Sunday, November 20, 2011

Alpine Climbing Self-Rescue

I came across this video a few days ago and thought it was worth sharing.  (Warning:  this video contains some profanity and some graphic images of injuries.)  The Cliff Notes version is that two climbers set off to climb a long ice gully when the leader triggers an avalanche sending both of them for massive falls.  One of the climbers suffers severe injuries to one ankle and the opposite quadriceps.  Amazingly, the other climber emerges unscathed.  The video chronicles their descent off the route and the subsequent travel back to the trailhead.  While there is certainly room for improvement in their epic, they deserve much credit (and they do WAY better than in this video).  Most remarkable is that the party completed a self-rescue with absolutely no outside support.  I tip my hat to these two, their unwavering resolve, their self-reliance, and their ability to keep their cool during a stressful, painful, and life-threatening situation.  Will Gadd offers a cogent analysis of the self-rescue on his blog.

This notion of self-reliance brings me to an important question about climbing (especially in the alpine) today:  is self-reliance valued?

Recently, I have been having an ongoing debate with one of my climbing partners about whether we would hire porters on a hypothetical Himalayan expedition (not that there’s any real chance we’d be anywhere near the Himalaya anytime soon, but it makes for good mental masturbation while driving to the crag).  He favors hiring porters to help carry his gear to base camp and then further up the mountain.  I am vehemently opposed to the practice.

There are two broad schools of thought in alpine climbing and mountaineering:  “alpine style” and “siege tactics.”  I am a strong proponent of alpine style, whereas he tends to exhibit more “ethical flexibility.”  In my opinion, the purest alpine ascent is one that follows Reinhold Messner’s notion of “fair means”—no bolts, no supplemental oxygen, no help other than yourself or partner(s), taking the mountain for what it is and having the humility to retreat if you are not up to the challenge.  To me, this also means adherence to the maxims of “light is right” and “speed is safety.”  If I can’t carry it on my back, it shouldn’t be coming along.  Therefore, I shouldn’t need to hire a porter.  He countered that hiring porters stimulates the local economy; I am more than happy to support the local economy in ways that don’t demean the native population into schlepping my extra crap around because I brought along more than I needed.

Naturally, the debate finally degenerated into good-natured name-calling and ended when I was asked whether I would fly to Alaska to climb.  We found the limits of my ethical purity—it would certainly be much more self-reliant to bike all the way to Denali (I have a friend who is actually doing just that!), but I admitted that I would fly to Alaska and start my climb from there (but that I would still carry all of my own stuff!)

To me, the punchline is that my friend’s view is not altogether different from what I perceive as that of many climbers today.  There is little emphasis on self-reliance.  When the excrement hits the oscillator, it’s a lot easier to call 911 or punch the SOS button on your GPS messenger than to solve your own problem.  Further, it seems that many climbers lack the tools and skills to effect their own rescue even if they chose to do so.

In many ways, perhaps, this is a moot point.  How dangerous can it really be to go bouldering some place where you have not only cell service, but 3G signal, a paved parking lot, a 30-second approach, and possibly even flush toilets?  I think the danger arises when the mentality of the climbing gym is transferred to the “outdoor gym,” and then subsequently carried one step further to a legitimate backcountry setting without appreciating the change in commitment level or time and distance from help.

Part of the beauty of climbing is that in practice there are no rules.  You can climb however you see fit so long as you’re not actively endangering others (and even then people sometimes do this anyway!)  This freedom is one of the many things that attracts me to climbing, and I certainly would not have it be diminished.  (Since I value self-reliance in addition to this freedom, I am also inclined to feel that it would be partly my own fault for hanging around people who could be endangering my safety.)  Consequently, I cannot legitimately get upset at someone who hires a porter, hang dogs a route while giving some ridiculous spray-down, or claims a clean send when holding onto the gear to clip it.  That’s all a matter of style.  I have personal rules about what I consider good style, but what is right for me is not necessarily right for others.

However, with freedom comes responsibility, and it is here that I will not compromise.  If you are going to the backcountry, you should know your stuff and be ready to save your own ass or accept the consequences.  Period.  Search-and-rescue operations are time-consuming, costly, and endanger the lives of countless people, often volunteers, and the callous and flippant use of these services is irresponsible and reprehensible.  (I am absolutely NOT denying that there are legitimate uses of rescue services.)  So, if you’re reading this and you don’t know how to tie a munter-mule, reduce a shoulder dislocation, navigate in a white-out, or keep it together when the going gets tough, stay out of the backcountry until you do.  Read a book, take a class, hire a guide, do your homework, get in shape, gain some knowledge, practice some skills, and then go get some experience.  Everyone involved will be happier for it.

Peregrine Climbing Guides

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