The first route I ever climbed was on the obscure Black Crag in the Sidlaw Hills with my classmate and later-to-be professor, Simon Stewart. Along with later-to-be climbing guide, Graeme Ettle and other climbing friends such as John Fitzpatrick, Stewart Tawse and later-to-be Captain Lee Delaney, we attended the appropriately named Craigie High. Although, unlike gang warfare and glue sniffing, climbing was not on the curriculum of the officially second-worst school in Dundee.
In an email to me, Simon mused; 'The three most experienced climbers I ever climbed with all died in mountaineering accidents in their 60s and 70s: Andy Nisbet, Martin Moran and Doug Lang. Might senior climbers relax their risk management in a proactive selection of the warrior's death? Is that the same as suicide?'
Well, I thought, that is a very good question: what, exactly, is the risk of death in rock climbing, and is it affected by age? And what, exactly, is a warrior's death? Back in the '80s, we were teenage boys and entirely self-taught, which meant that we had a few near misses that horrified our parents—at least the ones they found out about when we required medical attention. One memorable early experience with Simon was attempting the route Apocalypse in Ethiebeaton Quarry, Dundee, when we were about 15 years old. This beguiling yet unclimbed groove was in a working quarry and had already been named by local Seven Arches Bridge climbing guru, Bruce Strachan.
Apocalypse, we estimated, was 50 ft high; we had a 50 ft, 11 mm rope, so it'd be no problem, we thought. We had only one runner that would fit in the crack: a Tricam 4, the one with the green tape. The only camming devices available at the time were rigid-stem Friends, and we simply couldn't afford the £20 price tag. Later on, I climbed my first E5s with only one Friend: a rigid-stemmed number 2.5, also with green tape, that my mum gave me for my birthday. I did have a full set of Tricams though, and continued to carry the 0.5 pink-taped one for many years, even after I had acquired a full set of cams, as it fitted into narrow slots like two-finger pockets, where, at the time, no other camming device could.
One evening after school, I led up Apocalypse, which turned out to be a fierce, overhanging layback. I placed the Tricam and then ran it out another 20 ft to the top. Triumphantly, I began yarding on the flake that formed the right wall of the groove. With horror, and from a place seemingly outside my body, I observed the top of the flake disintegrating in slow motion as I pulled on it. Of course, we had neglected to tie Simon in before I started climbing or even tie a knot in that end of the rope. So, as blocks rained down on Simon's head, I took a 50-footer onto the Tricam: the only runner.
We were both wearing Troll waistbelts without leg loops, as was our practice at the time. Simon had, literally, the bitter end of the rope in his hand on the 'dead side' of his belay plate. If he'd allowed the slack to pass through the plate, it would've been the 'dead side' for me. We looked at each other in shock as he lowered me the last foot to the ground. With fortitude and teenage luck, he'd held me, and it wasn't the last time a Tricam saved my bacon (thank you, Jeff Lowe).
A few days later, we went back and finished it. We graded it E1 5b because that was the hardest we had climbed at that point. In retrospect, it might be E2; it could also be E4. We'll never know because Apocalypse is unrepeated and no longer exists—the buttress was in a working quarry and it has since been blown up with explosives.
There are other stories of a similar nature, some of which had a lucky outcome and some of which resulted in ambulance trips which, at least, provided us with some material for route names, such as 999 (the UK emergency number) and DRI (the now-defunct Dundee Royal Infirmary). I pity my poor mother suffering her teenage son's 'hillwalking' exploits.
Unlike us, the Vikings didn't fear death, and indeed, death in battle was a glorious and desirable end. To die with your sword in your hand was the only way to gain entry to Valhalla, where you would drink ale and feast forever. The Bushido code of the samurai warriors is comparable, and a bastardised version of this was a driving factor behind the self-destructive actions of the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. This philosophy was not usually shared by the pilots themselves, who were 'volunteered' on pain of death. Those poor bastards were mostly virgin teenagers. What a destiny.
These are extreme yet enduring examples of the warrior's death. Do climbers share the attributes of the Viking, the samurai, the kamikaze? Do we drop our guard as we age, somehow desirous of the glorious death of the warrior, rather than fading away with dementia and incontinence?
'He died doing what he (or she) loved,' said no one, ever, about anyone who died of dementia. Yet this statement is a common source of comfort following the premature bereavement of a loved son, brother, sister or parent who has been lost to climbing. Yes, they might simply have been a victim of circumstances, but they might also have fucked up badly. Yes, they were doing what they loved, but they probably would have loved to do it again the following week.
Unfortunately, they couldn't because they were busy attending their own funeral. They knew the risks and did it anyway. Of course, their lives should be celebrated. But, the pain is felt by those left behind and who have to deal with survivor guilt and the endless what-ifs of the bargaining phase of grief. All of which inevitably leads to the question: Is the flirtation with death worth it?
