Top Alpin­ist Talks Tough

Steve Swen­son shares thoughts on the rise of deaths in the alpine

Gripped - - OFF THE WALL - Story by Out­liers, Steve Swen­son

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

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