The Normality of Tragedy

A blunt and probing look at the relationship between climbing and death.


I clicked onto the Alpinist website on Tuesday night, one of those “screensaver” sites you visit when your mind goes blank and you need something to do, clicking on Tumblr, BBC News, or UK Climbing – something to do before you have something to do. Alpinist has a lot of good content, but being a small affair it’s slow to produce new attention fodder, their time taken up producing the best climbing magazine in the world, no doubt, but one worth a visit when your thoughts nip out. On the front page there were six news stories, the last five ones I’d read already, while the newest one was an obituary for Doug Walker, killed in an avalanche on the 31st of December. The one proceeding this was an obituary for Ryan Jennings, killed by ice climbing, then another for Kei Taniguchi, who slipped and died while descending a mountain in Japan.

I looked at the page for a moment, clicked back to news from the previous months, read down to the deaths of Justin Griffin, Gerhard Fiegl, Doug Tompkins, and on and on it went. Sad tales that left you speechless, but just news like all the rest, just dying, as easy as checking the football scores.

A few weeks before, I’d read another piece on Alpinist where a climber had been killed during the descent from a new route, the account written by one of his partners. His death is mentioned in a paragraph close to the end, foreshadowed by the word “tragedy” in the title, then the writer swiftly moves on to describe his feeling about the climb:

“When we were coming back in the helicopter [on the second flight], I started to actually realize how amazing the line was that we climbed, that Gerry climbed. With all the blank ice and mixed climbing, we were really on the edge of our possibilities. Gerry stood on the summit of his biggest and most difficult climb and I’m thankful for that. I will never forget his shining eyes.”

I’ve read so many pieces like this that I almost failed to recognize just how odd such a piece of writing really is. It asked a fundamental question about our sport and the psychology of people who do it, namely: Why was it even written? What is the motivation? An obituary about the death of a friend and his last climb, yes, but a story of “your” climb with their death almost a footnote? I’m sure the author had no intention of writing something so transparent, an indictment of the normality of tragedy in mountaineering, because what he wrote was no different from a thousand other news pieces.

I see it all the time, a strange sort of focus and singlemindedness, where people are on extended trips or projects where someone dies, not a stranger, but someone they know, maybe someone with a bond as strong as brother, and then – after a brief pause for a Facebook eulogy, replete with comments that reinforce its tragedy – you just carry on with your trip or project, that death no more than a speed bump in your story.

This has been on my mind a lot of late, planning on returning to try the Harlin on the Eiger – the fourth time, but now with me very much in love. As is always the case, I kid myself that this will be the “last time,” but I also fear – as I always have – that as life is so good now now, so absolutely perfect, that this will be the one that kills me. I spend a month or two thinking about the route, planning and scheming, stressing, worrying, feeling that death each night I cling to Vanessa knowing I’d be a fucking idiot to want to go back. And then Atlantic storms pile in, one after the other, the date I’m due to go – today – put back, the window getting smaller, so small soon it’ll be impossible to fit, and in bed I can lay with her and know the danger has passed once more, work and stuff and love and fun blocking the way. Alpine climbing is a bastard game, so why do I play it, why not just stop? Am I scared of losing my voice – losing my job, no more free kit, no more opportunity to talk about my life? But what is that life worth?

Is this a story of our age, of our narcissism and desire to gobble up the pig of life, that life does not matter in the end, that we are at war with nature and there will be casualties? I’ve thought about this a lot in terms of competitive sport, in terms of drugs, bodies, and relationships wrecked in pursuit of something of no value at all: a gold medal, a record only held until someone breaks it, a line on a mountain. I know full well that when you’re that person, entangled and blinded by your selfish narcissistic dreams, you just can’t see the truth of your sickness and neither can anyone around you, who cheer you on and say good luck as you tap the vein.

It’s funny but I often thought these things about Steve House, a man I’d say was once wrapped up too tight in himself, a man who I thought would one day lie dead someone where, down a hole, on ledge, lost or found, but crushed by the end game of his unquenchable ambition, another Macintyre, Rouse, Lafaille, Béghin (this list could fill a book). But when I look at his Instagram these days I see a man who – perhaps – has withdrawn that needle a little, see him skiing with his wife, having fun, breathing at last, knowing what real sacrifice brings – perhaps. For Steve maybe a life changing accident was just that, and although I’m sure he plans his return, I hope he will not be that man again even if he wants to, even if that life without the drug feels like only half a life. I wonder if thinking like this, having some kind of growing realization of just how gloriously fucked up alpinism is, the tragedy engrained in its joy, well, maybe that’s a start. Maybe it’s not a weak man who pulls out the needle and walks away.

Andy Kirkpatrick is a climber, author, and speaker. You can read more of his writing at andy-kirkpatrick.com.
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Showing 16 comments
  • Shawn St. Michael
    Reply

    Who is it in the header picture?

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Nice, thought-provoking essay.

  • Steve
    Reply

    Great piece… it always bothers me when people, including climbers themselves, label climbing as a purely selfish pursuit. Isn’t running a marathon, or cycling a century, or doing a Spartan race the same? Unless you’re raising money for charity they’re all selfish, these achievements don’t help anyone but the ego of the person doing it. Yet climbing alone seems to get the “selfish” label.

    • Mark
      Reply

      These things are all selfish – and generally, no less so because it’s done in the name of charity – it’s just that people don’t die with such frequency in the other sports you mention. Essentially, the higher the risk of death, the more selfish the act because death is ok for the dier (yes, I just made up that word) but it’s a total shitter on every level between dull administrative and high emotional for the people left behind – and the closer they are to you, the more you (the dier) hurt them.

      (Probably exactly why the alpinists climbing the most extreme routes (I had written ‘best alpinists’ but what does that mean?) are lone-wolf sociopaths like the young Mark Twight or ‘wrapped in themselves a little too tight’ as Andy K sympathetically puts it)

      • Steve
        Reply

        Great points Mark, and I guess I can go with > death rate = > degree of selfishness. But let’s face it, in the general sense mountaineering is still not very dangerous. Now I’m referring to general mountaineering and rock climbing – folks climbing 14ers, Kilimanjaro, the local crag, the ‘Gunks etc. I can’t quote numbers, but the death rates per thousands of participants and weekend warriors is low. Yes, the death rate is higher for the House’s/Twight’s/Boukarev’s etc at the extreme edge, but these sports are enjoyed by so many regular folk like me. Driving a car on a road in America – where 32,000+ people die every year in crashes – could likely be more dangerous. Dunno, but could be. Yet driving a car isn’t considered selfish.

        And I love Alex Honnold’s response to his “crazy risk taking” when he says “Aren’t lazy people who eat crappy food and sit on their butts and get no exercise taking bigger risks?” Again, hard to quantify but lots of things in life are risky.

  • Alan Lemire
    Reply

    “Weak”…..”Strength”…..”Tragedy”…..these are all merely words that mean different things to different people. Trying to affix our own definitions to these nouns/adjectives in someone else’s life is fruitless. Our own definitions change and mutate in our own worlds on a daily basis. One does what one will do. That is all.

    • Laur
      Reply

      you make a very good point ^^

  • Nick
    Reply

    nice essay.

    Pulling that needle out was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Ten years later, and I could not be happier, still get dope sick from time to time tho…

  • Tree
    Reply

    “The needle”. Must we really couch these aches in heroin metaphor? Nonetheless, the “point” is taken and another well articulated synopsis of suffering inks itself on the risk tribe. Andy, stay away from that “Eiger” woman, Vanessa loves you!

  • Roman Dial
    Reply

    Vey well written essay on a topic as old as risk

  • Christian Shackelford
    Reply

    Is the length of life really so important that we should give up our pursuits because of the risk of death? Many of us would think that living sterile lives in a cubicle, taking a pay check and binge watching Netflix is a living death. We are all going to live and die and cause our loved ones much pain when we pass no matter how that passing happens. There are alot worse way to die then to do so climbing. By all means, if you have children get life insurance and don’t make stupid mistakes, but don’t give up on the things that move you just because of the risk.

  • Jeff Shapiro
    Reply

    Although I have respect for this point of view and opinion, I feel it should be humbly pointed out that it’s just that…..an opinion and perspective gained by an individual experience. Feelings relative to why risk is or, is not acceptable are dynamic and personal. You say it’s (climbing) selfish and only feeds the ego, a narcissistic desire to gobble the pig of life? That may be your truth but I’d challenge you to step outside of yourself and your climbing heroes (not that you likely really know them) and try to understand that maybe, just maybe, some of us that have too much experience losing friends in the mountains return simply because of the pure joy, gratitude and humility it brings us. The times I turn around to see the sun rise above a Himalayan peak, or watch a massive avalanche pour down a remote alpine face; those moments for me define “God” (for lack of a better word). They make me feel small and part of the world, seeing it NOT through the filters of my ego but instead, feeling part of something instead of in control of it. I agree, it’s a bit of a dichotomy that I’ve written about in the past regarding wing suit BASE jumping. “Every time I head into the mountains to do a wing suit flight, I see the lines in my wife’s face grow deeper yet, I have a greater capacity to love her because of my experiences while flying in the mountains”. It’s a tough reality. That quote, for me, agrees with what you wrote but I come back to the fact that what I gain in humility from the experience, the personal growth and the pure and personal joy which results in a deep level of gratitude, makes the decision each morning to be happy an easy one to make. It allows me to recognize with clarity what is important and what is trivial. All of this makes the time I have with my daughter, wife, friends and family more precious and less routine. So, I’d challenge you……is that selfish? You might think from a comfortable distance that it’s nothing more than a justification but, I’d argue that it affects my life in such a positive way that I’m better able to give the very best of who I am to the people I care about most when we are together and sharing time. Make sense?
    None of this is an attempt to sway your outlook or claim your wrong. It’s only an attempt to share an alternative perspective on life and death and the “why”. For some, it (climbing) is something that helps us to be better dads and moms, husbands and wives and to live a life that explores the possibilities of the human experience, the “joy of being alive”. I just lost another brother in the mountains yesterday and I’m sad. He lived an amazing life and I will miss him dearly, as I do all of my other friends lost. But I celebrate that although their accidents affected those of us left behind, many were living lives full of discovery, full of passion, inspiration, purpose and positive effort. Remember, words like perfect and secure are made up and none of us are going to make it out of this alive. It’s our responsibility to live lives we are proud of (and that last statement has nothing to do with risk which, is again….personal and shouldn’t be judged from a singular perspective of one’s truth). Just my 2 cents. I never respond to these but I thought your essay was interesting and was compelled. Cheers

