Tag Archives: risk

The Hammerhead Mentality

Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

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Dr. Van Helsing Does Not Practice Primary Prevention

As recommendations for treatment of hyperlipidemia become broader and more generic, drifting toward the poly-pill conclusion, I can’t help but think of Dr. Van Helsing’s predicament in Dracula. In the story, though he has information which suggests the possibility of primary prevention, he practices secondary prevention. It is only after the symptoms appear – Lucy’s mysterious anemia and the rash of similar cases following her death – that the doctor suggests putting garlic around the windows. He has to wait. He’s in a story, so he knows the horrible truth all along, but he can’t reveal it without his patients sending him packing. Every doctor understands Van Helsing’s predicament. Few can see his patients’ logic however. It is one thing to indulge a crazy old man’s belief in vampires. It is quite another to indulge a crazy old man’s belief that a vampire has moved into the old mansion down the street and has begun to prey upon the household.
When doctors tell patients to treat public health problems, like cardiovascular disease prevention, on an individual basis, the patients take it as if they were being asked to put garlic around their windows because there have been vampire sightings in their neighborhood. They are slightly incredulous. And, the patients are right.
If we medical professionals are to treat asymptomatic individuals based on a 10 year risk calculated from epidemiologic data, for a disease which they have may or may not have started to develop, we must be honest with them. We have to admit that medication is the best that we can do, ask for their help, as a group, and then make it easy for them to help. Doctors don’t like to treat populations, though. Individualized care and patient centered care are the current watch words. But the greatest successes of medical science have been the opposite sort of effort. Nobody thinks that we should stop immunizing people for pertussis and move to an individualized prevention program with regular swabs for the pertussis bacteria and antibiotics for every runny nose. The approach is ostensibly patient centered, and it really is in a way, just like Dracula’s interest in Lucy and Mina is patient centered. Looking down from the established high ground, it’s easy to recognize the shift to an individualized strategy for preventing whooping cough as impractical and myopic. Medical professionals are clever enough to avoid bad moves from the general to the specific. However, decisions to move from a dysfunctional individualized program to a population based program can trip up anyone, even though the determining factors are the same.
The problem is Van Helsing’s problem. At the level of the vampire hunter’s interest, garlic around the windows is garlic around the windows. He’s like Dracula that way, for whom young ladies full of blood are young ladies full of blood. Dracula and Van Helsing are at risk of availability bias, cognitively and practically, as are all the physicians with lipid profiles, risk calculators and statistical correlations at their fingertips. There is a insidious, vampiric class of maneuver from population-based conclusions to individualized care. But the patients’ motivations lie outside of the action’s focus, and that focus is therefore myopic. It does matter to patients whether the doctor is asking them to deck the sills in order to cut down on the incidence of vampire attacks or because they should fear the vampire staring at them through the window. The latter request involves adopting an astringent manner of thought and behavior, the stuff of anxiety disorders. The former is an appeal to solidarity and public safety. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same people we’ve been instructing to fear the vampire outside their window come in demanding that we do something about the pale figure lurking behind their cough, in their prostate, or under their nipple. Having ceded the high ground, we’ve no credible response.

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This Is Going to Feel a Little Weird

No parking on any street. Fee area. Do not walk on the ski trail.
“This belongs to Charlie,” I thought, “and Charlie sure don’t surf.”
But Charlie owns the guys who write the tickets and pack the wheel boots. My friend Tim got a ticket the last time we were in Vail. I remember it because the fine made him swear – and he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I parked where the signs told me to park, and learned to hate Colorado just a little more. I’d come back to climb, though. I had to grudgingly admit that the climbing was good enough to make the Hippie/Richie Redneck ecosystem survivable.
I had a little more hatin’ to do as we crossed the ski trail. I was a terrible skater, but I left better tracks than those, over drifts and deer tracks no less. They needed a little de-grooming. But then we got the nice boot packed trail to the Designator amphitheater. It was worth it. The Rigid Designator was a pitted, overhanging hook-fest up the middle, but had a nice line on the left.

Left side of the Designator

Left side of the Designator

Just before we finished our second lap on the climb, I got a call from my oldest son. Cell service at the base of the ice – another Colorado aberration.
“We’re done and we’re standing at the Hotel where the gondola starts and we’re cold. Come get us.”
He is still learning the new way of things.
“Take the shuttle back to our Hotel,” I replied, “You have the key and I have food for you in the room. Do you remember which bus to take and the room number?”
“Yeah,” he answered with renewed confidence, “OK.”
He is almost there; soon I will be wishing he really needed me again.
Firehouse area

Firehouse area

Rich was a very good sport about it all. We packed up after the second lap and headed back to town.
The next day we went to the Firehouse area for some easy ice and mixed. With the rope through the anchors, however, our eyes began to stray to the scratch marks below the roofs and smears of ice. We didn’t come to Vail to top-rope, but we did it anyway despite the damage to our arms. At least hanging out in a practice area gained us some information. Rifle was in, said the guide belaying down the way.
A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

Rifle was a bit of a drive. It made me too nervous to leave the younger boy on his own while we were climbing over an hour away. Lucky for us, he had had enough snowboarding for the time being (When his legs get sore, he stops. We should probably bring him along more often.). He agreed to be our documentarian for the day.
Final Curtain, Rifle

Final Curtain, Rifle

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Having climbed out Rifle, we were back to the amphitheater for the big blow-out. Rich was set on the Fang. I had no interest. It was too damned wet. I wouldn’t be short of alternatives anyway. The lads had been busy while we were away. The last time I’d been standing behind the Fang, it had been easy to sort out the clip-ups on the cavern wall. Amphibian was the one on the right and the other one was Fatman and Robin. Now we had to ask the college kids who walked up behind us, which was which. Even so, I’m not sure what I climbed. I’d always wanted to do Seventh Tentacle, since I’d climbed Frigid Inseminator during my last visit. It was kind of a Robert Frost thing – “Two routes diverged on the crappy rock..” and I always wondered what the other one was like. Whatever it was, it was steep and led to the dry, left side of the hanging ice.

Up to that point, I’d remained unaffected by my single-parenthood. But the ice was brittle and my arms were tired from the day before. My swing was just sloppy enough to shatter large plates in the ice instead of driving the pick in cleanly. Normally, I’d need three ice screws to feel like the upper section was a sure thing. I was down to my last one with about twenty five feet to go.
Right after my wife died, I promised my boys that I would never voluntarily leave them. I could make no promises about objective hazards, but the subjective ones, I would avoid. I did have more screws, clipped to the rope below me. I down climbed to the last one which would prevent a ground-fall, pulled it, and climbed back up. I could feel the vibration of Rich’s teeth grinding, but he said nothing.
“Thanks for your patience,” I told him back on the ground.

The Fang

The Fang

We took a run at Amphibian a bit later, but we were too whipped to get past the fourth or fifth bolt. I think we were just not very motivated either. Things had changed all around since the last time we were on the route. Our practice crag at Whitewood now had climbing just as hard or even harder. I can’t say we were disappointed, just a little wistful. That’s the way it is with climbing. Nobody gets an olympic medal. Maybe you win a Golden Ice Axe someday, but the next morning some punk kid will hike your prize route and then retro bolt it. And the rest of the world honors your achievement even less than that punk kid. But that’s how it should be. We’d be back to climb Amphibian for the enjoyment rather than the achievement. I knew we’d be back because I still hadn’t climbed the route down the way, Octopussy, and I wouldn’t be a real mixed climber until I’d climbed Octopussy

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Success Is Just Another Word for Something Left to Lose

Sixty degrees was the forecast high temperature for the next day. Standing in the Hyalite parking area, we felt some bitterness at having squandered our forty degree day. A bit of information would be our only solace. We had just come down from having a look at the route, Zack Attack. There are some things in climbing for which I would risk serious injury or death. I could now declare: Zack Attack was not one of them. That’s all our best weather day would yield, and it was a brand of success, I suppose.
In our defense, it was very hard to judge the nature or condition of the first pitch from the road. So, first thing in the morning, we labored up the valley wall, bypassing the unformed steps of easy ice which would have made the approach entertaining in itself. When we arrived at the base of the climb, we saw that the reports of “all ice” were outdated. Several warm days had cleared the first short corner of its climbable adornment. The naked corner wasn’t much to look at – a collection of blocks and frozen turf. Except it wasn’t frozen. As I climbed up to have a look, my ice tools cut into the clumps of grass with light pressure from my wrists. Some of the blocks shifted ever so slightly under the crampon points.
As I looked up the route, the only obvious gear placements appeared to involve similar sets of blocks and flakes. The climbing didn’t look desperate, but the protection was illusory at best. In short, it was uninspiring. Besides, others were waiting by that time.
A team had come up to stand in line while I was scoping out the first pitch. Their persistence despite our priority and the look in the eye of the younger one made my decision even easier. I climbed down. Back on the snow platform, I let the guy with the look know what I’d seen. I knew he wouldn’t heed my assessment; this route obviously meant something to him. We watched the other for a bit before heading down.
He moved up to the first cam placement behind a flake, plugged in the gear and moved on, fifteen, then twenty feet to the next, similar opportunity. Eventually he found something which looked like it might hold a fall, just ten feet below the crux. He paused to think about his situation for several minutes and we took our leave. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to stay and watch.
Like Lot’s wife though, we were compelled to look back as we picked our way down the slope, and he moved ten, then twenty feet above his last good protection. He was driven right by the difficulties of the route onto ground which the guidebook describes as “sporty”, shorthand for unprotectable. Now at least thirty feet out, he stood for an hour in one spot, searching for gear or another way forward. Finally accepting the fact that the nature of his situation was plain climb or die, he made the moves left and up, achieving easier ground atop the crumbly slabs.
For my part, I’m glad he made it and I didn’t. He has a story to tell now, and a good one. It will be the kind of story I was recalling as I frowned up at the blocks and dirty slabs from the start of the route, and I’ve enough of them, thank you.

