The Numbers Game

Lies, damn lies and statistics

"Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation, as love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography... - Pavel Shabalin, as quoted by Kelly Cordes

To my right is Mont Blanc du Tacul. The aesthetic, beautiful Alpine ice couloirs now hidden in shadow and not as inviting as they were this morning. In the distant foreground the Grand Capucin stands tall and slender...alluring (but perhaps better left for a sunny summers outing?), behind me, and where I'm ultimately headed, is the Aiguilles du Midi (loved as a gateway to the 'high Alps'). And to my left, the north face of the Grand Jorasses – momentarily bathed in reflected Alpine glow, its bulk overpowering the physical distance that separates us, its routes mythical...the lighting magical.
The sun dips below the horizon. Its surrealism is gone, reduced to a bland and flat expanse, punctured by shadowed, pointed summits.
It's an odd place to odd place to think of home. I am waiting for Andrew (Lanham) with whom I've just climbed on the East face of the Tacul, a fine goulot (like a couloir) with even better ice – that squeaky styrofome stuff that one dreams of. It's actually quite novel, me waiting for someone...the curse of loving to climb, but despising to walk up hill. Andrew is having to trudge through thigh-deep snow, as the skis he bought from some shady Argentinean are fine going downhill but not up.
So I wait to offer a rope across the potential crevasse field, and dream of home.
Not in the "yellow-brick-road" kind of way, more like mulling over my inability to understand a few things, disappointment at others. Allow me to share my thoughts, before this biting wind removes all my hot air...

In preparation for a climbing trip abroad, many of you have surely tried to get insurance for any medical and rescue services you may need....Have any of you actually succeeded? I had the amusing experience of answering questions like these:

  • Any climbing (with ropes) is NOT covered
  • Mountaineering, where the use of crampons, etc are required are NOT covered
  • Skiing is covered...

This begs a few questions...if I climb without a rope, am I covered (I guess the real question is "would there be any point?"). Last year alone the western Alps claimed 60+ lives, less than 5% were climbers (with or without a rope). The North American climbing statistics show a steady decline in accidents year on year for the last two decades – this while the number of activists increases. Climbing however is still deemed too risky for South African insurance? In Stats-SA's annual report, "accidental deaths" accounted for 35% of all fatal injuries. Of these, 72% were transport related, 12% were due to burns, 7% due to other external causes, 4% due to drowning and 4% due to falls – while I'm not sure what constitutes a fall, the fact remains that we can all get insurance for injuries sustained in a car...even though statistically we are more likely to have an auto accident...

Once in Chamonix itself the quirks continued. For the equivalent of 75 Big Mac's (if you are a local) one can buy a season pass to all the ski lifts (and resorts) in the valley to use as often as one wishes between November and June (in summer one can mountain bike the ski runs, with lift access), yet we fork out at least a Big Mac every time that we climb (or mountain bike) in South African Parks.
Access to the Chamonix mountains themselves is FREE (should you be willing to walk from the valley it would cost you NOTHING), yet in SA it varies between R10 and R75?? Actually, this is an even more confusing area for me. A R10 permit will grant the holder access to Crystal Pools (according to a travel brochure lying around O.R.Tambo int), yet we climbers have to pay R75/day to climb in Rockland's...should you choose to walk in Rockland's, it's only R20! To overnight it's a further R70! How is this justified?

As Andrew draws nearer it dawns on me that he, like the vast majority of the valley locals, lives to be in places like this – working odd jobs, sacrificing life's cushions for the lifestyle he and many, many other Europeans expect. Is it that simple? Were our mountains to be overrun with hikers, climbers, mountain biker's et al, would we have the power in numbers to force access, health cover, and acceptance? In short equality. Imagine the uproar should South African beach-goers be forced to pay to go to the beach! Why should we as a climbing community be forced to pay for our recreation? Is the time coming where we must follow the example of the American access fund? Or should we resort to the British mass action in the 1930s that secured rights of way?

Surely as citizens we have rights of passage to recreational / wilderness areas...?

Andrew and I eventually join the variety of nationalities within the hut, where Andy de Klerk's passage is, still, recorded in the roof beam. Amid the talk of South African climbing I get to field the arch-typical question. In AdK's day it was no doubt, about the state of the nation in the 80's. Not much has changed, it's still about the state of the nation, but these days it's about crag muggings, car break-ins and car theft (which gets read about on climbing-chat forums). I guess that at least retains our local crags clear of the masses...

In the end, numbers lie, including the numbers I reference – I remember a radio campaign last year telling us that 80% of all pedestrian fatalities were over the alcohol limit, and that 20% of vehicle accidents were over the limit. Depending on your interpretation that implies that it is safer to drive drunk than sober and definitely safer to drive drunk than walk drunk...
My point being that I have not gone in search of 'absolute truth' (if that even exists in stats) regarding the numbers in this article – they are un-corroborated. BUT they are the numbers doing the rounds in hushed tones around the campfires, or on the walk-ins, amongst climbers.

I only hope that the art of climbing need not become mainstream simply for us to be able to enjoy its pleasures – that climbing remains both exceptional, and sacred – primarily because it is closed to the masses.


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