" driving - ie to the post office in our small town. Same goes for the mountains, one man's easy free solo or climb might be very low risk when compared to the climbers overall abilities. The same route would be a death sentence to a less experienced climber. It's such a personal perspective and you are the only one capable of assessing and accepting or turning back on the risks.

 

I just took a very short fall while cragging over the weekend and whiplashed my neck to the point I won't likely to be climbing anytime soon. I perceived the risk as being very low, considering the grade, how close my pro was and my general skill level above the challenge of the task. Now I'm gimped up for a few weeks wondering why I keep going back, often times disregarding serious risk for the pure pleasure the mountains bring me. It's seems really easy to minimize and or justify the risks when all goes well. So not worth it, when things go bad. If it wasn't risky, it would be just another mundane aspect of daily life. Most folks I know, climb or do "risky" sports for the rush and for "feeling alive to the fullest" that skating injury/death brings. Just another junkies fix, I suppose. Just my 2 cents and personal take on the matter.

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