When I woke up early this morning, the plan was to write while my brain still felt fresh. I have been working on the same article for the past two weeks, and while I’ve deviated to others in the meantime, I keep failing to make progress on this particular one. I just can’t seem to get my ideas to flow the way I want them to. I have writer’s block. And for that reason, my daily schedule for the past two weeks has been: 1. Sit down at my computer, 2. Stare at my draft in Google Docs, 3. Write several random sentences, 4. Re-read those sentences, 5. Feel unhappy with them, 6. Delete the sentences, and 7. Open up a tab of Youtube, Facebook, or Netflix, and spent the next two hours wasting time.
Unfortunately, this morning, my schedule has been very much aligned with the same procedure as per the most recent two weeks. The writer’s block set in straight away, quickly followed by a routine of procrastination. But then I remembered something. In a meeting with my editor several days ago, he said to me, “Write about what you know”.
So, here I am. Writing about procrastination. Because as of right now, this is what I know. We all do it. We sit down to get some work done… start by checking our work emails, then our personal emails. Then perhaps we respond to a few emails. Then maybe a friend sends us a text message asking us to grab a drink after work. After responding to that message, we give Instagram a quick little check-up. It isn’t on purpose – it’s a habit. Our fingers naturally reach for that Instagram logo when our phones are unlocked. While on Instagram, we see that today is Shelly’s birthday. We don’t want to forget to wish her a Happy Birthday, so we open up the Facebook app to write on her Facebook wall. Then while we are on Facebook, we see that we have nine new notifications. We can’t possibly open up the Facebook app without checking the notifications. Leaving those red alert symbols there would leave our Type-A personalities cringing in our seats. So, we have to check our Facebook notifications… and before we know it we have wasted twenty minutes of our day.
“Wow, I really do not want to go outside today”
Unfortunately, this procrastination routine is not unique to the work environment. I procrastinate in many other aspects of my life. I procrastinate packing for a trip until the very last moment. I procrastinate cleaning the dishes until the next morning after a big meal, the old food has now been sitting on the plate just long enough to have formed some sort of chemical bond with the china. It’s impossible to scrape off. And, even though I am embarrassed to admit it, I also procrastinate going into the outdoors.
It mainly happens when the weather isn’t ideal. When I look outside and think to myself, “Wow, I really do not want to go outside today.” The excuses start flowing…
My kayaking excuses tend to be one of the following:
My gear is wet.
My thermals are wet.
The river levels aren’t ideal.
I don’t want to drive that far.
Ski touring excuses sound something like this:
My boots are wet.
My socks are wet.
My thermals are wet.
Snow conditions aren’t very good.
I don’t want to drive that far.
Climbing excuses? Here you go:
The rock is wet.
I don’t want to drive that far.
It is easy to convince myself that going outside, getting wet, and maybe feeling a little uncomfortable is a bad idea. It is easy to stay home, curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch a movie. It is easy… but is it worth it? Is it worth it to miss out on amazing views and powder turns, just to avoid a little discomfort while putting my boots on? Is it worth it to miss out on a perfect line through a big rapid in a beautiful gorge, just because I don’t want to zip up my wet drysuit? Is it worth it to miss out on what could be a rad adventure in the mountains, just because I don’t feel like spending $20 on gas?
After 24 years of skiing, 13 years of kayaking, and 6 years of climbing, I will tell you with full confidence – It is never worth missing out.
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.
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;
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 mysticalje ne sais quoi, then you need to rethink your strategy. I climb because I love it. So did David, Jess and Hansjörg.”
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.
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.
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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