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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;

 

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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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Op-Ed

Sep 05, 2019

Everest, The Earthquake, my Husband Norbu Sherpa and Me.

Between waiting her turn for the rescue chopper and summiting in silence one year later, Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann relies on her husband, a native Sherpa, as her guide on Everest.

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It is 3:45 in the morning, May 21, 2016: a date that will remain in my mind forever.

I am standing on the “top of the world” at 8,848 meters (29,028 ft) with my husband, Norbu Sherpa. We are alone in the full moon: Norbu, me and the Goddess Chomolungma. The stars are lighting up a pure sky. The atmosphere is simply magical. One-and-a-half hours in the silence of the mountain on the top of Mount Everest.

Read next: Exclusive Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

A stunning sunrise brings us back to reality. Some climbers have started to arrive. We begin our descent with calm and serenity. Each step is controlled and assured. We are in full command of our emotions and abilities. A single step off the path would mean a no-return plummet down a vertical of several thousand meters. Twenty-three hours after our start at 8,300 meters (the last Camp) via the summit, we are back at the Advance Base Camp on the Northside with our heavy loads. A dream had come true.

This personal project – summiting Everest – was supposed to have happened one year earlier. But in 2015, on our way to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, we found ourselves suddenly in a disastrous shadow. Like in a movie, people were screaming, crying, running in all directions. Huge rocks were falling from everywhere and the earth was shaking. Once, twice and then more frequently. We were trapped in a narrow valley with the rocks threatening above our heads. We were lucky to secure ourselves. Many other people are no longer here today to testify to that horrific moment. In the end, we were trapped for four days in the valley: four days of waiting, hoping and agonizing with several hundred other people. Standing, sitting and sleeping in the middle of terraced fields. Hour after hour after hour. Disconnected from the rest of the world. With no material and no food except for the items that people had on them when running for their lives from their house or car.

Like in a nightmare, we were unable to provide any help other than what was possible to do with basically nothing. The dream that I had seriously prepared and trained for during so many months was still in the back of my mind. The days were passing with no updates. We had no idea what was going on. All we knew was that all of the roads were blocked by heavy landslides. Repeat aftershocks compelled us not to take any risks. We were, in fact, supposed to be at Base Camp, above 5,000 meters. But every aftershock reminded us that, in reality, we were just two kilometers away from the epicenter of the tragic earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, that dramatically affected Nepal on that day, 25 April 2015…

“A terrible spectacle.”

After four days, we heard the sound of the first helicopter. People jumped up from every side and ran in the direction of the small helipad that was prepared with the help of all of us during those last days. But the pilot could not land. The helipad was too small for his helicopter. The disappointment was legible on our faces. We were worried not only about all the injured people who were just waiting to get rescued but also for one woman who gave birth in the middle of the night in terrible hygiene conditions. A few hours later, a smaller helicopter arrived. The pilot managed to land but had to turn off his machine. Some people were so willing to get out of this trap that they tried, by all means, to get a place inside the helicopter… a terrible spectacle. In the end, the injured people could luckily be rescued back to Kathmandu. Then it was our turn, tourists as we were.

A unique picture that you need to be ready for. Descending from Everest, you can see the shadow of Everest reflecting on the mountains of Nepal. This only lasts a few minutes. So it’s thanks to my husband, who knew about this and told me to just wait.

Finally, we were rescued by helicopter from this disastrous valley. At that moment, our initial expectation of reaching the summit was merely a slight memory. Flying back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we could see what it would mean to be in a war-torn country. Everything was destroyed. In the meantime, the image of a couple sitting in the ruins of their kitchen in what used to be their home, making fire out of their house’s destroyed wooden beams, and feeding us two small bowls of rice per day that they cooked on their stove, was stuck in our minds. We could not simply go back home to Switzerland. We decided to stay in Kathmandu and help support earthquake victims however we could. Forty-five days later, thanks to the numerous donations on account of our small charity organisation The Butterfly Help Project, we had distributed more than 31 tons of food supplies, rebuilt three provisional school buildings for more than 500 children and brought clothing to several remote villages. Everest was not a topic anymore. The Mountain was still there, of course, but going to these remote villages where the villagers had lost everything was another new and difficult challenge.

Find out more about The Butterfly Help Project

“I have to be here. This is my job”

However, when something is in your heart, it is impossible to forget so easily. Everest. Simply to hear the word illuminates my eyes. Everest is known as the Goddess of Giving to the Sherpa climbing community. My husband is always so thankful for all that she has given them. Every year, the climbing Sherpas, who are part of the ethnic Sherpa people, put their lives in danger to bring us other climbers to the top of the World just to fulfill a personal and selfish dream. And every year, they go back to work, to risk it all again, because they have to support their families. Once one knows that the income from a two-month Everest expedition can support a family for almost one year, compared to the average Nepalese salary, there is no doubt. They have to go. Again and again. In 2015, shortly before our Tibetan expedition, we went to Everest Base Camp on the Nepali side for an acclimatization trip. It was one year after seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest had collapsed, resulting in an ice avalanche that killed sixteen climbing Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall. They were carrying loads to Camp I & II. At Base Camp, we encountered one of our good Sherpa friends, Mingma Sherpa. He is married and has four children, the youngest of whom had just been born at that time. I asked him why he was there, after surviving what happened last year, when he had children and a wife waiting for him at home. Was he not scared? With a generous smile on his face, he simply answered “I have to be here. This is my job.”

Andrea and her husband following their successful ascent of Everest.

And that is how it is. The Sherpa families at home are consumed with worry. The Sherpa community sticks strongly together, encouraging one another. They know that it is one of the hardest jobs on earth. They are handling heavy loads in the scientifically speaking, famous “death zone” (above 7,500 meters (24,606 ft)) in order to survive the rest of the year. They cannot complain, otherwise they might not be hired for the job the next year. They have to be strong even if it hurts. The clients have paid, and so the Sherpas have to bring them to the top and back to Base Camp. At least, this is what has happened since the first expedition in history. But we have to keep in mind: it is thanks to them that we can experience such an amazing and great adventure! They are simply “the true heroes of Mount Everest!” As an Everest Summiteer, Sherpas cannot be thanked enough for their hard work, dedication, and humility.

In 2016, when I had decided to listen to my heart again, my motivation had increased tenfold. I was already training the whole year, not only participating in ski mountaineering competitions but also ultra-trail races. For many years, I have competed at a high level and I would consider my fitness level to be good. But I knew from my previous expeditions at 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) that going for these kinds of altitudes is another story. You have to be in perfect shape, not only for yourself but because you depend mainly on others – the Sherpas. For several weeks, you must live in a zone where no human being can survive for long.

To climb Mount Everest, you must thus not only be completely fit, but you must have experience about how your metabolism reacts at such heights. You must be technically independent so that you can react quickly and without a doubt at some tricky passages. You must have good knowledge of how oxygen and mask regulators work. You should also be able to calculate your oxygen according to the hours it might take you for the climb. You cannot just say “I want to fulfil a dream to put on my resume, and anyway I am paying enough money for this challenge.” No! Indeed, we are speaking about a challenge. A Challenge with a capital “C”. A Challenge in the death zone, where every decision is either yes or no, live or die. There can be no hesitation. And the Sherpas are not employees. We talk about a team. A team that must work together in the highest zone of our planet.

When you are sitting at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft) in the dining tent of the climbing Sherpa Team, sharing a tea with them, getting inspired by their positive energy, it is just a fantastic feeling. For some, it was the first time on Everest, as it was for myself. For others, it is like attending the same race, year after year. There is a mixture of respect and excitement around being upon this mountain again. It is the home of the Goddess Chomolungma, no climbing Sherpa will start such an expedition without the traditional Puja – a Buddhist ceremony in which the Sherpa will thank the mountain for letting them pass and come back safely. However, it is also a way in which to apologise for the tracks made on her. To observe them, preparing the tea, setting up the tents, discussing the next days, was as if I was sitting in a tea-room somewhere in a mountain resort, they almost seem to be in communion with the mountain. Some are young, some are older. Whilst they all share the same aim, they also share the same pain. But no one shows it. Their movements are fluid and natural – You might almost forget that you are so high in the altitude… But what is the hard truth?

“The chance to fulfill my dream”

Without discussing the numerous Sherpas who have lost their lives, dedicated to some unprepared and inexperienced clients, how many Sherpas have lost their jobs because of frostbite? Because of not having the financial resources to pay their medical care? Lost the use of or the entirety of their fingers, toes, etc.? Once back home, no one is taking care of them anymore.

I had the chance to fulfill my dream, with my husband by my side. I trained especially hard in order to ensure that we could achieve this goal. Not only to make it to the top, but to make it safely back to Base Camp, and to also recover properly after such an achievement. But one of my main thoughts, my top priorities while preparing for this adventure was not to endanger my husband, who has been on Everest expeditions more than 9 times, due to my lack of physical or technical preparation.

On May 21, 2016, we reached the summit with no overcrowded route (the infamous “traffic jams”), and we took no uncontrolled risks. It was simply a perfect combination of appropriate preparation and years of experience. How does this get achieved? My husband has been for more than a decade the “Sirdar” (i.e. the Head of the climbing Sherpas), leading large-scale expeditions on the highest summits on Earth. He himself has stood seven times on Mount Everest and more than 14 times on other 8,000 meter peaks. Based on his long-term knowledge and skill, he knew exactly which decision to make at which time. Along with his expertise, my fitness level, training, and mental preparation allowed me to experience the highest of the Himalaya summits with him, to see for myself the glorious sunrise on the Goddess Chomolungma, to achieve the holiest of Challenges.

Andrea at Everest Base Camp

Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann is a co-founder of the trekking and expedition agency Wild Yak Expeditions, and President of the non-governmental charity organization The Butterfly Help Project”.

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