(E. Whymper, 1865)
…At five in the afternoon the caramel-glazed rays of the sun were disappearing over the horizon. We had climbed uninterrupted for 15 hours and were rappelling down the West face of Pico Shultze (5942m). We had pushed hard, hungry for the first ascent up the bare granite wall of the mountain. Somehow the day had passed, almost unnoticed- that happens when you are ambitious and absorbed in a climb. Tired and altitude weary the descent was not as straightforward as we had hoped. The rock gave few rappel anchor points and so we were pushed into a gully. Above us on the summit ridge the chandeliers of ice were melting, teased free by the day's long sun. As I hung on the loose ropes looking for the next anchor, tiny missiles of ice and spindrift whistled by. Then a deep rumble gave the briefest of warnings and I looked up to see a boulder the size of a piano tumbling down the gully. I was trapped on a narrow lane and an out of control truck headed straight for me! I pulled back and an inch from my face felt a violent current of air as the boulder shot by. The smell of burning rock lingered on as an avalanche roared down the lane…
This split second event is the closest experience one can have to a fatal accident yet remain totally unscathed (at least physically). Most committed climbers have similar anecdotes to share, usually over a beer or two and punctuated by nervous laughter and a veneer of bravado. Over the years I have heard many similar stories, some that have incurred serious injuries yet, most of the protagonists continue to climb. I have always been surprised by the persistence of climbers who continue to venture into the mountains despite such "warnings" and near misses. In 1990 I participated in the recovery of the body of a Norwegian mountaineer who died in a climbing accident in Bolivia. The traumatic rescue involved five close friends of the victim working side by side with volunteers and the Army's search and rescue team. It was a harrowing and traumatic experience, as in the primitive conditions of the country the body was initially carried on a stretcher and later on the back of a mule. Before reaching the roadside the forensic bag was torn and the badly damaged body protruded, decomposed- Years later all rescuers continued to climb. What is it about climbers that make them ignore or tolerate such risks in the pursuit of a summit? They seem to be attracted to what most people go to great lengths to avoid. Of course climbing is not just about risk. This is a small part of the experience, but climbing does involve taking risks that most reasonable people shy away from.
The recent hit movie "Into the void" and the extensive media attention into climbing fatalities in the New Zealand Alps have portrayed climbing as a very dangerous sport, almost foolhardy. But how dangerous is it?
In order to address the questions posed above, over the past four years I have been conducting a research project involving a group of serious and committed climbers. For the purpose of this article I will summarize the findings and discuss the implications of the results. I have studied injury and death rates and the personality characteristics of climbers.
Forty-nine climbers volunteered into the study. They were a diverse group of mountaineers randomly recruited from alpine club meetings, adventure magazine advertisements and from personal communication among the climbing community. To be eligible for the study, volunteers had to be involved in mountaineering and/or rock climbing requiring the use of traditional protection. Ninety percent of the climbers were male and at the start of the study the average age was thirty-three years. They were very experienced climbers as most of them had been climbing for more than five years. The average rock-climbing grade was 23 (Australasian Ewbank system) and the alpine grade was 5 (NZ and Australian system). Ninety-six percent of climbers estimated that (on at least two occasions) they had climbed in situations of high-risk. High-risk was defined as climbing in dangerous terrain (under unstable ice cliffs, over avalanche prone terrain), in dangerous weather conditions or in situations were the climber did not feel fully confident in their abilities and where a climbing mistake would lead to significant risk of serious injury or death.
Accidents and fatalities- At the start of the study (four years ago) 47% of the group had been involved in climbing accidents. A third of the accidents were very serious and involved multiple bone fractures, with head (coma) and back injuries. Four years later, there were a further nine accidents and five deaths. Four deaths (8%) were from climbing misadventure (two in avalanches and two from falls) and one from a medical condition. However none of the deaths occurred in the 2003/2004 season, which has been a bad one for fatalities in NZ.
