Why climb?

Note: different sections of this post were written at different times, hence the references to June being “impending”, etc.

When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory famously answered “because it’s there.” Then he went to Everest, died, and his body wasn’t found for almost a century. Given that, it seems fair to ask again: why climb mountains when climbing mountains is inherently dangerous?

This is, for climbers, perhaps the most tired avenue of philosophical inquiry. The question “why climb?” is the subject of frequent essays (and occasionally books), and when asked in climbing circles it often elicits groans or flip, Mallory-style responses. “‘Why do you climb?’ Because it’s the natural thing to do,” wrote famed Scottish climber Tom Patey.

But a father – well, at least this father – needs a better answer. “Because it’s there” comes off as bold before your gutsy Everest expedition, but it’s unlikely to offer much solace or explanation to your child when Search and Rescue is explaining to them why your corpse will remain in the glacier until it melts. Being responsible for the life of another human being demands a real answer to the question. Why am I voluntarily doing something dangerous?

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Of course, not all expeditions are created equal. With June looming, an impending attempt to summit Mount Rainier is on my mind. Rainier is certainly no Everest, but it’s no cakewalk either. I think the answer to “why climb?” –
or to be more blunt, “how justifiable is climbing?” – depends in no small part on the specifics of the situation. So: just how risky is what I’m about to do?

In terms of pure objective hazard, Mount Rainier is among the most dangerous mountains in the lower 48. It’s the most glaciated US peak outside of Alaska, meaning that in addition to the usual big-mountain dangers – avalanche, rockfall, altitude – there are also crevasses to worry about. Large sections of the climb can only be done safely as part of a rope team, with training and equipment sufficient to mount a crevasse rescue should a team member fall in.

Some 400 people have died in Mt. Rainier National Park since Rangers began keeping statistics in the late 1800s, but to be fair, not all of them were climbers. Recent deaths in the park include a tragic avalanche that swept six climbers off a challenging route in 2014, but also a number of heart attacks, motorcycle accidents, and even a murder. On summit climb attempts, there have been around 100 deaths since 1897. And Ranger records list just eleven deaths on Disappointment Cleaver (D.C.), the route that we’ll be taking, and an additional ten on the Muir snowfield, which we’ll have to ascend before starting the route proper.

Of those fatalities, two were caused by heart attacks, and another two by skiing accidents – we can probably dismiss these as causes for concern on our own attempt. More concerning: seven deaths due to climbing or crevasse falls, four deaths due to hypothermia, one death due to avalanche, one death due to rockfall, and an additional four climbers who simply went missing somewhere along the way. In some cases, there are notes in the Rangers’ records that hint at the true causes of these accidents: “ill-prepared”, “poor gear”, “unauthorized solo climber”. But in many cases, it may have come down to little more than bad luck.

Just how bad is tough to calculate because the total number of climbers on the mountain is only available back to 1950, and there’s no way to parse the data by route. But the D.C. route is the mountain’s most popular, and Rainier has been attracting around 10,000 climbers a year since the early 1990s. If we look at climbing deaths 1995-2015, the odds of dying on the Muir snowfield or the D.C. route have been 3 in 217,978, or 0.002%.

That number is somewhat comforting, but the truth is that precisely number-crunching the actual risk is impossible. There’s no way to account for the variance of conditions, nor for the skill and conditioning levels of various climbers. But statistics are meaningless to the individual anyway. It doesn’t matter what your percent chance of dying was if you’re the guy who gets hit by a falling rock and dies. And the truth is that anybody on Mount Rainier could be that guy, but nobody sitting in their living room could. In that sense, Rainier is a serious risk, despite what the numbers say.

Bad luck aside, though, many accidents in the mountains come down to poor decision-making, poor conditioning, a lack of the necessary skills, or some combination of all three. On those fronts, at least, I’m confident that we’ll be in good shape. Everyone I’m climbing with has basic mountaineering experience. We’re well-equipped with top-of-the-line gear (including a satellite communicator and a rescue beacon) and we’ve drilled ourselves in crevasse rescue and self rescue. We also have a shared belief in being conservative in the mountains – this winter we turned around on two separate Mount Washington summit attempts because the conditions weren’t right. I’m confident that we have the skills and the strength we need to make it to the top, but also the wisdom we’ll need to turn around if conditions dictate that that’s the best course of action.

No one goes into the mountains intentionally under-prepared, of course. But I’ve read enough about the climb to be reasonably confident that we’re ready to try it, and Rick (who has attempted it once before) agrees.

In any discussion of risk, it may also be worth mentioning that there are also risks inherent in not going, although they’re less immediately mortal. For example: having recently been evaluated for life insurance, I can say with reasonable certainty that I’m in excellent health. That’s because I’m constantly training for climbing. In the past seven days, for example, I’ve run a total of 26 miles, hiked a total of 4 miles uphill with a 60-pound backpack, spent more than two hours on the exercise bike, spent about two hours climbing in the gym, and run through four strength circuits. If I wasn’t perpetually training for the next mountain, I’d be doing a lot less.

There’s also the question of where the line gets drawn. Life is inherently risky, and most of us routinely engage in added-risk activities (statistically, for example, it’s hundreds of times more likely that I’ll die in a car crash than that I’ll die on this climb) without coming under much scrutiny. But of course, we need to drive to get places – there’s an obvious benefit to taking that risk.

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The question inherent in “why climb?”, then, is: what is the benefit? The risks are clear, but the rewards are a bit more esoteric. Our friend George Mallory didn’t have a great answer for that question either. “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” he wrote. “[…] my answer must at once be, it is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever.”

But once again, I have to disagree with Mallory. There is much to be gained in the mountains, at least for the right sort of person. But rather than attempting to speak for anyone else, here’s what I get out of it, in rough order of importance:

  • Challenge. Mountaineering presents extreme physical and mental challenges of the sort that are difficult to encounter in daily life. I think that pushing myself with these sorts of challenges occasionally makes me a better person, but of course there’s also the allure of the satisfied feeling that comes when one discovers that one is up to the challenge.
  • Physical health. As I previously mentioned, mountaineering and climbing have helped keep my physically healthy because they force me to work out on a regular basis (climbing a mountain is no fun if you’re out of shape, although admittedly even when you’re in shape it’s mostly type 2 fun).
  • Mental health. There are documented mental health benefits to being in nature, but I think the mountains in particular – because they are massive and near-eternal – forcibly impart some perspective that is useful. I was (without having planned it that way) on a mountain the day Donald Trump was being sworn into office, and I’d bet I enjoyed that day more than most of the country. There’s no excuse for sticking your head in the sand, of course, but the occasional foray into the mountains helps me re-orient my perspective and recharge myself for the crushing deluge of terrible news that is American life in 2017.
  • Beauty. Life is short, but if you are lucky (and persistent) the mountains will show you incredible things that you can’t see anywhere else. Yes, these days, you can see photos and videos of everything, but at least so far, I’ve never made it to the top of a mountain and thought “the pictures did this view justice.”

To me, these benefits outweigh the risks, at least in the case of Rainier. In other words, I think the high chance that I come back a better and healthier person is worth the very small risk that I don’t come back at all.

Final note: if you’re curious about our intended route, the National Park Service has published a pretty exhaustive dossier here.

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