Sunday, May 27, 2012

Into Thin Air - Again - the Problem with Unbridled Optimism

"This forms the nub of a dilemna that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die."

~ Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air


A Canadian woman met her death near the summit of Mount Everest just over a week ago.  Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a healthy, extremely driven, Toronto woman in her thirties, collapsed from exhaustion and altitude sickness on her way down from the summit.  She achieved her goal of climbing up Mount Everest, but it cost her her life.

According to reports, all efforts were made to convince Ms. Shah-Klorfine to turn around before reaching the summit, to no avail.  Her dream was to climb the tallest mountain in the world, she knew in her heart she could do it, and damn it no-one and nothing would stand in her way.  Unfortunately, this kind of thinking lead ultimately to a lonely death on the side of a mountain.  It also put two Sherpas at risk of being killed by the rising winds and increasing cold of a late descent.

Here is a quote from an article in the National Post:

"Most importantly, we found that majority of deaths above 8, 000 metres, the so-called death zone, occurred during descent. This is at first glance paradoxical as the climbers have made it to the summit and are descending into warmer oxygen-rich air. However, climbers tend to be more fatigued during descent after the adrenaline that fueled their ascent is expended.  We also confirmed the long-held belief that summiting early in the day is preferable. In particular, we found that survivors typically summited between 9 and 10 o’clock in the morning; while non-survivors usually arrived at the summit over four hours later. Late summit times are associated with slower ascents that are usually the result of a fatigued or inexperienced climber. Summiting later in the day also increases time spent in the death zone and the cumulative effect of the hypoxic and hypothermic stresses may also contribute to cognitive impairment that can impede a successful descent.

Ms. Shah-Klorfine summited around 2 pm and this placed her in a very dangerous situation that, for the reasons described above, contributed to her death."
~ G.W.K. Moore and J.L. Semple, Canadian Climber's Death Could Have Been Avoided

Thinking that one has the physical ability and the perseverance to climb the highest mountain in the world is an act of hubris in itself.  Thinking one has this ability without adequate experience and knowledge is, frankly, an act of stupidity.  Shriya Shah-Klorfine had very little mountaineering experience.  Certainly not enough to think she could make it to the top and back down the highest mountain in the world:

"Even though Shah-Klorfine trained for two years by walking and running 19 kilometres a day with 20-kilograms (45 pounds) on her back, she didn’t have the climbing experience many experts say is required to attempt such a dangerous activity."

~ Global News

Judging by what happened on the mountain, it is very doubtful that she even read the book Into Thin Air, about the 1996 disaster that resulted from the combination of a late summit and unpredictable weather.  

The book detailed very vividly the inherent difficulties of such an extreme climb, and predicted the dangers of overcrowded climbing attempts and cash-motivated guiding companies:

"Clients fork out about $25,000 to expedition organisers plus between $10,000 and $25,000 for an Everest permit, and some have been accused of ignoring their guides when advised to turn back.
Traditionalists also worry about the growing tendency of expeditions to set records and achieve "firsts"."
~ Frankie Taggart, AFP

Judith Timson, in an article in the Globe and Mail, questioned the motivations behind any individual climber's ambition to reach the summit in the modern age of guided ascents:

"... like so many other dreamers, for her it was never just a mountain, but a way to stand at the top of the world, to do her personal best, to conquer, achieve and, well, even to become famous.

But you are also risking your precious life, not in a war to save others, not even to better society but instead to fulfill a deeply personal goal that has unfortunately become hackneyed – you practically need a traffic cop to manage the summiteers trudging up the world’s highest mountain.

Nova Scotia climber and Everest achiever Mike Sutton told the CBC that we shouldn’t be questioning Ms. Shah-Klorfine’s skill or the crowded conditions of the mountain but applaud her for “trying to succeed at her dream, for actually getting to the top of the world.”

With respect, he is wrong. Now is the perfect time to question it all – the adequacy of the training, the overcrowding, the strategies for coping with oxygen-deprived and therefore cognitively impaired climbers to help them recognize their limits, and the goal itself."
~ The Globe and Mail, May 24th 2012

You know, it's wonderful to have drive, ambition and optimism.  However, one must also have a good dose of common sense, humility and respect for nature and for people with more experience who are advising you.  I feel very sorry for Ms. Shriya Shaw-Klorfine's family and very sad that Everest has claimed one more inexperienced, overly optimistic soul in the midst of rampant consumerism and the glorification of idealistic endeavors.

~ Liz

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