“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” -Hemingway
The press is in overdrive reporting recent climbing record attempts. And just as speed climbing reaches the zenith of its press coverage, today Stéphane Brosse, a 20+ year veteran of ski mountaineering and speed climbing and current holder of a Mont Blanc speed record, died in a fall due to a cornice collapse. This happened during a well-publicized traverse attempt of the Mont Blanc Massif with Kilian Jornet. Despite the seemingly mainstream nature of those three sports Hemingway lists, real danger is present. That is part of what makes them interesting. But it seems that the recent media blitz surrounding speed climbing records downplays the seriousness of speed climbing and its thin margins for error.
I do not think it’s a coincidence that Brosse and Jornet’s attempted ascent received high publicity beforehand (including this June 15 pre-ascent news post on Jornet’s own site). Yes, accidents can always happen and objective danger is ubiquitous in the mountains. But when an experienced climber dies in a high profile ascent, I can’t help but think rushing, possibly an unfortunate decision to push on in poor conditions, or a willingness to take on more risk due to knowing the media is watching may have contributed to the tragedy. More thoughts on Brosse’s death below.
But first, just this morning, in happier news, Alex Honnold and Hans Florine shattered the speed record for El Capitan’s Nose route in Yosemite. Well done, though I considered the past week to be an absurd media circus rampup considering they hadn’t yet done it. After all the hype, to me the best news was that they climbed safely: we knew they could set the record but really, speed climbing at your limit ain’t like dusting crops, kid.
Speed climbing seems to be all over the climbing news. Ueli Steck makes headlines ceaselessly with free climbing records like the North Face of the Eiger; that record was recently broken by Dani Arnold using aid. Honnold set several other big Yosemite records, both with Tommy Caldwell and solo, earlier this season. Even speed records on short (4 pitch) routes like the Naked Edge in Eldorado Canyon are deemed interesting enough by Climbing Magazine to merit published articles.
Speed climbing is the type of climbing that I most often do and I spend so much of my training with it in mind. Pushing myself hard in the most tranquil of settings, the mountains, is amongst my greatest joys. Speed climbing is in its prime as far as press exposure. But while I revere all of those speed accomplishments and the climbers who achieve them, I’m not happy with the media explosion with speed climbing.
In fact, I am terrified about the press and the hype. To me speed climbing is pushing your own self, bettering your own time. But when there is publicity, exposure, media, that changes the game, encouraging climbers to do things faster and faster, which at some point is more hastily than is safe, even for the best climbers in the world.
Speed climbing often requires soloing. Most people, even many climbers, do not understand or approve of soloing at all. I embrace it, and I do believe it’s safe when you’re in the proper mindset and not pushing your limits. But I also accept that it’s not the same thing as scrambling or as a trail run or as “speed climbing” a nontechnical peak. Soloing is safe only when it has your complete attention and proper decision making faculties.
If technical speed climbing doesn’t make use of soloing, it usually uses sparse gear (long runouts) or roped simul-climbing on moderate terrain. Those methods are more-or-less safe when the clock isn’t pushing you. But when you’re racing the wristwatch, unroped or only marginally roped, sometimes bad things happen. Seemingly especially on Yosemite Valley (read: highest profile) speed attempts.
I solo. A lot. Which is pretty standard, especially in the mountains. But it’s sometimes really hard for me to focus and to safely solo something with real consequences (read: serious injury or death) when someone other than my partners are watching. Like Michael Reardon often observed, sometimes soloists don’t want anyone watching. I have no idea what it would be like to have huge press cameras and photographers on me as I was trying to solo something hard in Yosemite. I guess Potter and Honnold tolerate it for the publicity; I doubt anyone really embraces it.
To solo safely, a climber needs to be in the right mindset. Some days, you aren’t feeling it. But it’s hard to say no when the media and photographers are all set up on the route, waiting for you, and you are compelled to climb even if you’re not feeling your best. I worry that Alex Honnold and those others who are really pushing the envelope when soloing will get goaded or pushed by the press into climbing some objective they aren’t 100% comfortable with, or on a day when they aren’t totally feeling up to it. If you’ve exited that comfort zone, soloing becomes dangerous indeed.
On his speed record of Yosemite’s Triple Crown, Honnold’s foot slips while he is right in front of the video camera (see here, 1:17). He’s able to hang on, but watch his face, especially at 1:30 after he’s pulled to safety. I would guess having a cameraman right in front of him is not coincidental to why he slipped right there–his focus was broken.
Soloing always requires focus, and soloing for speed is on the very margins of safety. We don’t need the press there to make it any more dangerous. When Honnold freaked out in the middle of his solo of Half Dome, it was on camera (here–skip to 2:20, though the uncut/un-Hollywoodized version, which is in the rock climbing film but I couldn’t find on YouTube, is much scarier). We need people like Alex Honnold to live, to promote the sport, to have his accomplishments speak for themselves.
It’s not clear how different the freak-out would have been if Honnold were off-camera, maybe not different at all. Or maybe he wouldn’t have finished the climb without the media. I still don’t necessarily think it’s better if he wasn’t feeling like continuing, but did so only to satisfy some expectations. If it increases the risk to the climber at all, I don’t think having minute by minute up-close-and-personal video coverage of a solo is a good thing. This is not the NBA. The mountains are not a stadium. The consequences out there are a lot bigger.
