Friday, July 13, 2012

The Veneer of Civilization Glosses Over Potential Recreational Hazards in The Alps

This article in the British paper The Guardian is spot on in its discussion of the "deceptive" hazards represented by the European Alps. Visiting climbers and enthusiasts cannot take them lightly, just because many of the mountains are "only" 4,000 meters or about 13,123 feet or less. The veneer of civilization and amazing engineering feats such as cable-cars tend to gloss over any potential Alpine hazards. I've taken an interest in what's happened during the last month or so because I'm a recreational climber who has returned recently from a guided climb on the Monch and Jungfrau.

We usually hear about everything that happens, from near deaths to personality and petty team-dynamics squabbles, on Mt. Everest and other places in the Himalaya. But it's the Alps where the vast majority of tragic accidents occur. Nine climbers died in an avalanche on July 12 on the Mt. Blanc massif near Chamonix in France. Five climbers fell to their deaths on the Lagginhorn near Zermatt in Switzerland on July 3. Two climbers from Italy died on the Monch in May in a fall.

My son and I about a month ago were cavorting in the snow at the end of a cable-car ride at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise in Zermatt. This is a very limited area for Summer skiing near the Matterhorn and the Klein Matterhorn. It's deceptively fun and seemingly hazard-free; a Summer holiday destination for families. Neverthless, a young man from Costa Rica took his snowboard out on the glacier about a week ago and tragically died after falling into a crevasse.

The mountains are imposing, sublime, humbling, and potentially unstable geological features that make us seem very small and insignificant by comparison. As essentially a "flatlander" from the suburbs, I like to refer to a climb as an Everyman's moon landing. "Fear is good," as the mountaineer Ed Viesturs puts it. I'm a proponent of following your gut, even if it means you might not reach your goal that day. Life is fragile. We have to pay the mountains their proper respect, and always keep in mind who you might leave behind.

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