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Setting up for the finger lock.

Setting up for the finger lock.

The endless cycle of suffering which is death and rebirth. This has been the Samsara Summer. It is a story familiar to every climber. Just as the season gets rolling, the rain starts, a partner gets hurt, work asserts itself and the momentum dies. You’re left training, but it isn’t really training. Training implies a purpose, and soloing on a top rope and doing pull-ups has no end-point.
For me, what is left when the cycle turns is Tongueless Wonder.
The route is a Pete deLannoy creation at the most unfashionable crag in Spearfish canyon. I don’t know if Pete put this thing up in the absurd, power-drill-on-lead style for which he was famous. I kind of doubt it, though it would be fitting. The whole thing is ridiculous. It is a horrible crack-climb, with as many pockets and pinches as it has hand-jams and finger-locks. It is a horrible sport climb for the same reason. Furthermore, it is an ethical disaster. The bolted crack could be protected with clean gear, but only as a nightmare. The route is only twenty meters; most of the time on route would be spent with only one piece of gear between yourself and the ground. Much of that gear would be placed blindly due to the serpentine nature of limestone cracks.
I’ve lead it on the bolts, so I’ll never have the clean, first lead on gear. What I’ve got left to me is that most absurd of all climbing achievements: the headpoint. Headpointing is the thoroughly rehearsed lead, with the moves and gear placements worked out and practiced in advance on top-rope. In its own peculiar way, a headpoint is quite alarming. During the rehearsal, you fall off. Denial, the onsight climber’s friend, becomes unavailable. One is motivated to get the route wired.
I’ve been working on this one for, four years, five maybe? I’ve been almost ready several times, but Fall caught me and I had to start over the following year. Perhaps the situation is closer to the Greek version of an endless cycle of suffering – Sisyphus in the underworld. Except, I don’t have Zeus to blame. I’ve chosen to push this, but it is finally an excuse. I like the climb, and that’s the only truth. Climbing it on gear is an arbitrary purpose which keeps me coming back to the route with renewed motivation.
Next lap coming up.

Next lap coming up.

It’s pointless, but so is climbing in all its forms, and work, and every one of our silly struggles – Samsara. We still do it, though. We’re groomed for this game by our heritage. We can’t lose, because points and pointlessness don’t stick to us; the truth is we like the doing and that’s all. Just like Sisyphus, who I believe out-foxed Zeus in the end. Maybe not on the tenth lap, or the fiftieth, but maybe by the thousandth or ten thousandth, old Sisyphus was into it, I’m sure. Then it didn’t matter whether he ever got to the top; he’d beaten Zeus and escaped the cycle of suffering.

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Dear Ueli,

You know what this is about. It’s what everything has been about for – how long has it been – ever? I mean the little dust-up on Everest. Let me reassure you, I am writing as a great admirer and friendly correspondent. You are living the dream, and showing all us amateur climbers how to do it. We are all limited by what we think is possible, and you have made a career of crushing the limits. So I am not a critic, but I do have a concern.

I’m not so worried about the actual events on the Lhotse face. I don’t know shit about Sherpas or their culture, but I am a field observer of human psychology, as a hobby and in my job, and here is how it looks. It appears that the Sherpa crew on the face was pissed because you guys passed them and may have knocked a bit of ice down. As climbers, we know how frustrating it can be to have a stronger team pass us. We accept it as part of the game, though. It’s the same with ice fall; even the best climber is going to knock a little ice down, no matter how careful he or she is trying to be. However, the reaction you got didn’t come from climbers, did it? It came from technicians trying to get a job done.

I’ve tasted that flavor of hostile indignation before. The first time was from a Chicago cop. I used to run a route that took me past a housing project. Rain or shine, I did that run for a year and a half, until the cop stopped me. He didn’t yell or throw rocks at me, but he made it clear that I was not to run the route past the project anymore. Unpleasant legal consequences would follow, he implied, if I did not comply. Before my encounter with the cop in Chicago, I had the naïve idea that laws and cops were there to keep the peace and let the citizens get on with their business. Afterwards, I understood that laws and cops were there to prevent trouble for cops and the legal system. Seems like the situation is the same with the fixed lines on Everest and the people associated with them.

These people – the functionaries of the Big Expeditions to the Classic Routes on the Big Mountains – have a different view of risk than climbers. A climber’s view of risk is like a card player’s. He pushes the chips to the middle of the table and then does his best to get them back. These other people do their best not to have to play the game. Who can blame them? They have a job to do.

Which brings me to my concern. What do you want with mountaineering anyway? We all know that mountaineering is for those who can’t do anything else. Hell, in fifteen years or so, I know I’ll be trading in my tools for a piolet and begging my kids to drag me up some god-forsaken volcano (assuming I live that long). Of course, on Everest you were after the West Ridge, which is not a mountaineer’s route. No doubt you were motivated in part by the tale of the route’s first ascent. I have heard Tom Hornbein talk about the original climb. Even back then, he and Willie Unsoeld had to fight the mountaineering expedition mentality to get to their climb. That mentality is institutionalized now in the environs of all the prominent peaks, high and low. Did you hope to escape it in this day and age on the most prominent peak of them all?

I know you have a job to do too, and you are beholden to the weasels in marketing because of it. However, you shouldn’t feel compelled to stoop to mountaineering. You must realize that the weasels in marketing would rather not have you around. They would prefer an endless parade of reality TV celebrities coming off the summit of the world’s highest. Those wankers come much cheaper and are easier to liquidate. The climbing community would recognize the significance of a West Ridge ascent, but the rest of the world would see only the summit of Everest, and they would be glad that you had finally got there, after all your preliminary fiddling in the Alps.

You ratify the popular perception by adding an Everest summit to your resume, and in the process, you increase the value of wanker stock. To us climbers, you represent the consummate talent and discipline required to push the chips to the middle and reliably pull them back. To the summit industry, you represent recklessness bordering on assholery, by playing your game in their workspace. Even worse, when their stock goes up, yours goes down. As the notoriety of the high summit grows, lending credence to the wankers’ claim (explicit or implicit) that the high summit is the Grand Prize of climbing, the significance of soloing the North Face of the Eiger in a few hours, shrinks.

Don’t get me wrong, an artist like you should do what moves him without listening to anybody else, especially a duffer like me, and if you are moved to go back to climb the West Ridge of Everest, you should. Furthermore, you have nothing to be sorry for regarding the fight with the rope-techs on the Lhotse face. I’ve read all the anti-imperialist narrative and social justice analysis regurgitated in response to this incident. Sherpas attacking a bitchy client is a revolution. Sherpas attacking an independent team of climbers is just a good, old-fashioned turf war. So, I think there’s nothing to stop you from going back in principle, but please consider before you do: Is it good for business?

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Just Off Highway 212..

..in Southwest Montana, hard by the Crow agency, stands a  prominent hill with a monument marking a mass grave which holds the remains of members of the 7th Cavalry. On a sunny day in Spring, I stood on that hill and saw what happened to Custer and his command in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

They lost it. They lost it long before the last of them died on the hill, though. The evidence, especially the fact that the last of the command did die on the hill, is manifest on the surrounding landscape. Markers dot the ridge and valley leading to the site of the ‘last stand’ indicating the spots where men died along the way, died while standing separate from the command, or fell trying to flee the hill. Nobody could really know what transpired that day, but anyone could know, just by standing there, that the hill was a terrible place to be.

The view from the hill was panoramic. All the  features of the terrain, including the perpendicular ridges which form the sides of surrounding gullies, were exposed. The commander of a military unit would naturally seek such a vantage point, due to both his training and a natural instinct to be able to see an oncoming threat. But even at the beginning of his maneuver to the hill, Custer had ceased to be the commander of a military unit trying to win a battle.

