[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]
IN THE ERA OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, after witnessing a vast range of reactions–from the most restrictive lockdowns to a complete absence of caution–we might well wonder about modern societies’ relationship to risk. Around the world, many people dwell in what gets called a state of “precarity,” experiencing a sense of overwhelming hazards, from climate change to political unrest, natural disasters, uncertain livelihoods and anxieties about the future. In 2003 French sociologist Patrick Peretti-Watel noted an ambiguous dynamic in certain societies between a desire to try to mitigate threats and a fascination with voluntary risk-takers, such as adventure sports athletes. During recent years, while feats such as Alex Honnold’s free solos have drawn a lot of mainstream attention, the rise of digital and social media can also make climbers’ accidents seem more public than ever. In some countries, concerns about liability and insurance have become increasingly complex. After a rockfall incident at a sport-climbing crag in France, the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing was compelled to pay 1.2 million euros in damages.
For decades, climbers and reporters alike have composed reams of articles and books analyzing specific mountain disasters. Journals such as Accidents in North American Climbing, published by the American Alpine Club since 1948, have included annual reports. Still, alpinists are often reluctant to talk about their own accidents. There can be a sense of guilt that haunts survivors or a reluctance to admit mistakes. In the case of a serious or fatal injury, there can be intense emotions, or fears of liability, that impede open discussions.
More recently, a change of attitude seems to be taking place at the heart of different mountain communities. Among other examples, social sciences researchers, in collaboration with the administrators of the French Web forum camptocamp.org, have established a debriefing system for “incidents and accidents” that permits anonymous reporting and that encourages users to “participate in the construction of a collective knowledge base.” The British Mountain Club (BMC) hosts a similar database of “incident and near-miss reporting.” And Swiss climber Roger Schali–with an international group that includes Rolando Garibotti, Laura Tiefenthaler, Raphaela Haug, Babsi Vigl and myself–has launched the hashtag #myalpinelesson on Instagram to encourage international alpinists to share their misadventures.
The scientific analysis of mountaineering accidents–in the sense of trying to pinpoint typical factors and to establish recommendations based on accumulated data–is still nascent. The wider field of “safety sciences” remains focused on industrial sectors such as petrochemicals, aerial transport and nuclear power. There’s a common desire to uncover some underlying truth from general models and to explain the mechanisms at work. Yet we know that an accident can result from a tangle of tiny, not always noticeable, factors, rather than a single, identifiable root cause. Data collected in the mountains can frequently be incomplete. Reconstruction, after the fact, is marked with the bias of subjectivity and hindsight. Who can claim to be sure of what really happened in the mind of a skier or climber a few hundredths of a second before they took a fatal fall or before they decided to enter the slope that triggered the avalanche that killed them?
Moreover, mountaineering has certain qualities that differentiate it from the activities generally examined by safety scientists. The alpine environment can be highly dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable. There is a paradox between alpinists’ conscious acceptance of risk and their meticulous management of it, as they try to attain an objective in the safest manner possible. While relationships to risk vary from person to person and evolve over time, for many, these relationships form part of the meaning of the pursuit. As a seasoned guide confided in me, “Risk is what makes the difference between hiking and alpinism.” Even if risk isn’t an end in itself, its acceptance seems to be an inevitable part of climbing, one that permits the attainment of other benefits: a sense of heightened sensory perception, a feeling of competence or identity, an impression of self-determination or responsibility for one’s actions. High on a peak, changing circumstances may require alpinists to adapt constantly. The “good” decision is often specific to each situation and incumbent on the judgment of each climber.
Still, statistics about the principal kinds of accidents can impart precious information to help with prevention. For instance, in the French search and rescue database, one of the first reasons listed as a cause for rescue–ahead of avalanches, rock- or icefall and storms–is the fall of a climber or an entire rope team. Snow, ice or mixed terrain tends to generate the highest number of accidents and the worst consequences. According to an analysis of reports on the French SAR database and camptocamp.org, mid-level to advanced alpinists often fall on easy terrain when their concentration appears to drop. The human component–including factors such as lack of vigilance, overconfidence, judgment biases or group dynamics–remains a key issue in many accident-prone situations and should be paid particular attention by both researchers and by climbers.
In this light, a poignant tale, well written and detailed, can be worth a hundred points of superficial data. The conclusions garnered from such testimonies may not always result in new safety protocols, since we must take the narrators’ subjectivity into account. But the main strength of stories is the power of identification. Each person can put themselves in the place of the protagonist and engage in critical thinking, both individual and collective, about their own practices, recognizing ways in which they might need to change. As climbing historian and alpinist Rolando Garibotti wrote on his page Patagonia Vertical, initiatives like that of #myalpinelesson could help us “move away from the often superficial ‘glitter sprinkled’ IG posts, to a more encompassing form of storytelling.” Sharing our mistakes requires humility and vulnerability–qualities that might seem estranged from current, dominant forms of alpinism. Yet deeper levels of honesty can shift the focus away from appreciations of ascents based merely on performance to ones in which reflection and self-transformation are integral parts.
–Maud Vanpoulle is a UIAGM/IFMGA mountain guide and a French sociologist who studies mountaineers’ relationships with risk (Translated from French by Katie Ives).
[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]