Sep 102013
 

It’s downright unfashionable to have to be rescued. But is it wrong?

Mountain and wilderness people of all sorts — including climbers, backpackers, trail runners, hunters, skiers, photographers — are almost universally proud of their self-sufficiency in the backcountry. They’re used to talking about risks from weather, getting lost, falls, avalanches, wild animals, lightning. They’re familiar with all kinds of traditional and exotic gear and methods designed to minimize these risks. They sometimes sneer (I have, and I’m far from an expert mountaineer) at the casual tourists who set out each summer from roadside trailheads in jeans and hoodies, a bottle of Coke and a pack of cigarettes, thinking that it will take them only about an hour to climb that mountain that looks so close, but who quickly become dehydrated, get caught in a thunderstorm, become hypothermic, get lost, and need to be rescued. “We,” these mountain people think, “aren’t even close to being that stupid.”

And yet, even expert mountain people occasionally get in over their heads and need to be rescued. If these experienced people are smart, they’ll swallow their pride and embarrassment and call for assistance. That’s what Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg just did while climbing the Aiguille du Midi last Saturday.

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Jornet and Forsberg apparently got stuck on the Frendo Spur in running shoes when the weather worsened and decided to request assistance from the Chamonix mountain rescue team, the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc. From reading various accounts of the event, it appears that they decided that further climbing was unsafe once they had unexpected delays in the ascent and the weather got worse. By all accounts I’ve seen, the rescue was done safely and professionally. Emelie Forsberg describes events like this:

Kilian and I went out climbing on Frendo Saturday morning. We had checked the weather, checked the route and we had in our mind that we could do the epron pretty fast. We estimated the time with the experience we had before. We know that we can move pretty fast in that kind of terrain.
We went climbing in a good pace. And when we reached the icy ridge we had only been out for a few hours. I thought to myself that woooha this must go really wrong if we don´t make it up there before 5 pm.
After the icepart we decided to go more in the rocks instead of the most common way up that was on the steep ice. That was in our plan the whole way, because we didn´t bring the proper gear for the ice. And that we knew before we started.

On the rock, I started to became a bit stressed. I was finding a way up that was a bit loose and I also didn´t have the best feelings after the icepart where I hurted my foot.
We took time climbing up, rappelling down, trying to find another way and so on we did for a while.
I became so cold and I couldn´t focus my thought very well. I was stressed and felt captured. We started to talk about possibilities. Rappelling down or try to do the last part even if we didn´t know if we could reach the summit that way or the last way out; call the rescue.

Kilian Jornet says this about their rescue:

On September 7th, I had planned a mountain route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi (France), the so-called Frendo spur. This was a route that I had already done twice before on my own with only the minimum of material. I do this type of outings frequently, alone or accompanied, as they are both the basis of my training and of my free time.

I was accompanied by Emelie Forsberg and we were both equipped with light materials (short sports leggings, fine down jackets and trainers). We set off at dawn from Plan d’Aiguille, at 8:30 am to be precise, planning to return some 4 hours later, which was the time we estimated the journey would take. We had checked the weather forecast the day before, which announced bad weather as of 5 pm, and we both carried rock climbing materials (a set of friends, climbing chocks, 60m of rope …) and also ice climbing equipment (2 ice axes each, technical crampons and ice screws).

We started off at a good pace along the route, and at 9 am we started to climb roped together. At 12 we were about an hour from the summit. There, on the last stretch of the climb, we took a wrong turn and when we realized what had happened, we abseiled down to get back on the right path, losing about 3-4 hours. About 50m from the summit, my companion had a problem, and it was at that moment that we decided to call the PGHM (high mountain rescue team), aware that the weather would worsen in an hour’s time. We decided to make that call so as not to take a greater risk. At that altitude, it was me who had more experience and so I was responsible for the safety of my fellow climber. We were not exposed to serious risks because we were roped together and had the chance to abseil down if rescuers had been unable to reach us.

The rescue team told us that, due to the weather, a helicopter could not be used, and they would reach us on foot taking the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then abseiling down the 50m that separated them from the top of the Aiguille. It took 4h for the team to arrive at the scene after the call was made. From there, in a very professional and secure way, we were taken to the top of the Aiguille, from where the cable car took us down to Chamonix. We didn’t suffer any injuries or major consequences, apart from suffering a bit from the cold.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the mountain rescue teams for their work, which is always so professional and efficient.

This is a warning that the mountain is a hard and dangerous place, even when precautions are taken. One must be humble in the mountains, because a high price can be paid for our failures, especially when travelling light. We must accept and be aware of the risks that we are prepared to take individually and with the people who accompany us, depending on our physical and technical skill and also our experience.

As is usual when a rescue like this takes place, there’s been criticism of Jornet and Forsberg’s decisions. In retrospect, there were plenty of things the pair could have done differently to avoid the predicament they found themselves in. Most of the criticism has been aimed at their choice of gear — running shoes and light clothing. The most aggressive of the critics implicitly or explicitly accuse Jornet and Forsberg of moral malfeasance, of selfishly choosing to take risks that, once things went bad, put their rescuers in danger and imposed costs on the public. Commenting on Emelie Forsberg’s blog, Alex Fernandez writes:

I have deep respect for what you do, you and Kilian. Very inspirational. BUT the main question here is : where ends everyone’s passion and wishes ? Wanna move fast & light in moutains ? Being rescued has a price. You put the PGHM guy’s life at risk, just because you wanna move light and fast, and moreover, at the expense of every french resident. We don’t have to pay the bills for your passion.

There is something to this argument. Where does the freedom to choose our path in the mountains butt up against the imperative not to burden others tasked with rescuing us from mistakes and misfortune? What costs, what risks, should we incur to support the passions of climbers like Jornet and Forsberg? In a perfectly-realized libertarian world, none. Ideally, we each would face the consequences of our own choices in the mountains alone. We would never call for rescue, realizing that this would be imposing risk and cost upon the rescuers. As a close second-best alternative, if we did request a rescue, we would reimburse the rescue group after the fact for the costs they incurred while rescuing us.

I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it does have limits. First of all, it’s not always clear what counts as a “mistake” in the mountains. What looks a priori like a reasonable decision will become, a posteriori, an obvious mistake if things go bad and you need to be rescued. In retrospect, every person that needs to be rescued did something (or failed to do something) that would have prevented their need for rescue. In this sense, the fact of being rescued inevitably reveals a mistake. But, a priori, most people make decisions about risk that look reasonable. They anticipate the weather as best they can. They plan their route as best they can. They account for dangers and risks as well as they can. But it is a fact about traveling in the mountains that all risk cannot be eliminated. And protecting against some risks often increases your exposure to other risks. A classic example is the tradeoff between “light and fast” vs “heavy and slow.” If you take less gear, you gain safety because you can travel faster, and every mountaineer knows that safety is often found in speed — get where you’re going before the weather changes. But of course, if you get caught out in deteriorating conditions, you’ll be in more danger if you don’t have a lot of gear to keep you warm or finish your climb.

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

Secondly, the suggestion that every rescue unjustly burdens the rescue service or imposes unfair risks upon rescuers just isn’t true. Every professional rescuer, such as those with the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc, willingly chooses to join the team and to respond to calls for assistance. Many of these professionals derive immense satisfaction from using their considerable technical skill to rescue people. That’s why they volunteer or are hired for these services. No one forces them to do it. They understand, as every mountaineer does, that if people travel in the mountains, people will require assistance in the mountains. There is nothing unforseen about the risks these rescuers are taking.

And the costs that the rescue group or general public incur for these rescues are the foreseeable other side of the coin of the benefits these people obtain by encouraging  people to travel in the nearby mountains. The village of Chamonix, for example, derives immense economic benefit from their location at the foot of Mont Blanc, precisely because it’s such a good spot for mountain enthusiasts from around the world to visit, spend time and money in the local hotels and restaurants, between excursions into the mountains where risk is unavoidable. Chamonix is so popular precisely because of people like Jornet and Forsberg who, daily, are making journeys into the mountains and exposing themselves to the risks that go along with this. In fact, the notoriety and fame of Chamonix is disproportionately augmented by the bold and risky exploits of world-class runners and climbers who draw press coverage for their exploits, more so than the average tourist who rides to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in the telepherique.

It’s not a bad idea, of course, for rescuees to give back to the mountain rescue groups that help them. But it’s a tougher case to make that this should be required by law or by morality. There are cases where people show bad judgment when calling for a rescue. If you go hiking in the Grand Canyon and get thirsty, it’s not reasonable to call for a helicopter to fix the problem. But these stories are rare — most people of all experience levels try to be self-sufficient and to minimize risk. If you are human, and you go into the mountains, you will eventually need to ask for some help. It’s not a moral failing.

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