logo

I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

image

Op-Ed

Aug 21, 2018

India’s Lost History – Part 1. Indians are Embracing Mountain Sports, But There is a Big Problem with #FakeNews

India's Instagram generation is finally getting outdoors - but has a deep-rooted problem acknowledging India's long-established climbing history, and those who came before them.

The Outdoor Journal is proud to present the first in a series of articles by Siddharth Chattopadhyay, that will rediscover India’s Mountaineering History. With interviews and contributions from many generations, who have contributed to India’s rich outdoor legacy across the country.

Technology is increasingly affecting and altering our lives faster than we ever imagined. It has not only made our lives easier and knowledge more accessible, but it has uniformly altered the social fabric of our modern society. Of all the generations so far, as some may say and agree, millennials seem to have gained the most from its use. The gain, though obvious, calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Of all the generations so far, millennials seem to have gained the most from the access to information brought on by 21st century technology. This so-called gain calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Unlike the inevitable generational gap, there appears to be a disconnect between the older and current generation of our times that is more subtle than you might think. The disconnect possibly emerges from a generation that stresses on baseless and often trivial claims to fame rather than the actual perceived values of their actions.

It is very self-centered and almost presumptuous of millennials to adopt technology and use it as a means to monopolize their contribution to the outdoor community. This not only reflects on their ignorance but also brings to notice a kind of ignorance that seems intended. Essentially, what this means is that when you work under the premise that all who came before you simply don’t exist, then it becomes a serious cause for concern. Under such a construct, if it wasn’t recorded and posted to Instagram, then it didn’t happen. And the first ascent or descent or flag planted on a summit belongs to the one who social media-ed or Instagrammed it first, rather than the generation which might have done all of that, and possibly even more without ever publishing it on the Internet. “Climbing was never a competitive sport, but now there is so much pressure to find some way to be the first,” said Billi Bierling: a German Journalist and climber now managing the Himalayan Database.

A screengrab from a 4Play Facebook share about the first North Face ascent of CB 13. Note the copy that the video was shared with; they mistook the north ridge with the North Face. North Ridge has been climbed before.

You can read The Psychology of Summiting Everest by Billi Bierling on OutdoorJournal.com.

When Apoorva, the founder, and editor in chief of The Outdoor Journal, first spoke to me about this subject, I remember being quiet for some time, lost in thought. I guess I wasn’t sure about where I’d start. Although, what concerned me the most was the foundation upon which I’d build the narrative. When I did begin my research, I came across overwhelming evidence that not only peeled off the disingenuous nature of Outdoor Journalism in our country but so much more. One of the most distasteful findings surrounded the indefatigable effort funnelled into branding of the heroic “first ascent” of a frozen waterfall in India. Mountain Dew India, one of the biggest adventure sport sponsors, had just published a video on their youtube channel titled: “Mountain Dew Real Heroes presents The Fall – India’s First Frozen Waterfall Ascent”. It was April 22, 2016. The video has since garnered more than 2 million views. There were other media channels that soon followed suit. “Their goal? To attempt the first ever ascent of a frozen waterfall in India,” said YOURSTORY. Another title from a different media outlet read: “These Brave Mountaineers Completed India’s First Ever Frozen Waterfall Climb. Bow Down!.”

This was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India.

The really strange thing – this was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India. Mountaineers have been climbing frozen water ever since front-point crampons were invented in 1933! The 1938 ascent of the Eiger’s fearsome North Face in Switzerland actually has a section called… wait for it… the Waterfall.

Encountering a section of a frozen waterfall on a massive mountain is generally par for the course – you only have to spend a few hours perusing entries in the American Alpine Journal to read all about Micah Dash and Johnny Copp’s epic ascents in the Zanskar region to understand that they were climbing rock, snow, crumbly shale, epic granite and frozen waterfalls as they reached the summit of Shafat Fortress in 2007.