Psychological characteristics- The study highlighted that in general climbers have different personalities to the average person about the town. Using a measure of personality known as Cloninger's "Temperament and Character Inventory", climber's scored higher on what is called Novelty Seeking and Self-Directedness and lower on Harm Avoidance and Self-Transcendence. High Novelty Seeking indicates that climbers generally enjoy exploring unfamiliar places and situations, even if most people think it is a waste of time. They look for thrills, excitement and adventures, are easily bored and are keen to avoid monotony. They can be quick-tempered, excitable and often do things on the spur of the moment. This suggests that climbers as a group are also likely to be attracted to other exciting and adventurous sports such as parapenting, kayaking, surfing and mountain biking. High Self-Directedness suggests climbers have good self-esteem and self-reliance with an ability to adapt what they do to reach set goals. Difficult situations are often seen as a challenge. Low Harm Avoidance means climbers are confident in the face of danger and uncertainty and tend to be relaxed and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. They tend to get less nervous in situations of risk, which can lead to foolhardy optimism. It is therefore likely that climbers do not easily turn their back on a climb, even in hazardous conditions. In fact they may be stimulated to push on in the face of danger and this may account for the high rate of accidents. Lower Self-Transcendence can lead to impatience, pride and a sense of personal unfulfillment. This may lead them to use climbing (success on difficult climbs) to seek approval and admiration from others.
What does it all mean?
First of all, the findings on accidents and mortality are sobering. I am surprised by the results, but not totally shocked. The findings do confirm my own observations over 15 year of climbing. Do the results imply that 10% of all climbers are likely to die and up to half of them have an accident? Almost certainly not. It would be misleading to suggest that one in ten climbers heading out to the hills will eventually not come back. The average accident and mortality rate across the whole climbing population is extremely variable and likely to be determined by many factors. Individual risk factors such as experience, fitness and risk appetite are important, as are altitude, weather and terrain conditions of the mountain. The death rate from climbing K2 is over 20% and Everest over 10%. I am unsure whether anyone has estimated the death rate of New Zealand's highest peak, Aoraki (Mt. Cook), but it is certainly less than that of the highest peaks in the Himalaya. For Mt. Rolleston (Arhturs Pass, Canterbury) it is far more modest. However it is also important to note that another NZ based researcher (Murray Malcolm) estimated the overall death rate in Mount Cook National Park and concluded that the risk associated with the more serious climbing in the park is very similar to that reported for climbers on expeditions to extreme altitude (over 7000m). The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that mountaineering is dangerous. My research further suggests that if you fit the profile of the participants in the study (if you are an experienced climber, who has reached a high grade of technical proficiency and climb on challenging routes in New Zealand) then you are at significant risk of having an accident! Remember that nearly half the climbers in the study had at least one accident.
Secondly, the personality characteristics of climbers are very interesting. Climbers are different to the average person of the same age and gender. This supports the finding of other researchers who have found that climbers and other risk-taking sports people score high on a measure called Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking Scale, which is comparable to Novelty Seeking. As temperament (the basic building blocks that makes up personality) is to a large extent determined by brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, it is likely that body chemistry plays an important role in determining who is likely to take up climbing. The cocktail of these chemicals; noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin in the brain of climbers appears to be relatively unique. In all people neurotransmitter levels fluctuate in response to stress, an example of this is the "adrenalin rush", or the “fight or flight response”. However, the unusual brain chemistry of climbers is such that under stress (in dangerous climbs) they are less likely to experience negative changes in the levels of adrenalin, noaradrenalin, serotonin and dopamine and so they are more likely to tolerate, ignore and even enjoy risk and danger. This of course is very useful as it helps the climber to perform well and concentrate in the face of danger. Taken too far, it may also lead the climber to ignore or underestimate the seriousness of the risk and lead to accidents.
Photography by Erik Monasterio
Assessment of risk
Given the inherent dangers of the sport, the ability to accurately assess climbing related risks is an extremely important skill for all alpine climbers. Whilst this may sound self-evident, I believe that the systematic and thoughtful development of risk assessment approaches and their integration into a climber's repertoire is often under emphasized and is an area that can be vastly improved. Accurate risk assessments require the successful integration of different sets of skills into a process of continuous decision making. I will artificially separate these skills out so that they can be individually considered.
In the first instance, climbers must develop an understanding of objective risk factors of the terrain where they are climbing. Climbing in glaciated regions require an understanding of snow and ice conditions, avalanche proneness, rock quality and the effects of the weather conditions on these physical environments. Furthermore, an understanding of weather patterns (and the likelihood of being caught out in adverse weather) in the region where you choose to climb is imperative. Courses to develop skills in assessing these objective risk factors are freely available through the alpine club and other agencies, so will not be discussed further.