As his trained instinct to retreat and regroup was misplaced, so was his natural instinct to keep his enemy in view, for from an opponent’s perspective, anyone standing on the hill became a perfect target outlined against the sky. Any move to escape the hill could not be concealed. From the vantage point of those defending the command, targets seen from the hill had to be picked out from the background of grass and dirt on the slopes, if those targets were not completely hidden behind the perpendicular ridges. Custer’s maneuver to the hill was a mistake, but it was not the first such mistake in human history, nor the last. It was one of a surprisingly broad and common category of mistakes, which afflict the capable as easily as the bumblers among us.

Decades later, the pilots of Air France flight 447 experienced something very similar to Custer’s  retreat up the hill. Just as the pilots were maneuvering through a series of thunderstorms, the airspeed sensors on the outside of the airliner froze over. The plane’s computer then shut off the auto pilot to avoid the automated system’s reacting to invalid data from the malfunctioning sensors. Now in control of the plane and unable to make sense of the numbers anymore than the computer could, the acting pilot reverted to instinct and training. His instinct was to get out of the situation. The first bit of training which came to mind for escaping a bad situation was one which told him to add power and pull the nose of the plane up. He even tried to confirm his instinct with his fellow pilot, at one point saying, “I’m in TOGA, eh?” – an acronym for ‘Take Off, Go Around’, a maneuver used to recover from an aborted landing, for example, by adding power and climbing. All the while, the stall warning was screaming, indicating a problem which demanded everything but elevating the nose of the plane and climbing.

I have great sympathy for the pilot of flight 447, because I have done what he did, but I was luckier. I was on one of my first long rock climbs with an equally inexperienced partner. We set out on a warm, clear day amid the long days of Northwest Summer on a route well within our capabilities. We knew we could climb it easily in a day, so we left without jackets, headlamps and extra food. However, the route was longer and more convoluted than we had anticipated. By the time we peeped over the summit for a view across the range to the sea, we had to shade our eyes from the lowering sun. We knew it was late, but had no idea how late, since we had left our watches with the headlamps. As we descended, which we had planned to do mostly by climbing down, it got dark and we were forced to use the rope more and more often.

For those who are unfamiliar with climbing techniques, descending by use of the rope involves doubling the line through a loop of nylon webbing anchored to the rock, with or without a metal ring to hold the rope off of the nylon, then using a friction device attached to one’s seat-harness to slide down the two sides of the doubled rope at once. Typically, the descending climber holds one hand above the friction device for balance while the other hand is on the rope below the device, controlling the rate descent by increasing or decreasing tension on the free end of the rope. Before coming to the end of the rope, the descending climber must find a new spot to anchor another loop of nylon. The second climber then comes down the rope to the new anchor, the team pulls the rope through the original anchor, doubles the line through the new anchor and repeats the process.

In the growing dark, new anchor opportunities became harder and harder to find. We had to get down, because we planned to get down, because we felt an instinctive aversion to the prospect of being stuck on the face, and because my partner had to be at work the following morning. As I approached a wide ledge, I could not find an anchor. I swung back and forth across the face, letting a little more rope through my friction device on each pass to allow a wider and wider arc. Now past the ledge and increasingly desperate for an anchor point, I pushed back to the left one more time and felt the ends of the rope slip past my lower hand. My upper hand reflexively locked onto the rope above the friction device as the ends pulled free of the device. Luckily, my grip on the rope with the upper hand held and kept me from falling several hundred feet down the face.

Instantly, I forgot about the prospect of not finding an anchor, my partner’s missed work day, and the dreariness of being stuck out for the night. Climbing hand over hand back up the rope to the ledge, I was re-oriented to the situation. We were not racing to finish a successful climb or out of options because I couldn’t find an anchor by starlight. We were trying to descend a complex route in the dark, and had hit an endpoint. We would not die of cold or thirst or starvation that night. My partner joined me on  the ledge. We secured the rope ends to a bush and then curled around the stem of the small plant as if it could provide some warmth and shelter. We shivered the night away and by morning’s light, found a large flake of rock ten feet right of our little bush to tie off as an anchor. My partner lost a vacation day, but kept his job.

As I climbed more, I spent fewer unprepared nights out, partially because I learned the hard way, but partially because I learned the checklists that all climbers employ. There is a packing checklist, a checklist for use prior to climbing onward from an anchor, a checklist for use prior to descending the rope, a checklist to run before pulling the rope through a top anchor, etc. Checklists have saved me on many occaisions.

A checklist almost saved flight 447, though they did not know they were using one. When the senior officer arrived in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot were racking their brains trying to sort out what had happened, even as they acted to achieve what they knew that they must achieve – making the plane climb instead of descend. When they asked the senior officer what they should do, he replied, “I don’t know.” In effect, he performed the most vital step in any checklist – he stopped himself and began to pay attention to what was going on right then, in his own head as well as in the airplane. Unfortunately, by the time he’d helped his fellow officers clarify their mental states and reconcile their actions with the events at hand, the airplane was one and a half seconds from the ocean. Even Custer might have been saved if he’d had a checklist, despite the more complicated nature of his situation.Custer faced a special challenge because his opponents had a keen understanding of the psychological elements which make a checklist so useful.

One element in particular is the key benefit of checklists and the one which we are in constant danger of forgetting. Even in the definitive popular treatment of checklists, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, the key element gets only superficial treatment. He touches on it in his description of the engine failure checklist for single engine planes.

It is slimmed down to six key steps not to miss for restarting the engine, steps like making sure the fuel shutoff valve is in the OPEN position and putting the backup feul pump switch ON. But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE. Because pilots sometimes become so desperate trying to restart their engine, so crushed by the cognitive overload of thinking through what could have gone wrong, they forget this most basic task. FLY THE AIRPLANE.

The admonition in step one of his example could be generalized to the statement: Remain oriented to your situation. Gawande can’t be blamed for focusing on the other utility of checklists – their ability to help us prioritize the necessary steps in a complex task and thus break the task into manageable bites. After all, he is primarily concerned with the application of checklists to prevent errors in the relatively controlled, but complex, environment of the operating room. However, his focus risks neglecting the source of our potential disorientation, a mental flaw which Custer’s antagonists at the Little Bighorn understood as vital, and which the course of the battle illustrated so well.

As opposed to Custer and his command, the warriors camped along the river were not soldiers. They had experience with war, but operated as a group of individuals rather than a formal unit. They had leaders, but no commanders. Their only training in the cooperative use of force came from hunting buffalo. Yet they understood their position. Management of the warriors’ psychological state was the leaders’ primary task. The leaders had to direct their warriors by example and exhortation.  And from the buffalo hunts, they knew that if they could control their targets’ psychological state as well as their own, success was guaranteed. The assembled tribes had a method, but not a plan and part of their method was aimed at breaking all plans set against them.

When Custer moved against the encampment on the Little Bighorn, he had a plan. He planned to trap the band of wayward natives between the two elements of his command, preventing the Indians’ escape or forcing them to surrender and return to the reservation. His plan was one for a pursuing force, an aggressive force. It was a plan for a military unit, utilizing a military unit’s capacity for coordinated attack and maneuver. For a moment, it looked like the plan might work. The Indians were surprised by the force which crossed the river to attack from the South under the command of Reno. But the Indians had a larger contingent of warriors than expected. In the face of determined resistance, the Southern attack failed and the troopers fell back in disarray.

When the initial thrust of Reno’s force stalled, a number of the warriors still mobilizing in the camp stopped to perform ceremonial rites. Crazy Horse in particular took so long in ritual preparations for battle that the younger men following him became impatient. Perhaps the drama was part of his plan too, orchestrated to focus and rouse his entourage. At any rate, Crazy Horse’s rituals were vital for his own role in the fight. The preparations served as Crazy Horse’s checklist, to protect him from the very thing he would soon attempt to do to his enemies – turn them from men into buffalo. When he emerged from his lodge, he was ready to fight his way. During the subsequent action, he would ride back and forth in front of the enemy lines blowing an eagle bone whistle, drawing fire. He would cut through a line of moving soldiers and lead his band of warriors in among the enemy forces. His actions would serve to prevent concerted action by his foes and force them to fall back on the familiar and the comfortable – predictable instinct and the rote lessons of training.

Custer’s attack never really got started. Confronted by a large force rallied to face him, he seems to have had difficulty orienting himself to the new situation. He doesn’t even seem to have had that critical moment which flight 447’s senior officer provided when he said, “I don’t know.” Instead, he retreated toward the hill.  In a subsequent interview, Hollow Horn Bear, a warrior who witnessed the battle gave this description:

Interviewer: After the soldiers got to the ridge, did they keep together in one body, or did some of them make a stand to give the others a chance to select a position?

Hollow Horn Bear: Soldiers kept together all during the fight. The soldiers would shift positions, but no stand was being made to do so.