    • Chris Wegener
      Reply

      Steve–
      Yes around 32thousand in a country of 229 million die in car accidents. But the truth of the matter if you wear a seatbelt it is pretty damn hard to die in a car accident.

      Climbing on the other hand is much more dangerous because you are much closer to the edge. Yes even local cragging and hiking up mountains. Weather, rapping off you ropes mixing up your tie in point while setting up to lower all make it much more likely that a moment’s distraction, fatigue or other issue can lead to death or serious injury.

      The risk of this selfish activity are as Mark points out are suffered by the survivors. The person killed is dead.

      The issue is that the person who has died had many more years to live and enjoy life. Their selfishness ultimately steals the many years of memories and happiness they may have experienced.

      Yes there is risk in daily life but in this day and age in this country they are vanishingly small compared to the risk of climbing and invisible compared to extreme climbing. Not that that will ever stop those who choose to do it from participating. Denial is a river in Africa.

      • Steve
        Reply

        Chris, thanks for your comments but I respectfully disagree with your comment that it’s pretty damn hard to die in a car accident. Maybe it’s just that this issue hits home for me – I’ve had two friends die before the age of 40 in car crashes in the past 3 years (they shouldn’t be called “accidents” because that insinuates that no one was at fault, when in truth the vast majority of crashes are a result of someone breaking the law, and causing someone to die as a result of their law breaking). I’ve been climbing for 24 years and don’t have any climber friends who have died. Granted, I’m not friends with folks like Tommy Caldwell or Simone Moro who take crazy risks either.

        Statistically you are probably correct, since I’m really good at math I realize that. It would come down to the number of deaths per hour of riding in a car (32,000+ deaths every year but the number of hours is ginormous), versus the number of deaths per hour of climbing. My guess is that in that equation climbing is more dangerous. But the LEADING cause of death for young folks in America is still car crashes by far, and it boggles my mind that someone can break a law (ie. run a red light), kill someone as a result, and get a $150 ticket for it as the only consequence It’s beyond Twilight Zone stuff…

        • Steve
          Reply

          Oh and both of my friends who perished were wearing their seatbelt as I forgot to mention….

  • Tully
    Reply

    Death is not unique to climbing. We’re all going to die. That is normal. But in the time we have, we may have the chance to discover beautiful things that encourage a rich experience. They may not have a tangible or even a widely accepted value, but a value that is intrinsic and individual. I know for myself that I am drawn to adventure, to see and feel the raw aesthetic quality nature’s grandeur and its harshness. I am also drawn to the potential for a transformative experience when you engage in the physical and psychological challenges that come with adventure in the mountains. For me time in the mountains is time in the temple, at once at meditative and reflective process. While I don’t do anything really extreme—maybe a winter solo in the Sierra Nevada—I have been challenged on my reasoning to take those risks, but they are risks that I fully understand and accept. I also accept that the rarity of the experience is tied to the risk. I want to live a long life, but a life rich in experience, and so far I’ve found that many of life’s great experiences come with risk. Doing my best to continue to learn and expand my skills to best manage those risks, but I’ve also realized that living a life trying to insult myself from the unknown, is not the experience I choose. While I would not seek to demean folks who choose another path, I think we can be unfair of our appraisal of climbers. We seek to identify its origins in narcissism and selfishness. But flip the coin. Is it not selfish to demand that others not take risks just because we ourselves are not comfortable with them? Losing a loved one is tough and that will never change. Making a loved one feel guilty for living the life they choose or trying to coerce them to do otherwise, is let’s face it, selfish. It’s disingenuous to imply that we live solely for the sake of protecting others from the grief they may experience at our loss and as such abandon all activity of risk—such a course would be narcissistic. In reality that is largely out of our control. Climbing is easily as useful or useless as any human activity. Whatever paths we pursue, whatever activity brings us the joy, challenges, or transformations we seek, if we pursue and seek them with an open heart, prepared to live and love fully in the moment, that’s all that really matters. Life like all things is transient, like the Buddhist concept of Anitya suggests, and my reflections in the mountains have brought this reality in to relief. If all we seek in our short time is to avoid risk, we may miss a golden opportunity. I appreciate your thoughtful article and wish you all the best.

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