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Op-Ed

Jun 04, 2019

Healing after Howse: How does the climbing world cope with the triple tragedy?

In April, three prominent young alpinists perished in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak. Their deaths prompt another reckoning with mountaineering’s timeless question: is it worth it?

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The physical aftermath of tragedy is procedural. On April 21st, a Parks Canada rescue team located and recovered the bodies of climbers Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer, and David Lama four days after they were reported overdue from an attempt at Banff’s Howse Peak via the technical M16 route. According to the official avalanche report, none of the men were wearing transceivers; use of these devices can greatly expedite recovery operations. In the absence of transceivers, a trained avalanche dog scoured the frozen debris. Roskelley’s phone was salvaged and in the camera roll, a selfie of the climbers, wide grins frozen on fatigued faces, suggests that the trio reached Howse’s summit. Social media the world over shook with an outpouring of sympathy and support.

Read next: Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer: How the World Reacted.

Avalanche debris on Howse Peak. Image via Parks Canada.

The emotional aftermath of tragedy is less straightforward. Inevitably, many critiqued the sport of mountaineering and its legacy of tragic accidents. Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit? Why do climbers seek out high-consequence routes? Are elite mountaineers doing wrong by the spouses, children, parents, and friends who await their safe return?

Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit?

Last year, the hit documentary Free Solo thrust these questions, normally the domain of the climbing subculture, into the mainstream as Alex Honnold’s unroped climbs astonished millions of viewers. In the wake of the deaths of Roskelley, Lama, and Auer (aged 36, 28, and 35 respectively), the climbing community once again confronts the unforgiving nature and fatal consequences of their craft.

David Lama in basecamp of Lunag Ri on October 19, 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

As generations of mountaineers will attest, the riskiness of a route is part of its allure. Climber Steve House, part of a trio who notched the first ascent of Howse’s M16 route in 1999, wrote the below on Instagram;

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This mountain, Howse Peak is among the most powerful mountains I’ve ever known. She changed many lives this week; in tragic ways. I lost three friends, three brothers. That is the least of it, I’m sure. I knew all three, but I knew @hansjoergauer best of all. He was a both a friend and a God to me. The greatest confusion for me personally in this moment is the role of the route M16. A route I climbed over five days, now so vividly remembered, over 20 years ago. That climb took myself and Scott Backes and Barry Blanchard to the limits of skill, power, judgement, and yes—luck. It challenged our very life-force and we nearly lost. I climbed one of the most difficult and dangerous pitches of my life. Barry was very nearly killed by collapsing snow. Scott held us together as a team far more powerful than it’s parts, then, and forever after. And now that power we knew, has killed. I wish I had words to help the mournful understand who this mountain is. What climbing Howse Peak’s precipitous East Face means. It is simply this: The truest testing place of the most powerful men on their very best days. An arena for those rare and mighty, honed, long-practiced men that are challenged by nothing less than to be locked in struggle to the death with one of the mightiest powers on earth. These men were warriors, Knights, dragon killers seeking fleeting, hot-forged perfection through the dangerous path of alpinism, the creative physical expression of power over the most high, inhospitable, inhuman terrain on earth. To be honest I’m a little afraid to put this out there like that now, in 2019. Seems somewhat out of step with where we are as a society. But damn it, it’s the truth. These were great men. The true 01%. This is something each of them proved with actions over and over again. These men were immeasurable. They were not men, but Gods living among us. And now they’re back with their God. And we are less. Our loss immeasurable. It is with the deepest respect and the biggest ❤️ and wet streams of tears that I, that we, begin to adjust to life among mere mortals, a poorer life, and we begin to say goodbye.

A post shared by Steve House (@stevehouse10) on

House cites a feeling afforded by high-consequence climbing that supersedes normal parameters of reality. It transports the climber to the extremities of human experience.

In an article published in The New York Times following the tragedy, Rock and Ice Magazine editor Francis Sanzaro offered a different perspective:

“I can tell you that standing on a dime-size foothold with no rope, with your fingertips on a sloping edge, in a remote part of the mountains where one mistake means instant death, in no way translates to a heightened experience…If you need to go to the ends of the earth and the edge of your mortality to find some mystical je ne sais quoi, then you need to rethink your strategy. I climb because I love it. So did David, Jess and Hansjörg.”

