Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Accident and Some Thoughts on the Cost of Climbing

Shannon Forsman and I were getting in a short late afternoon session at Flagstaff Mountain. The air was calm and still a bit warm, though the rock was beginning to feel crisp where it had cooled facing away from the sun. I felt like I was moving fairly well, nothing out of the ordinary, just OK. It's times like this that I sit back somewhat mentally as I climb and think about the simple beauty of light on stone, the straightforward presences of the rocks swelling up out the earth, and visually drift, like a bird, across the distance space above Gregory Canyon.

We were talking about the Adventure Film Festival at the Boulder Theater (which I did not go to) and I commented on how so many climbing films still seem focused on selling the adrenalin rush, the sensation, and the difficulty. It seemed to me that climbing film makers seem deliberately to decide to avoid the merely human, the humble reality of the act of climbing. I speculated on why nobody that I knew of had really gone there, looking for example at the impact of serious climbing injuries and fatalities on people's lives, the ways in which lives are altered forever, ruined even, in the midst of a search for, well, what exactly?

I was moving across the initial jugs of the Monkey Traverse when another climber came running down the hill saying that a rescue had been called in and that a crew would be coming down the trail very soon. We headed down the trail ourselves and I saw a man lying near the base of one of the many gullies below Alamo Rock, awkwardly perched on a slab, clearly not in good shape, vomit dripping from his lips, eyes half-opened. He looked like any number of typical visitors to Flag, not really a climber, just a guy who was out with his friends and decided to scramble up a rock. Shannon went up to see what she could do while I went up to the parking lot to see if I could carry gear or assist in any way.

The sirens coming up the road grew louder and louder and soon a group of vehicles from Rocky Mountain Rescue, OSMP and the Sheriff's Department were parked, their walkie-talkies scratching away under the glare of flashing red-blue lights while the rescue group got under way. I followed them down the trail, watching with growing respect the way in which the situation was quickly assessed, duties assigned, and gear deployed. While it didn't seem to be a particularly difficult spot, the victim was pretty big and his situation seemed serious. Within a few minutes the location was thoroughly covered with personnel and the victim secured.

Within less than an hour he was loaded on an ambulance and taken to the hospital. I talked briefly with Rick Hatfield, ranger with OSMP, who commented that, despite the obvious risky nature of the rock formations in the area, such incidents were rare, considering the visitor numbers. Yet, he added, these accidents seem to come in sets, with long gaps punctuated by closely grouped accidents. He didn't know why, just that it happened that way.

On the drive back down, the rescue teams having dispersed, I mused on this observation some more, considering how one person's tragedy becomes in the long view, a statistic of sorts, part of a pattern as natural as the rhythm of the pines growing across the mountainside or the distribution of the boulders. We want to take meaning from all of this, find something deeper and valuable, but is it really there?

In the face of this dilemma, do we as climbers face the facts of death and injury with a sort of insouciant denial, a recognition that we are all condemned to this fate in some sense anyway? This is one option but not the most interesting or meaningful reaction in my view. The truth is most of us will not suffer any heroic martrydom on the slopes, washed away by an avalanche, obliterated by rockfall, or buried deeply in a crevasse. Instead, we will succumb to gravity slowly, bit by bit. We fall by degrees but finally, inevitably, we fall.

I kept contrasting in my mind the simplicity and clarity of angular holds basking in the light of a late fall afternoon, glowing orange and red in the fading light, with the ugly complex and amorphous truth of a man's body, sprawled, bleeding and in shock, his mind unclear of place or time, his fate completely at the mercy of others. What can we, as climbers, make of this state of things? Do we acknowledge, but ultimately ignore, it as simply the cost of doing business or do we take a more human view of it, recognizing that in a quest for this experience of climbing, there will be failures and catastrophes and that these failures make us human, make the sport meaningful? I don't pretend to have the answers. My faith in climbing is far too tentative for that. But the question seems important, too important to leave unexplored.


Mrs. Cyberhobo said...

Thank you for exploring these thoughts. I often avoid telling people I'm "a rock climber" because I am so completely not the adrenalin seeking risk taker portrayed in the media, but if I say I am "a rock climber" most people will assume that's what I am. Thank you for observing the light on the rocks and the beauty of the motion; and for acknowledging that gravity will take us down, one way or the other, quickly or slowly. You're a thoughtful and well spoken observer of our pastime.

Anonymous said...


I have a few moments and thought I'd muse on a few of the questions you raised...

Climbing films:
I suppose, to some extent, that climbing films parallel Hollywood films. What are the most popular audience demands? A sampling: youth/skin, action/adventure... and, of course, happy endings.

However, in cinema, there are also more realistic films. Films that depict people talking to each other the way people actually talk to each other. Or people dying the way people actually die. That is: slowly, quietly, and with little fanfare (as you suggest).

Why are films paralleling these not made in the climbing world? Perhaps the market is simply not big enough. Of all cinema goers, let's say "X" percent are interested in gritty realism, or "dark" films. If that same "X" percent holds true in the smaller climbing film audience, perhaps it is not enough to justify a film?

In sum: how many climbers want to watch a movie about the dark side of climbing?

Such a film would be daunting to make, and would be unlike what we now consider a "climbing film".

(incidentally, did you see the film about Andy Parkin? I didn't, but I heard good things. Though I suppose his story is not that of a ruined life...)

(thinking further, I suppose Touching the Void also depicts a bit of the dark side... Though, it, too, has hope...)


You ask whether there is "meaning in all this". What did you mean, exactly? Meaning in the frequency of accidents, in climbing, or in life itself (uh-oh!)?

As far as statistical groupings of accidents versus clustered pine trees versus scattered boulders.... I would say that each is a pattern of sorts bearing data that tells us something. In that sense, they all have meaning.

Beyond that, who can say...


I don't know what to say about your final paragraphs. I've typed a few lines of response a half dozen times and deleted them each time.

What are we risking, and why? And is it worth it?

These questions are subjective and your answers will vary depending upon when you ask yourself the question.

I've had a few serious injuries, and how I would answer those questions today is quite different than how I would've answered them at varying points relative to the temporal proximity to my injury.

Our brains can't really remember pain. And they are even less capable when it comes to imagining a pain never experienced.

So it is no surprise that in those moments of grace and freedom, with the rock biting into our skin and the wind cleansing us, that we don't (or can't) think about the times that we, or others, lay broken.


Peter Beal said...

two great comments, greatly appreciated, raising important questions themselves...