When is Challenging Objective Risk Foolish?

A couple of weeks ago, the KAF (South Korea’s alpine club) and some outsiders were talking about altering their culture around climbing in order to prevent unnecessary loss of life. This specifically applied to their expeditions to the world’s high profile mountaineering objectives.

On October 17, 2011 Park Young-seok, Gang Gi-seok and Shin Dong-min died — and vanished — shortly after reporting to base camp of significant rock fall on Annapurna (25,545 ft./8,091 m.) Then on November 11, 2011, Kim Hyung-il and Chang Ji-myeong fell to their death attempting a route on Cholatse (21,128 ft./6,440 m.) in the Himalaya. All were KAF alpinists and all were pushing their limits as well as the conventional tolerance for objective risks.

While falling is the inherent objective risk in all climbing, the other high risks are the hazards of rock fall, avalanches and crevasses. The majority of climbers, by contrast — at least from North America — tend to avoid the terrain with the highest risk due to conditions increasing the danger from such hazards. Avalanche awareness and safety training, for example, teaches climbers and other mountain enthusiasts to identify risky areas based on a combination of factors, including slope, weather conditions and so forth. Sometimes avalanche danger is more obvious due to tumbling rocks (its own hazard alone) or frequent releases of snow on neighboring slopes.

As I see it, the South Korean alpine climbing community is facing a challenge on what it considers to be a bold opportunity for achieving success and what is just plain foolish. This is not a new issue. Jonathan Waterman mentions this issue in his guidebook and history book, High Alaska, regarding the another Asian climbing culture, the one in Japan:

Japanese climbers are often willing to justify objective danger, particularly avalanche-prone routes, that other nationalities won’t touch. It has been speculated that this emanates from their traditional enlightened view that life has been predetermined and that there is rebirth after death. Also, as there are many climbers in Japan climbing is more competitive, Japanese climbers must often do outrageous climbs in order to make their names known.

The Japanese climbers known as the Giri Giri Boys spring to mind. Two members of this group died in one of their numerous attempts to push their own and the mountain’s limits, though their accomplishments — particularly on climbs in North America — are genuinely impressive.

As for the crisis in South Korea, the issue is more readily understood by other climbers. There are fundamental risks in the sport. Nonclimbers typically do not understand or are unwilling to accept the risks. That’s fair. But when does the situation with the KAF in that it might be perpetuating a culture of competition that fuels acceptance of unnecessary risk, I don’t know.

A look at the statistics of their previous climbs over time would provide the best insight on whether their conventional approach to big mountains are indeed more hazardous than necessary. Even then, to make a cultural change, they will need a strong leader that can influence the climbers in South Korea to accept the idea that change is needed.

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Source of quote: Waterman, Jonathan, High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter, AAC Press, 2nd Ed. 1996, pp. 177-178.

Denali or Mount McKinley

I just began reading High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker & Mount Hunter by Jonathan Waterman (1996) as part of my new focus on the Alaska Range I am about to start. Early in, I came across a curiosity about the name of North America’s highest peak.

The formal name of that mountain is Mount McKinely. It’s on the USGS maps. It was named for the American President, who (as everyone points out) had no interest in Alaska. The original native name is Denali, which means great one. Not all that original, but its true and echoes back to an even wilder Alaska where the Inuit lived and trappers and explorers renaming their landscape were rare or nonexistent.

Most climbers these days prefer to call Mount McKinley Denali instead. Still, some refer to it as Big Mac, in more casual conversations. Denali remains the preferred title and most would say that that is so out of respect for the native tradition — or in disrespect to the reference to the former president.

So I was surprised to read a simple remark by Waterman that said the great Bradford Washburn prefers the name Mount McKinley.

I have taken and used the Denali name but suddenly I am rethinking that. The formal name is McKinley. Everest is named similarly poorly but hardly anyone refers to it as Chomolungma, its original native name, meaning goddess mother.

Washburn made the first ascent up the West Buttress among other firsts on the mountain. He is an authority on the subject having climbed it extensively, photographed it an mapped it. You would think that would make it so he preferred the name Denali.

Perhaps Mount McKinley isn’t such a silly name when you take into consideration that it is the officially recognized name and is the name given by the country that holds it. The name is also nearly as unmistakable as Denali or Everest. Besides, all names are subjective; it’s the mountain that matters.

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