Michael Reardon spoke a lot about the bubble you’re in when soloing, the “eight foot eggshell.” Nothing outside matters. But sometimes, those photographers are inside the eggshell. When Dean Potter free soloed the upper third of El Cap, he had to tell a photographer to get out of his way while in the middle of some 5.11 overhanging section (sorry can’t currently find link). This scares me, that the media is changing the climb.
And even without a cameraman in your face, just knowing the climb will be covered in the press changes things. The 1996 Everest disaster happened when Jon Krakauer was there reporting for Outside Magazine. The generally accepted story is the high death toll that year was not a coincidence– the firms even admitted they were competing to have the best record of putting people on the summit and didn’t respect general safety considerations, especially turnaround times. When the press is involved, climbers act differently, hoping to be seen in the best light, taking risks we otherwise wouldn’t take.
Anatoli Boukreev received a medal of heroism from the American Alpine Club for saving several lives in the Everest Disaster. But the non-climbing community viewed events through Krakauer’s factually incorrect and biased, yet bestselling, book Into Thin Air. Boukreev was forced to defend himself, with help from top American alpinists, by releasing his own book, The Climb which gives a much more objective version of events, citing ambition as a main contributor to the chaos. But despite Boukreev’s overwhelming support among actual climbers, the general public adopted Krakauer’s (really very preposterous) stance that Boukreev was an arrogant and irresponsible climber and to be blamed for the deaths.
The subsequent (completely unjustified) negative press coverage about him convinced Boukreev to attempt a very dangerous unclimbed route on Annapurna (the world’s deadliest peak even in summer) the following winter. It happened to be the biggest Himalayan winter in 100 years. No, the press didn’t make the decision, Boukreev did. But a climbing psychology is delicate, and without the very aggressive public campaign against him and his reputation to prove, there is no way such an experienced climber as Boukreev would have pushed on in such hazardous conditions that took his life in an avalanche on that climb.
So this week Stéphane Brosse died in a cornice collapse on his Mont Blanc crossing attempt, a peak on which he has climbed many times and already owns the speed record. What was different this time? It was a high-profile attempt with Kilian Jornet, who is a media darling and ultrarunning superstar (in Europe, where people care somewhat about such a thing). People die on Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest peak, every season, but recently Mont Blanc has been viewed in the skyrunning community as a “run” albeit one with crampons. It seems in our quest for speed we are forgetting that mountains can kill, especially when runners are drawn in, past the very blurry line that distinguishes technical running from speed climbing.
Last month Killian Jornet announced his intentions– to ample media attention–that he is joining the speed climbing scene. He unveiled his “Summits of My Life” project (video here), (website here) which is essentially Jornet trying to set a bunch of speed records–not on ultrarunning courses, but on mountain peaks, and all film-documented by a videographer. He wants to set speed records on Denali and Elbrus (both held by Boukreev), Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and also Everest (held by Pemba), amongst others, in the coming years.
Jornet set the Mt Elbert record in 2010 (the Colorado Rockies’ highest peak). But Mt Elbert, with a hiking trail to the summit, is not the same as Denali. Or Aconcagua. Or even Mont Blanc, which are real climbing peaks. In the hype about times and records have we forgotten that a single error soloing a technical peak, even an easy one, means death?
The first peak of Jornet’s Project was this traverse with Brosse of the Mont Blanc massif– by what I understand to be a new route. He did not explicitly declare it to be a speed attempt (so it may have been just an attempted ascent of the traverse in any time). But speed may have been implied as he announced the Mont Blanc traverse to be the start of his speed climbing project which was to last for the next 4 years. Accordingly, I have to think speed was at least somewhere in the climbers’ minds. In any case, media success certainly was in their heads.
Picking Brosse as a partner was wise as Brosse holds the speed record not only on Mont Blanc, but on the most prestigious traverse in the Alps, the Haute Route. The completion of their Mont Blanc Traverse seemed a sure thing, it seemed, just as people are assuming Jornet will break Matt Carpenter‘s blazing fast record in the Pikes Peak Marathon when he runs it in August (I am not convinced, though I’m anticipating that race greatly). Jornet’s a phenom runner to be sure, and tears up steep trails. But any alpine climb, and especially any speed attempt, is serious, not to be taken for granted. On technical terrain it’s life and death serious.
Though Jornet is best known as a skyrunner (mountain runner, trail runner, ultramarathoner) he actually grew up climbing and ski racing also. Jornet is often considered the World’s best skyrunner, though he indeed was convincingly beaten by Anton Krupicka and Geoff Roes in the Western States 100 in 2010, the most hyped ultra-race on American soil in a long while. Jornet came back to Western States in 2011 (without Roes and Krupicka competing) and won, bettering his own best time, but was still 20 minutes behind Krupicka’s best time and 27 minutes off the Western States course record set by Roes (15:07). Jornet is scheduled to race Western States again next week, and there is much speculation, of course, that he will achieve his goal and break the course record this time. I will be racing Western States as well, and I would love to be part of a Jornet record-setting race, though my goal is to cross humbly, far back, within 5 hours of record time. But a week after losing his partner, I am not sure how that will affect things for Jornet–or if he’ll even choose to race at all.
Ambition in running is one thing, but ambition in the high mountains is really dangerous. Being humble when soloing is imperative. But the media doesn’t help with this. Did the media hype about Jornet’s speed climbing project affect Jornet and Brose’s decisions? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine it helped them climb safer.
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion” said Anatoli Boukreev, one of the greatest speed climbers of all time. I really wish the media would respect the sanctity of the cathedrals and allow speed climbers to climb in physical and psychological solitude out there.