CARBONDALE, Colo. — When someone dies, the mourning process is typically straightforward. But when young climbers die in the mountains doing something extremely risky, mourning is surprisingly controversial.
This month, Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer and David Lama died in an avalanche while alpine climbing on the east face of the 10,810-foot Howse Peak, north of Banff, in Alberta, Canada. They were, respectively, 36, 35 and 28. In the aftermath, our community of climbers has once again laid down on the couch and resumed our conversation about mountaineering’s biggest complex: death and tragedy.
All three were at the top of their game. To climbers, the news of their deaths was the equivalent of waking up and learning that Tom Brady, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown had been killed on the gridiron. The difference is that football players don’t routinely die during a difficult game. The same can’t be said of alpinists. The graveyard in mountaineering’s most fabled playground, Chamonix, France, is filled with young men who died climbing in the massif of Mont Blanc.
For many of us, our eyes were still glassy from February, when Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard disappeared on Nanga Parbat, a 26,660-foot peak in the western Himalayas. Tom’s mother, the renowned British climber Alison Hargreaves, had died when he was only 6, also in the mountains, in a storm after summiting K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, without supplemental oxygen. At the time, in 1995, she was accused of being a reckless mother. How dare she leave her young son and daughter at home and attempt a mountain that kills 25 percent of those who challenge it? As always, the truth is complicated.
Dierdre Wolownick, whose son Alex Honnold recently starred in “Free Solo,” the documentary about his ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan, said she balked at the idea of telling Alex to stop free soloing. She cited her unwillingness to take something away from her son that gives him so much joy. Most mothers surely thought she was crazy, but I thought her love was brave.
A common refrain, inside and outside the climbing community, is that the higher the risk, the higher the reward. In terms of an ego boost, this might be accurate, but the formula is trite and elitist, and it obscures the true motivations for doing dangerous climbs.
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. I’ve been there. You’re proud and exhilarated you lived through it and kept it together when most people on the planet couldn’t. It can change you permanently, not always for the better. But I’ve had more profound mystical experiences at the park watching my kids play.
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.
Nearly all mountaineers will say they “are aware” of the risks. They’re not lying. They have a lot of friends who have died, most likely dozens. But risk is a strange thing. In the mountains, you talk about death a lot: A feature can be called a “death block,” a section a “death pitch,” or a camp a “death bivouac.” Often, you ponder what could happen if you kept going up in a storm, but never about yourself dying. Dying happens to someone else, until it doesn’t. This doesn’t make climbers ignorant, just human. Plus, too much obsession on death takes away your positivity and focus, the most valuable assets in climbing, but those, too, can obscure risk.
Slowly, over time, you take more risk without knowing it. Your skills get better and you become more versed in navigating dangerous mountain terrain. Your confidence builds. When you succeed time and time again in do-or-die situations, it’s like repeatedly getting heads after 20 coin flips; you think you’ll just get heads again. And when you’ve traveled around the world, spent thousands of dollars to get there and are only 300 very dangerous feet from the top, you push on. Yes, risk is part of the allure, but a small part.
You’d think that cutting-edge alpinists were a bunch of adrenaline junkies, but they’re not. Jess, David and Hansjörg were not. Alpinists are highly analytical, supremely aware and often tightly controlled. This is what it takes to see your 30th birthday. In a musing on death and tragedy, the British climber Andy Kirkpatrick pondered, “Maybe it’s not a weak man who pulls out the needle and walks away.” In rare instances, climbers see their shadows and do walk away.
When will the deaths stop? Our collective wonders. I ask it, too, but I know better. They won’t. High-end climbing is going to get more risky, not less. The routes are becoming more technically demanding, in more remote areas, and the method of “light and fast”— minimal gear, no fixed ropes, doing the route in a single push — is now regarded as the best style. These trends, and others, have made the sport of alpine climbing very, very dangerous.
In the aftermath, blame is common. The deceased are blamed for taking so much risk. They’re called selfish. Selfish for leaving behind sons and daughters, wives and girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends, devastated mothers and fathers to pick up the pieces. Selfish, the claim goes, for not understanding that others are invested in their lives and that if they are gone, they take a piece of another with them. Some have said that if these climbers truly knew the impact of their deaths, they would pack it up.
Yes, agreed, but the climbers who died on Howse Peak and the dozens of others I know have been anything but selfish. They were or are devoted husbands, wives, selfless friends and loving fathers and mothers. And confident, determined and overly ambitious. Yes, they can be accused of that.
We need only to look to the loved ones left behind for guidance. David Lama’s parents, Claudia and Rinzi Lama, released a statement after their son’s death: “David dedicated his life to the mountains and his passion for climbing, and alpinism shaped and accompanied our family. He always followed his own path and lived his dream. We will accept what now happened as a part of that.”
Allison Roskelley, Jess’s wife, wrote, “Your dream was engrained in your soul, and that is something I never imagined taking away from you.” She added, “I knew your No. 1 priority was to come back home to your family, and although the universe had a different plan for you, I know you would have done anything in your power to do so.”
Selfish? No. Unable to see with absolute sobriety how dangerous their path is? Likely. But again, that doesn’t make them selfish, only human. Dying happens to someone else, until it doesn’t. The people who loved them didn’t do so in spite of their love for climbing, but because of it.
One truth goes to the heart of death in our community: You can’t fall out of love with something. Having known two of the three men who died on Howse Peak, I know that climbing made them feel alive. The question is — could we feel alive enough if we stopped? Most climbers think not.
Francis Sanzaro is the editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent magazines and the author of three books, including “The Boulder: A Philosophy of Bouldering.”
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