Watching other people rock climb without a rope makes me feel ill. It’s clear that if they make even a simple human error they will fall and die, graphically.
I feel the same way watching people launch their paragliders in strong conditions, or fly a wing’s breadth from a lethal rock wall. Really serious drops in kayaking are the same; it’s personally gut-wrenching to watch the insane power of the water toss a boat around while the fragile paddler precisely rides the water just carefully enough to avoid death.
But I am totally comfortable doing each of these things, and have many times.
Perhaps the difference between watching potentially lethal activities and doing them is the same as driving versus being a passenger, but I find it interesting that even as a professional I react the same to images of someone hanging thousands of feet off the ground without a rope as the general public does.
Recently, there have been a series of very high-profile solo ascents on objects ranging from the Everest massif, to El Capitan, to construction cranes in Russia. Alex Honnold soloed El Capitan’s 900-metre face with nothing but a chalk bag. The filmmakers used automated cameras on the most difficult sections, as they didn’t want a cameraman to witness Honnold falling to his death if he got it wrong—or the cameraman to affect Honnold’s ascent. That it was even a remote possibility indicates it was a real possibility. Was the chance one in 10, one in 100 or one in 1,000? We’ll never know, but many soloists have died. So have many roped teams. Honnold didn’t, but the video still makes my stomach churn. I know he’s phenomenally talented and very well-rehearsed—but my stomach doesn’t know that.
This year, Ueli Steck died soloing on Nuptse, a major peak in the Everest horseshoe. He was reportedly acclimating to the altitude while getting ready to be the first to enchain Everest and Lhotse, but I and others who knew him figure he might have wanted to add Nuptse to the traverse. That would be a space-shot every bit as wild as Honnold’s solo. Even the Lhotse-to-Everest link would have been an incredible accomplishment, but the truly visionary always look way past the horizon.
Reinhold Messner set the bar for Everest when he climbed it solo and without oxygen; the only way to take the game of high-altitude mountaineering further was to link up the highest and fourth-highest mountains in the world without oxygen, in one push. Others have climbed the summits with oxygen, but to any modern climber using oxygen in the high mountains is like using roller skates in a marathon. Not the same game. Whether Steck died doing recon work for linking all three summits or simply acclimating will likely never be known, but he was looking way over the horizon regardless.
The next example of mad soloing comes, of course, via Instagram. There’s an Instacraze of people hanging onehanded from cranes without a rope or a parachute. My stomach churns looking at them as well. I imagine the industrial grit on the painted metal above one of Russia’s big cities, and while I admire the courage I fear for the protagonist in the photo.
The phenomena of dangerous selfies in Russia got so out of hand that the Russian government actually put out a “stop taking dangerous selfies” leaflet. I doubt it had a tremendous impact. If you’re willing to hang one-handed off a crane in the middle of the night, you may not be reading government leaflets very often. Unfortunately, Andrey Retrovsky and a dozen other gravity-tempters have died filling their wildly popular Instagram pages with photos that also make my stomach churn.
The differences between Alex Honnold, Ueli Steck and Andrey Retrovsky are vast. Steck and Honnold were supremely well trained and operating in an environment they understood at a professional level. The “Selfie Deaths” usually feature people who weren’t world-class climbers, but died hanging by their fingers. But when I look at the photos my stomach doesn’t differentiate between the risks, and neither did the ground when it went wrong.
Why I am comfortable soloing while guiding? I quit soloing “hard” routes when I had kids, but every day I guide, I solo, and I take responsibility for my guests. I feel the odds are good, but what I do professionally, and personally, is a lot closer to “dangerous selfies” than I care to admit.
So why do I do it? Why did Honnold, Steck and 17-year-old Retrovsky do it?
I would make the same arguments that Honnold does and Steck did, but the truth is that all of us who venture out in the mountains, or onto windswept northern lakes, or even hike trails with wild exposure, are walking a lot closer to the line than the city dwellers who never venture outside.
Risk tolerance lines get drawn personally, and in the end, I don’t think any government can draw that line for us, nor would I want one to. True freedom is having the incredible luxury of not only living life on your own terms, but also dying on your own terms. If we try to stop Steck, Honnold or Retrovsky, we also stop adventure on a small scale. Who needs backcountry skiing? Or even alpine skiing? (My daughter’s friend recently broke her ankle nordic skiing.)
So, while my stomach churns at the photos, I also see the freedom inherent in hanging by one hand a thousand feet over the deck. I’ve done that. You will never feel more capable and in control of your destiny than while hanging one-handed a lethal distance above the ground.
I don’t do that anymore. It’s simply not worth it.
But I take the trust in myself that I learned there and use it to start new businesses, write, have kids (a very risky proposition) and live with a bit more freedom. And that’s worth it. I just hope my kids always use a rope in their own adventures. Margin is good.