Another climber, the ninth so far this year, the fifth in just the last six weeks, has died on Capitol Peak. This notoriously challenging mountain near Aspen, Colorado has gained a reputation for being very difficult, which, as was being discussed on line this morning on Front Range Outdoor Women’s Alliance, may create another kind of problem.
The website 14ers.com ranks Capitol as the most difficult to climb. That makes it even more sexy to bag, not only to experienced climbers but to those possibly seeking a more “epic” experience. Bragging rights, perhaps. We can never know. The dead can’t talk.
I posted a strongly-worded comment on this issue this morning and was met by a variety of responses, some of whom took me to task for being too hard on the climbers. It wasn’t my intention to bash the climbers. I’m unhappy about a culture that is potentially creating more deaths, not just in my home state but in the entire adventure industry. As someone who has lived in Colorado for four decades I’ve seen our population explode, and with the advent of smartphones and the cameras therein, the Instagram culture. Outside Magazine featured a story last year on the increasingly common habit of heading into the wild (or on any trip) for the sole purpose of photographing one’s self at a radical location as a part of “branding.”
It’s impossible to know if this is part of what caused any of these deaths. However, the lack of experience of the climbers, the locations of their bodies and the comments of the rescuers tend to point to what seems to be a dearth of respect for the peak’s difficulty.
One of this morning’s posters commented on the culture in the Northeast to “bag” the 48 peaks that dot that part of the country. She herself admitted to wanting to do the same thing after moving here to Colorado. After researching what it would take, she downsized her goal and is coming at this agenda with a slightly more humble approach.
The Rockies are not the upper Appalachians. While mountain conditions exist in both places, the Rockies can be subject to some extraordinarily difficult rock and climbing conditions that one might not face back East. Conditions vary, but we’re higher here. A lot higher.
As an adventure journalist and someone who does her fair share of adventure travel of all kinds around the world, I’ve been subject to the effects of the photo-first, work-second compulsion that seems to drive a particular community of people.
On a Class V rafting trip in Uganda on the Nile, the young man in front of me repeatedly failed to paddle at all while fiddling with his GoPro. We were in exceedingly dangerous waters, a fact that he didn’t seem to comprehend. Getting himself on camera was far too important, the rest of his raftmates be damned. Since he was right up front and supposed to be helping with steering, this caused us all manner of problems and contributed to upending us far more often than necessary.
On a recent horseback adventure in Spain, a young French girl was riding a feisty horse that was getting ready to kick a nearby horse with rider. Her animal’s ears were laid back and he was positioning himself for the strike. His rider, in her twenties, had no clue. She was busy texting and taking selfies. We were on a steep, rocky hillside. It could have been a real disaster. I called this to her attention, and the moment passed. However the entire trip, she texted, listened to music and never heard the safety instructions of our guide. The selfies were more important than understanding the inherent dangers of mountain riding, how to cross streams and being mindful of other riders.
I could list far too many more examples. My frustration is borne of watching people get hurt, people endangering others. As I interview guides and experts all over the world, they, too see these changes.
Smart, capable women posted online this morning- women who commit long hours to educating themselves about avalanche dangers, types of snowpack, all manner of high country ski safety. They wrote about how people wanted a more “epic” experience that they seemed not to realize might put their lives, and those of others, in danger by triggering an avalanche. A good discussion ensued about how one even defines “epic.” It’s highly individual.
It is one thing to want to live outside the lines. I’m a fan. A full-blooded, live-out-loud fan. However, I believe in preparation. No matter where I have flung my body, whether out of an airplane, onto a skittish horse, over a bridge, into a kayak on waters that terrified me, there was always a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Plan D. But that’s just my way of being in the wild. I intend to come back.
Eeli Steck, the much-celebrated expert climber who lost his life climbing Mt. Everest this year, was an outlier. No one could possibly outstrip him in knowledge or accomplishments, but the mountain took him at the untimely age of 40. There’s a piece of me that would argue that he died doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky. And there’s that piece that, along with those friends and family of ours that rail at us for taking chances want to remind us, there’s a time to pull back a little. It wasn’t Steck’s way. So I, like many others, respect this aspect of his incredible nature, and recognize that this was a calculated risk on his part. I’m sure he planned to come back. But he lost that bet.
The desire to be that outlier may be, I fear, one of the passions that drives people to try to bag mountains they’re not ready to climb. As one commenters noted, “bagging peaks has been around forever.” Yes. But Instagram, which has changed our behavior, has not. And so the influx of many less-experienced people in desperate need of a good story over a beer and the dopamine-delivering ding of another “like,” may well be causing more injuries and deaths than necessary. The allure of becoming the next Internet sensation. It’s now well-documented that we are addicted to our devices. They reflect our need for validation and acknowledgement. This is just an extreme example of how far a certain community of people will go to get those likes, those photos and videos that prove to everyone….what exactly? And at what cost?
We don’t know what really happens on Capitol. All we see is where the bodies fall. Guess. Listen to what their climbing partners report. And grieve. We all grieve. And worry that with each death, Capitol Peak becomes more attractive to those determined to “bag” this very dangerous mountain.
Sometimes I wonder if we’ve all seen too many Avenger movies.
The adventure travel industry, which has heretofore focused on the 25-45 something white male, has been expanding its reach to women. I find, most especially as I see how women reacted on the OWA thread, that more often than not, there is a greater respect for the potential dangers. More research and preparation. Just as with job interviews, women are more likely to want to show up 100% prepared rather than to see a radical photo in Outside Magazine and decide you’re gonna go do that, then get a video to brand yourself.
Cheryle Strayed of “Wild” fame, didn’t exactly do that. But now the Pacific Coast Trail is jam-packed with beginners, wanna-bes, folks who are woefully unprepared for the wicked weather conditions that plagued the PCT this year. Unfortunately, her story spawned a whole crop of folks who wanted to be just like her. Just Do It. In this case, as with Capitol, there can be devastating outcomes and rescuers’ lives are in danger as well.
I may be wrong. But even those who profess to want to bag peaks as badly as their male counterparts seem to have, more often than not, taken more measures to know where they are, what they’re doing, and get educated. And, above all, get off the mountain if it looks dangerous.
To my mind it’s not worth the risk if you end up at the bottom of a crevasse because you overestimated your skill, so desperately wanted that epic photo, that you paid little heed to the very real dangers around you. Great Nature is incredibly impatient with heedlessness. Animal or man, she will take us out if we don’t respect Her.
And to my mind, that’s just not worth that Instagram shot.