In 1996 Jon Krakauer, on contract for Outside magazine, famously climbed Mt. Everest as part of a commercial expedition. The adventure ended tragically—eight climbers died and several others experienced severe frostbite, stranded overnight in an unforeseen Himalayan blizzard. The story, documented in Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, has received a great deal of publicity over the years, most recently with the Hollywood film adaptation, Everest. In it, we are once again confronted with the seemingly ridiculous prospect of risking one’s life for recreational pleasure. Of course many of us take part in these activities regularly, and it is, in fact, a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone, but at what point does the risk become too high? Is this even a question worth asking?
Each year the United States National Park Service finds itself in the headlines of countless local and national newspapers an account of accidental fatalities. On average, three visitors a week will lose their lives while visiting the parks, usually the result of a fall, or drowning. This number is alarming even without accounting for fatalities in state, county, or private lands. Indeed, it is not only high-risk, elite athletes who are dying in the backcountry, but every-day recreationists who find themselves one step beyond the threshold of safety. And while the circumstances leading up to the deaths are best left for investigators to determine, it is not difficult to make a few simple observations about the phenomena.
First, these fatalities are usually the result of bad risk—risk that should usually make people feel uncomfortable. Under normal circumstances risk is easily recognizable and can be mitigated or avoided. Experienced mountaineers have matured with the ability to confront risk not with hubris or ignorance but with confidence in their skill and preparation. The problem is when inexperienced climbers ignore their discomfort with risk or can’t recognize it at all. The events on the slopes in France last week are a poignant example. When a French school teacher led a group of his students over a barrier and down a closed-off, avalanche-prone slope he simply lacked the background to fully understand the reality and risk of avalanches. His mistake cost the lives of two adolescents, the result of bad risk.
Without a doubt the increasing stressors of non-stop technological stimuli are driving every-day Americans back into nature, and thanks to government access programs, getting into the wilderness has become easier than ever. People from all over the world with any level of experience can now go on a ‘walk’ where previously only seasoned veterans could go. At many national parks there are now bookstores, food vendors, and other modern amenities, all creating the perception that raw, untamed nature is further away than it actually is. Local Search and Rescue organizations often find themselves going broke spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year helping hikers out of easily-avoidable situations. It seems the question of risk was never addressed by these hapless individuals—the knowledge and background necessary to make such an assessment was simply not there.
Another contributing factor might be the influence of media. The risks of outdoor adventure sports couldn’t be more understated by marketing and advertising. Some of the nation’s top outdoor recreational retailers frequently display photos of ‘everyday adventurists’ camped out in remote locations, suggesting that anyone can do the same so long as they get up off their couch, buy the retailer’s equipment, and go do it. And then there is the practice of companies sponsoring professionals for product advertisements—certainly there is nothing wrong with it, but setting the feats of lifelong-athletes as the bar for everyone can plant delusions of grandeur in the minds of aspiring athletes.
Besides more public education there is no easy solution for reducing the amount of deaths in the wilderness. Perhaps over time the average outdoor recreationist will become more responsible as stories of accidents become more prevalent in the media. Perhaps fewer folks will step out into the backcountry, armed with a realistic appreciation of nature as wild and unforgiving.
Really, though, it is this unforgiving characteristic of nature that contributes to its attractiveness. As any athlete knows, competition—whether against oneself or others—must be impartial, testing each participant not on good intention but on actual strength and know-how. It is for this reason that the responsible adventurer trains, and studies, and prepares.
Still, a number of skilled adventurers are killed in action despite their experience and planning. The dangers were assessed and mitigated, yet nature overpowers them. It is here we are confronted with risk in another form, governed by the rule of happenstance. Jon Krakauer and his team, while on the heights of Mt. Everest, could not have foreseen the storm that would ultimately take lives. Countless dollars and hours went into the planning leading up to the ascent and yet nothing could be done once they were in the storm. This is the unavoidable risk of the wild.
In the 2015 documentary Meru, Krakauer expresses the catch-22 of mountaineering: “The rewards of climbing are huge, if you survive it, if your family comes out of it ok…climbing is so worth it. The problem is, we know, you don’t always come out of it ok—people die, and then you can’t justify it. That is the great dilemma.”
In many ways this is more than an allegory for real life—this is real life. This is the nature of our world and the fragility of our biology. We go back into the wilderness to be reminded of the nature in which we are members. Our nature is valuable and finite. We want to fight for more than a better paycheck, we want to fight for our lives, and to earn the view from 12,000 feet, or 14,000 feet, or 29,000 feet. Reward always requires a degree of risk, and the justification can only be made by each individual. There will always be risks, it is how we approach those risks and if we are prepared suffer the consequences that determines the narrative of the outcome.
Aaron McNany currently lives in eastern New Mexico and is a competitive road cyclist with Dahlicious Racing Team. He speaks Mandarin Chinese, is a registered Amateur Radio Operator, and enjoys reading and writing. Aaron is currently working toward a Master of Arts in Journalism.