Monday, September 24, 2012

Commentary: Mainstream Media And Mountaineering Disasters

The sad news from Manaslu yesterday has dredged up a slew of articles from the mainstream media who seem to only cover mountaineering when a tragic event like this occurs. Of course, when you have an accident like this one in which numerous people die, it is going to make the news across the globe. Those articles don't bother me much as we're all still trying to sort through what exactly happened. The stories that do cause me to shake my head however, are commentary pieces that remind us how dangerous climbing is and paint a distorted image of mountaineering amongst the general public who have little understanding of the sport, or the men and women who pursue it.

Take this story from CNN for example. It seems to have been written simply to beat the "Everest is too crowded" drum one more time. The article essentially begins by saying that overcrowding on Manaslu helped to exasperate the tragedy there, despite the fact that the vast majority of teams weren't in Camp 3 when the avalanche occurred. The writer than uses some quotes from Outside's Grayson Schaffer to back up her perspective, although she does follow up by saying that the former head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Ang Tscherting Sherpa, claims that the avalanche was not in any way related to the number of people on the mountain.  With those opening paragraphs out of the way, we launch into a report on the deadly spring season on Everest during which ten people died earlier this year. Never mind that those deaths have nothing in common with the events on Manaslu, other than the fact that they both took place on Himalayan peaks.

First, lets address overcrowding on Manaslu. Yes, it is a busy season on the mountain, which is the eight tallest in the world. That is due in part to the fact that the borders of Tibet remain closed, forcing teams that had planned on scaling Cho Oyu or Shisha Pangma to relocate elsewhere. Many chose Manaslu because it is similar in difficulty level and located completely within Nepal, making it logistically easier to pull-off. By most accounts, as many as 231 climbers were on the mountain this fall, which is more than usual but hardly makes it overcrowded.



But even if there were twice as many people on Manaslu it would still have absolutely no connection to a freak avalanche destroying Camp 3 and killing numerous people there. You simply can't predict with any level of accuracy when an avalanche like this one will occur and every one of those climbers knew that before they ever started. You could make a case that the death toll could have been much higher had more people been in C3 at the time, and thankfully that wasn't the case either. From everything I can tell, there was not an unusually high number of people at 7000 meters when the accident occurred.

Which leads us to the author bringing up Everest again for whatever reason. Any mention of Everest can make an article link-bait, which is to say draw in readers simply by the subject matter, but as I mentioned above, the deaths on the world's tallest mountain this past spring are not related in any way to those that occurred on Manaslu yesterday. Furthermore, many people in the mainstream press simply latch on to that death tool number and run with it, decrying the dangerous nature of mountaineering without really understanding what they are talking about. Yes, ten people lost their lives on Everest this year and those deaths are always tragic. But nearly 500 people successfully reached the summit as well. That means that less than 2% of climbers on Everest died. That's a pretty high success rate actually.

Is overcrowding a problem on Everest? Yes, it is an issue. But more so from an environmental standpoint than anything else. The various camps used on the climb, particularly Base Camp, can become polluted and littered with waste due to the large number of climbers staying there each season. But fortunately there are now rules in place that require the teams to clean up after themselves and pack out everything they bring with them. That will hopefully alleviate those issues in the years to come, making the mountain a cleaner place in general.

We've all seen the photos of the massive traffic jams that take place on Everest when summit day approaches and those traffic jams certainly hinder the experience. The route up Everest can indeed become a packed highway running to the top, particularly along the South Col route on the Nepal side of the mountain. Those high numbers of people do potentially lend themselves to disaster, but so far there are few incidences in which the large number of people have directly resulted in deaths. Bad decisions by the climbers and guides, or climbers that just plain shouldn't be there in the first place, make for far more dangerous situations in my opinion.

Move away from Everest and overcrowding on Himalayan peaks is hardly an issue at all. It is mainly due to the fact that a lot of people want to add the world's tallest mountain to their resume which draws them there, even if they lack experience. They'll keep coming as long as the mountain is there or until someone imposes some restrictions on how many can climb in a given year. Considering the importance of the peak to the economies of Tibet and Nepal, that hardly seems likely to happen.

It also isn't all that likely that the mainstream press will ever stop sounding the alarm bells over climbing in the Himalaya, or just about anywhere else for that matter. It draws in readers and viewers and gets the public talking. They aren't likely to ever understand why climbers do the things they do, or why they are drawn to the high places of the Earth, despite knowing that there are risks to going there.

When these accidents occur they remind us that life is fragile and that it can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. But they also remind us that those who have lost their lives were doing so in the pursuit of the things they love most and in the environments that they cherish. That says a lot about who they are and why they were there in the first place.

10 comments:

Clyde said...

2% not .02%

BTW at the moment, the headline on CNN's home page says "Missing hikers feared dead in avalanche."

Kraig Becker said...

Thanks for the correction Clyde.

And that headline says a lot.

Alan Arnette said...

I totally agree Kraig, well said. I wrote an editorial in the October issue of Rock and Ice about Everest deserving more respect, that is, the climbers of Everest.

Today I did three interviews with the press on Manaslu and each wanted me to blame global warming, crowds or incompetence for the deaths. Obviously I did not.

As you say, these deaths were part of the inherent risk that comes with mountaineering.

Note that there was little US mainstream media coverage of the Japanese 5 deaths on Denali this year or the 11 on Mont Blanc.

The Himalaya attract ire from the press due the impression that it is only the rich and inexperienced who climb there - thank you Jon Krakauer.

But as you know, if it bleeds, it leads, It is incumbent on the climbing community to stand up for ourselves, to represent the facts, to police our own.

Stepping off my soapbox now ... hope I don't trip!

Alan

Kraig Becker said...

Well said Alan and agree with you completely too. I'm tired of Everest, and other peaks, getting a bum rap from the press who simply don't understand mountaineering at all. Controversy and death sells papers (or generates hits!) and that seems to be the only way they'll portray climbing in the Himalaya.

Looking forward to reading your article. And you're right, the climbing community has to speak up to help educate others.

Alan Arnette said...

It is in the current issue of R&I but not on their blog yet.

Kraig Becker said...

Perfect timing then. I'll see if I can track it down this week.

Mikael Strandberg said...

Well done, Kraig, bringing up this issue. I talked to a well known anchor journalist yesterday on other similar issues, I am writing an article about the workings on the media in Yemen for example, well, this anchor man who works for one of the biggest media companies in Scandinavia, said that they spent only 10% of the time they invested 15 years back in doing proper research on what is written to back up a story, because there´s not enough time or money around. And 95% of the articles coming out of Yemen is in reality written by the copy and paste journalists dominating our media world. They "steal" comments from others to make an interesting story, but not doing proper research. This is a dangerous issue.

I just want to add this for a more global perspective on how media seems to work nowadays and thank you Kraig for your always good articles.

Kraig Becker said...

Thanks for your perspective as always Mikael. It seems this isn't just an issue in the mountaineering world but across the news as a whole. That's what happens when we boil everything down to a 10-15 second sound bite.

Mark Horrell said...

Well said, Kraig. It's a pity mainstream media clamour to get out news at a time like this before all the facts about the tragedy are known, especially when most of their readers aren't much interested in mountaineering anyway. Their needless hurry to publish half-facts will have caused families unnecessary suffering.

As you say the tragedy on Manaslu had nothing to do with overcrowding. There were around 30 climbers caught up in the avalanche (source Himex newsletter). I was there last year; the area around Camp 3 is enormous and there is space for many more climbers than this. I've done an analysis of the avalanche based on my photographs that I will be publishing later today.

It's interesting that you chose a CNN article as an example of sensationalist reporting, as they asked me for an interview earlier in the week. I'm glad I declined.

Kraig Becker said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark, particularly since you've actually been on Manaslu.

CNN's article just happened to be the one I came across that morning and it stuck a nerve. I've had these same feelings since the Everest coverage in the spring and dating back even further than that. Reading their story simply set me off and spurred me writing this piece.