By Corinna Schroll
According to the dictionary, a mountaineer is someone living in a mountainous area or most commonly a person who climbs mountains for sport, but I always thought the term should be used in a broader sense. Why doesn’t the definition include those who simply love mountains and like to safely hike up less dangerous mountains without professional climbing equipment? I love being in nature and enjoying the sight of mountains with their deep valleys. On occasion, I have even made it to the summit of two smaller mountains of the Bavarian alps – traveling upwards within the relative safety of a cable car and sticking to the beaten paths while holding onto the railing that acted as a border between the hikers and the precipices of the mountains. The railings provide some sense of safety, but a look down into the abyss might be enough to fill a person with dread and give them vivid ideas that they could very well tumble into their doom if the railings were to disappear. Those who call themselves mountaineers often ascend the highest peaks without no railings, which is ultimately why I am not a “mountaineer” and have no interest in ascending dangerous mountains for sport.
Some people are afraid of heights, and I am one of them. Even climbing up a rope in P.E. has filled me with anxiety and I would never make it past the simplest wall if I had to climb a mountain. Ascending the peak of Mt. Everest would be a nightmare for me and my physical condition aside, I would not be able to do it even if my life depended on it.
More importantly, death is always one wrong step or a rockfall away in the mountains. In his literary work “Mountains of the Mind”, British author Robert Macfarlane mentions recklessly ascending a mountain in his youth and barely evading a falling rock. He ponders about how close he came to death that day, for if the rock had hit him, he would likely have fallen to his death.
It is important to note that the weather conditions can be unpredictable and change faster than one might expect in mountainous areas, which can turn a laid-back hike into a lethal situation, even for the most experienced mountaineer. There is a grim story about a student group who died in a mountain range in Scotland known as the Cairngorms after the group was unexpectedly hit by a snowstorm and could not make it to safety. This incident known as the Cairngorm plateau disaster occurred in November 1971, which is not that long ago. Despite modern advances in equipment and communications, dangers still exist in mountainous areas and national parks are never 100% safe for their visitors.
Another instance of changing weather leading to a tragedy is that of a group of Russian women led by Elvira Shatayeva, who lost their lives to ascend Lenin Peak in Kyrgyzstan alone as the first women-only team in 1974. They were hit by a snowstorm and were too ill-equipped to endure the cold and strong wind. Other climbing groups tried to reach them from the base camp, but all help came too late for these brave, but unfortunate women.
Finally, it seems somewhat selfish to risk your life climbing unforgiving territories, more so when you have young children at home or are the provider for your family. Famously in 1924, British climber George Leigh Mallory was dead set on ascending Mt. Everest, a feat that no man had managed before. His wife had begged him not to go, but after two prior failed attempts, he returned in 1924 for a third ascent which would also be his final one. It is unclear if he ever made it to the summit, but he certainly never made it back home, leaving behind his widow and young children. Mallory was a brave man and a pioneer undoubtedly, but he never got to see his children grow up and left them without a father to grow up with to chase his dream of ascending Everest.
Mountains are fascinating places, and I cannot deny their beauty nor the amazing feeling of having made it to the peak and looking down upon the earth. Some may find it cowardly, but I value my life too much to ascend more dangerous mountains. I don’t have the ambition to be the first woman to ascend an unreachable summit, let alone risk my life and health to reach the top.
Mt. Everest is riddled with corpses that cannot be retrieved due to the difficult ascent, and these bodies frozen in time are a grim reminder that mountaineering will always be dangerous. Some overestimate their abilities while others are simply not that lucky.
I am a mountain lover, but I am not a mountaineer – and I don’t have to be both: I live in a time where I can enjoy the beauty of nature as a visitor on a mountain already developed for tourism, or from a safe distance from my home via the internet. Being a mountaineer means safely overcoming every hazard on the way up to the top, and it is an exciting but dangerous profession, where injuries and even death are not uncommon occurrences. Danger does not entice me enough to seek out the view from the unreachable summit, and while the feeling of standing on the summit of a place rarely reached by others must be incomparable, I am content staying at the foot of the mountains and admiring them from below as the inhospitable titans they are.