David Lama scouting Lunag Ri in 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

Sanzaro rebukes the “mystical je ne sais quoi” House describes. The rhetoric of the two seasoned mountaineers is at odds; House glorifies the dance with danger, while Sanzaro suggests that risk is overrated. 

Banff-based author Bernadette McDonald is an expert on the psyche of cutting-edge climbers, and she notes the role of luck in even the most seasoned alpinist’s climbs. “If you talk to an alpine climber with a long history in the mountains, it’s extremely rare to find someone who hasn’t had close calls,” she says. “Almost all alpine climbers, if they’re honest, have to give credit to luck at some point.” McDonald believes the climbing community is aware of the risks but was unprepared to lose three luminaries on a peak in the Canadian Rockies. “I think that many people assumed that climbers this skilled and talented could climb their way out of any situation—they climb so quickly, make such informed decisions, etc.—but the objective hazard is simply that. And the East Face of Howse Peak has a reputation that has to be respected,” she says.

Photo (from left to right) of Rosskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak, recovered from Roskelley’s cell phone.

Lama, Hansjörg, and Roskelley presumably understood the risks. Perhaps they welcomed them with fervour, as House describes, or with acceptance, as Sanzaro contends. Does that make them selfish? According to McDonald, it does. “Of course climbers are selfish,” she opines. “The most honest among them freely admit it. Top-level climbing performances can inspire us, motivate us and capture our imaginations, but fundamentally, they are not done for the benefit of others.”

“Of course climbers are selfish. The most honest among them freely admit it.”

It’s difficult to measure the overall riskiness of mountaineering, but researchers at the University of Washington studied the fatality rate of climbers on Mt. Everest, a classic mountaineering objective. Based on data from 2,211 Everest climbers from 1990 through 2005, they found that climbers have a 1.5% probability of dying on the mountain. While this figure does not differentiate by ability or experience (i.e. elite vs. amateur) or route difficulty, it offers a crude baseline of the peril of mountaineering. By comparison, in 2017 Americans had a .97% chance of dying from an automobile accident and 0.88% chance of dying from an accidental fall. It would not be far-fetched to claim that professional mountaineers have a similar chance of perishing in a car crash en route to a trailhead as climbing a difficult objective. And it would be ludicrous to denounce every commuter for having the nerve to set foot in an automobile.

The Himalayas are mountaineering’s grandest venue. Photo by Yulia Grigoryants via Creative Commons.

Part of our collective anguish over the triple tragedy has to do with our perceptions of risk. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is an expert in risk bias and he contends that we overreact to immediate threats and downplay perils that are perceived as “routine”, like car crashes. Additionally, we overreact to dangers that implicate our morals. These factors may account for our perception of mountaineering as an extremely dangerous and potentially foolhardy enterprise. News of three competent athletes brought down by an uncontrollable avalanche is unnerving in a way that car crash statistics will never be. The charismatic nature of a summit push is spectacular, and by extension, the effort gone awry is spectacularly tragic. In mountaineering, we see an expression of a popular moral archetype—the human protagonist doing battle with fierce nature—and thus we may accuse the sport and its participants of ethical impoverishment when those human protagonists perish. But in the end, we cannot fully comprehend, must less control, the decisions made by individuals. As McDonald suggests, “Some [climbers] have a higher risk tolerance than others, but all climbers need to take those risks—manage them, live with them.” Tragedies will always accompany mountaineering, and we must manage and live with them.

 

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Athletes & Explorers

Jun 19, 2019

REWILD with Tony Riddle: Part 2 – Children and Education

Tony Riddle explains how our educational system must be reinvented to better preserve childrens' innate abilities and uniqueness.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

In our latest series called REWILD with Tony Riddle, The Outdoor Journal has been speaking with Tony about his paradigm-shifting approach to living a natural lifestyle that’s more in line with our DNA than Western society’s delerious social norms. In Part 1, we introduced how Tony is leading a rewilding movement through his coaching practices as well as his commitment to run 874 miles barefoot across the entire UK to raise awareness for sustainability.

