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Inveniam viam aut faciam

- Hannibal Barca

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Op-Ed

Nov 22, 2018

“Today, I’m Thankful For…” the Privilege to Suffer

On Thanksgiving, we ask: what allows us to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The luxuries of time and money not spent on survival.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

As adventure athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, we are intimately familiar with pain. It’s something that many of us choose to live with, and we take it for granted. On Thanksgiving, it’s important to be self aware of this luxury that we are free to enjoy: our own privilege to suffer.

Pain is the fraternal glue that bonds the collective outdoor community together. The elite ultra-marathoner, avid runner, and casual jogger are bound by common experience to the credos of discomfort. It is tacit law that burning quads, blisters, and mind-numbing exhaustion are the domain of the dedicated.

We’re hardwired to minimize effort, right?

We ascend vertically in spite of gravity’s protestations. The mountain biker knows the acute sting of scraped skin or worse following a toss from the saddle. The alpinist has taken whippers, the kayaker endured pounding white water, the backpacker dense mosquito swarms. We do all of it and more for the sake of well-being, pleasure, and connection to the wild places in which we recreate. Be it bicycling or surfing, camping or climbing, skiing or swimming, all outdoor recreation involves a challenge.

We idolize those members of our species who appear to have achieved a transcendent level of pain tolerance. They are the men and women who grace the covers of our adventure magazines. They eat pain for breakfast, run 30 miles, then power-nap while doing pinky push-ups. They are the ultra-marathoners who crunch thousands of vertical feet; the cyclists who pump up and down hills with uninterrupted cadence; the mountaineers who ascend Himalayan peaks in sub-zero temperatures. Their feats are astounding and require an implausible amount of pain and fear management. By all analysis of human behavior—we’re hardwired to minimize effort, right? —performing activities to maximize discomfort seems masochistic. Their successes are incumbent on short-term suffering. But in our fetishization of such successes, we’ve fetishized the suffering.

All too often we neglect in the heroism of our adventure athlete idols and our own Strava-worthy accomplishments the privilege inherent in this form of suffering. Just as the First Thanksgiving wasn’t quite a genial gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans over turkey and potatoes, our “suffer-fest” celebration necessitates an asterisk. What allows one to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The premium luxuries of time and money.

A decent Ironman bike costs as much as the per capita GDP of a middle-income country.

Statistics compiled by the US Outdoor Industry Organization show that an unsurprising 74% of American outdoor recreators are Caucasian. A sizable 31% of this demographic has a household income of over $100,000 annually, which represents the top 10% of all Americans. In keeping with other measurables (education, housing, employment), outdoor recreation is inequitable. The barriers to entry can be a pair of running shoes or a pricy backcountry skiing setup and a slew of climbing gear. The cost of a decent Ironman bike is as much as the per capita GDP of a reasonably wealthy middle-income country, like Montenegro or Malaysia”. As the result of socioeconomic status, we can spend our free time suffering by choice.

There is another form of suffering, and it is not by choice. An inexcusable portion of the world, due to geographic location or political circumstance, deals with violence, oppression, and illness. For the 43 million Americans receiving federally subsidized food stamps, daily sustenance takes precedence over optimal performance powders and sports gels. For the half million homeless, exposure to the elements is not a rugged escape from urban monotony but an unabating reality. This kind of suffering is not a choice afforded by privilege but allotted due to lack thereof. We can push into a place of deep pain on a punishing climb, but that suffering ends the second we return, wobbly-kneed and woozy, to our cars at the trailhead.

Most of us are aware of such suffering; many of us have lived it or are living it. We can be proud of our athletic achievements, especially in an age where we can shop for groceries from the couch. However, amid the hubbub of fitness fanaticism and athletic adulation, we must remind ourselves of the relatively rare privilege to choose to be hungry, endure physical pain, and put ourselves in harm’s way deliberately and enthusiastically.

A garage full of outdoor toys does not exempt one from the inevitable experiences of pain and suffering. But come tomorrow morning, when we hop on our mountain bikes to do penance for that extra slice of pumpkin pie, let us give thanks for the privilege to recreate and the privilege to suffer.

Want to do more than give thanks? Consider supporting some of our favourite charities: Sierra Club, ATCF, Rewilding Britain / Rewilding Europe, First Descents and Orangutan Foundation

Cover photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash

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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?

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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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