Another witness, a warrior named Two Moons, gave a more incisive analysis:

…Custer was a brave man. I give him credit for attacking a people that vastly out numbered his – but something was the matter with his men. They did not run nor seek shelter, but stayed right out in the open where it was easy to shoot them down. Any ordinary bunch of men would have dropped into a watercourse, or a draw, where they could have fought for a long time. They acted and shot their guns like something was wrong with them. They surely had too much of that whiskey. That bunch of men should have fought for a long time, but it did not take long to kill them all.

Most telling was the view from the perspective of the encampment, as witnessed by Julia Face:

Interviewer: Did the Indians reach the high ridge ahead of Custer, and did he at any time charge them and drive them off?

Julia Face: None of the warriors reached the high ridge ahead of Custer. The Indians acted just like they were driving buffalo to a good place where they could be easily slaughtered. Custer never charged.

Maybe Custer had no choices that day. But maybe the one critical step in any checklist, the pause to reorient, would have helped his command acquit itself better even if it could not have saved him and his men. Because that one step is the only thing that can save the human part of the mind from itself. Without the jolting stop at the start of a checklist, the part of us that thinks will dwell on its plans and motivations rather than wading into the delays and discomforts immediately before it. A pilot’s mind, focused on the goal of gaining altitude, will tune out the stall warning since it is not helping him achieve his desire. A climber’s mind will forget about the end of the rope since it is not helping him find the next anchor. Then, with the human part of the mind occupied with its own concerns, the buffalo mind is left to act in its place. According to its nature, the buffalo mind just does something. It reacts to the anxiety assailing it from within and the simple cues coming from the outside with a series of programmed behaviors which ignore the future and the immediate past. It functions as a behavioral “Hail Mary” when the thinking part of the mind has checked out. It may freeze in the face of an immanent threat and not fly the plane. It may run over the edge of a cliff to escape.  Even without encouragement, the buffalo mind, with its unselected, rote behaviors, will often lead us to a good place where we can easily be slaughtered.

Notes: Interviews are obtained from the books, Indian Views of the Custer Fight by Richard G. Hardorff, Lakota Noon by Gregory F. Michno, and Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight by Richard G. Hardorff. Further information is available at the Custer Battlefield in South Central Montana via our wonderful, woefully underfunded National Park Service

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The Prelife

I have resigned myself to die many times over, but I have been lucky. I wasn’t shot in Paris. I didn’t fall off the North Ridge variation. I wasn’t killed by rock fall, or struck by the falling body. The avalanche didn’t push me over the cliff. I recovered from my pneumonia and I stopped rolling before I went under the car.

I have known others who had similar experiences and the same good fortune. One guy fell from the top of an ice climb and punctured his lung. When he got out of the hospital, he sold all his gear and quit climbing. Another locked the back brake on his motorcycle at 60 mph to slip behind the car he was passing. In doing so, he avoided a head-on collision with a truck, and barely kept his machine upright through the ensuing fishtail slide. After he pulled off the road and dismounted, he never climbed back on a bike again. On the other hand, another guy I know survived altitude sickness on Denali, came down and bought a para-glider  Then there was the friend who took fall after fall, and each time climbed farther from his protection than the last, until he began to eschew the rope altogether.

The first group, those who escaped a close call and chose to hoard the life that might remain to them, were wrong. Time kept in a vault sustains nothing in the end, it simply perishes. However, the second group, those who saw themselves as survivors specially blessed by fortune, were also wrong. No such privilege exists. Of all the people I’ve encountered who confronted death, the only ones who seemed to get it right every time were those who died.

I have seen a lot of people die. On the road, in the snow, in bed and on gurneys, the people I have seen die have done so in quiet, while the people around them wept and wailed. I think that arrangement reflects the truth more than any other set scene we might devise to frame the end of a life. Those remaining mourn for themselves; they are the ones who have lost something. The dying become quiet because they return to the prelife

The prelife is an individual’s condition before they come to be conscious, when their heritage and senses have yet to generate the identity necessary for experience. No one recalls the moment they pass from prelife to life any more than anyone recalls the exact moment that they fall asleep. No one fears or laments the time before they first woke any more than they fear the moment that they go to sleep, when they come to it (even if they are the worst insomniac existentialist).

It is easy for us to accept the necessity of our preconditions. It is more difficult for us to accept the necessity of our post-conditions, though they are actually much the same as the circumstances that conspired to bring us about, except of course, for the fact that we have been.

So, we make up bedtime stories for ourselves about afterlives. Stories of this kind are necessary to get us through the uncertainties of childhood when we lack the experience to allay our anxiety about the unknown. In those stories though, the dead are truly lost to us, as their lives become a token of their true existence at best. Worse, each person is lost to themselves from the start, as they are, in the end, separated from the determinants and contents of their lives as a whole and are left with a remnant, and a stagnant one at that, if we believe the claims of eternity in those yarns.

Read through from a mature perspective, the accounts of paradise sound more like dark, German fairy tales than lullabies. A ghost condemned to wander a pleasant meadow will be just as miserable as one who haunts a swamp. Lucky for us,  afterlife stories are only a class of fiction. We won’t be condemned to an endless disassociation. We may expect instead to return to the prelife when we die.

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In the climbing culture , there is an ongoing dispute about who is a “real climber”, who is a poser, and how the two may be differentiated. The distinction between real climbers and posers is stark in some cases. Most of the folks on reality TV shows about Everest expeditions are posers. Most of the suburbanites dangling from top-ropes at the climbing gym are posers. Yet, even these most benighted dabblers are at constant risk of becoming real climbers.  The only thing separating them from real climbers is commitment, and even in the gym or on the snow slope, given time, a moment of commitment will come. Then, provided they don’t simply turn away, the basest poser may get real.

The addiction to commitment is what distinguishes all real climbers. Addiction is normal for humans. By the broadest definition, we are addicted to all sorts of pleasant things, from food to companionship. We are not normally addicted to unpleasant things, like commitment. We tend to see people’s repeated forays into piercing or swimming in frozen lakes as borderline pathological. Nevertheless, some folks are addicted to these things too, and the climber’s addiction to commitment belongs in the same category.

Now, religious types and other defenders of the social order may object to the characterization of commitment as unpleasantness. They are wrong, of course. Commitment presumes change and uncertainty. The psychology literature is clear on the effect of change and uncertainty on a person’s stress level, and the effect is not salutary. What makes commitment in climbing addictive is the same thing that makes other unpleasant things addictive: commitment moves us toward reconciliation of our core contradiction.

The sense that we are conscious undergirds everything we think and do. Many definitions of this essential quality exist, with some of those definitions occupying volumes of text. A simple, adequate definition is possible though. Consciousness is the perception of identity. We say we are conscious when we perceive ourselves as distinct from other perceptual objects. But we can never directly experience our identity, we can only perceive it as we perceive other things inside and outside of us. As we gain experience, we see our identity change, not spontaneously, but by means of interaction with other perceptual objects. We begin to suspect that our identity is contingent on history and relations with other objects, while our consciousness still tells us that our identity is necessarily independent. We have a central contradiction growing in us from the moment we first see ourselves.

Seeking out unpleasant experiences is rebellion against our core contradiction. When we hurt ourselves a little bit, we deny the preciousness of identity, and so relieve a little bit of the tension between what we actually experience and what our consciousness is telling us we experience. The more so when we make a commitment, especially in climbing. To commit to a difficult move or a difficult climb, we have to write off our future and make a dispassionate assessment of our past and the capabilities which our history reflects. We are committing to the climb, and also committing to the notion that our identity is not independent, precious or permanent. The resolution of our essential tension has nothing to do with wholesome exercise or achievement, but it lurks just behind those inviting, pleasant aspects of climbing, waiting to snare the unwary poser and make them a real climber.

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Republican politicians be talkin’ bout risk:

Dependency is death to initiative, to risk-taking and opportunity. It’s time to stop the spread of government dependency and fight it like the poison it is.”                                – Mitt Romney

I’d like to extend an open invitation to Mitt, to go climb the East Ridge of Edith Cavell with me.

Now, I am rich in climbing skills compared to Mitt. Still, I expect him to be true to his convictions and simul-solo it with me. No matter how he begs, I promise not to poison him with dependency on the rope. Naahhh…

I’m not in it to demonstrate my superiority; there’s always somebody better. I’m not in it to tag summits or tick off numbers, those are empty pursuits and they denigrate the game. I’m in it to climb the hell out of everything I possibly can, and sometimes, that takes a rope, especially if you are going to take risks. It also takes a partner that’s got your back, even if you screw up.

So, I’ll throw the rope down when it gets to be too much. I’ll even bail if you can’t take the exposure, Mitt. I won’t sneer or otherwise be nasty about it either. I’ll do all those things because I value the society that the rope entails and because I am not a Republican politician. You don’t have to be either; I believe it’s not too late.

Oh, and if you feel like you aren’t up to it physically, Paul Ryan has made that same sort of statement, why don’t you send him in your stead. That little bitch is supposed to be in shape, isn’t he? I believe it may be too late for him, though – too much Ayn Rand.  That shit is poison.

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