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.