Danger, Excitement and Death In The Mountains

Once again, our news media is highlighting the ‘danger’ of mountaineering. One the last week or so we’ve had the stories of the lightening strike in the Scottish Highlands, the groups disaster on Nanda Devi and, of course, yet another disaster on Everest. And earlier this year we lost one of greta hillwalking community Steve Perry

At the most basic level mountaineering is a high risk activity but like many such activities it presents challenges and rewards the nature of which are not readily understood by many who have never experienced them, even at a basic level that many of us mountain walkers have experienced.

Most of the people I know — or have walked with — understand risk and danger. There have been a few exceptions to this but I sense that those I’ve met in this category have a whole series of other issues to play with. But, no matter how concerned we can be about people, the outdoors itself — and its community and industry — can’t be responsible for this. Risk is risk and it is an integral part of the outdoors world.

Some things though do challenge this view quite profoundly and the enigma of Everest does that.

Most of us who read about mountains are very aware of the slightly dark and dodgy side of the Everest world/industry. For some it seems that the only criteria for booking a trip up Everest is the ability to pay the costs of the expedition. I’ve read stories of people who have virtually no experience of hillwalking let alone mountain climbing. During the last few weeks the recent coverage of the Everest disasters have revealed people being taken up the mountain who have never used crampons before!

Now, this is not a criticism of the trekking companies of Everest companies per se. Many are responsible and the best very ethical, investing in the education and sustainable development local communities and carrying out environmental clean-ups on the mountain itself. But, there are the others — the ones who don’t check on background and experience but happily take the cash.

Here’s a thing. If something like this happened in the UK, or in Europe, there would be an inquest (or some similar investigative process). The inquest would establish the standards that operators are working to and also their culpability in any disaster. Perhaps, we are all just unlucky that the most challenging and attractive mountains are in a country that doesn’t have the developed institutions that we take for granted in other parts of the world. Imagine an inquest here hearing that somebody who had died on Everest hadn’t even worn crampons before? Imagine the uproar when witnesses described the almost manic determination to step over dead bodied to get to the top? Any inquest or investigative system would put paid to the cowboys or those who are reckless in cutting corners.

But maybe I shouldn’t be worried about all this. After all, if some rich idiot wants to put their life at risk then maybe none of us should be worried. But, there may be other longer term challenges. I’ve heard it suggested recently that climate change is creating greater uncertainty with Himalayan weather, that clear periods of weather are no longer as guaranteed that they once were and that the temptation to move when there is a slight change in the weather is now so great that caution is too easily thrown away.

I’ve filed this under my ‘Ramblings’ category, which really means thinking aloud. But i’m interested in what the team thinks!


  1. It used to be that climbing mountains included an apprentiship now it’s all about the wallet. In light of the recent deaths and queues on Everest the climbing fees should be greatly increased. This wont stop trophy hunters but will stop those with shallower pockets but have served an apprenticship.

  2. Jim Rowland says

    Like you said if some rich inexperienced idiot wants to risk his own life, so be it. But in the process he is also risking the lives of others on the team which is not right. Also to me this is taking away the allure and sense of accomplishment that was present before climbing became big business. I viewed those climbers with awe and a deep respect for their skills. Now I look at the new generation with a jaundiced eye.

  3. Mountaineering carries risks- they can never be entirely overridden- they can however be managed. The recent tragedy in India where one of the most experienced, respected and proficient mountaineers in the UK has gone missing- tells us all that it can happen to the very best- Despite that when hitting the high technical mountains – there has to be a responsibility placed on guides and companies to ensure there is an accepted level of experience, of fitness ,of knowledge- tested and confirmed before anyone is allowed to partake in a serious expedition where profit is involved or steps on a mountain where others and themselves could be at risk- this is the first basic stage of managing risk before the first steps are taken in earnest. This will help save lives- most relevantly the client’s themselves . To allow anyone , no matter how wealthy, be on Everest having donned crampons fro the very first time is so negligent as to be criminal. To get a broad level of standards agreed and accepted and then adhered to though is the real challenge.

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