In the summer of 2022, two well-known and experienced mountaineers died on a technical climb in Glacier National Park. Their status as local legends and their engagement with the climbing community in the area cast a pall over the rest of the summer season. Throughout the rest of the season, our outdoor conversations naturally drifted toward death and risk. Furthermore, I could tell that tragedy was present in our minds when making decisions.
I often talk to people who think climbing mountains is crazy, reserved for those who don’t value their life. Adrenaline junkies. My go-to response: driving my car to the trailhead is probably the most dangerous part of any day I spend in the mountains.1While it varies by mountain activity, this factoid is broadly true. Cars are insanely dangerous, and America accepts a ridiculously high level of driver, pedestrian, and cyclist deaths. If you want to see what real progress on car safety would look like, I’d point to both other forms of transportation (the NTSB’s incredible work in aircraft safety) and other countries (Finland’s actual commitment to Vision Zero as more than a buzzword) This framing is striking, but I don’t find it convincing to others. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s convincing to me.
The truth is that those who spend a significant proportion of their lives in the outdoors consider, consciously or not, whether they are willing to die there. This framing may seem overly dramatic, but I believe that responsibly engaging in activities like alpinism, backcountry skiing, and climbing demands this calculation.
The mundane nature of statistical risk on the road can mask the immediacy of one’s mortality. By contrast, the obviousness of danger in vertical terrain tolerates no façade of control. We can’t rationalize risk in the mountains as a necessary evil like we can with the latent risks of everyday life. The danger is inherent; at least for me, it’s essential to why days in the wilderness mean so much.
A successful trip is as much about managing risk and associated fear as it is about beauty, physical challenges, or companions. For me, the necessity of managing risk is its own source of pleasure and growth. I find it a great excuse to grow intellectually— for example, backcountry skiing breeds amateur snow scientists out of necessity. Cody Townsend’s ongoing documentary The Fifty is so beloved among skiers in large part because it doesn’t skip to the skiing porn but spends so much time showing the decision-making that goes into skiing consequential lines.
If the chance of severe injury or death was not present, I think alpinism would lose some of its intensity. At its best, that intensity demands intention and quiet focus. As someone that struggles to control my post-boredom stupor enabled by the information age, that meditative state is increasingly challenging for me to find in everyday life. Climbing with someone new necessitates a new discussion and feeling out of different risk levels. It’s excellent fodder for relationship building; indeed, this post is primarily an organization of various conversations I have had on climbs.
These characteristics probably provide little consolation to the families and comrades of those who have died in the mountains. It does not answer what larger value these pieces of rock have against the grief. But searching for that answer, finding peace with it, can be a catalyst for growth and self-actualization.
This summer I was climbing with a friend of mine who is very experienced in the mountains. This day, however, they seemed much more apprehensive than I would expect. Despite the relatively low risk of storms, we almost turned around when they expressed discomfort over clouds in the sky. They told me this was their first outing since a day-trip climb on Kintla Peak the previous fall. Over 30 miles with much of the distance off-trail, this grueling outing stretches the definition of a “day.” On top of that, they took a lesser-known route that ascended from Boulder Lake. While they summited successfully, the brief weather window slammed shut as they traversed through the Peabody Glacier basin that evening. Rain started to fall on the steep, slippery descent as lightning intermittently lit up the basin. In that moment of danger, they thought, “This isn’t worth it.” As the night wore on, multiple bear encounters in the pitch black only accentuated that danger and disillusionment. Almost a year later, it was clear that that experience still impacted their risk calculus on a much less committing climb.
Recovering from a moment of “this isn’t worth it” isn’t just limited to one’s outdoor pursuits. Living intimately connected to outdoor experiences often involves tradeoffs in other aspects of life. What happens when those mountains can’t be seen with their prior unmitigated bliss? Do those justifications and sacrifices for this lifestyle still make sense?
But actually evaluating our risk requires getting to that feeling of being beyond one’s limit; being at the point where it isn’t worth it. I have experienced fear and unexpected danger in the mountains, but still haven’t seen death or severe injury in myself or close friends. But almost everyone I know with this lifestyle has. Fundamentally, I am still naive. How can I genuinely evaluate risk when I haven’t seen those consequences firsthand?
In this contemplation lies a more profound question about one’s motivation for accomplishment outdoors. I think it’s common for mountain athletes to tie their self-worth to not merely spending time outdoors but accomplishing hard and dangerous things there. Validation is a dangerous thing to look for in the mountains, and that siren song can easily cloud judgment. “Seeking something missing, missing something left behind.”
By contrast, I think of Kilian Jornet, the legendary sky-runner and ski mountaineer. A short documentary chronicles his attempt to climb the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway. When confronted with the slightest risk of icefall, he abandons his goal with nary a disappointed word.
It’s important I think when conditions are not perfect just to say… mountain will stay always here but not we. So it’s always nice to be out and then… to plan for tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day, ah? We don’t live in the past, ah!”
In my opinion, this mindset is much more sustainable. Making good decisions can be the source of pride, even if that decision turns you around. That mindset can be hard to find, especially when our own irrational fear in the mountains often limits us far before real danger does. That feeling of pushing beyond that limit, finding comfort in the previously inconceivable, is so common when starting out in these activities. But as time goes on, more of that perceived risk becomes objective risk, just as we become more confident that all risk is perceived.
Preliminary research seems to find addictive properties in activities like rock climbing— particularly that cycle of chasing a bigger dose of danger as our tolerance increases. I’m reminded of (as I often am) of Vernon Garner’s writings about Glacier National Park.
“Do you come here often?”
“Oh sure…as often as possible. Because when I’m face to face with these peaks there are no greater mountains on the planet. I mean, I know that’s not true, but during the time spent on them, in their midst, no other possibility exists. To use a kind of common vernacular that gives a sense of perspective…well, they’ll just about blow the top of your head off.
Yeah, I keep coming back. It feels good as the everyday layers peel away, feels good to fill my mind with what is here. But I do admit that it gets harder to leave all the time. This place has a certain quality about it—I guess maybe you’d call it Wildness—which in no way can be avoided, or ignored…not that that’s the sort of thing you’d ever consider resisting. And even though that quality isn’t in the least compatible with life back home, invariably causing no end of conflict and depression through drawn-out days of ordinariness, and despite that you know perfectly well those feelings will happen every time. Still— you can’t help but take them with you. Sometimes it is really tough leaving. You keep looking over your shoulder.
So anyway…yes. I come here whenever possible. Always will.”Vernon Garner
Moving through the mountains is an internal conversation between a romantic and a realist.2perhaps a professor of logic! The romantic sees risk as a far-off possibility, something that heightens the senses and deepens the experience. The realist sees risk up close, sees its consequences and its cold indifference to intention or skill. It’s easy to balance these impulses as opposing forces. The true challenge is to integrate the romantic and the realist into one.
- 1While it varies by mountain activity, this factoid is broadly true. Cars are insanely dangerous, and America accepts a ridiculously high level of driver, pedestrian, and cyclist deaths. If you want to see what real progress on car safety would look like, I’d point to both other forms of transportation (the NTSB’s incredible work in aircraft safety) and other countries (Finland’s actual commitment to Vision Zero as more than a buzzword)
- 2perhaps a professor of logic!