Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Mountaineering, Responsibility and the Future of Climbing

Excerpt from 'Mountaineering, Responsibility and the Future of Climbing, an opinion piece by Bruce Normand published in the December issue of Outside China. 

Mountains are beautiful, mountains are challenging, mountains
are dangerous, mountains are big business, mountains have a very 
strong grip on the popular imagination in every culture and at a 
profound level -- since antiquity our gods and demons have resided 
in them. Mountains certainly appear with great frequency in our daily 
lives, their images plastered all over our advertising as symbols of 
beauty, purity, pleasure, achievement or lofty goals.

So what do mountains mean to you, as a climber or aspiring climber ?

This article starts with a short personality test:

Why do you (want to) climb ?

Because it looks cool ? -- get a new haircut.
For the risk ? -- play the stock market.
For the danger ? -- try walking down the fast lane on the highway.
For your friends ? -- play basketball with them.
To know yourself ? -- there's always reading.
To conquer your perceived weaknesses ? -- thought of bungee jumping ?
To conquer the mountain ? -- pick on someone your own size.
Because your parents don't like it ? -- see a relationship counsellor.
For your club or your country or your sponsor ? -- they might give you
superficial symbols when you succeed, but don't look for consolation when
you fail (or worse).

In fact if we are talking about climbing in a gym, all of these reasons
are fine, but please don't try to climb outside. I can be quick to
dismiss many things, and at some point in this article you should be
ready to stand up and defend your corner with the words ``this is what
climbing means to me.'' Because, ultimately, you climb for you. When
you strip away the veil of fog in the previous paragraph, you do it
because there is a goal you find worth achieving, you enjoy the process
of getting there and at the end you look in the mirror and say ``I am
satisfied with what we did.'' Only if you set the goals will you pursue
them with the determination they require and enjoy the full satisfaction
of meeting them. Only you appreciate the spiritual uplift you get from
being in the mountains and closer to nature. Of course you can try to
communicate this to your friends and family, and of course the effect
is amplified if you share the experience with a team of people you like,
but if you are not there because it is you who wants it, we probably
will not see you in the mountains again next year.

Why do I climb ? I climb for fun. I enjoy the beauty, I enjoy the
problems I set myself and the challenge of trying to solve them, I
enjoy the combination of physical and mental exercise and I appreciate
the satisfaction of having achieved something at the end of the day.
After 20 years in the game, during which I have refined my abilities
and redefined my challenges, climbing still has more than enough to
offer me that it's the way I will choose to spend my weekends and
holidays. Because it is a holiday: it's my hobby. I might be good
enough at it that I could make money from it, but I never, ever, want
to climb for a living. The moment I did that, it wouldn't be fun any
more. It would be work, I would be climbing for someone else (a sponsor,
a photograph, a number), and I would be in the mountains for the wrong
reasons. I do not want to die for the wrong reasons.

Mountaineers and Mountain Tourists

We have to come back to the last point: everyone knows mountains can
kill you, but we have to go through two more steps before we can discuss
safety. As one sage is said to have remarked, there are two types of
people: those who divide everything into two groups and those who don't.
As I watch the popular image of mountaineering, which is shaped by numbers
like ``14 8000ers,'' ``7 Summits'' and ``3 Poles,'' (Ed.'s note: you
can collect bigger numbers of stamps and baseball cards), I find I need
two categories for people in the mountains.

Mountaineers are people who grew up with a climbing ethos. They roped
up with their partners, learned their trade, set their goals, made their
judgement calls, carried their loads, broke their trails, led their share
of the pitches and shivered in their high camps. They shook hands at the
summit on a job well done, or they bailed out and went home alive to
climb another day, or they rescued themselves and their teammates when
things went badly wrong.

The new species of people storming the world's name-brand mountains do
not have this background. I liken them to marathon runners. Running a
marathon is a big physical challenge, and you can be very proud when you
achieve this goal. However, someone else sets the route for you, someone
else is waiting to give you food at regular intervals, and when the person
next to you falls over, it's not your problem to pick him or her up. The
mentality is not the same as mountaineering, but there are people who try
to justify it in the world's mountains.

Notice I am not saying that mountain tourists do not belong in the
mountains. Where there is a market there will always be suppliers, and
climbing is nothing if not an inclusive community. In fact, mountain
tourism, if done in an ecologically sound way, is an excellent boost
to the local economies of many impoverished regions, to say nothing
of giving the experience of a lifetime to thousands of people who might
otherwise be on holiday at the beach. What I am saying is that there
should be no confusing mountaineering with mountain tourism, or
mountaineers with mountain tourists. If the reader of this article goes
away with a clearer picture on this point, these words will have served
their purpose.

The uninitiated reader can certainly be excused some confusion, because
there is no clear picture coming from our mass media, which glorify
mountain tourists on the summit of Everest while ignoring the porters who
carried their four bottles of oxygen each on summit day alone. In fact this
confusion is strong in the minds of some who regard themselves as leading
practitioners, and in specialist media supposedly devoted to the interests
of climbers. Even on K2, ``The Mountaineer's Mountain'', we met people
who waited for others to fix the ropes, slept in the tents of others
without asking permission, ate the food of others, stole other peoples'
equipment at extreme risk to that person's life, and left their
``teammates'' to die. This is not the behaviour of a mountaineer. The
baseless dogma ``it's every man for himself above 8000m,'' trumpeted
alongside medically meaningless words about ``the death zone,'' is not
at all a code word for toughness -- it's a fig-leaf of self-justification
for people who chose a mountain they couldn't handle; does ``every man for
himself'' stop at not helping others already in trouble (always a media
favourite), or does it extend to stealing food, fuel and equipment to put
more, and self-reliant, climbers in trouble ? I wonder what types of
people look into the mirror and can say they are satisfied with their
achievement after doing this ...

At this point I have to preempt some words I will state more clearly
below. You are perfectly at liberty to declare that you are, or want to
be, a mountain tourist. You will have a lot of fun and some fantastic
new experiences, and will maybe come home with a great achievement under
your belt. But you should not think that you are a mountaineer because
of the summit you stood on. That said, nobody would be happier than
mountaineers themselves if your experience made you want to join their
community -- to take charge of your own planning and leading and safety.

Climbing is Leading is Responsibility

In Will Gadd's book ``Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique,'' you
can find the words ``climbing is leading.'' For Gadd, you are only a
climber, meaning someone able to appreciate all aspects of the game,
if you lead. Leading, in turn, is responsibility. You are responsible
for the safety of the party, and safety is paramount: mountains will
kill you if you are careless, and you have to be on top of everything.
In mountain tourism, this safety is what you pay the guide for; his
words of encouragement and technical advice are actually secondary.

This is not a how-to-climb guide, as there are many sources for that
kind of information. There are many factors jeopardising your safety
in the mountains, including but not limited to cold, weather, falls,
altitude, avalanches, crevasses, falling rocks or ice and, in some
places, polar bears; your preparation must make you ready to deal with
all of them. Secondary factors leading up to these primary ones can
include communications failure, equipment failure, leadership failure,
navigation failure and pure fatigue. Reading about other people's
accidents in climbing is not just morbid fascination, but an excellent
way to become aware of problems before you have them yourself, and to
know how to recognise risks before they become real dangers.

The most important thing to say about the learning curve towards being
a mountaineer is that nobody can climb it in a day. Climbing is not a
spectator sport and it is not an armchair sport. You have to go out and
do things to know how they work, if they work, if they work for you and
if they will work under pressure. It takes years to gather all this
experience and know it to the point where it is automatic. In my case,
it took 18 from my first roped climb to the top of K2, and I would not
pretend for a second that I am an expert at everything: indeed, there
are whole chapters of the book -- on aid climbing, vertical rescue and
bouldering, to name just a few -- about which I know next to nothing.

Once again this is not a climbing guide, and I restrict this part to
some general remarks about the education process. As above, training to
be a climber is training to be a leader, not just a follower. You can
become very good climbing on top-rope, and even leading on preplaced
bolts, and people like me will respect your abilities highly because
they far outweigh mine, but you have to be clear about what you are
good at. Many people are shocked that I can ``only'' climb 5.10: all
I can say is that I'm not a trained gymnast, because I prefer to spend
my time in the mountains, but when I climb 5.10 it is on my own (trad)
protection and in less-then-perfect rock. Times have changed since I
learned to climb, and I have no trouble confessing to being a dinosaur.
Most people now start climbing in a gym. There is bouldering. In winter
you can go to the ice park. Getting started is much easier now than it
used to be, and honing your technical ability is far more efficient.
However, now you have to make a transition to get into the mountains,
and there are no short-cuts in this process.

