It's always worth a look when The New York Times turns its insanely bright, far-reaching spotlight on our world by treating an adventure- or outdoors-based story as front-page news. Such was the case Saturday, when the Times printed "For Climbers, Risks Now Shift With Every Step," a story that examines increasing risks faced by mountaineers through the lens of several recent high-profile alpine accidents (which, it surmises, add up to a "bad season" for climbers). Included among them were the four Japanese climbers killed by a June avalanche on Denali, the Rainier park ranger who died during a rescue mission and the nine-person mountaineering party buried last week on France's Mont Maudit.
The upshot of all these accidents, according to the article, is that the risks associated with climbing are becoming more variable. The "new norm," writes Kirk Johnson, "is increasingly the lack of a norm. Patterns of the past can no longer be relied on for guidance. Global warming is knocking the weather out of whack, leading to bigger variations of ice, snow and temperature, even within the same season. This makes for "freak" avalanches (like the midsummer one on Maudit) and "unpredictable" storms of the kind that kill mountaineers.
The theory of global warming causing wilder weather isn't a new one, but it's interesting when applied to climbing risk. Climbing skill (more on that later) and knowledge or experience with the terrain are important factors in a succesful climb, but so is weather predictability. That's why there are climbing seasons (with their accompanying "windows" of clear, calm weather) on the world's highest mountain ranges. Take that last factor away, and even the most experienced alpinist could be in trouble. And recent events—particularly on Denali—seem to bear that theory out, with deadly avalanches happening in what once were relatively safe zones, wild daily temperature swings and off-season snow dumps.
On top of this, the Times says that more people are climbing bigger mountains with less experience. Two respected Denali veterans, Brian Okonek and Colby Coombs, backed that story up. "In the past, people saw mountains like McKinley as the apex of their climbing careers, something they built toward for years," Okonek, who's summited Denali 20 times, told the Times. "Now they want everything faster, they want to go for the bigger mountains sooner than they used to." Coombs, a co-owner of the Alaska Mountaineering School, said greenhorns regularly come to him for expedition equipment, even though they don't have any idea what they'll face or what kind of gear they'll need. "They underestimate the severity of the environment and overestimate their own ability."
In other words, more inexperienced climbers than ever before are venturing onto big mountains where the weather is wilder and less predictable than it's ever been. It's a scary thought, and if it continues to bear out, we can only expect more and more tragic accidents in the thin, clean air of the high mountains.