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The Risk and Responsibility of Being a Climber

It seems we're forgetting that injury and death are potential consequences of playing in the uncontrollable environment of the vertical arena.

The following was written by Jon Heshka for Gripped a few years ago. Heshka is a climber and an associate professor specializing in sports and adventure law at Thompson Rivers University.

I’m troubled by the idea that the climbing community is slowly, albeit inexorably, creeping towards emasculating risk from climbing. There’s a connection – I think – with the attitude of entitlement that many of our youth today possess. At school, it manifests itself in the way they believe they should receive grades they perhaps don’t deserve. On the rock, this is evident in how some climbers think they should have free access to every cliff or that challenging climbs should not be dangerous.

For example, it’s become increasingly normal for climbers to be guided up long routes like Mt. Everest. There is nothing wrong with being guided (I work in a university program that trains guides), but the attitude of deferring decisions to a guide has increasingly extended to blaming others when things go sideways. Modern climbers get sandbagged on old school 5.9s and complain about the grades or add bolts to existing lines because they think the routes are too scary and someone could get hurt.

It’s more than the style-versus-safety debate. The current mindset almost disavows risk. And when someone does get injured, instead of looking inwards and understanding how it could have happened, we look to the courts for restitution. Climbing has fallen on hard times: A bolt breaks in Australia resulting in the death of a climber and a lawsuit is pending, a commercially-guided expedition doesn’t summit and the operator is sued for breach of contract, a climber is injured during a fall and sues the climbing gym, a guide is sued after the alpine ice he’s leading dinner plates causing him to fall and pull out the belay anchor resulting in the death of his client, belayers and the manufacturers of the belay devices are sued for not catching a fall, a climber dies during a descent in the Tetons and the National Park Service is sued for a failed search and rescue response.

The list goes on. The courts have ironically become the last line of defence in bringing personal responsibility back to climbing. In the majority of the cases cited above, the lawsuits were unsuccessful but that doesn’t change the fact that those climbers believed there were entitled to compensation when shit happened. It seems we’re forgetting that injury and death are the natural consequences of playing in the uncontrollable environment of the vertical arena. We climb superficially aware that we can get hurt but act surprised when someone actually is injured. The fact is there is a statistical likelihood that you will get hurt while climbing. While risks can be managed and minimized, they cannot be eliminated.

There’s been an almost a subconscious extending of the safety net, security and predictability found in climbing gyms to the mountains and crags. This is a dangerous drift. It’s like pounding the square peg of adventure and the mountains into the round hole of automatic belay devices and climbing gyms. It just doesn’t fit nor does it make sense.

The climbing instruction Bible is aptly entitled Freedom of the Hills. Implicit in its title is that climbers have the right to take risks, which may unfortunately include decisions that result in their deaths. Climbers accept – or should accept – that climbing is inherently dangerous and that they can get hurt in any number of ways: falling, falling rock, bad rock, bad pro placement, bad bolt placement, etc.

Canadian Rockies rescue. Photo KCPSS
Canadian Rockies rescue. Photo KCPSS

Depending on the route or the circumstances (indoors or out, rock or ice, sport or trad, etc.) climbing may not be as harmful as playing Russian roulette but it is inherently dangerous. For example, the chief attraction to sport climbing is arguably the strength, skill and artistry required to ascend a route. Exposure to risk is secondary to the aesthetic and physical challenge of climbing. The biggest fear on a sport route isn’t getting hurt but fear of failure and not ticking the line. But you can still get hurt clipping bolts. This is very different when compared to what an alpinist is exposed to on a north face where the potential for rock or ice fall and shitty rock always exists and failure takes on an entirely different – and potentially lethal – meaning.

If you want to stay safe, you should not venture outdoors. Stay inside, removed from all risk, and watch your soul get eaten away by tedium. You may not get physically hurt but you will also not experience the independence, self-reliance, beauty, and wisdom that climbing can offer. Risk is integral to climbing. Some forms of climbing are, of course, more hazardous to your health and each type has its own rewards and tolerances for risk. We should not, however, confuse what is appropriate for gym climbing in terms of risk and safety, with what is acceptable for other forms of climbing. ‘Cuz it clearly isn’t but, as the above cases indicate, some people sure appear to be thinking along those lines.