My 2020 ascent of Mount Robson with Uisdean Hawthorn was recently recognized by the Piolets d’Or in France. After leaving the event, I read the New York Times article “A Climbing Award That May Be a Winner’s Last”, and was disappointed by the picture it painted of alpine climbing. It was gloomy. Lacking color. I found the sensationalizing of the fatal climbing accidents of recent years to be self-serving, unfair, and frankly an unbalanced portrayal of the current state of alpinism, its motives, artistic expression, and deadly risk.
I can empathize with the challenging task of trying to write a balanced account of the niche, complex and extreme expression of climbing big and dangerous mountains via difficult routes, and without guides, supplemental oxygen, fixed ropes, set camps, and with only the tools one can carry on their back. The growing public fascination surrounding climbing is directly linked to what’s at stake when one sets foot on a mountain, or the rock walls of Yosemite. We all encounter normalized risks in our daily lives, but there is something about the willful acceptance of the in-your-face consequences of climbing that stirs, and irks, the human spirit. I’m devastated, and concerned, about the number of alpinists who have been killed in recent times, especially the young ones. But alpinists have been pushing boundaries, and dying in the mountains, long before the Piolets d’Or came into existence. The real golden trophies are more subtle: sponsorship deals, fully funded expeditions, and social media influencing. How does a universal culture obsessed with instant consumption and peer to peer validation impact a climber’s psyche when so much is on the line? There has always been a sense of purity with alpinism that I fear has been tainted, that too many climbers are going to the mountains for the wrong reasons, or at least making bad decisions in the mountains for the wrong reasons.
I think something that we can do to shift the tide is to give more attention to the progression of the climber as an alpinist, and celebrate the elements that make alpinism special and unique. There is more to alpinism than summits, trophies, and death. There is a missing discourse on the process: the planning, training, risk mitigation, patience, trust, companionship, love, and gargantuan effort put into making an ascent such as ours a reality. And there are many rewards that climbers reap: A deeper understanding of self, a feeling of empowerment, a stronger appreciation for the people in their lives, and a desire to protect the wild and natural spaces where their adventures take place. These benefits translate into other aspects of life, and impact broader communities. Furthermore, climbers are their own biggest critics. Climbs that push the envelope of risk too far are not revered. Alpinists follow an old saying: “First you come back safe, second you come back as friends, third you make the summit. In that order.” I might add, and echo others: If you took on too much risk and feel like you got away with it, you failed. If you got seriously hurt, you failed. If you needed a rescue or put someone else in danger, you failed. The Piolets have a somewhat tumultuous and controversial history, but it is clear the event is moving to reflect these evolving values of alpinism. As my friend Ian Welsted remarked, our ascent of Robson was “nothing suicidal, just good clean fun.”
At the Piolets d’Or celebration this year in France, there was a slight ambiance of apprehension, and a prevailing feeling of ambivalence towards the ‘awards’ themselves. The vast majority of Alpinists don’t care about awards or climb for recognition, and my curiosity to partake in this year’s celebration doesn’t change anything about how I approach my climbing and my life. When I’m decision-making in the mountains, I have a whole host of voices on my shoulder whispering into my ear. Many are telling me to go home, to return to the love and comfort of family and friends, while others are nudging me on to fulfill my desire to experience the clearness of mind, purity of spirit, and sublimity of adventure that my partners and I seek in the high hills. I definitely deal with pressure from my own insecurities, the drive for self-worth and the future external validation I’ll receive after the fact when someone says “nice one!”. These anxieties are directly exacerbated by my relationship with social media and how our culture defines success, as if I will experience a kind of social death if the climb doesn’t get done “now”. The thought of the Piolets is a grain of sand compared to these heavy loads I carry. Perhaps in the future the Piolets will recognize an incredible attempt to climb a challenging mountain, that resulted in a difficult but important decision to turn around before reaching the summit. As every climber knows, what sticks is the process and experience, the summit is only the ephemeral half-way point of any ascent.
I don’t know if I’m in favor or against the Piolets d’Or, but it’s hard to refute the fact that it encourages discussion, and serves as an opportunity for climbers from around the world to gather together and celebrate their passion. It also serves as a strong and reputable symbol of self-sufficient, low-impact alpine-style climbing, and the years of effort required to build the skills to confront the challenges of the alpine arena. What other advocate do we have in a time when the highest summits can be ordered with a credit card like an Amazon purchase? The existence of the Piolets, and our ‘recognition’, has also given me the opportunity to reflect on staying true to my pure inner motivations and to be more aware of the danger of climbing for the wrong reasons. I believe some accidents could be avoided if we all took more time to reflect on the driving forces that influence our decision making, and be aware of their benevolence and malice. This is as applicable to driving your car as it is to climbing in the Himalaya.
I often wrestle with the reasons I climb. I feel the pain and worry it causes to those I love, and that love me. I can’t rationalize why I do it, but I can say that it makes my experience of life more vivid. When I remember the incredibly enriching and soulful experience I had on Mount Robson, I can’t help but feel like it is worth it, and I know I will continue to be drawn back. I also know that my time in the mountains has left me with a deeper appreciation for my family, friends, and the relationships I cherish. Before I say goodbye and leave for a big trip, I look my partner and my parents in the eyes and tell them that in case something happens, that I want them to know how much I love them. It’s a difficult and fiercely beautiful conversation, but the fact remains, whether alpine climbing or not.
I don’t leave for the mountains thinking that it will be my last. I choose routes, climbing partners, and actions that reinforce that belief. I do think I’ve proven to my loved ones that if I indeed meet my maker in the mountains, it is not because I’m arrogant, over ambitious, naïve to the risk, or hungry for recognition and validation from my peers. They will know it’s because I’m human. And for me that’s not a reason to stay home and wait for fate to deliver me the same outcome. Expressing my humanity is itself a celebration, and between the gloom of those lost and the achievement of summits gained, we as climbers have a lot to celebrate.
Well put Ethan. I appreciate how clearly you were able to put your relationship with risk into words; it’s something I’ve often found difficult to express.
I would say that rock climbing and all forms of climbing may be dangerous if the climber itself makes it dangerous. The complacency, inattention to details, errors of judgment, and even if you are simply in the wrong situation can make this sport fatal.