In this installment, Tony discusses society’s disconnect from our ancestral hunter-gather lifestyle, the need to completely reinvent the education system, and how to preserve children’s innate abilities.

REWILD

TOJ: When I see the word “rewilding,” I picture the opening scene of the movie Last of the Mohicans where Daniel Day-Lewis is sprinting and leaping through the woods on an elk hunt. Is that how humans are supposed to be, an athletic animal in tune with nature?

Tony Riddle: In modern society, we’re basically living in these linear boxes, breathing in the same air, getting the same microbiome experience, sleeping in the same room over and over, and nothing alters. Whereas the tribal cultures that we came from are moving through a landscape that’s forever changing. They’re always uploading new sensory pathways, new sensory experiences, constantly in a state of wiring and rewiring the brain. For me, the path of rewilding is getting back to that – being present in nature and honoring a cellular system, a sensory system and a microbiome system in their natural setting.

When you start to really assess it, some people have this vision of hunter-gatherers as savages, but these are sophisticated beings, and as they move through the landscape, they become the landscape.

By “Rewilding” we can get back to a lifestyle that’s more in line with our innate human biology.

Tribespeople operate in these states of meditation which, when you have kids you appreciate it. I’ve studied childhood behavior in the formative years, those first years up until the age of seven. The brain is working at a certain hertz that you and I can only achieve through meditation. This is the state of Flow. It hasn’t been cultured or schooled out of them.

When I think of “rewilding” now I have a term I’m calling “rechilding.” We’ve got to try and get back to that level of frequency that tribes have managed to stretch into adulthood. I’ve tried to break down the behaviors of these tribes. I discovered Peter Gray’s work, who asked the question to 10 leading anthropologists, “What does childhood look like in nature?” From infancy through the age of 16, children play. That’s all they do, without any adult intervention, and they learn everything they need to learn about their adult environment in those first playful years. So if that’s the case, then they go into adulthood still playing and they don’t have to work to find flow states through that field of senses and the frequency that they’ve been operating in.

PLAY

TOJ: In familiarizing myself with your work, I noticed that some elements are about reverse engineering the range of motion, movement chains and posture of our own selves as children, while others focus on reconnecting with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, how do you reconcile those concepts?

“For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities.”

Tony Riddle: For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities, the stuff that you and I would have had but we went through an educational process where it’s not appropriate to move or say anything out of turn, where children are expected to just sit still in a classroom for hours on end and not share anything. But then you realize that when you go out into the world that you have to share everything, We need to show them the appropriate behaviors and not dumb them down by limiting their experience.

Tony spending time climbing trees with his children to preserve their innate ability to climb and balance.

In those early years, we have things like physical education, but before physical education, we have play. We were all playing around, trying to understand the physicality of our body. We’re born with all the gear, we just have no idea how to use it, because our adult species doesn’t know how to demonstrate the appropriate behavior. When we go through the playful state to try to understand this system as children, we might impersonate all the animals, but now as adults, we have to go to animal flow class to relearn it.

When children go to physical education class, they’re given specialist clothing, which includes sneakers and the specialist clothes that their adult species wear. The adults model to children how tough exercise is and how brutal it is. Adults come back profusely sweating, which is absurd because imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse! My DNA goes back 270,000 years to a tribe in East Africa. So imagine how hostile these environments would have been!

“Imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse!”

We observe these parkour kids, they’re showing us what’s innately in us. I love hanging out with them because it’s just expanded my mind and my movement. The physicality of the human being is unbelievable, but it’s been cultured into a sedentary position at this stage because the adult population is showing a compromised, sedentary lifestyle. By the time a child reaches the age of seven, all of the observations are made – the templates for the rest of their lives. So if the adult species is compromised, then within those first six years, that’s all the child will recognize as their potential range of behavior. I call it their “Tribe of Influence.” The tribe of influence is made up of your family, your friends and your close community around you. If you’re observing all their behaviors, that just becomes your social core. It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm. And social norms of today are so far afield, we are doing the most horrendous things. I read a stat yesterday, since 1970, 60% of the wild animal populations are gone. We’ve managed to do that in 50 years. That’s less than one human life span. Our social norms are compromising the planet.

Read next on TOJ: Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD

REMEMBER YOUR PAST

There’s a great term I’m plugging the moment which Peter Kahn called “environmental generational amnesia.” Every generation that’s born, it can either expand on the knowledge passed down from before, or be dumbed down further, and it only remembers where it left off. So for those 60 percent of the species that are gone, to the new generation that comes in, that’s their new norm.

“It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm.”

The natural human pathways from our previous generations have been forgotten in a way, but movement is just a component of it for me. It goes beyond movement. There’s a whole physical, social and spiritual animal that needs rewilding. There’s also sleep and play and nutrition and human contact, even sunlight. We’re just disconnected.

Tony regularly plunges his body into icy water to maintain proper cardiovascular health.

We have a D3 issue with our culture now. We’re surrounded by artificial light in artificial environments, but when we do go out in the actual environment, we cover up by wearing sunglasses, so we’re not actually absorbing any of the nutrients from the sun that we should be. Especially in the UK, people are starved of sunlight, but as soon as the sun is out, they’re wearing sunglasses. If you look at helio-therapy, the highest absorption of D3 is around the eyes. There was a study recognizing that sun exposure helped kids with TB recover, but it also found that when they put sunglasses on, they didn’t get the results.

REINVENT EDUCATION

TOJ: If you were the superintendent of a school, what changes would you make if you are in charge?

“The educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again.”

Tony Riddle: It’s almost like the educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again. It’s flawed and it’s not working. In countries that are trying to do something about it, in particular, Finland in Scandinavia, it’s completely different. People are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s not biologically normal to be indoors all day, it’s not biologically normal to sit down all day, it’s not biologically normal to eat processed foods. But, that’s the environment where we’re growing these young bodies and minds.

The future is unraveling at such a rapid rate with tech. My understanding is, the current iteration of the educational system will have to die because of the way that the tech world is transforming things. So what can we possibly take from the educational model of today for five years time or 10 years time, where are we actually going to be in terms of the evolution of tech?

Like father like daughter, training their hanging L-sits on the olympic rings.

There’s almost like a natural pendulum. It’s swinging way back over this way. Now we’ll start to explore more biologically normal ways. With my barefoot run, I’m trying to raise awareness of these issues like sustainability in the environment and I can reach a wide audience through technology.

“It comes down to small changes.”

It comes down to small changes. You can drive yourself nuts thinking, “I’ve got to do this and do this…”, but actually, there’s value in just assessing things that are in your hands, looking at what is a biological norm versus a biological extreme. If you can’t justify something, you have to let it go. Then, what you can start to do is whittle away at things that aren’t appropriate behaviors and that will improve in the next generation that is observing those behaviors.

You and I are walking around with the observations from those first six years of our lives, and then if you really unravel it, we’re walking around with the norms of our ancestors as well.

We need a different educational model. We need a schooling system based on educating kids about their fundamental needs, including movement and play, one that gets them involved in growing natural foods and learning about their own independent role within the interdependent social tribe.

We’re all unique, but we go to school and we’re taught to conform. You have to sit and do the same exams, but in a real tribal situation, there’s an interdependence of the tribe, When you have kids, you suddenly realize how important it is. I’ve got three kids and another one on the way. They’re all different. Nature didn’t design them to be the same. They’re designed to be uniquely different so they fulfill their role in our tribe. Why not nurture the fact that they are different in order to grow their individual talents at a very young age. How do I nurture their unique abilities and create the appropriate environment for them to learn and become uniquely awesome?

Tony’s coaching is individually tailored based upon the belief that we all have a unique role to play in our community.

Stay tuned for our REWILD series featuring an in-depth discussion of Tony Riddle’s socially extreme, yet biologically normal practices.

Part 1, Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD
Part 2, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Children and Education
Part 3, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Transforming Your Body
Part 4, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Barefoot Running Across Great Britain

To connect with Tony, visit tonyriddle.com

Facebook: @naturallifestylist
Instagram: @thenaturallifestylist
Twitter: @feedthehuman
Youtube: Tony Riddle

Feature Image: Tony’s daughter working on her grip strength in Tony’s studio.

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

The Outdoor Voyage booking platform and online marketplace only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

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