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It’s spring! It’s climbing season! And the mountains are getting mad.
Unless you’ve been living in an underground bunker for the past six weeks or so, you’ve heard about the sixteen Sherpas and climbers who died in the Khumbu Icefall on Mt. Everest. It was the deadliest day ever on the mountain that the Sherpas call “Mother Goddess of Earth,” and the Nepali route to Everest’s summit has been closed ever since the accident.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, six climbers fell to their death on Mt. Rainier’s Liberty Ridge last month. This was the worst climbing accident on that mountain since 1981.
Back in March, there were eight avalanche-related deaths in British Columbia and Alberta (six more than the previous year) and five specifically in Banff National Park (the first such tragedies there since 2008).
And even on that mountain that so awes me, Denali, there has been at least one climbing fatality so far this year.
What’s going on?
Some say it’s climate change
Some people believe this year’s tragedies can be attributed to climate change. According to the Climate Change Institute, the Alaskan climate is warming disproportionately, and Alaskan glaciers are responsible for as much as 25% of global sea level rise.
Likewise, temperatures in the Himalayas have apparently risen at a rate three times the global average (one degree Fahrenheit in the past century). “Photos of Everest from the 1950s and 1960s show a mountain heavily covered in snow and ice,” reports Mark Jenkins for National Geographic. “Photos today reveal a mountain of black rock comparatively barren of snow.”
As for Mt. Rainier, I can personally attest to the receding glaciers. Twenty-some years ago, I foolishly crossed a snowfield in the Paradise area without proper equipment. A few years ago, I returned to the same trail with my kids, prepared to show them that deadly slope (from a safe distance), and found only rock and dirt in the place where I could have slid all the way to my demise.
It’s certainly possible that shifts in overall climate can cause shifts in terrain, making ice seracs and jumbled boulders less stable and thus leading to greater chance of avalanche and overall climbing risk. But climate change is long and gradual and would not necessarily account for major tragedies one year when the preceding year was relatively safe.
Some blame unqualified climbers
Every year there are more articles and books written about non-climbers who seek mountain summits. Jon Krakauer famously wrote about unqualified climbers on high altitude mountains in his book Into Thin Air, which chronicled the deadly 1996 season on Mt. Everest. Yet the numbers of unqualified climbers heading out to the slopes still keep on climbing.
“I’ve seen a lot of climbers coming from abroad without training,” says Susmita Maskey, an expert climber. Scott Fischer, a guide who perished on Everest in 1996, had also complained about this, and blamed it on what he called the yellow brick road to the summit: miles of ropes that are set between Base Camp and Everest’s summit that make it easier for less experienced climbers to navigate the terrain.
In addition to fixed ropes, wanna-be climbers rely heavily on hired Sherpas, who not only carry the loads but also sometimes serve as personal trainers to help their clients achieve the highest peak in the world. Some Sherpas have actually been known to carry climbers on their backs when the going gets tough.
Denali doesn’t have Sherpas, but it does have fixed lines in spots, such as the ropes leading up the Headwall on the West Buttress route. And it does have its fair share of inexperienced climbers. When I went up to Talkeetna in 2011 for research, I heard all about them. One evening, as I sat in the West Rib Pub enjoying a bowl of caribou chili and listening to the Rolling Stones, a bush pilot sat down at the bar beside me. We got to talking, and soon he was bemoaning all the changes in climbing clientele he’d witnessed over the years. “They used to be serious mountaineers,” he said, “but now they’re recreational big city people…with all the creature comforts of home.”
This is not to say that it’s the unqualified climbers who necessarily die on the mountain. Often times, as was the case on Everest this year and in 1996, the guides and Sherpas pay the greatest price while the paying clients remain safe. Even on Mt. Rainier, two of this year’s deaths were experienced guides.
While lack of experience may very well contribute to alpine tragedies, this doesn’t explain why 2014 has been such a difficult season any more than the climate change theory. This trend in which the average Joe decides to climb dangerous mountains has been progressing for years, even decades.
Some say the gods must be angry
Traditionally, native populations have respected and even worshipped the natural world in general, and mountains in particular. In Alaska, ancient residents considered Denali, also known as “The High One,” sacred.
Mt. Rainier (formerly known as Tacoma) was also considered to be spiritually powerful; one story tells of a 19th century Native American guide named Sluiskin who was convinced the mountain was home to a malevolent spirit that lived in a fiery lake. Sluiskin would lead European settlers to the base of the mountain but would go no further.
On Mt. Everest, Sherpas participate in blessing ceremonies known as pujas before ascending the mountain: juniper incense is burned, prayers are chanted, and offerings such as cookies, rice, and beer are sacrificed to the gods. But still casualties occur.
Personally, I don’t believe in mountain gods. But I also don’t believe that climate change or unqualified climbers necessarily explain the rash of alpine tragedies this year. Surely some of these fatalities were caused by human error, but not all of them. Just as hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis bring death to those least deserving, natural disasters in mountain landscapes can also befall those who are otherwise humble and virtuous or strong and brave. And somehow this makes me wonder whether we humans are really meant to do some of the things we choose to do, whether we are meant to even try to conquer the summits.
When I was researching my book, I also learned from an Athabaskan expert that the native people of Interior Alaska didn’t climb Denali. They didn’t need to; they were hunters and gatherers, and there was nothing to hunt or gather at high elevations. The truth is that we don’t need to climb the peaks, either. George Mallory famously suggested that he wanted to climb Mount Everest because it was there, and while I mean no disrespect to him, I can’t help but think this sounds a bit hubristic.
I admire climbers for their strength, courage, and love of nature. Admittedly I sometimes envy what they have accomplished, or more precisely, the experiences they’ve endured and the vistas they’ve witnessed. But I do sometimes question the sensibility of what they do, especially when it involves risk to others. My heart goes out to the families of all who have died thus far this year in mountaineering expeditions, but especially to the families of the Sherpas and other guides whose lives were lost in service to other people…people who didn’t need to climb the mountains in the first place.
“The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets…only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
~Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods