Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Success, summits, and self-sufficiency

Posted by metaphorical on 9 March 2007

Big Jim Whittaker, as he is called by climbers, has an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times. He takes up the question of whether Oregon law should regulate climbing, for example by requiring search beacons, as the state legislature there is considering. Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest, co-founded the outdoor equipment retailer REI, and served for decades on volunteer mountain rescue crews in the Cascades.

Though rescue beacons help find climbers, seemingly saving lives in two ways—finding climbers while they’re still alive, and making rescuers more efficient, letting them get off the mountain more quickly— Whittaker thinks that all things considered, such legislation, if not the beacons themselves, is a bad idea.

This might seem a no-brainer: there are many lightweight, relatively inexpensive safety devices on the market today. Signaling beepers — more accurately called “emergency position indicating radio beacons” — as well as cellphones (which one climber in the February incident used to alert rescuers), global positioning systems and avalanche beacons have all saved many lives and will continue to do so. Mandating such equipment, however, does not offer a quick and easy solution to the problem of those in distress. In fact, reliance on technology often creates new dangers, not only to climbers but also to rescuers.

The technology has made it easier to rely more on search-and-rescue personnel, and less on skill and knowledge. For example, as cellphones have become common, well-equipped and trained hikers have used cellphones to call for rescue, although in hindsight they could have descended on their own.

In these cases, the high-tech devices wasted rescuers’ time and cost taxpayers huge sums of money.

The accidents on Mount Hood remind us that nobody can move in a severe mountain storm, not even a rescuer. Sending a distress call could result in rescuers being sent out into a life-threatening situation for no good reason, which is why most rescue workers oppose the law. And waiting for rescuers summoned by beacons can be more deadly than moving on.

Whittaker is referring obliquely to a phenomenon variously called “risk compensation and “risk homeostasis.” It pervades not just climbing but any activity with a significant component of risk. Sport climbing, the version of rock climbing that uses pre-placed protection points, is intended to make climbing safer. Yet it encourages inexperienced climbers to venture out of the climbing gym onto cliffs that have any number of other dangers that are by no means alleviated by the extra points of protection. Statistics are hard to come by, but many climbers believe that sport climbing’s safety numbers are no better than traditional climbing.

The canonical example of this phenomenon is anti-lock braking systems in cars. ABS should make driving safer by doing a better job of stopping the car before it hits a car in front of it. But the typical driver with ABS drives closer to the car just ahead, turning the potential safety gain into a performance gain. In the case of two cars, if the accident rate stays the same, there’s no additional harm. In the case of climbing, though, there’s the expense and safety of the rescue crew to think about.

My climbing partner Mike has “failed” twice on Mt Rainier and once on Denali. In each case, he carried everything he needed to be safe and survive storms or injuries. Carrying that much weight, when the goal is as much up as across, greatly lowers your chances of “success.” But to define success in terms of summits gets climbers in trouble. As Big Jim says, “Good climbers understand that while reaching the summit is optional, getting off the mountain is mandatory.” If you ask Mike about these expeditions, he expresses no sense of failure. “I had a good time,” is what he says.

Mind-set is the most important factor, especially as interest in the sport booms and more inexperienced climbers take on challenging mountains. The last thing we want to do is create a situation where climbers feel that if they carry a locator, a rescue is guaranteed.

This is what I fear the Oregon bill would do. It creates too much potential for a nonprofessional climber to be cocky, to take risks he otherwise wouldn’t and to fail to pack well and otherwise be self-sufficient. Skills like being able to interpret signs in the weather, assess the danger of avalanches and rescue a companion from a crevasse are vital to a safe climb, and they cannot be replaced by an electronic device. Viewing technology as a quick fix is more likely to cause tragedy than prevent it.

Climbing isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s a challenge. And it isn’t a challenge of summiting, it’s a way for us to challenge our self-imposed limits. It’s therefore not a challenge that technology can solve.

