Friday, December 7, 2012

Saying Farewell to the 80s: Why Have So Many Climbers Died Young?

The recent death of Patrick Edlinger at the age of 52 came to many as a sad, even tragic surprise. Edlinger was the face of rock climbing to many when the sport was just beginning to find its public identity in the early to mid 1980s. There is no question that Edlinger had a truly remarkable personal style coupled with incredible climbing ability, both with a rope and without. Gifted in all disciplines of free climbing, he made his most lasting impression in the USA with his 1988 win at Snowbird, the first really publicly significant climbing comp in the country. I reflected that his death meant that many of the publicly known male rock climbers from this period are no longer with us, something that struck me as extraordinary.

The first to go was perhaps the most impressive talent of all, Wolfgang Gullich, who died in 1992 in a car crash, reportedly from falling asleep at the wheel. Patrick Berhault died in 2004 in a climbing accident in Switzerland. John Bachar died more recently in 2009. Derek Hersey in 1993. Dan Osman in 1998. Todd Skinner in 2006. These are the ones I can think of at the moment. There are probably more. When I think of prominent survivors, a few that come to mind are Peter Croft, Jibe Tribout, Jerry Moffat, Ben Moon, Ron Kauk and Stefan Glowacz, Glowacz being by far the most currently active. For women, interestingly the mortality rate seems much lower.

 Obviously this is not a rigorous statistically valid study but I find it curious that so many expert climbers from this time have died young, and many of them in completely preventable circumstances. (Edlinger was in particularly difficult circumstances owing to alcoholism and depression and though the circumstances of his death have not been conclusively stated, it has been reported that a fall down the stairs at his home may have been the cause.) The question ought to be asked about whether climbing at very high levels could have a tendency towards higher mortality in early middle age, even outside of traditionally dangerous disciplines such as alpine or Himalayan climbing. I traditionally think of climbing as a force for keeping people young, engaged with the outdoors and alert, but the recent deaths of so many prominent climbers has me wondering about a darker side to the sport, especially for male climbers. Being not much younger than Edlinger myself, I see his passing as a reminder to all of us to be thankful for the time that we have and the extraordinary experiences that climbing can give us and yet be aware of the costs.