Must there always be blame when a climber dies on a mountain?
I was more than a little upset by something I read on a climbing website recently. This had been the intention of the article, but I was annoyed for different reasons than the author had intended. It all started when a comment arrived in Spanish to a previous post on my blog. Although I don’t speak Spanish, an automated translation service was enough to reveal that it was an abusive comment aimed at Robert Anderson, one of the people mentioned in my post, and my expedition leader on Cho Oyu last year. A Google search led me to the article in question on the website of The Alpinist magazine.
It concerned the tragic death of an experienced Swiss climber on Makalu in Nepal last month, and appeared to point the finger of blame for the tragedy at Robert Anderson. I read it a few times, and each time I digested a little bit more, my disappointment rose. There was so many things wrong with the article and a related one on the website ExplorersWeb that it was hard to know which bit I felt most strongly about, but eventually I was able to put my thoughts together into something coherent. I won’t go into a critique of it here, but you can read my response in the comments of the Alpinist article.
Before I go on I would like to say that my thoughts are very much with the friends and family of Joelle Brupbacher, a climber I had not heard of until a few days ago, but whose climbing record (Makalu was to be her fifth successful ascent of an 8000 metre peak) puts her forever among the elite of women mountaineers. This post is in no way aimed at her, her friends, family or supporters, who I hope are able to put aside the controversy and remember her for her remarkable achievements.
I’ve now come to understand what it was I found most offensive about the article, something I’m calling The Krakauer Syndrome, in honour of the climber and journalist Jon Krakauer, whose book Into Thin Air is perhaps the best known example of it among the mountaineering community. I could just as easily call it, perhaps a little more harshly, the Daily Mail Syndrome, in honour of the British tabloid newspaper whose style of writing is calculated to incite hatred born of ignorance, principally racist, among its impressionable readership.
For anyone who has not read it, Into Thin Air is an account of the 1996 Everest tragedy, when a number of climbers from two commercial teams, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, died during a single summit attempt, including the leaders of both teams, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. While storm clouds gathered over Everest’s summit ridge both teams continued onwards to the summit long after the time they had originally set as their latest turnaround time. Ever since it was first published and Krakauer unaccountably pointed the finger of blame at one of the guides on the Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev, who spent hours in the storm saving the lives of climbers on the South Col, it has ignited furious debate among the mountaineering community.
As one of the climbers who both reached the summit and returned safely that day, you might expect Krakauer’s book to be the most accurate account of the tragedy. While this may or may not be true (and everybody with an opinion should read Boukreev’s book The Climb for the counter-argument) there are good reasons why his account shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth. By his own admission Krakauer had imperfect recollection that day, the most notable example being when he mistook Martin Adams, a climber on the Mountain Madness team who returned safely, for Andy Harris, a guide on the Adventure Consultants team who went missing in the storm. This is no reflection on Krakauer’s memory, and is a common effect for climbers who are pushing themselves through the limits of exhaustion.
When I made my first attempt on an 8000 metre peak in 2009, Gasherbrum II in Pakistan, I was amazed at the amount of gossip and rumour that circulated on the mountain. So many contradictory stories did the rounds that it was impossible to figure out which were true, and which were simply garbled messages passed from climber to climber until the truth became lost in the wind. It was such an eye-opener for me that I even called my expedition diary Thieves, Liars and Mountaineers. While this description was principally a reference to false summit claims, it also embraced the tittle tattle that was circulated day after day without any regard for establishing the facts. Allied to this was a high degree of one-upmanship and a willingness to snipe and point blame at other climbers.
While this can be considered harmless in many cases, it most definitely is not when a death occurs and emotions become highly charged. The overwhelming urge to point the finger of blame, while understandable, can at times be unfair and unnecessary. While many inexperienced climbers can be found on big mountains these days, and different climbers have different perceptions of what is an acceptable risk, every one of them is capable of making his or her own decision to turn around. For a journalist sitting at a desk on the other side of the world, with the power at his fingertips to incite hatred if he chooses, the temptation to blame tragedy on other climbers on the mountain should be resisted, as it can become offensive and harmful to everyone concerned.
Mountaineering is an activity that originates in an appreciation of the natural world. There is no hatred here, merely a love of the great outdoors. While journalists and bloggers will try to twist it, it is up to all of us who absorb what is written to ensure we don’t behave like Daily Mail readers and allow ourselves to hate and blame.