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Get High or Die Trying

If you read Outside, stay home. When we celebrate a hiker who sawed off his hand, we pay tribute to an idiot and ignore countless smarter climbers.

During a preview in Toronto of 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, three audience members fainted during the movie’s gruesome climax. Ultimately, the audience gave it a standing ovation.

The movie, being released in the U.S. this month, is based on the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), who hacked off his right hand 127 hours after it became trapped under a 900-pound boulder that he dislodged while hiking and climbing in Utah. Ralston had no choice but to snap the bones in his arm against the rock, cut the flesh with a cheap Leatherman tool, and separate hand from body before he could escape.

These kinds of accidents are usually due to human error rather than lightning-strike bad luck. Despite many years of climbing experience, Ralston made the near-fatal error of failing to tell anyone where he was going. Had he told someone his plans, he may not have lost his hand and would have had a better chance of being rescued. Ralston’s idiocy should be condemned in equal measure to the extent that his heroics are applauded. After all, the heroics were in response to a self-inflicted predicament.

 

Since I was child rappelling down the stairs with my father’s climbing equipment, I’ve been taught the importance of outdoor safety and about being well prepared. The adventure tales on my dad’s bookshelves are vastly outnumbered by his mountain guides, maps, and instructional books about mountain leadership, swimming safety, advanced canoe technique, etc. For most of his working life, he has been in charge of training teachers in the Devon area of the U.K. to lead outdoor activities. I picked up a lot of lessons when he took us hiking, climbing, or canoeing. Simple and obvious lesson like always taking a map. It’s something you assume you don’t need in an area you know well, but I was grateful for it when I got lost in thick fog.

Though I was born in the shadow of some of Britain’s best climbing territory, even sharing a birthday with Sir Edmund Hillary, I never took to climbing to the extent of buying ice axes. But my dad and I regularly went to climbing walls in the winter, and I went on climbing courses during summer vacations. In high school, I was able to skip some sports classes and go climbing instead, due to my expertise. I was only ever really tested when on one of those trips I was instructed to climb (and rappel) blindfolded due to my instructor’s desire to increase the difficulty for me.

My dad would not have approved.

 

Even a part-time outdoorsman like myself can recognize the almost-fatal mistakes Ralston made. He admitted to them in a message he recorded when he assumed he was close to the end. “I go out by myself, and I don’t tell someone where I’m going—that’s just dumb. If someone knew, if I’d been with someone else, there would probably already be help on the way. Dumb, dumb, dumb.”

People think they’re safe alone in the wilderness, and then someone has to saw off his hand before we all remember how important it is to take basic precautions.

But it wasn’t just a dumb mistake and Ralston didn’t just have a momentary lapse of judgment when he failed to tell anyone where he was going. I was amazed when I read his account for Outside magazine and found that his failure to tell anyone where he was going was in fact a conscious decision. He actually told a roommate where he was going, but chose not to make it clear. “Usually I would leave a detailed schedule with my roommates,” explained Ralston, “but since I left without knowing what I was going to do, the only word I gave was ‘Utah.’“ He made one conscious decision to not make a serious plan before he left, and made another to not tell anyone where he was going, except “Utah.” That’s 85,000 square miles of confidence in his own safety.

I cannot blame him for the boulder falling and trapping him (only to the extent he was pulling on the rock that fell), but this type of overconfidence is condemnable. In his book, a voice in Ralston’s head reminds him: “You chose not to tell anyone where you were going…you created this accident.”

People think they’re safe alone in the wilderness, and then someone has to saw off his hand before we all remember how important it is to take basic precautions.

After an avalanche that almost killed Ralston and two friends, even they criticized his brazenness and never spoke to him again. Allegedly Ralston pressured them to ski in a dangerous area. Of the event Ralston admits, “I felt guilty about my decisions: Decisions based on ego, attitude, overconfidence, and ambition, which overrode the combined training and experience of our group.”

Years of experience climbing Colorado’s highest mountains alone in winter only puffed up Ralston’s dangerous belief in himself. Even the near-death experience in the avalanche didn’t force him to reevaluate his “ambition.” Some people never learn from errors made in high-risk situation because often the first mistake is fatal.

 

Ralston’s mistakes are not uncommon. The impact of such mistakes is even greater when the person making them is leading a group. In 1986, Rev. Thomas Goman lead a group of Episcopal School students up Mount Hood, an 11,249 ft mountain in Oregon. The priest made a fateful decision to push for the summit rather than retreat due to worsening weather conditions and group fatigue, ignoring the advice of a trained guide. Most of the group had to dig snow caves and sleep on the mountainside. Nine lost their lives.

Similar mistakes were made by a group of young British climbers, including the two youngest British conquerors of Everest, when they climbed together on Mt. Blanc in 2009. Their inexperience led the group to split up as leader Rob Gauntlett and James Atkinson, one of the more inexperienced members of the group, decided to climb a treacherous route while their companions James Hooper and Richard Lebon chose a route that entailed substantially less risk. Hooper eventually decided against even trying that climb due to the potential for bad weather. It’s one of those countless sensible decisions that climbers make to ensure their safety, the kind of smart decisions that never go noted—but in this case it saved Hooper’s and Lebon’s life. Gauntlett and Atkinson, however, were found dead at the bottom of a couloir below their route, still tethered together.

Sometimes the mistake is simply challenging an exceptionally high and dangerous mountain.

Sometimes mistakes come not from when climbers exceed their own abilities, or are too confident, but simply when they exceed their capacity as human beings. It was after completing the first-ever ascent up a treacherous route on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 when problems began for British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. During the descent, Simpson broke his leg. A subsequent second fall left Simpson dangling off a cliff edge, held by his climbing partner Simon Yates, who eventually cut the rope.

Though it’s long been debated, Yates really had no choice, being in such a precarious position himself, at risk of both climbers falling, with the chance that Simpson was only a few feet off the ground. In fact, Simpson fell 100 feet into a crevasse, onto the already broken leg. Yates made it back to camp, and assumed his friend was dead. Simpson somehow survived the fall and also made it back to the camp after three gruelling days, escaping the mountain and its glaciers with no food, a tiny amount of water, and the broken leg.

In this case perhaps it was just grandfather gravity and mother nature reminding us of who’s boss. But both Yates and Simpson made the choice to climb. Sometimes the mistake is simply challenging an exceptionally high and dangerous mountain, by the most dangerous route.

Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it needs to be conquered.

 

The initial Outside magazine account of Ralston’s tale, written by Mark Jenkins, concludes, “It’s the survivors’ ingenuity—not their errors—that leaves the most lasting impression.” But it’s their errors we should learn from, not miraculous survival that promotes the myth that those who take risks are bulletproof supermen. We remember only one or two incredible tales of survival from a decade, rather than 250 climbers killed unspectacularly in North America between 1996-2006. That’s not forgetting the 1,260 documented mountaineering injuries in the U.S. over the same period.

I’m not saying people should stop climbing, but stories glamorizing risk increase the chance of future disaster. The screenwriter of 127 Hours celebrated Ralston’s heroics saying, ”He was heavily criticized after the accident for going out into the wilderness alone, but that’s the purest way to experience it.”

Well, it’s not so pure to use rope. Or a take a map. Or to turn back. But when you’re hacking through your arm with a blunt knife, clawing your way out off a glacier with a broken leg, or explaining to parents why their children are dead, purity loses its power.

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TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith