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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Elitism and competition in mountaineering

Greetings all,

I wanted to take a moment to post some thoughts that were brewing over the past few months regarding elitism in sports.  Before I begin, let me be clear about one thing - I firmly embrace a meritocracy where the top among us hold the most influence.  The question I have below is what merits "top" billing or "elite" status and how do we assess merit?  I have some strong reservations about how we assess merit these days and suspect that many problems in the hills come from an artificial meritocracy.  Here are my thoughts in detail:

What makes a mountaineer elite?

We define elitism in sports and recreation in different ways.  The assumed defining characteristics of the elite mountaineer are ill-suited for true elite status.  I am concerned about this definition because it affects everyone on the mountain.  Clients hire guides who claim to be elite, expedition leaders offer variable services but claim elite status, and climbers ask for preferential treatment based upon these assumed elite characteristics.  I think we - as a group - have poorly characterized the elite and this post clarifies my thinking.  Perhaps this was an exercise for me but by writing it out, I hope others benefit from my thoughts.  I begin with a simple story....

Shortly after my son was born, I began reading him Dr. Seuss books; one, in particular, was the "Sneetches and other stories."  In that book, Dr. Seuss created a wonderful story about conjured up elitism in the form of "Stars on thars."
These sneetches - the critters in the picture above - kept swapping social standing based upon some outsider's influence.  That outsider (Sylvester McMonkey McBean) charged the sneetches each time they wished to switch from having a star to going without.  Yep, he put 'em on and took 'em off - all for a charge of course.
The heart of the story was that the sneetches quickly assumed the role of cultural elite when they had the favored situation.  In some cases, the stars were favored and in other cases the stars fell out of favor.  We can all relate to this story because at some point we are either a member of the "in" group or we stand outside in the collective "out" group.  But what does a Dr. Seuss story have to do with mountaineering?  I'm getting there....hang on.  In short, elitism becomes relevant to the "in" and "out" groups.

Elite Athletes

Phelps: The true elite performer
Elitism in athletics comes from performance and performance alone.  No individual may join the ranks of elite without objective performances measured by others.  I exclude those events judged by others on subjective terms such as ice skating because the differences between the winners and the rest of the pack may be more a matter of taste than actual ability.  With that being said, competitions come on pre-defined courses where the performances of each individual are measured on a "level" playing field.  I use the quoted "level" because we expect the event to be equal for all participants; that expectation need not be true.

We - as a society - do not allow athletes to "self-report" performances.  Rosy Ruiz, Lance Armstrong, and many others misrepresented their performances.  Trusting athletes to compete fairly and to honestly report their performances might be too much of a stretch given the great rewards (personal, financial, social, etc.) that come from top (all-time) performances.  Thus, elite status comes only from verifiable performances on standard routines (e.g., marathon, high jump, etc.) without external aids (e.g., public transportation, drugs, wind, or other assistants).
Armstrong:  A manufactured elite performer

No other place can this in-group/out-group be felt more than in athletics.  Those who possess the ability to stand above all else form the "elite."  Often, the elite surround themselves with only the elite.  They travel to the same competitions, garner public support/scrutiny, and attract attention via all media outlets.  Yeah, sure, some elite are accessible and maintain friendships with non-elites but in the arena of competition, those elite groups stand out and stand together.  I maintain vivid memories of elite cyclists in Tucson turning their noses up to those who were unable to hold the pace or who had the look of a "back of the pack" rider.  Tucson cyclists are not unique nor should they be held in contempt for these behaviors.  Every athletic discipline has this form of elitism.

Elite Mountaineers

Elitism exists in mountaineering too for reasons that escape me.  Mountaineers are athletes to be sure but their performances are measured not in competition but by some strange amalgam of outcomes.  Most elite mountaineers get recognition by successfully reaching the summit - largely by self-report - of peaks varying in difficulty and the most difficult are the ones that garner the greatest recognition.  Both the summit (a binary outcome - success/failure) and difficulty are easily corrupted or manipulated to favor the climber.  I discuss these outcomes below with summit success first followed by difficulty.

Summit success

Ed Viesturs:  A true elite performer for all the right reasons (read on).
The first outcome that pertains to elite status is summit success - a binary outcome that may appear simple but, in fact, hides many attributes that we ought to consider.  A successful summit attempt requires favorable conditions that may not be controlled by the mountaineer.  Some uncontrollable conditions include weather, timing, permission, costs, and terrain (i.e., avalanche, crevasse, snow/ice bridges, etc.) to name a few.  Each of these may be anticipated and circumvented with sufficient time and resources but they all pose a limit to the success of any expedition.

