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A Plea for Risk

  • Philip A. Ebert (a1) and Simon Robertson (a2)

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Mountaineering is a dangerous activity. For many mountaineers, part of its very attraction is the risk, the thrill of danger. Yet mountaineers are often regarded as reckless or even irresponsible for risking their lives. In this paper, we offer a defence of risk-taking in mountaineering. Our discussion is organised around the fact that mountaineers and non-mountaineers often disagree about how risky mountaineering really is. We hope to cast some light on the nature of this disagreement – and to argue that mountaineering may actually be worthwhile because of the risks it involves. Section 1 introduces the disagreement and, in doing so, separates out several different notions of risk. Sections 2–4 then consider some explanations of the disagreement, showing how a variety of phenomena can skew people's risk judgements. Section 5 then surveys some recent statistics, to see whether these illuminate how risky mountaineering is. In light of these considerations, however, we suggest that the disagreement is best framed not simply in terms of how risky mountaineering is but whether the risks it does involve are justified. The remainder of the paper, sections 6–9, argues that risk-taking in mountaineering often is justified – and, moreover, that mountaineering can itself be justified (in part) by and because of the risks it involves.

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1 In Motivations for Mountain Climbing: The Role of Risk (University of Sussex, U.K., PhD-Thesis, 2011), Nina Lockwood shows via a number studies that although risk is one important part of a mountaineers' motivation, risk per se is not the key motivating factor. See also E. Brymer, Extreme Dude: A Phenomenological Perspective on the Extreme Sports Experience (University of Wollongong, Australia., PhD-Thesis 2005), which highlights various ‘spiritual’ elements informing the motivations of many mountaineers.

2 For a useful survey of different notions of risk and risk perception, see Brun, Wibecke, ‘Risk Perception: Main Issues, Approaches and Findings’, in Wright, G. and Ayton, P. (eds), Subjective Probability (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 1994): 395420.

3 First introduced in Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’, Science 185 (1974), 1124–31. Kahneman's excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Penguin Books, 2011) discusses many other heuristics and biases; see also Chabris, C.F. & Simons, D.J., The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (New York: Broadway Publishers, 2011).

4 Kahneman & Tversky, op. cit. note 3, 1128.

5 See Kahneman op. cit. note 3, chs.12 & 13.

6 At least it returns no search results on their website.

7 Granted, as mountaineers we also hear more about talented mountaineers who die but who don't make it into mainstream news.

8 Labelled by Kahneman (op. cit. note 3) the ‘what you see is all there is’ (WYSIATI) principle.

9 Colton, Nick, ‘Conquerors or Connoisseurs?On the Edge 115 (2005), 6465.

10 We return to the role of competence in section 8.

11 The data is drawn from official accident statistics issued by the German and the Swiss Alpine Clubs, available on their respective websites. We here focus on fatality rate, though similar considerations apply to injury rate and severity.

12 Most statistics do not use exposure time but rather go by mountaineer, climb or summiteer (the latter two thereby excluding those who turned back without summiting because of the risks involved). This makes a comparison to other activities difficult; see: http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/booth/risk/sports.html. We here make the simplifying assumption that the dangers are quantified by fatality rate only. Ideally, we would also need to know the injury rate and seriousness of those injuries. There is, however, little information available on this. See also fn 21.

13 Randelzhofer, Peter, ‘Wie riskant is Bergsport?’, Panorama 2 (2010) 6870 (not a peer-reviewed journal). The statistics are based on accidents by members of the German Alpine Club (800,000 members), with the exposure time calculated on the basis of 7,900 returned questionnaires.

15 Based on the transport statistics for Great Britain 1979–89 (lower number) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration USA (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811639.pdf) for 2010 using the average speed of 35mph to calculate exposure time.

16 Calculated on the basis of Matthews, Simon, ‘Mortality Among Marathon Runners in the United States, 2000–2009’, Am J Sports Med 40 (2012), 1495–500. Note that this is based on competitive races, rather than training (which is usually associated with lower fatality risk).

17 Morgan, Damian, ‘Estimates of Drowning Morbidity and Mortality Adjusted for Exposure to Risk’, Injury Prevention, 17 (2011), 359359. For a much higher number, see Mitchell, R.J., Williamson, A.M. & Olivier, J., ‘Estimates of Drowning Morbidity and Mortality Adjusted for Exposure to Risk’, Injury Prevention, 16 (2010), 261266.

18 Many accidents are likely due to incompetence and lack of experience; and so this selection bias could make for a lower than average fatality rate.

19 See Tejada-Flores, Lito, ‘Games Climbers Play’, in The Games Climbers Play (London: Diadem Book, 1978).

20 Based on McIntosh, S.E., Campbell, A.D., Dow, J., et al. , ‘Mountaineering Fatalities on Denali’, High Alt Med Biol 9 (2008): 8995. It is worth noting that the fatality rate at Denali is slowly decreasing. However, other statistics suggest that the high-altitude game is very dangerous; see Windsor, J.S., Firth, P.G., Grocott, M.P., Rodway, G.W., & Montgomery, H.E., ‘Mountain Mortality: A Review of Deaths that Occur During Recreational Activities in the Mountains’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 85 (2009), 316321.

21 Schussmann, L.C., Lutz, L.J., Shaw, R.R., et al. , ‘The Epidemiology of Mountaineering and Rock Climbing Accidents’, Wilderness Environ Med 1 (1990), 235–48, suggests that rock climbing has a lower injury risk than football or horse riding. Neuhof, A., Hennig, F. F., Schöffl, I., & Schöffl, V., ‘Injury Risk Evaluation in Sport Climbing’, International Journal of Sports Medicine 32 (2011), 794800 and Schöffl, V., Morrison, A., Schwarz, U., Schoffl, I., & Küpper, T., ‘Evaluation of Injury and Fatality Risk in Rock and Ice Climbing’, Sports Medicine 40 (2010), 657679, comes to a similar conclusion: sport climbing and indoor climbing have a lower injury rate than activities like rugby, football (soccer) and basketball.

22 So, for example, in a recent movie Steve House, a professional high-altitude mountaineer who pioneered light and fast alpine approaches in greater mountain ranges, noted that he has shared his rope with 19 climbers who have since died (https://vimeo.com/40379197). Similarly, Will Gadd, a leading ice climber, writes: ‘I often hear friends make statistically insane comments such as, “You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains”. That statement, for the record, is a stinking pile of self-delusional excrement that does not smell any less foul with repeated exposure’, noting that 27 of his friends have so far died in the mountains (http://explore-mag.com/2831/adventure/the-grand-delusion). Gadd is right that certain mountaineering sub-disciplines are extremely risky; and, given that he is a leading exponent in several of these sub-disciplines, he will be exposed to many more fatalities than the average mountaineer. Note, however, that this is compatible with our main claim: that certain forms of climbing are extremely dangerous while, on the whole, the general activity (encompassing all age groups and many different forms of mountaineering) is not. As well as these theoretical concerns, there is a practical reason not to infer from general statistics too much about a particular situation when more pertinent information is available: just as there is little comfort in reminding yourself that shark attacks are very unlikely when you are swimming in the open sea surrounded by a great white, there is little point in reminding yourself of the climbing stats when you're totally pumped facing a potential ground fall.

23 Indeed, one can easily imagine a situation in which a mountaineer and non-mountaineer are equally informed and sensitive to both the distorting effects of the heuristics, media bias, etc., considered in sections 2–4 and the available statistical data – yet still disagree over whether mountaineering is ‘too’ risky. Here, it looks plausible to say that, their disagreement is really a normative one.

24 Fatalities in hillwalking are also often due to cardiac arrest (roughly 50% according to the German accident statistic; it is dramatically less in the case of alpine climbing).

25 There are various versions of [Despite]. According to some, mountaineering is justified because it cultivates virtues of character (like courage, self-resilience, discipline, humility, even compassion) which in turn makes us better people. See for example the essays by Charlton, Treanor and Sailors in Schmidt, S.E. (ed.), Climbing: Because It's There (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) – and, for criticism, Knowles, Dudley, ‘Review of Climbing: Because It's There’, Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2001), 887–90. For a rather different approach, which we consider below, see Krein, Kevin, ‘Nature and Risk in Adventure Sports’, in McNamee, M. (ed.), Philosophy, Risk and Adventure Sports (Oxon: Routledge, 2007).

