A-Z of a Climber
10 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Someone once asked Yvon Chouinard what he thought about the dangers of climbing, to which he replied: “More people die from eating bad mayonnaise than die climbing.”
Now, this brings up an interesting point about danger, namely what if you climb and eat mayonnaise? Does this mean you’re doubling your chances of pegging it, meaning you should layoff the egg mayo sandwiches while soloing the Eiger North Face or before embarking on your death grit project?
Put it another way, when you come back from hazardous climbs, people are either in two camps; the “how can you be so irresponsible” and the “well you could get run over by a bus crossing the road”. Personally, I prefer the judgmental approach as this is, at least, a little more realistic - after all with all the death in the world and all those people barely clinging to life, what gives you the right to go out looking for trouble? As for the former view - well like the mayonnaise I just say “I do have to cross the road as well you know.”
This brings up an interesting point about people who put themselves in harm’s way, which is, would they do it if their lives were full of danger all the time? For example, if you were digging up land mines in Bosnia for 12 hours a day, what would you do on your day off? A bit of free soloing perhaps? How about knocking off some turfy North Face in the Tatras? Maybe a bit of bull running? No, I think you’d probably stay in bed where it’s nice and warm and read Harry Potter or find a brothel with a bar!
There’s a great bit in the story ‘A short walk with Doug Scott’ in The Burgess Book of Lies where Adrian Burgess and Doug are sat in the Argentiere Hut about to embark on a winter ascent of the North East Spur of the Droites, when Doug says: “If we were the last men on earth, would we be embarking on this climb?” This is a great question as it really focuses your mind on the reality of danger and for many, the answer would probably be: “Erm, probably not” followed by: “How everybody die Doug?”
Personally, I think that it is good to have a healthy fear of danger and dying - after all that’s how I judge danger. It’s either dead or alive with me and I don’t dwell on what lies in-between maybe it’s because of a winter climbing background where there really isn’t much there to talk about anyway!
I’ve always been paranoid about safety, always asking myself ‘what if?’ at every stage of a climb, but the problem with this approach is that it can lead to a very negative approach to climbing and life in general a view that most of society now seems to share!. The funny thing is that on the surface I appear to be oblivious to dangers - almost foolhardy - throwing myself at objectives where the chances of dying seem pretty high and I guess that on my tombstone will be the words Here lies a man who’s motto was always “what’s the worse that could happen” and one day it did.
You often come across climbers - naming no names - who seem to have absolutely no concept of danger, seemingly protected by a cast-iron belief that they are either invincible or just piss poor at committing suicide. One trait among such climbers is their lack of connection to the earth - often literally - and I think this is something worth considering if there are any climbers out there who fancy soloing all the 8, OOO metre peaks, leading E11 or digging up land mines.
I expect when you’ve only got your mum’s heart to break it’s easier to stick your neck out.
As you get older danger is replaced by consequence and I often think how easy it would be to climb even the hardest and most dangerous climbs if you didn’t have the weight of all that love holding you back. This is why test pilots are usually married, have kids and drive Volvo hatchbacks, because they can push it but they won’t push it too far because they ultimately have something to go back home to and I think in the cases of some mad climbers this is ultimately what they’re really searching for.
The scary thing is that it’s not as if the dangerous climbers prove a point to all the safe climbers by dying, in fact, it’s often the safe climbers who die.
The truth is that danger is not about mayonnaise, out of control buses, or hard routes, it’s all about luck, that which you create and that which you cannot.
Life’s just dangerous full stop, so just get on with living it while it lasts - and be careful crossing the road.