Some may argue that there are many uncontrollable factors in competition and those factors dictate who wins.  While that may be a true statement, these factors do not exert the same influence in most sports as they do in mountaineering.  A person may not win a competition when other stronger competitors come to the same event but the performance may still be judged by a time or distance.  When placement or relative performance stands as the only measure of success then the comparison between mountaineering and other athletics becomes more relevant.

The Role of Luck:  Back to mountaineering, if one of the main components in evaluating elite status is one that falls outside the control of the mountaineer then it seems as if successful summits might be a less informative metric.  A truly elite mountaineer may suffer from bad luck and never reach the summit due to time, money, weather, and other unfortunate events.  Thus, I would contend that the successful summit may not be a good marker for elite status but rather of luck.  Louis Pasteur once claimed that "chance favors the prepared mind" and I embrace that quote as if it were part of my core being.  Sometimes, however, no preparation can counter the vagaries of Mother Nature.

"False" Summits:  Not only are successful summits likely the result of chance (and skill), the actual outcome may be corrupted by the person reporting the event.  There are countless numbers of "false summits" reported by climbers who either mistakenly thought they were on the summit or who reported a successful summit when, in fact, they did not and knew they did not reach the summit (Check out this page just for some additional entertainment).  Regardless of the cause, a false report is a false report.  Elizabeth Hawley and Richard Salisbury - the people who document all Himalayan climbs - often ask climbers to take pictures of themselves on the summit.  Moreover, Ms. Hawley even goes so far as to ask the person to describe what was visible from the summit.  These two pieces of evidence corroborate the self-reported success.  Funny that we need to verify this outcome even though there is nothing really at stake for the person.  People like to brag about their exploits but I do not see how bragging about something you never did would be even remotely satisfying.  The binary outcome of a successful summit can be corrupted and we ought to be wary of any self-claims of elitism based upon these corruptible outcomes.


The second outcome that often defines elite in mountaineering is difficulty.  Climbers who successfully summit the most difficult mountains get hailed as "elite" and I think their status might be well deserved if it were not for the fact that difficulty is very difficult to understand.  Difficulty, it would seem, is a matter of risk.  The riskier a climb, the more difficult.  The problem is that there are two types of risk - objective and subjective.  Let me elaborate on these two briefly and come back to my point.

Objective risk:  Hazards exist in every environment - heat, cold, altitude, crevasse, snow depth, avalanche, rock fall, slope pitch, existing handholds/footholds, etc - and the more likely these hazards affect us, the riskier the environment.  Climbing offers many objective risks including but not limited to these mentioned previously.  A more difficult climb tends to have more objective risks.  Assessing these risks in combination, however, can be quite challenging - particularly since these risks are not always equally probable nor do the act in isolation of one another.  Some of these risks interact (i.e., work together in some synergistic manner) such as pitch, snow depth, and heat/cold; combined in particular ways, these three risks produce avalanches.  Objective risk, however, is not the only thing that defines difficulty.  

Subjective risk:  The second type of risk involves the climber.  Many of the aforementioned objective risks may be altered by the climber but the climber is responsible for far more.  Climbers must pay attention, keep their equipment in working order, climb efficiently to save energy, and make reasonable decisions based upon skill and objective hazards.  Prior proper planning and preparation reduce subjective risks but never eliminate them.  Climbers who are careless, inattentive, and reckless offer far greater subjective risks - not just to themselves but often to others on the mountain.  This latter point is one I will come back to shortly but remember it as if it were gospel:  MOUNTAINEERING RISK IS ALMOST ALWAYS RELATED TO THE CLIMBER(S).  I might be alone in that statement because many (e.g., Ted Lemon's excellent blog post from 2005) contend that we maintain illusions of control in uncontrollable situations like mountaineering.  There are countless other psychological theories I could cite but I won't bore you with those details.  Regardless of the disagreement, we can all agree that risk get modified by the climber.  Perhaps the lowest level of risk is defined by the objective risks but the subjective risks - those we bring to the table - amplify those objective risks.  