26 Although [Despite] seems the orthodoxy within academic circles, in our discussions with mountaineers something more like [Because] is commonly accepted.

27 This is a repeated theme throughout mountaineering literature. See also the interviews in O'Connell, N., Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers (London: Diadem Books, 1995).

28 Krein, op. cit. note 25. Krein's arguments are more nuanced than we can do justice to here; we examine them in greater detail in ‘Mountaineering and the Value of Risk’ (unpublished manuscript).

29 Op. cit. note 25, 87–91.

30 Op. cit. note 25, 82–3.

31 Op. cit. note 25, 84. Krein mentions driving fast and Russian roulette.

32 Some mountaineers are drawn to these other activities. However, they often say that they do them for a different (sometimes a comparatively safe) kind of exhilaration. Moreover, they often report, they don't find these other activities as fulfilling. For a particularly poignant example, see Terray, Lionel, Conquistadors of the Useless (London: Bâton-Wicks, 2008), 296–8 – where Terray records how his friend Louis Lachenal, no longer able to climb seriously given the frostbite he incurred on the first ascent of Annapurna, unsuccessfully sought a surrogate by driving dangerously.

33 Krein, op. cit. note 25, 83, 86, 88.

34 One might be warranted in believing that p, even though not-p; so ‘warrant’ here is not factive. For a fuller account, see Robertson, Simon, ‘Epistemic Constraints on Practical Normativity’, Synthese 181 Supp.1 (2011): 81106.

35 Importantly, facing and overcoming risk often has a positive effect on the ways we view and value aspects of more day-to-day life. To quote extreme skier Eric Pehota from the ski movie Steep: ‘It's the ultimate paradox. The closer you come to dying, the more alive you feel: […] if you just sit around on a couch and watch TV, how can you appreciate that cold beer or that nice, big, hearty steak? But you eat soup, and live in a cold, icy environment for two, three weeks, and, man, you get back, and that's the best burger you've ever had in your life and […] that beer could be piss warm, and it'll be the nicest beer you've had in your life’.

36 Capturing a number of these ideas, in the 1984 film of his ski descent of the East Face of Aiguille Blanche du Peuterey, Stefano de Benedetti says, ‘This is my mode of expressing myself. This is my mode of speaking to the others of freedom’. And in the movie Steep he says: ‘In the perfect moment, I was so concentrated, there was no space for other thoughts. […] When you are in a situation where if you fall you die, everything changes. […] You act like a different person. You act with all yourself. You are making a completely different experience, and in some way you are discovering yourself. This is the magic of the mountain. […] But to live so close to the possibility of dying, you understand what is really important and what [is] not. […] It's probably the highest moment of my life. Because in the perfect moment, I was, or I felt to be, a little superman’.

37 To put it in more technical jargon, risk is ‘constitutively valuable’: a constitutive feature, not just of mountaineering, but of the values mountaineering expresses and the valuable experiences it brings. It may be useful to here distinguish our view from some other axiological theses. In particular, we are not saying (1) that risk-taking is unconditionally valuable or good in all circumstances (though we remain non-committal as to whether competent risk-engagement is); (2) that competent risk-engagement is intrinsically valuable (if that implies non-relationally valuable); or (3) that risk is merely instrumentally valuable (only a means to other goods). There are several other ways risk could be valuable – finally valuable (as an end there is reason to pursue for its own sake), symbolically valuable (symbolic of something else of value), and more – but even if risk is valuable in such respects, these do not get to the nub of its value.

38 A version of this paper was presented as one of the London Lectures on Sport hosted by the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Many thanks to Anthony O'Hear for inviting us, and to both he and the Lecture's audience for extremely engaging discussion. Additional thanks to an audience at the University of Stirling for feedback on an earlier draft. We dedicate the paper to the many climbing friends with whom we've shared both a rope and some of the ‘best beers ever’. This work was supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council AH/J00233X/1 held by Philip Ebert.

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