Dear Media: Mountains are not Stadiums, even for Honnold, Brosse and Jornet

“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.

About zoomloco

I zoom-zoom loco like the pony express.
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8 Responses to Dear Media: Mountains are not Stadiums, even for Honnold, Brosse and Jornet

  1. gandchorne says:

    Well said, Ben. In any arena behavior changes when people are watching/observing. The question is how to keep your head in the right place when the media finds you after a string of successes. The climbing world seems somewhat small, but news of accomplishments travel fast (you have even experienced that).

  2. Vitaliy M. says:

    Agree with you on most of what you say. I can see why pro athletes have to announce their plans, but personally I do not tell anyone (aside from my mother or maybe a few people that ask specifically) about what my plans are, before they are done. When you announce you will do something ahead of time, naturally you will want to avoid ‘failing’ in the eyes of all those people you told your big plan. Personally I do not want anything to have any effect on my decision making. However this is nothing new. Media needs to publish entertaining stories now, just like it did back in the day. In the past it was attempts on un-climbed faces that claimed many lives (Eiger for example), now it is about how fast one can run up it. Risk is what gives it entertaining value. Entertainment is how money are made. So as long as we will have climbing there will be sponsors throwing money at athletes to do something risky, and media will be there to cover the story. This is how it was this is how it will be in the future…

    Honnold’s freak out on the ledge (as I remember) was re-lived for the camera specifically. When he free soled whole HD he did not have any cameras around. To make a movie about his feat he was asked to re-climb any sections he feels comfortable climbing on the camera (with all the safety gear available if he requests it). Not sure if his slip on Watkins was simply a play for public or a real slip.

    When they were beating the speed record on the nose last weekend both seemed in extreme control, They did not rush moves. Every move I observed was solid. They did not run up like DanO on Bear’s reach, but were flowing like water. Was impressive to watch. About 200 people gathered in the meadows. Majority of these people were climbers and their family members/friends. No TV/reporters (although I think there were a few on the route itself).

    • zoomloco says:

      Thanks for clarifying/correcting a couple of those Half Dome details. Indeed the key is “When you announce you will do something ahead of time, naturally you will want to avoid ‘failing’ in the eyes of all those people you told your big plan.” Though if you tell your plans to close climber friends and your family, that is probably safe, as they value you living more than you succeeding. It’s when plans are sprayed far and wide, that’s when we might put pressure on ourselves to take extra risk in order to succeed.

  3. erichorne says:

    II like the star wars reference.

    You seem to subtly imply it’s the media’s fault for pushing climbers to their death. Isn’t the climber responsible for his own life, his own choices, etc? I can understand how observers changes your psych, indeed I’ve seen it in my own life. But still, if you choose to climb, you are responsible for the life and safety of yourself and any partners you climb with.

    thinking about our conversation about risk, i think that it is better expressed as a combination of danger and risk. standing at the edge of a cliff you have a high level of danger, but a low risk of injury (falling off the edge). walking around relatively level forest ground has a low danger level but a great risk (of bumping into trees, etc.)

    soloing has a high level of danger, as does driving in cars very fast. your point is that certain factors mitigate the risk, though the danger remains. Soloing remains an inherently dangerous activity, even if the risk is low.

    Pick the danger and risk level you’re willing to take on, and take responsibilty for your actions.

  4. Luke says:

    Some reading material on Honnold. It is also good to read the last Rock & Ice article he wrote about how he started soloing and the things he learned. It also talk about media pressure and the how people watching can effect a solo.

  5. Skye Schell says:

    Great post.

    “Pick the danger and risk level you’re willing to take on, and take responsibilty for your actions.”

    I would add to this: Pick the danger and risk level you *and your loved ones* are willing for you to take on.

    I love this piece:
    [[It’s common to exchange dialog along the lines of “I’m okay with skiing this. Are you?” while skiing with your partners, but it actually extends way beyond this circle. After spending hours on the skin track with a buddy and hearing about his family and friends, the worst place to actually meet them in person for the first time is at his funeral. “Oh, you’re Steve’s mom. He talked about you all the time. It’s great to finally meet you. I’m so sorry.” At that point skiing looks incredibly stupid and you’d do just about anything to turn the clock back.]]

  6. greg says:

    These are thought-provoking points. I am reminded of struggles in other sports to balance what is considered the sanctity of the sport with an attempt to popularize or groom it for easy consumption by the media.

    I would like to disagree on one crucial point though. I see your criticism of Jornet, and from your description of events I could definitely imagine that Brosse was pressured into joining him and perhaps pressured into taking in undue risk. This might be true – but if so, it’s Jornet’s fault, not the media’s. Jornet invited in the media. They didn’t invite themselves.

    I think this applies for other professional climbers as well. The media attention, I think, is encouraged. “Professional” climbers climb for money, which they make through the media. They have chosen this. If I were good enough, I might choose it too. Professional climbers almost certainly climb away from media attention as well; they might even climb hard enough such that the media would gladly report on them even though they don’t send an invitation. So I think the commitment of a hyped, prepared climb for the media is a commitment which professional climbers consciously make, in order to make a living. As I understand it, Honnold makes an incredible amount of money now and might even be able to stop climbing altogether if he wanted to and live comfortably for the rest of his life on speaking engagements. But he chooses to keep climbing publicly – and I don’t blame him for it.

    A lot of the criticism, then, I think is for the climbers themselves, who perhaps attempt climbs for which media attention is inappropriate because they are too dangerous or difficult. Perhaps when climbers attempt their most dangerous feats, they should choose to notify the media afterwards. That way they will be less committed. They can save the media attention for safer speed attempts, perhaps. Or they can volunteer the attention of the media but seal them to secrecy about failure, should an abort be necessary. But such strategies are up to the climber, not to the media, because the climber is subject and agent. And I think in your writing you imply this, at least towards Jornet.

    Some criticism could be saved for the media – for Krakauer, for instance, who could perhaps be accused of criticizing climbers and guides for his own personal gain. Unfortunately here I agree with Vitaliy that the media is doomed forever to be flawed… but there could be improvement. I don’t think I consume enough climbing media to really comment well on this, but I can comment on culture and people I’ve met while climbing or even just hiking (who consume and thereby determine the content of the media). Certainly it seems that there is great misunderstanding among most people (even among climbers, as you say) about the motivation of a solo climber. I was recently in Chamonix, and visited an alpine museum which had a small description of solo climbing. It said that climbers free solo because “they are looking for powerful experiences, or to push the limits of their sport.” I think this is very simply and well put, actually, but I was surprised to see it in a museum. It is possible that in France or Europe, where mountaineering might occupy a bigger and more important place in popular culture than it does in the United States (Messner was a member of the European Parliament!!) and so the risk of the high mountains is more understood, or at least the reward of achievement is believed by more people to be worth the risk. There may be a greater sense of personal responsibility there as well: in France, you cannot sue anyone if, by your own faulty judgement, you fall to your death on a high peak.

    Anyways, thanks for the article. I support professional climbing, because I support a greater place for mountains and wilderness and the natural world in the public consciousness. I just hope that at the same time, our culture and people and media develop an honest respect both for the wild, untamed danger of high peaks, as well as for the irrepressible yearning of the human spirit to push the bounds of the possible and cast a flicker of light into the great unknowns. And I hope that the explorers, and the climbers, operate intelligently and don’t take on for themselves – or heap upon their friends and colleagues – commitments which they cannot reasonably fulfill.

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