Nature is what it’s all about. Mountains are truly cathedrals, and everyone should experience the high country. Through climbing, we can learn about gravity, rock, snow, ice, storms — and about ourselves. Most important, though, we need to meet the wilderness on its own terms. Laws and locators cannot replace careful attention, knowledge and personal responsibility.

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5 Responses to “Success, summits, and self-sufficiency”

  1. I’ve often felt that climbers, backcountry skiers, canoe trippers, etc should have to pay their own rescues. There should be rescue insurance that has a sliding rate, which gets cheaper if you can prove that either through your own knowledge and preparation or the equipment you carry that you’re a lower risk of needing rescue. You should also be able to sign away your right to get rescued.

    Of course, none of this is practical – there is no easy way to quantify “this guy knows what he’s doing and is very experienced, so he should get cheaper insurance, this guy is a fat bozo with an EPIRB so he’s probably going to push the ‘rescue me’ button at the first snow flake, so he should get the more expensive insurance, and this guy is a dot comm millionaire with not experience and an ego as big as Jon Krakauer’s so he should be denied coverage.” So instead they’d set the rates based on how much expensive equipment you carry, and like you say the weight and the over-reliance on the technology can make things worse rather than better.

  2. This month’s Outside Magazine had an editorial with a table that showed percentages of search & rescue missions in Oregon in 2005.

    Tops was motor vehicle related, at 20.5%. If you combine hiking and wandering (defined as hiking without a destination) they’d have been #1 with 23.9%. Climbing, of all types, was 9th, just above—I’m not making this up—mushroom picking (3.4% vs 3.0).

    Now there’s some problems if you try to extract too much from such a table. Obviously people drive a lot more than they climb. (Climbers debate whether driving is safer than climbing all the time, and it obviously depends on how you measure each—trips, days, miles, whatever.) But probably there’s a lot more climbing than mushroom picking.

    The point is, it’s just not a problem, and the eyes of the world would not have been on the Mt Hood rescues had it not been a slow news period and had not a journalist not gotten himself and his family killed through exposure to the elements in the same part of the world just days earlier. Proof of that is, as the Outside editorial points out, the two other (unsuccessful) rescues in the past year that gripped the climbing world far more than the events on Mt Hood, which were, after all, quite routine.

    Sue Nott, one of America’s most prominent mountaineers, and her climbing partner, Karen McNeill, of New Zealand, who disappeared on Alaska’s Mount Foraker last May, went almost unnoticed by the national media. Google, the last word in what the world cares about, says interest in the Hood incident outpaced the one on Foraker by about 1,000 to one. Similarly, the search for Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler, two elite American climbers whose disappearance in China coincided with the search on Hood, faded behind the live updates from Oregon.

    Never heard of either one, do I hear most people saying? That’s the point.

  3. The standard phrase for the tendency of protective measures to produce risk homeostasis is “moral hazard”; it appears most often in the insurance world, where simply having insurance against a certain risk encourages people to take that risk more freely (thus skewing the accident statistics on which the insurance premiums were originally calculated).

    I sympathize with Whittaker’s points, but I still feel hesitant about them. For one thing, there’s a strong undercurrent there of dictating to people what they’re supposed to feel about nature, or what are the acceptable reasons for going into it. That “commune with the magnificent cathedrals of rock” ethos is all very well, but what if you don’t share it? Competitive assholes aren’t allowed in the woods? That’s going too far. The distinction between “professional” climbers and others seems a bit high-handed as well.

    My other concern is the evaluation of what constitutes “acceptable” risk-taking. Whittaker’s right that rescuers have a right to feel resentful of people who expose them to increased danger, but on the other hand most rescuers are volunteers, and they don’t have to accept that danger. That, I think, is his strongest argument, but the problem seems manageable.

    If your point about homeostasis is correct – that there is a kind of equilibrium phenomenon such that better equipment induces greater risk just to the point that the net final risk is the same as before – what grounds are there for complaint? If it was “acceptable” for some climbers to take moderate risks with low chance of rescue, why is it unacceptable for other climbers to take higher risks with more chance of rescue, if the actual risk faced by each is the same?