So why am I going to all this length to elaborate on risk?   Simple.  Risk defines difficulty.  The more a climber introduces subjective risks and affects the objective risks, the higher the overall difficulty of the climb.  We all introduce risks into climbing.  The lesser skilled climbers increase the risks; the ill-prepared increase the risks; the reckless increase the risks.  Skill or lack thereof is not the only factor that makes climbing risky.  It is precisely the interaction between objective risks and the humans in the environment that leads many to claim that some mountaineers are "elite" whereas others are not elite.  Again, skill only stands as one factor.  There are many who consider themselves elite who make foolish decisions.  Those climbers who act in a way to increase risk to themselves or others - I think most of us would contend - are not elite.  These climbers may possess abilities beyond others and skills well-honed after many expeditions but their decision-making alone relegates them to no more than sub-elite.

Defining Difficulty

I might be a bit cavalier in my statement that difficulty gets defined directly by objective and subjective risks.  Actually, the definition is far more subjective than that combination.  Mountaineers often proclaim first routes as the most difficult primarily because nobody else found success before using that specific route.  One a route gets climbed successfully, the route peaks at its subjective rating of difficulty.  The more climbers ascend that route, the easier it becomes.  Does it actually get easier?  Probably not but the perception of its ease changes.  Consider Everest as a prime example.  Before Sir Edmund Hillary climbed the South Col to the summit, many considered Mt. Everest unclimbable.  Similarly, the four-minute mile was an unattainable result until Roger Bannister broke that barrier.  Each success afterwards somehow tarnishes the difficulty of the feat.  I fail to grasp the logic of this difficulty decay but it exists in all fields - mountaineering is far from unique in that regard.  We still hold any person who can run a sub-4 minute mile to be elite because that is a standard that remains difficult - not impossible as once thought but certainly difficult.  Everest, in contrast, now falls into the category of moderately difficult as opposed to impossible.  Very few consider a successful Everest summit to be a marker of elite status.  The reason?  Everest lost its difficulty rating; it now ranks as a blue square rather than a black diamond or double black diamond to borrow a skiing analogy.

Re-Defining Elitism in Mountaineering

The Benegas Twins - Damian and Willie
An elite mountaineer might be best described - from my perspective - as a person who offers the least risk to him/herself and those around him/her.  A person who can keep calm, make reasonable decisions under duress, and assist others (yes, actually reducing risk to others) are the elite.  I care not one lick about how many peaks a person climbed if that person remains reckless or selfish.  As Willie and Damian Benegas often say, "the outcome is the process not the summit."  These guys are elite and they are elite not because they summit a ton of mountains; they are elite because they make good decisions about themselves and others.  I admire them and I also admire Ed Viesturs for the same reason I admire Scott Jurek - all of these guys make the event more enjoyable and safe for themselves and others around them.  These guys are also accomplished athletes but it is not their accomplishments that stand out as much their positive impact on those around them.

There are too many instances of expedition leaders who think more about their own personal and professional goals than their clients' safety; clients who care more about their own successes than the safety of those around them; and guides who climb for their own glory than serving those who paid for their ventures.  An elite person is a person who rises above all these petty things and behaves in a way that increases the safety for all.  I have tremendous respect for those people and I think we all ought to commend them for their actions.  The rest who lay claim to elite status for their sole conquests remain - as far as I am concerned - nothing more than novices who still do not appreciate what it means to be elite.  Many of you know I really like Mark Horrell's travel writing.  He posted an excellent bit on "The people who give Everest a bad name."  I strongly encourage you all to read his post.


Remember the sneetches?  Some folks in mountaineering fell into the same trap that ensnared the sneetches.  They worshiped false idols and became enamored in outcomes that had little to do with what matters most in mountaineering - safety.  Recently, I read several books about climbers who hired guides based solely on claimed successful summits themselves, claimed successful summits by former clients, or falsified credentials that had little hope of being checked by anyone.  If you really want to know some of these sordid details, I strongly encourage you to read several books - not just one - to get a full picture of what goes on in large expeditions like climbing Mt. Everest.  One, in particular, is Michael Kodas' account of Nils Antezana and his own climb up Everest.  Both accounts show the clear errors of inferring elite status for leaders, guides, and climbers.  The only metric we can use to determine elite status is word of mouth.  I would love to see a database of expedition leaders, guides, and climbers who were rated based upon their influence on risk in the mountains.  We could have an Amazon rating system where everyone who ever wanted to climb could enter their name and anyone could rate the person based upon the factors I mentioned above.