Mastery (and not) in the mountains

Mount Everest

Though I’ve not indulged it much lately, I have a passion for rock climbing and, to a lesser extent, mountaineering. If ever there were an activity that requires mastery, especially at the elite level, those two would be at the top of the list. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many good climbers, and unfortunate enough to come across some ‘bad’ climbers – bad in the sense that all they cared about was the summit, and not the path to getting there.

Among many other good stories the September 2006 issue of Outside magazine has two stories about climbing and mountaineering, covering both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ approaches to the sports. The cover story looks at the most fatal climbing season in a decade on Mount Everest, full of tales of people going for the quick fix of a summit without mastering the skills required (and the guides and companies that encourage and exploit that desire). Another story tells the final tale of two master mountaineers – Sue Nott and Karen McNeill – while climbing Alaska’s Mount Foraker.

Though there is much more to the cover story, this bit stood out to me:

The real problem, guides and expedition leaders say, is climbers who underestimate the challenge and unscrupulous outfitters who take them on. All the guides I spoke to said they’d screened and turned down inexperienced clients, only to see them show up on another company’s permit. Match weak climbers with the tougher side of the mountain, guides say, and you’ve got a recipe for big trouble. Independents have every right to try for the summit, they add, but they need to be realistic. If they’re climbing solo and need a rescue, they can’t count on assistance from mountaineering strangers, most of whom aren’t skilled or strong enough to help even if they want to.

The story also provides some details on a lawsuit that one man is bringing against an outfitting company on Everest blaming them for the death of his son, who died in a sudden storm on the descent following a successful summit.

As for Nott and McNeill, by all accounts they were true masters of the mountains:

Mount ForakerNOTT AND MCNEILL spent the past 15 years working through a rigorous mountaineering apprenticeship. Sponsored by gear maker Mountain Hardwear, they climbed extraordinarily tough, technical routes that only other alpinists would know. McNeill, a Kiwi who’d relocated to Canmore, Alberta, made the first ascent of Dos Cuernos, on the Patagonian Ice Cap, in 2004, put up three new hard lines in Greenland, and climbed extensively in Canada and Alaska. She chose to do most of her expeditions with other women. Nott grew up in Vail, Colorado, and was a serious backcountry skier before a friend introduced her to ice climbing in 1990. She completed the first ascent of Glass Onion, a difficult ice-and-rock route in southeast Alaska, made four attempts on Patagonia’s Fitz Roy, and climbed extensively in the French Alps….

No one I spoke with described the two women as reckless or fearless or puffed up with their own egos. They were driven and competitive but realistic. They went into a climb with a plan and knew when to call it off. They’d turned around on 19,127-foot Taulliraju, in Peru, because they were dehydrated; high winds, deep snow, and ice-plastered rocks had forced them to abort their attempt on Shivling’s east ridge. They retreated and, a week later, summited via the west ridge.

Both of them understood that for alpinists, death is just a mistake away. “Mountains make me dig deep, pull into myself, and overcome,” Nott told me in 2003. “Alpine climbing is extremely hard mentally. You can’t have meltdowns, because you can’t, to survive. You get used to being careful and making deals with the devil: Just get me past this serac, just get me through this bergschrund, just get me through this storm . . .

Unlike many of the people described in the cover story about Everest, Nott and McNeill knew exactly what they were getting into, and understood the risks. But that was part of their master’s path. Those unfamiliar with climbing and mountaineering, and those unfamiliar with the master’s journey, may conclude that it doesn’t really matter whether you have mastery or not – you can still die on the mountain. There is a distinction to be made though, as seen in one friend’s assessment of the situation:

But don’t call it a tragedy. Yes, it’s tragic for those of us left behind, but Sue and Karen were living big. Huge! They were celebrating life. We should do the same.

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