Top Alpinist Talks Tough
Steve Swenson shares thoughts on the rise of deaths in the alpine
Steve Swenson is one of America’s best alpine climbers who started pushing himself back in the 1960s. He’s made a solo ascent of Everest and has also climbed K2, both without supplementary oxygen. In 2012 he and his partners made the first ascent of Sasser Kangri II (7,518 m), the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world, a feat for which they were awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or.
Swenson is a past president of the American Alpine Club and continues to be one of the most influential climbers in North America. He recently wrote a memoir called Karakorum, which sheds some light on his many trips to the region.
Over the past few years, there’s been a number of climbers who’ve died in the mountains. Many of them could be considered some of the best in their discipline. The following are some thoughts by Swenson about climbing accidents and deaths, so grab a beverage and dig in. In the past, it has seemed to me like the volume of these tragedies in our community would come in waves. For several years, we would all be going about our usual activities staying mostly intact, but then we would be hit by a series of losses that would rock us to the core. With time, the holes left in our hearts would heal around the edges and not feel as raw. Through all of it, we kept doing what we love to do and the cycle would repeat itself.
These recent losses feel different to me. There are more of them now, and it seems like they are almost continuous instead of coming in waves spaced with several years of relative calm. I don’t remember a time like this since the 1970s and 1980s, when that generation of British alpinists was decimated by a series of losses.
The question that comes to mind: is this just an anomaly? Or are there underlying reasons for all these deaths that we should be aware of and try to address? If you have read Malcom Gladwell’s
you may remember a chapter about the investigation into a series of Korean jetliner crashes, and it was determined the culture in the cockpit was a big contributor. Are there similar things going on in our community? Without a legitimate study, it’s hard to know for sure. For what it’s worth, my gut feeling is there are some things that might be contributors that we should be looking at. I’ve had conversations about this with others, and at the risk of this seeming like creeping old fartism, here are some things that seem to keep coming up.
Most modern alpine climbers get started in indoor gyms and migrate to sport climbing, then trad rock, waterfall ice, then technical alpine climbing. Old people like Jim and I started out learning outdoor skills and alpine climbing at a very basic level but across a wide complex mountain landscape. We were a kilometre wide but a centimetre deep. We slowly added layers to our knowledge of this entire landscape. Modern alpine climbers who have migrated from gyms haven’t had the opportunity or taken the time to learn important basics like navigation, snow conditions, decision-making, and partnerships. Old climbers like Jim and I never learned to climb as hard as the kids migrating from the gyms, but after surviving our apprenticeship, we didn’t have these big gaps in our experience, which makes it hard for these young climbers to know how to either avoid or figure out how to manage dangerous situations.
Social media and the desire for sponsorship from the outdoor industry is creating i ncentives for people to be increasingly “extreme.” We can usually see where these trends are headed by looking at what is happening in the European Alps, where there might be up to 100 skiers killed in a season compared to 20 or 30 in North America, including snowmobilers. The numbers I’ve heard for the climbing season in Chamonix are four per day, but that would need to be researched for accuracy. Projecting an image to sell stuff in a dangerous sport is a combination fraught with problems.
More people are doing it. If we have more people getting outside then there will be more accidents. People are focused on achieving goals instead of learning. It’s all about the numbers, but we know that in a complex alpine environment this can be meaningless.
My instructors kept telling me when I was starting out that I didn’t know anything and if I wanted to stay alive I needed to slow down. Things have changed and experienced practitioners are reluctant to be that direct with young people who also may not be that willing to listen. This list could be much longer and I don’t have any more time this morning to think and write about it. Introspection on this subject isn’t very sexy and nobody wants to have an open conversation about it. It’s way more fun to watch someone huck themselves off a cliff.
Left: The successful K2 team in 1990, from left, Phil Ershler, Greg Child, Greg Mortimer and Steve Swenson