Even if we are to talk about ice-climbing as a separate activity, akin to sport climbing or cragging or something similar to the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado, the “first ever” recorded ascent of a frozen Indian ice/waterfall could have been in Sikkim in 2004. The team consisted of  Adam George, Philippe Wheelock and Richard Durnan, all from Colorado along with Carlene Grant from Canada, Kelsang Phuntsok and Tashi Sherpa from Sikkim and Andreas Prammer from Austria (Durnan, R. Sikkim. The American Alpine Journal. 2004. 384)

while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility

The thing about this community, as I have learned over time, is that while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility. And yet some of our present-day cultural icons have me convinced that it’s the mountains we climb and not ourselves. I remember one such conversation with a person whose preoccupation with becoming a known alpinist belied his earnestness. Now, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t pushing the envelope, what it means instead is that there’s a lack of maturity. It feels as though there’s an underlying competitiveness in our pursuit; a kind of complexity that arises from a complacent attitude of “me-knowing-more-than-you-do”. Isn’t climbing a selfless act or as Karn puts it: “an exercise in the destruction of ego?”

Over time, I realised that I couldn’t just single-handedly hold technology accountable, though it does add to the gimmick. I also realised that it is almost impossible to sustain a culture when it doesn’t have a strong footing, in which case the community can only thrive so much. So I visited The Prow area in Dhauj while climbing with a friend of mine, Prerna Dangi, a young and accomplished female Indian climber and mountaineer. It was my first time top-roping outside. I specifically remember the rack Prerna pulled out of her bag. As soon as I had the harness on I tied my first figure-of-eight knot. My gaze then shifted to this green multipurpose belaying-rappel device that felt unusually lighter. Although what impressed me the most was this nut tool meant for pulling cams or nuts out.  

While nearing Dhauj, possibly one of the best trad crags in the world, the outcrops made themselves visible from far away. It seemed like a climber’s paradise. As soon as I set my foot on the holy Dhauj soil, I became wary of the late climbing scene from the 80s. There is an undervalued guidebook that Prerna spoke of – compiled and written by Mohit Oberoi, a 46 year old doyen of rock, who has spent a lifetime climbing all across India, with a list of alluring crags in and around Delhi. When I learned about the book I bought it right away. I couldn’t have been more appreciative of the effort and work that went into bringing this record together. It just seemed so well-organized especially for a country that is yet to understand the value of institutional memory. Upon leafing through, l came across several routes with monikers such as “Burra Sahib” and “Hysteria with a Sten gun,” laid out with appropriate grades and caution. It gave me the impression that some of these folks were more active than I’d thought. Shortly after, I caught myself reflecting on what it must have been  like to be climbing back in the 80s – the heartiness of the community and culture around it.

This series is going to be a diary of my learnings as I rediscover India’s seemingly lost outdoor history, as an exercise in honest journalism, with research and interviews conducted with stalwarts across generations of the Indian outdoors. They will include Captain Kohli, known for leading an Everest expedition in 1965, which put 9 men on the summit; Mandip Singh Soin, a Mountaineer, Explorer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society; Mohit Oberoi, an accomplished Climber and Triathlete; Punit Mehta, another accomplished climber and Harish Kapadia, a distinguished Mountaineer and editor of the Himalayan Journal. I hope to inspire our readers to dig into their own histories and that of their passions to help “rediscover” lost heroes.

Continue Reading

image

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?

image

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.

 

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which 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.

Recent Articles



Part 2: The Skateistan Difference – Skate Schools to Build a Better Future

Jessica Faulkner explains how Skateistan designs gender-inclusive programs in their skate schools and classrooms to empower underprivileged children around the globe.

Skateistan: How Skateboarding is Changing the Story for Kids in Need

Skateistan’s creative blend of skateboarding instruction and classroom programs empowers underprivileged youth, especially young girls, to build a better future.

Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2019 – Final Call for Entries!

The world´s greatest adventure and action sports imagery contest is underway with entries now being accepted.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other