On "Mountain Madness"

Pray for a brave heart: one that does not fear death, that counts a long life among the least of Heaven’s gifts. – Juvenal


Climbers and paddlers generally get a tough rap in the press when it comes to accidents. “Climber falls at Devil’s Lake.” “Paddlers drown after running dam.” These deaths are as unfortunate as any other, and as a paddler and climber, they give me pause. But a careful reading of the news article too often reveals it is a hiker venturing off trail that stumbles on the bluffs or a couple of novices who climb into a canoe for the first time, without basic safety equipment and unaware of the hazards downstream. 

Is the news media ignorant of the distinction, or attempting to summarize the event in a short (and compelling) headline? Both, undoubtably, and it does these activities a disservice. Yes there is considerable risk in climbing and paddling. Training, experience, and sound judgement can mitigate some – not all – of this risk. But our activities deserve a fair accounting of both our tragedies and accomplishments, and I appreciate when journalists attempt to convey our motivation for climbing and paddling rather than painting all of us as adrenaline junkies, taunting death.

Timothy Egan writes a very fair op-extra on the New York Times Blog, discussing the recent fatalities on Denali. Similarly, the public comments are unusually fair – a real discussion on understanding risk, why we climb, and obligations to our loved ones back home. Obviously there are many answers, but I like Hugh McIsaac’s suggestion:
Perhaps the gene which leads us on such adventures is the same one enabling our distant ancestors to travel thousands of miles in search of distant lands and new beginnings. The gap between triumph and tragedy is often very narrow. (post #17)

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