Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Touching the Void

I'm sure my friend Krisanne recently watched this movie, but I can't find her post on it. Reading her post made me queue it up in Netflix, since I found the book very interesting when I read it. The advantage of the movie is great scenery and commentary from the actual men involved. By the way, another great mountaineering book is Minus 148, about the first winter ascent of Denali. Those two, along with Into Thin Air will make you realize mountain climbers and all nuts and you are way better off taking up something tame like skydiving. ;) The thing that struck me in all these books is avalanche risk, how you are basically at the mercy of the weather and pure luck to not have one happen while you are in an exposed spot.

Touching the Void covers the famous incident in the Andes where two mountaineering friends got caught in bad weather during their descent. Joe Simpson fell and broke his leg, and his partner Simon Yates tried to lower him so they could continue. Unfortunately, while lowering him, Simpson again slipped off a cliff, and was suspended in mid-air due to the rope. Trapped like this, he tried to climb up slowly using his gear, but he dropped a crucial piece of equipment. After all, he was only dealing with the pain of his broken leg, darkness and bad weather, plus the freezing cold... and I can see where his fingers were frozen solid and something slipped.

Anyway, he could no longer climb up the rope, and Yates couldn't continue with his weight holding him down, so Yates did the very agonizing thing of cutting the rope, releasing Simpson into free fall and nearly certain death.

Simpson did survive the 100+ foot fall and live. Now he was faced with the struggle to climb out of a crevasse and back to camp, hoping Yates had not packed up and left, since that would have meant a death due to starvation/dehydration. He did make it, surviving against the odds, crawling like an animal over rocks back to the camp.

Watching the movie made me think of my own limited climbing experience. Since Mt. Rainier is so close to Seattle, it is a popular climbing destination. I was a little interested in joining a guided climb to the top, but over the years I grew less and less interested and now I have no desire to do anything more than a hike or snowshoe.

When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I joined the Mountaineers and took some of their classes: navigation, snowshoe, scrambling. You might wonder why you need a class for snowshoeing - well the Moutaineers are pretty serious about safety. The are very dedicated to safety and education, so the classes are very informative. The snowshoe series involved map/compass navigation, ice axe arrest, avalance beacon rescue, and snowcamping. The most interesting of these was avalanche beacon rescue - using beacons to search for teddy bears buried in tupperware containers. It was fun, until you realize in a real avalanche, you have ~30 minutes to find a buried person before they asphyxiate. Avalanche rescue is one of the few situation where going for help is the wrong thing to do; victims will die before you get back to them. If they have any hope of living, YOU have to start searching immediately.

Scrambling is non-technical climbing, which means getting to the summit without having to use ropes or other gear you attach to the mountain. Of course, there are peaks that can't be scrambled and must be climbed.

What I found out from backpacking is that for me, dragging around all the gear needed isn't fun. I went on two backpacking trips on the Wonderland Trail (which encircles Mt. Rainier) plus a trip to the Hoh Rainforest, and for those trips I had to take about 45 pounds of gear: backpack, tent, clothes, food, supplies. If I were a mountain climber, I'd have to take all that stuff PLUS heavier boots, cold weather gear, climbing axe, crampons, rope, etc. Net result: less enjoyment for more risk. Hm... let me think about about that... The views are great, but then you can get most of that benefit from some of the nicer and safer hikes and snowshoe routes available. Towards the end of my time in Washington I would only do day hikes.

I wound up leaving the Mountaineers - they are a great organization very serious about teaching and safety - but I just wasn't having fun doing anything more than hikes and snowshoes. Instead, I got into triathlon, where I can easily get my gear fix. ;)

No comments: