Friday, December 15, 2006

A Few Thoughts on Mountains, Winter and Personal Responsibility

Back in the Back-When, I was on the starting line of a race called the IditaSport, a "human-powered" ultramarathon in Alaska on parts of the Iditarod Trail in February. And yes, it was 20 below zero nippy. In the Back-When, the race was barely controlled anarchy whose slogan was "Cowards won't show and the weak will die."

I'd signed up to do 85 miles on snowshoes, having attempted the race on a frozen bicycle a couple of years before, and was carrying the mandated 12+ pounds of survival equipment, including my bulletproof Marmot sleeping bag, a waterproof bivey sack and a Marmot expediiton down jacket, plus a tiny stoves, fuel, matches and enough yummy Power Bars and kibble to keep me alive for three days if I had to go to ground. I'd also signed and had notarized a release that stated the weather could be the worst on the planet; that there was no guarantee of rescue; that my death was a real possibility and that, essentially, I was an idiot for doing this.

On the line with me was one of my mentors in the looney-tunes sports world, an awesome ultraathlete with a resume that would get a "normal" person committed in a sanity hearing. We traveled together for the first mile or so, then my friend called a halt to toss the package of his survival gear into a snowbank. "Too heavy," he said, "Slows me down too much,"

What happens, I asked, if the weather, "goes south?"

"I die," he said, and was off like the proverbial shot.

I have been there, huddled in some flimsy shelter on the side of a mountain while the full fury of Nature vented outside; my thoughts and my prayers go out to the three veteran climbers trapped on Mt. Hood and their families waiting below. It was going to be a speed ascent, up and down quickly...the climbers have now been trapped up there for five days.

I'm not saying this is what happened, but sometimes there's a tendency for experienced climbers to take some of the North American peaks less seriously than they should. We see it all the time here in Colorado, and it's something that my Sweetie and I regularly address in ourselves...a Big Mountain — especially in the winter — demands your respect, or it will kill you. My Sweetie did her expedition training on Mt. Hood, and it is not a cupcake.

Since Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, there has been an on-again, off-again debate in the risk sports communities about the "expectation of rescue." A lot of us made our bones in magazines and books by pushing ourselves to the absolute limits, then writing about it. The consequences of our successes (and, to be blunt, our survival), coupled with a voracious publishing/cable television industry in seach of the Next Big Thing, sent hundreds of people out on their own quests. Not everyone got to come home.

I believe I can honestly say I never went into the wild with an "expectation of rescue." Part of the mental process I went through that enabled me to do the things I did were built around the acceptance of risk, and with that, the acceptance of the chance of my death. I used to teach corporations about the difference between "perceived" and "actual" risks and "subjective" and "objective" risks...while the first couplet is self-evident, the second is less so. "Subjective" risk is a risk over which you have some control; "objective" risk is when God say you're "It."

In short, control what you can control and accept those things you can't.

That's cold comfort when you're in base camp waiting for word from high above. As long as we choose to go into the wild, however, a percentage of us will not make it back. Nature is a pure chaos system, and our best preparations, skills, attitudes, equipment, conditioning and faith may in the end fail us. "Expectation of rescue" is a cruel and false hope. I have seen the certainty of my own death spelled out in red flecks on the snow coughed from my shattered lungs; I have never met anyone who went into the wild and didn't carry the scars from their own quests.

So take a moment today to think about the climbers, Jerry Cooke, Brian Hall and Kelly James, trapped in the thin air in Oregon, and the heroic men and women struggling to reach them.


Anonymous said...

Michael; we've discussed this before but it's NOT how we die that's important (except I do want to go BEFORE the nursing home) it's HOW we lived that counts.

Our prayers are with them.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Sean Ellis said...


Not wishing to distract from the sincerity or seriousness of your message, I do just want to make this one observation...'s great to see the "Over the Edge" Michael Bane again. OTE has been my Bible and Constitution since the moment I saw it on the bookshelves....actually, prior to that I was a fan of the OTE magazine.

Any time you feel like dragging out some of the old war stories, know that there's at least one soul out there who will pull up a chair, grab a pint, and hang on every word.

Thanks again for making us believe anyone can live large.

Sean Ellis