Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death in Climbing

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" Voltaire
The world of climbing has been in a state of shock since learning of the death of Dean Potter and his companion Graham Hunt in a BASE jumping accident near Taft Point in Yosemite last Saturday. Among other effects, this accident rapidly brought back to earth the climate of euphoria and celebration that existed in the wake of the Dawn Wall ascent in March and the movie Valley Uprising that ends with footage of bootleg BASE descents in Yosemite. Maybe climbers are revisiting hard truths about the vertical environment that cannot be easily dismissed as handwringing or timidity or obscured through redemptive fantasies of "he died doing what he loved" or the like.

The truth is that climbers become remarkably inarticulate in the face of death. Far too many use euphemisms like "passing" or even worse "transitioning" as if slamming headlong into granite at 80 mph is like switching trains or getting a new job. Others implicitly praise themselves for somehow learning something profound or growing from the death of another climber. Pseudo-mystical or poetical utterances about imagined afterlives and "happy hunting ground" scenarios abound. But the truth seems to me to lie elsewhere, away from the quasi-religious speculations and faux-Zen platitudes, the worst of which are expressed in this video interview with Dean Potter. What business a clothing manufacturer has discussing the most serious and unknowable aspect of human existence is beyond my ability to fathom but there it is.

Death is something about which we ultimately know nothing beyond our perceptions of a once-living thing now gone. In climbing it takes on a spectacular aspect because of the nature and locations of most climbing deaths. In dangerous situations climbers like to say they have "cheated death" or "escaped" it, the most foolish saying they "defied death." Death doesn't get defied or escaped, it just is, like math or physics. Climbers like to credit their will or their "mindfulness" or whatever in somehow overcoming death but it seems to me that death works in the way of most things in the universe, things that exist eventually are destroyed, dissolved, disintegrated, and obliterated. In the words of David to his son Solomon in the King James version of the Bible we "go the way of all the earth..."

Climbers have an especially hard time with death because it brings up a number of unpleasant truths we all devote considerable time and energy avoiding. Among the mot important is the fact that we do not have the level of control over ourselves and our environment that we like to pretend we do. There is a kind of selection bias involved whereby, having survived a situation, we imagine that it was because of our preparation, our courage, our choices, even our moral character when of course any number of things could have happened beyond our ability to control that would negate those factors. A climber's death is the surest evidence of the limits of this way of comprehending the world. Thus we turn away and imagine that we would never be caught in that situation ourselves, that we are somehow made of the right stuff

We also like to believe that our aesthetic responses to dangerous situations confer some kind of immunity to harm or catastrophe, or at least provide a justification for being there. As with the magical thinking described above, climbing deaths abruptly foreclose on the rapturous wonder of high places forcing the awareness of the terrible price to be paid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just because we have or believe we had certain feelings about climbing can we really claim that a violent death is justified by those feelings?

Most chillingly to me, that aesthetic feeling leads to the "he died doing what he loved" reaction, a dubious consolation at best. Climbers die hitting objects at high speeds or being hit by those objects. They die smothered in snow and ice or freezing to death. They do not expire blissfully having just completed the climb of a lifetime. Again reality is elided in favor of a fantasy best summed up by the ridiculous but oft-quoted phrase from Peter Pan: "'To die will be an awfully big adventure." This romantic Rupert Brooke-ian nonsense, which was seen often in late Victorian and Edwardian England, died a less-than-glamorous death in the muddy battlefields of the Somme and elsewhere in World War I. However it keeps popping up in the sport of climbing, a sport which in many ways finds its historical origins from that time and culture.

Climbers know deep down that their sport, which is by any rational measure, without real purpose or justification, is potentially very very dangerous. By some this is seen as a form of character-building virtue in its own right, "the moral equivalent of war" as the founder of Outward Bound Kurt Hahn quoted William James. I am skeptical of the extension of this to climbing, not least because there is no moral equivalent of war, war lacking any morality in the first place. Arguing for climbing as a morally virtuous activity because of its danger ignores the very real consequences of that danger and its largely amoral component. The serac doesn't care when it falls, the loose hold merely breaks when it's pulled on. Just because climbers might project a psychological or moral structure to their activities hardly necessitates that such a state actually exists in reality.

Too many authors to count have commented on the fundamentally amoral aspects of combat. From the beginnings of Western literature with Homer' s Iliad and Odyssey, we see the first-hand accounts of those who were there emphasizing not glory or redemption but confusion, disaster, decay and misery. Knowledgeable climbers know that the same applies to climbing accidents yet the same tropes are pulled out to justify what we do: the aesthetic response, the joy, the intensity, the bonds of friendship ("we happy few, we band of brothers" to quote Shakespeare) the claims to heightened awareness, the "carpe diem" BS that clogs online climbing forums every day.

Particularly frustrating is the fact that at least in part this is used in the service of commercial interests, a game that Dean was forced to some degree to play to remain a professional climber. Are words like "risk" and "extreme" just euphemisms for "potentially deadly," euphemisms that are used to sell a vicarious adrenalin rush to an uncritical audience? Should we be thinking more clearly whether the vision of sports sold by Red Bull, to take the most egregious example, is really worth supporting? As long as we stay in denial about the realities of death and dying in climbing apparently the answer is yes.

So how should we respond to climbing deaths? In my view, we do best by acknowledging the truth about them, that they are ugly, they are real and to some extent unavoidable, simply statistically unavoidable since we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We should also acknowledge the possibility that there is really only loss to the survivors, that trying to create redemption in fantastic or magical thinking only denies the truth of someone's death. If the climber or climber's family was deeply religious, that is their business and not the concern of those outside that close circle. We should certainly not try to fit a climber's death into a preconceived idea about how or why climbing should be practiced. Nor should we be fatalistic about climbing deaths, overly accepting of them. They are as mentioned above, unnecessary, ugly and devastating. If we learn from them, it should be on the most humble terms possible, acknowledging and honoring the sacrifice of life above all.

I still think it was best expressed by the survivor of one of the most notorious climbing accidents of all time, Edward Whymper: "Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” What the end might be for each of us is unknown but I think we would do well to consider it deeply from time to time. In the words of John Donne, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."