Saturday, 8 February 2014

*Kilimanjaro Appendix: Dick Bass and the Casual Climber

I feel like my mention of Dick Bass and the professional-heavy casual climber crowd on Kilimanjaro warrants some further discussion.  The archetypal guided, inexperienced climber with extra money is responsible for the main controversies and discussions within the climbing community, and is why a lot of "serious" climbers speak ill of Kilimanjaro.  Hopefully this'll give you some background on the issue and why it rubs a lot of "serious" climbers the wrong way.

Like the mountains they climb, mountaineers have a lot of powerful things in common, but they still come in a fairly diverse array of backgrounds, personalities, and goals.  Most people like a few sports and playing them casually, like by joining an intramural soccer league when they're adults, but without becoming consumed by the sport.  Climbing's an odd sport in that people who try it either get into it to the point of near-obsession or they do it a few times and enjoy it, but then forget about it.  It's incredibly time- and money-consuming, so it requires lifestyle-level dedication to become good at and accomplished in.  Because of this, it tends to weed out casual participants very quickly.  Even if two long-time climbers have nothing else in common, they can talk about their "hobby" and things they've climbed for hours without having to address the other aspects of their personalities and lifestyle.  This has a pretty unifying effect that's created a small but powerful and intense subculture where a lot of us know each other or have friends in common.  I have friends that I stay in touch with better than most people that I've only met or interacted with while climbing in different parts of North America and the world.  Whatever our backgrounds, we're willing to be snowed and rained on and sleep in our cars for long periods of time to reach our climbing goals.  This is the sort of person that most people are thinking of when they say "climber."

The intensity of dedicated, long-time climbers causes many of us (who are very frequently pathological type-As to begin with) to judge casual climbers and mountaineers and to even sneer at each other when we have disagreements over what's acceptable in climbing and what's good style.  I (surprise) have strong opinions about climbing and climbing ethics, but I'm not a huge fan of that.  Casual climbers are great and getting people who normally aren't deeply into the outdoors to come out and experience it anyways is important for getting support for conservation and the protection of natural areas.  It's not hard to imagine someone seeing a big and interesting-looking mountain and wanting to climb it while not wanting to completely rearrange their lifestyle to become a climbing lifer.

When it comes to technical climbing, you won't find a lot of inexperienced and casual outdoorspeople trying it because of how physically demanding it is.  Except for very easy routes, you need a special and extensive kind of conditioning to be good at it, so it's inherently not casual.  However, a lot of mountains, however tall, are basically just hikes, even if they're strenuous ones.  Kilimanjaro and most of the Seven Summits are like this, which makes them possible for and popular amongst more casual climbers who just want to do a few big, iconic mountains because it's a cool idea and should provide a fun kind of "once in a lifetime" trip for them.  That's cool, there's nothing wrong with that, despite what some "hardcore" mountaineers say.  Unfortunately, casual and inexperienced climbers are the ones that tend to get into trouble and to have a different sense of climbing ethics than long-time climbers, for obvious reasons.

Climbers, in my experience usually being type-A personalities with a thing for technical details and order and so the kind of people that like lists and ticking off items on lists, really like to create lists of mountains/technical climbs and to slowly work through them.  8,000-meter peaks, the Seven, Coloradan 14ers, the national highpoints of an entire continent, New England or Scottish 4,000-footers, it doesn't matter.  Every area has its set of popular lists with list variations for the more intense climbers that have completed the original set of lists.**  Dick Bass is famous for creating and completing the best-known and most popular world list, the Seven Summits, and is equally famous for the controversy it and his personal doing of it engendered.

Dick Bass and Reinhold Messner exemplify this dichotomy within the broader climbing community.  Whenever someone mentions the Seven Summits, or the list of the highest mountains of each continent, they're talking about Dick Bass, whether they realize it or not.  Dick Bass was the first person to do the Seven, which he did in the mid-1980s, thereby creating one of the most well-known and popular mountaineering lists.  Reinhold Messner is one of the best mountaineers in human history, being the first to climb Everest without oxygen and the first to do all of the world's 8,000-meter peaks.  He's a true lifer, having dedicated his entire adult life to climbing extreme peaks and routes.  He's obsessive.  After Bass did the Seven, Messner responded by saying that the hill that forms Australia's highpoint wasn't sufficiently adventurous or mountainous, choosing the highpoint of all of Oceania, New Guinea's tall and technical Carstenz Pyramid (originally climbed by uber-famous mountaineering hardman Heinrich Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet and first to climb the Eiger North Face fame), to be the "Australian" continental peak on his list.  Messner can apparently be abrasive, but basically all climbers really respect him for obvious reasons.  Lots of climbers hate Dick Bass (myself not included).

Dick Bass is an oil millionaire who discovered skiing and climbing later in life.  When he conceived of and set out to do the Seven, he was already in his 50s and had very little climbing or mountaineering experience.  He's often credited with accidentally creating the adventure tourism movement through the Seven and popularizing intense mountain adventures for people who had the extra money to do it, but not the experience to do it on their own or the patience and dedicated lifestyle obsessiveness to take the years to learn to do it on their own.  Basically, he's the archetypal enthusiastic casual climber who really loves the idea of climbing some mountains and has the means to do it, but not the experience to pull it off without significant help from lifestyle climbers.

Bass has come to typify the modern version of this, but the idea's decidedly older.  Before large numbers lower-middle and working class people started deliberately adventuring in the mountains in the post-World War II era, the gentleman adventurer was the normal climber.  The line between the casual gentleman climber and the pathologic lifestyle climber was a little blurrier, in part because 100-200 years ago, going climbing, especially on another continent, was a seriously dangerous and committing adventure.  Truly casual people need not apply, and even experienced adventurers died at a jaw-dropping rate.  Hemingway falls solidly into this class of people, though he was himself more of a casual adventurer who spent most of his time in cities, rather than sweating in the forest on a long approach to a mountain.  This movement amongst people who had the extra wealth to travel extensively but still had the skills to actually do it, I think, is one of the main genesis points of the modern climbing/mountaineering movement and why it's such a cultural touchstone within the middle and professional classes.  Even in America in New England, this is how it pretty much started (Royal Robbins and friends in 1950s California were part of the later working class incarnation of it, but that itself is derived from the Victorian/Lost Generation gentleman climber origin of the sport--mountaineering for sport goes back further, but at that point in history it was almost exclusively aristocratic) Swiss Alps residents were also a big part of the sport's heavily European origin, but they were more about pragmatic concerns about moving around mountains than summitting tough peaks just for the fun and sport of it--techniques and skills come from them, but purpose and attitude not as much.  However, overall, these people were still more of the lifestyle climber variety, though the movement had a reasonable dose of the casual Hemingway type.

After the Second World War, a large movement of climbers from all classes started, especially in New England and California, and that came to define the modern era of the sport.  Enthusiastic, dedicated people exploring increasingly difficult technical terrain and summitting the world's most difficult peaks.  The idea of the gentleman climber was replaced by the hardworking individual who created new techniques, skills, and equipment to surmount increasingly difficult climbs.  Nothing was casual about it, and many if not most of the climbers were people with no particular money of their own, just dedication.

Intentionally or not, Dick Bass started a modern movement of mountain tourism filled with people who can afford big trips, but are casual and inexperienced climbers.  They tend to come from the same sphere as the Hemingway types of the earlier era, but don't have the same skill or dedication.  This engendered some serious friction with the new community and culture that grew up in the 1950s through the 1970s.  As far as Dick Bass goes, a casual climber who used his wealth to pull off a climbing coup with a lot of guide assistance which started a movement of casual climbers doing dangerous mountains without the required experience which often ends disastrously for them and their guides is naturally going to generate some friction.  Some climbers really hate the man and the movement.  Hate is not an overly strong word.  I'm alright with casual people enjoying the mountains.  They and nature are there for everyone to benefit from and enjoy.  I'm also not the most skilled outdoorsman, despite the time I've spent climbing.  I wouldn't have a lot of room to judge, even if I wanted to.  However, I do personally think that some mountains are inappropriate for people who don't have the skill to do them on their own.  Ultra-popular Everest is one of them.  Because of Dick Bass, it's become extremely popular with the casual crowd, even though it's a ridiculously dangerous mountain that requires serious experience to do safely on your own.  It and the Himalayas are entirely inappropriate for casual climbers, simply because of their difficulty and danger.  [Read John Krakauer's Into Thin Air for an excellent discussion of this.  Read Krakauer's other books for an excellent discussion of mountains and the people who climb them and why they do it.]

However, a lot of mountains, even more adventurous ones, aren't.  Casual climbing is awesome for everyone if the right location is chosen.  Kilimanjaro strikes an excellent balance between adventure and technical accessibility.  This is why I theorize it's so popular amongst casual climbers:  it overlaps with the class of people in which climbing is a powerful cultural object, even amongst members of the class who aren't normally climbers, without coming with the outrageous danger anyone can see in a mountain like Everest.

It's not a conflict you see very often in people my age and slightly older, but climbers who started climbing in the 1970s and 1980s can still really have issues with it.  It still regularly triggers discussions within the community.

And that ends my essay on the evolution of climber culture and why two groups within it often fight with each other.


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