    And aren’t good climbers today in basically the same position, relative to good climbers of the past, as they are now complaining the inexperienced climbers of today are in with regard to them? That is, modern equipment makes routes and mountains accessible that were simply unclimbable in the past; skilled modern climbers have pursued risk homeostasis by undertaking climbs, and accepting risks, that would never even have been an issue before. That’s no different from an inexperienced climber relying on safety gear to attempt routes that would have otherwise been unclimbable by them in the past, and thus encountering more risk. Arguably, if portable oxygen equipment had never been developed, Mallory and over 100 other people who died on Everest would still be alive today – but nobody argues they shouldn’t have been allowed to attempt the climb for that reason.

    I’m not clear on exactly what is in homeostasis – the risk to the climbers or the risk to the rescuers. If the latter, then, again, they have a valid point but, again, can reduce their own risk by not volunteering as rescuers. If the former, you can’t be criticizing the inexperienced climbers for taking “excessive” risks – they’re taking the same risks more experienced climbers used to take without criticism. I agree that incompetent climbers who assume others will bail them out are being selfish and irresponsible, but is Whittaker making an argument that rescue beacons should be banned because they encourage non-virtuous behavior? That seems like a weird objection to introduce into a debate about rock climbing. And if you’re going to take a moral inventory of the personal traits of people entering the wilderness, whom should we ban first: rock climbers who exceed their personal skill level; snowmobilers who tear up trails and pollute the woods with noise and fumes; hikers who over-use trails? Who sets these priorities, and why is rock-climbers’ lack of self-reliance at the top of the list?

    It seems to me Whittaker is asking for his personal vision of responsible backwoods behavior to be written into law. I don’t even disagree with that vision, but I think there is room for other people to come to the woods with other goals and other visions of appropriate behavior and appropriate risk-taking, and I think the law should accommodate them, even the ones I disagree with.

    As for the rescue question, perhaps the responsible agencies should develop a consensus on when they’ll conduct a rescue – like the police won’t search for a missing person for 24 hours – and make it clear that pushing the panic button may not get you a ride home under all circumstances. If there were clear guides as to when the request for rescue would be honored, it seems like having those beacons available would help a lot in the cases where rescue really was appropriate. But simply declaring that the woods are off-limits to anyone but the He Man Rugged Individualists Club doesn’t seem right.

  4. If it was “acceptable” for some climbers to take moderate risks with low chance of rescue, why is it unacceptable for other climbers to take higher risks with more chance of rescue, if the actual risk faced by each is the same?

    There is little if any difference in the ABS case, but, as you intimate further down, in the climbing situation the difference is the rescuers. The new homeostasis involves new tasks, new expenses, and new risks for them.

    I’m not sure I understand the reference to oxygen; the modern style among professionals and other serious climbers is to do without it. It’s been that way since Messner climbed Everest without it in 1980 or so, if memory serves.

    It seems to me Whittaker is asking for his personal vision of responsible backwoods behavior to be written into law.

    First, no, he’s asking that other visions not be written into law.

    Second, there’s an ethic in climbing that goes, “not all climbs are for all people.” We can’t dumb the outdoors to the lowest common denominator, because that’s just too low for too many people. Why stop with beacons? People can slip on the cable route up Half Dome, so let’s require ropes and guides. People can slip on the hike out to it, so let’s pave the trail and put a handrail up. Where does it end?

    There are plenty of outdoor experiences to suit all degrees of effort and commitment. We need to save some for those who want to experience the highest levels. That’s generally assumed to be Everest or K2, but it can also be Mt Hood’s North Face, in the winter, with an iffy forecast.

  5. [...] by metaphorical on March 16th, 2007 I wrote last week about risk compensation, part of the broader phenomenon, as KTK was quick to point out, [...]

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