The watchword is responsibility. Even sport climbing is dangerous. People
around you are tying knots for first time, learning to belay for first time
or building anchors for first time. Communications can be messed up and ropes
can be crossed. Rocks, gear and people can fall on your head at any time,
but almost nobody can be seen wearing a helmet. I went to the ice park
at Taoyuan (just outside Beijing) and saw lots of enthusiastic climbers,
mostly beginners, going through their paces. Taoyuan is in a state park,
20 minutes' drive from a town and 20 minutes' walk from the car park. Like
a mountaineer, I started going automatically through my mental check-list
and asking questions: where is the nearest hospital ? the nearest ambulance ?
do we have mobile 'phone coverage here ? is there a qualified doctor on the
park staff ? is there a stretcher around here so we can move somebody with
a back or neck injury ? do you have a first-aid kit in your pack ? have
you taken a first-aid course ? My questions were greeted not only with
answers in the ``no'' or ``don't know'' boxes, but also a certain degree
of mystification as to why I should be asking. I'll leave the subjective
cultural comments until later, but there was a definite ``marathon runner''
air to the attitudes, as though these are someone else's problem, and I
suspect a good fraction of this is traceable to a climbing-gym mentality.

A key aspect of your learning curve is your team. Climbing is about
working together to ensure each others' safety, from actions as direct
as belaying and setting protection through interpreting the weather to
making sure your driver doesn't fall asleep on the way home. Any
experienced climber will testify that a lot of his or her memories of
a climb are coloured by the people on the team. You will grow in climbing
stature and experience and confidence not just from ticking chapters of
``Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills'' but from other climbers who show
you how they do things. Right now, our climbing media seem to be in a
phase of glorifying individuals: lists are made with one person's name
and sponsorship revolves around one person's star power, but we cannot
lose sight of the fact that they all have partners and belayers, and
swing leads on many of their climbs. When you are an expert among experts,
you can perhaps be less attentive to your partner, because you have both
reached the stage where everything is automatic, but as a learner it is
definitely your team and your teamwork which will get you up the curve.

Here I have a special gripe about soloists, media adulation of them and
the fact that manufacturers design equipment for them. This is definitely
sending the wrong message to inexperienced climbers, to say nothing of the
general public. What might be wrong with us that we cannot work with other
people ? What ever happened to mountaineering as the bond of the rope ?
This is not mere dogma, but a direct recognition of the fact that
individualism tends to get you killed in the mountains. Of course those
who have amassed a lot of experience already are free to decide that this
is how they define their challenge and abstract their pleasure, but it is
far from a logical first step up the learning curve. The summary version
of my take on soloing is that either you are soloing with a rope or without
one: in the former case, it's easier and you will achieve more, faster and
harder with a partner; in the latter case, there are easier ways to commit

I will wind up my words on the learning curve with yet more generalities.
Again the specifics, on everything from nutrition through equipment to
mountaineering when you need spectacles are in the textbooks, and now on
countless internet forum pages. It's always good to retain your humility
in the face of the mountains, as nobody ever conquers a peak: on a good
day (for you -- mountains don't have good and bad days), the mountain may
let you stand on its summit, but on a bad day (for you) the mountain can
definitely conquer you. It's also good, because it can't be repeated
enough, to reiterate that you will not learn climbing by listening to me
or by reading my words. I hope you will not even feel you have learned
about climbing attitudes just from reading my words: these are my own
thoughts, and they are designed to provoke yours, not set them in concrete,
so the most they can do is point you in a direction that is suitable for

Certainly if, after reading this far, your reaction is ``this is crazy and
it's not for me -- I do just want to have the experience of being there
without all the weight of this responsibility stuff'', this is perfectly
fine. It's a completely valid goal and it's 100% in the spirit of this
article: the object of this piece is to draw the lines clearly to help
everyone know where to look to appreciate their place in the mountains,
their limits and what for them is fun; the aim is not to belittle anyone
 -- other than those who cross these lines.