On Mortality in the Mountains

“CLEAR”

I screamed up to my two best friends on an afternoon in Chile. I had just fallen nearly 70 feet, a lonely snow picket by Peter bracing my fall. I was completely fine, but well, the valley was 4,000 feet below me. What am I supposed to think after something like that happens? Of course we train to react while climbing, but sh** does happen. I immediately started joking about how mad I was to lose a water bottle and a carabiner. Am I supposed to joke like that to push over the thoughts of the possible injury or death I could have just experienced? Is that what I’m supposed to do? Would I have been joking about it if I had been throw down the mountain to the valley far below? Waking up with a crampon in my leg and a broken helmet? Or not waking up? It wasn’t a traumatic fall but how would I psychologically react if it had been. Other than always telling myself and understanding the dangers, what IF something bad does happen.

What do I do.

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On Volcan Osorno, right about where I fell 70 feet down the mountain on our rope team.

In the past 8 months, I’ve had a look at mortality unlike I ever thought I would see at this age.

“How do you justify climbing in the mountains when you know it’s entirely possible not to come back?”

“Where is the line between adventure and safety?”

“Is the summit worth your life’

Consequences vs risk

Questions every alpine climber has been asked, or has asked themselves before.

People die in the mountains. There is no hiding that. And no, I am not a crazy himalayan alpinist. I am no expert on death in the mountains. I’m 19. I haven’t done too much climbing, but I have seen dangerous situations, and been in places where people have not come back alive. To be honest I’m not sure why I decided to write about this darker topic.  I feel like it’s healthy for me to write about it. I won’t be climbing for the near future, but I anticipate larger expeditions with very real consequences in the future.

In January 2009 alone, 5 people died on Aconcaugua, with over 33 deaths since 2001. I’ve read stories about people dying on that mountain. It’s haunting, especially because I know exactly where they didn’t make it. But what am I supposed to make of that? It’s not a technical mountain but it’s understandable that climbing plans up there could go wrong. Does this mean I was supposed to question my own mortality up on that mountain? Am I supposed to do it now, months after I am home safe? I don’t know.

Back in November of 2017 Emil and I attempted a 18,000 foot peak in Peru called Nevada Jampa. Here is the full blog on Jampa.

We didn’t summit that peak. We turned around for a variety of reasons. It was getting late in the day, I was suffering from food poisoning (apparently street trout for breakfast in Peru is a bad idea?). Jampa had just received a late season snowfall (unstable snow pack), many of the crevasses were covered and we didn’t bring a rope, we had been anticipating a much easier approach to the summit. Who knows, we may have been completely fine, but it was probably the right choice.

On the way down from Jampa the afternoon of summit day, Emil and I witnessed a massive avalanche on the mountain across the valley. I still remember the noise of thousands of tons of snow pouring down a 20,000 foot mountain a half-mile away. It was scary but also a beautiful feat of nature. Was that the confirmation I needed from mother nature that we had made the right choice to turn around?

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October 2017. Avalanche in the Ausangante Region.

I had never seen anything like it. But it sure made me have more respect for the mountains. Nothing can compare to the power that they can produce.

In February 2017, Emil, myself, and Peter attempted a large Patagonian peak called Monte San Lorenzo. Honestly I wouldn’t barely call it an attempt, it was short lived. After one day on the mountain I had to call it quits because of my messed-up feet.

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Monte San Lorenzo. Aiysen, Chile.

Monte San Lorenzo. 11,000 feet of prominence.

I was very excited to get out to Lorenzo and try to attempt the beast. But once I got there I wanted to leave. Of course, it makes sense why I wanted to leave. My feet were bleeding after a few hours in the icefall (see lower center of picture.) But it was almost as if something else was bothering me.

Months later I know why. Last week I was reading a NOLS report of a climb up San Lorenzo in January 2018. They hadn’t sumitted, but had gotten very close. I don’t know the details of the incident, but I read that an avalanche killed at least two people on the mountain, shortly after we were there in February.

I was also doing some research about the mountain when I came across a startling discovery. JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson, two of the greatest free-skiers of our time, Perished on San Lorenzo on September 19th, 2014. I’m not much of a religious or spiritual person, but I swear when I was there there was just something odd, or just haunting about the mountain. I think I now know why.

What do I make of this?

That I’m not always safe in the mountain? I think so.

I’m not sure what all to make of it.

Maybe that death is real, and it is a real consequence while pursuing my passions.

I’m sure I will be debating safety vs success and challenge for the rest of my life.

-Jack

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