Assessment of risk also requires an understanding of psychological and emotional dimensions. I often see rock climbers absolutely terrified to “run out” much beyond the last clip or their last piece of gear, even when the potential fall is safe. It can be a great source of entertainment to watch this happening, especially when it is punctuated by expressions of despair and the endless cycles of self reproach from climbers who fail to overcome their fears. The risks in this setting are quite minimal and the emotional distress excessive- In essence the perception of risk is significantly greater to the actual or “real” risk. The reason for this is the feeling of exposure created by vertical or near vertical climbing and the instinctive dread of falling into space. Many rock climbers fail to transcend this fear and their climbing development, mastery of technique, enjoyment and sense of achievement is significantly impaired. On the other hand, alpine climbers frequently expose themselves to extremely dangerous situations without realizing the gravity of their position. Climbers often wander down gentle angled snow slopes, late in the day blissfully unaware of avalanche potential. In fact these gentle angled snow slopes (30-40 degrees) seem extremely safe as they don't have the sense of exposure that a vertical wall of rock has and climbers that sink into the ground with each step often perceive this as secure. At other times, climbers travel beneath unseen unstable seracs or rocks equally unaware of the risks. The effects of dehydration, tiredness and altitude can be such that climbers became easily distracted, loose their focus of attention and fail to consider or underestimate the potential risks in mountain environments- In brief, in the alpine environment the perceptions of risk and danger are very frequently vastly inferior to the actual or “real” risk. I believe that this deceptive inverse relationship between “real” risk and perceived risk breeds a false sense of security, contributes to inattention and complacency, and is a significant contributor to mountaineering accidents. In summary, psychological and emotional dimensions often distort perceptions of risk, distract the climber's attention and can significantly impair performance. An understanding of the impact of these factors and training methods to overcome them should be an important part of a climbers preparation programme. This can lead to dramatic improvements in performance and may decrease the rate of accidents through better assessments and management of risk.
Psychological and physical conditioning
It is important that climbers are physically and psychologically well prepared, and have sufficient experience to cope with their chosen objectives. Often the outcome of an accident or a high stress situation is determined by the person’s ability to focus and perform well under pressure. With Andy Cockburn, I am currently developing training methods that take into account all the factors discussed in this article, improve skill acquisition, and optimize performance in stressful situations such as occur in mountaineering and in rock climbing. The skills and understanding acquired as part of these training methods will be transferable and applicable to other situation that demands maximal performance under stress such as may occur at work, during exams or in competitive sports
Putting it all in perspective
It is important not too over generalize and take the findings of research too far. As my survey on accidents and mortality is the first of its kind, repeat studies should be conducted as soon as possible. Also the finding that personality characteristics of climbers are different from those of the average person about the town does not answer the question of why climbers climb. We must not confuse biology with cause and meaning. To play professional basketball you must be unusually tall, but very few tall people get to be professional basketballers. Biology may contribute to what we do, but it does not fully determine or explain why we do it. No two mountaineers are the same and the reasons that determine a person's choice to climb are as complex as human nature.
Whilst it does court danger, adventurousness is an attractive and admirable aspect of human nature and no doubt of great creative and evolutionary value. Interestingly, many participants in the study made unprompted positive comments about the benefits of climbing and seemed keen to point out that they chose to climb despite (not because of) the perceived risks of the sport.
I would like to express my appreciation to all climbers who participated in this study. Without their support and help the research would not be possible.
About the author
Dr. Erik Monasterio (MB, ChB, FRANZCP, Senior Clinical Lecturer) is a medical doctor who has worked as a writer/ journalist, adventurer and photographer. Erik's specialty training and work is in the area of forensic psychiatry. He has also been involved in research into the personality characteristics and accidents in mountaineers for over five years. Erik has been climbing and exploring in remote mountain and jungle regions for over fifteen years, and has climbed and guided in the Andes of South America, Alaska, New Zealand, the Himalaya and Europe. Erik has combined personal climbing experiences in remote and demanding environments with scientific research to develop a training approach to maximize performance under stress and in extreme environments.
- Cloninger C, et al. The Temperament and Character Inventory: a guide to its development and use. Center for Psychobiology of Personality. St. Louis, Missouri: Washington University; 1994.
- Malcolm M. Mountaineering fatalities in Mt. Cook National Park. NZ Medical Journal 2001; 114:78-80.
- Monasterio E. The climber. Christchurch: Saxon Print; 2003: Issue 43. P 31-32.
- Monasterio E. Accident and fatality characteristics in a population of mountain climbers in New Zealand. NZ Medical Journal 2005; 117 No 1208.