Why it is life-enhancing to risk death on a mountain

David Rose on the wider meaning of the tragedy in Scotland last week
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The Independent Online
ASKED WHY he wished to scale Mount Everest, George Leigh Mallory, who died near its summit in 1924, famously struggled to find an answer, before mumbling flippantly: "Because it's there". But at least Everest has the distinction of being the highest peak on Earth. To non-initiates, a desire to climb Aonach Mor, the windswept hump of granite above Fort William where last week four people were killed by an avalanche, looks certifiably mad.

The details of this incident, which another three miraculously survived, await investigation at a formal Fatal Accident Inquiry. Already, however, as is usual when lives are lost in the mountains, media reports have been couched in the language of blame. Attention has been directed to the local forecast on the eve of the accident, which warned of a category- three risk of avalanche - conditions such that medium or large volumes of snow might, on worst affected slopes, start to move. "What that translates to is that the presence of one climber or skier on a slope may trigger an avalanche," Blythe Wright, the forecast's co-ordinator, said later. "But we're not saying `don't go to the mountains' because even when conditions are hazardous an experienced person may be able to choose a safe route."

In other words, under one interpretation of Mr Wright's statement, there had been a human error of judgement. And on this particular occasion, there is a scapegoat in waiting. I do not envy Roger Wild, the mountain guide who was leading the afflicted party, and managed to survive. Already devastated, he now faces the ordeal of a drawn-out trial in the media.

There is something deeper about this tendency to blame, which hints at society's attitudes to risk and death in general. The truth is that most experienced mountaineers would not hesitate to venture out on a day rated category three, and that most of us would come to no harm. At the same time, however, we would accept that a danger existed. We might be unlucky.

To a mountaineer, this is trite. Climbing is always dangerous, and there is always a possibility one might not come back. But in an era when life expectancy has become both longer and more predictable, the wider culture seems to find the mountaineer's acceptance of risk not merely irresponsible but immoral, an affront to "civilised" values - the idea, reinforced daily in myriad ways, that we all have a right, even a duty, to live as long as possible.

Alison Hargreaves was a very fine climber: among many achievements, she was the first British woman to climb the North Face of the Eiger, and only the second person to climb Everest alone. But when she was killed on K2 in 1995, she was posthumously vilified, partly because she was the mother of two small children. Some of this criticism was gender specific - ignoring the fact that she was a devoted mother, who brought the joy and energy she experienced in the mountains to her life with her children. But one prominent columnist went further, arguing that anyone, male or female, who climbed mountains after producing offspring committed "an act of brutal violence" against their children.

Presumably, it would be just as wrong to ride horses, scuba dive or ski, let alone plan vacations to Egypt or Yemen, all of which carry potentially fatal risks. According to this logic, it would never be appropriate to mourn a climber whose luck ran out, who played and lost against the impersonal savagery of the elements. They should not have been there in the first place: they were selfish, reckless, and deaf to repeated warnings.

The paradox is that as society becomes more controlled and physically constrained, and more and more preoccupied with eliminating risk, ever- increasing numbers seek solace in the hills. "Anorak" used to be a term of abuse. Now there is a plethora of outdoor fashion boutiques, marketing the fleeces and breathable fabric waterproofs which were once the preserve of relatively few devotees. Some will wear these garments only in the city. Others want the real thing. Roger Wild's ill-fated companions were beginning a course in mountain winter skills: already experienced hill walkers, they wanted to learn how to use crampons and ice-axes. Ten years ago, these and other mountaineering courses were offered at a pair of semi-official centres in the Highlands and in North Wales. They have become a booming industry, with membership of the Association of British Mountain Guides at record levels.

What is it their clients seek? Why do people want to climb Aonach Mor? To be sure, on a (rare) good day there is the beauty of the scenery, the sight of the Scottish mountains laid out like folds of frozen linen under a cobalt sky. There is the physical challenge, and the delight in overcoming it: I think of a gully on the mountain's north face, very near the scene of last week's accident, where once I crouched for two hours while my friend worried and wobbled his way up a long vertical pitch on poor ice and snow, all the while bombarding me as he swung his axe - and then our deep satisfaction as we ran through the dusk from the summit, just in time to catch the last gondola back to the valley.

But this isn't all. It isn't simply danger, and the adrenalin charge of fear, but something more profound: a desire, not to court death, but to countenance it. As the American writer Robert Reid puts it, "climbing is a way of studying the ultimate unknown ... [climbers] go not to die - that is very important - but far from the tumult of the valley below to linger in safe communion with death, to feel the exquisite tension that separates it from life". And also, in a world where any one of us may die from involuntary causes such as Creutztfeldt-Jakob disease, to feel the existential power of influencing one's ultimate destiny.

Be that as it may, the risks are smaller than many people think. The giant peaks, such as K2, have horrific fatality rates. Elsewhere, the odds are more reasonable. A study based on tracking hundreds of climbers who were active in 1930 showed that their average life expectancy was about three years longer than the predicted norm for their social class. A few died in the mountains but, overall, they were healthier.

These are not new issues. In the wake of last week's avalanche, the valedictory address of the President of the Alpine Club, CT Dent, is no less applicable than when he gave it in 1889: "I confess to agreeing with those who believe that mountaineering can never become wholly free from peril. The greater the experience, and the more that experience is utilised, the less will be that risk; but some risk there will ever be."

This brings me to the question so often asked by unbelievers: is the game, then, worth the candle? To that my answer is unhesitatingly: yes, and still yes, even when the question is asked of mountaineering which can neither plead the excuse of scientific aims nor the justification of new exploration.

David Rose is working on a biography of the climber Alison Hargreaves.