'Crossing the road is more dangerous than rock climbing, you know,' is what my 16-year-old self informed my long-suffering, unconvinced mother. I probably plucked this statistic from the place where most 16-year-old boys derive their cocksure opinions: out of my arse. But, how else can we quantify this risk of death that we run when rock climbing?
A useful concept—which was not simply plucked out of his ass—is Stanford University Professor Ronald Howard's 'micromort': a measurement of risk based on a one-in-a-million chance of death. One commonly cited example of such odds is tossing a coin and landing heads 20 times in a row (1/2 to the power of 20 = 1/1,048,576). Based upon historical data of the death rate of participation, micromorts can be used to enumerate the riskiness of day-to-day activities.
For example, according to the UK Office of National Statistics, there were 530,000 deaths recorded from any cause in 2019 in England and Wales's combined population of 59 million. This annual death rate is approximately 1% = 10,000/million, which, when divided by the 365 days of the year, works out to be a roughly 25/million or a 25 micromort risk of death from any cause per person per day. The 2020 statistics during the Covid-19 pandemic will be much higher, and possibly double this figure.
Further calculations based on the accident statistics gathered for various sports show that the risk of death for scuba diving is five micromorts per scuba dive, skydiving is 10 micromorts per jump (which is the same as a general anaesthetic), and base jumping is a whopping 430 per jump (which is three times the risk of dying while giving birth in the UK). Rock climbing data suggests a more pedestrian micromort of only three per rock climb.
Speaking of pedestrians, how does this compare to the risk of crossing the road? Using data gathered by the UK's Automobile Association and dividing the annual risk of dying by the number of daily road crossings gives a fatality risk of about one in 300 million or 0.003 micromorts for each road crossing, and five micromorts per year. This data clearly confirms that my 16-year-old self was indeed talking out of his arse when he claimed that crossing the road was more dangerous than rock climbing. It turns out that the risk of death per rock climb is 1,000 times higher than the risk of death crossing the road.
I was standing at the west side of the Perth Road/Kingsway junction, which I had spent two hours walking to so I could hitchhike to Dunkeld. Thumb out, a few cars, including my English teacher from the second-worst school in Dundee, sped by without stopping (the English teacher later claimed I wasn't standing in a good spot). Eventually, a lorry stopped, and after another lengthy walk from the south side of Perth to the Dunkeld road, I hitched another lift to the A9 exit for Dunkeld. Some time later, I arrived at the crag: Craig a' Barns. I was the archetypal stupid, teenage climbing boy, and after the 6:00 am start and prolonged approach I was determined, I recall, to do 'something dangerous'. Uh oh.
Never mind the climbing, getting picked up by dodgy lorry drivers was probably the biggest danger a teenage boy could run into those days. Thankfully, I only had to bail on those a couple of times in my hitchhiking career. That day, I arrived unscathed at the base of Polney Crag and soloed a few of the VS and HVS staples, but it seemed my friends were on the upper tier, so I scrambled over and found them on Left Hand Crack, an E1 I'd already done. Borrowing a guidebook, I found a route called Left Hand Edge, purportedly the left arête of Left Hand Crack at HVS 4c. Piece of piss, I thought, and set off up the arête.
It turns out that my idea of where that route went was incorrect, and after about 30 ft of soloing, I ran into trouble. My memory has it that I pulled two handholds off at the same time, which seems unlikely. Next instant, I was shouting, 'Fuck!' and flying through the air down the route, over the path and down the gully below for about 100 ft before I finally bounced to a stop. Sorry, Mum.
Sigmund Freud postulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that in contrast to the sex drive, which he called the 'libido', humans also have a 'death drive', known in German as 'todestrieb'. Later disciples of Freud associated this with Thanatos, the Greek god of death, who is often invoked when humans engage in risky and potentially self-destructive acts, such as climbing and other 'extreme' sports.
Thrill-seeking and aggression are viewed as actions that stem from this 'death drive'. However, there are other more prosaic explanations: immediate pleasure outweighs long term pain, the increase in status and reproductive success outweigh the risk of injury or death, and humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk.
Getting back to Simon's question, are climbing deaths more common in older climbers? Am I more likely to die climbing now, in my 50s, than I was as a teenager? My instinctive response—and having read the above, you might agree with me—is: no. You want the phlegmatic, grey-haired pilot driving your jumbo jet, not the smart-arsed testosterone-fuelled teenager. I couldn't find any climbing data on this subject, but data from equestrian sports shows that experience in that field is inversely correlated with the risk of serious injury.
Mind you, as I'm writing this, at the age of 53, I'm on crutches with a broken calcaneum (heel bone) after decking out into shallow water while attempting a new deepwater solo route in Bermuda. Despite that inconvenient truth, I don't think there is an increased risk of seeking the warrior's death as you age. You're more likely to die rock climbing when you're young and stupid with poor judgement rather than when you're older and, hopefully, wiser. But like Russian Roulette, if you repeatedly expose yourself to objective danger, one day the odds might catch up with you.
But you're going to die anyway, so you might as well live well before then and go climbing.
This essay is taken from A' Chreag Dhearg which was recently published by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.
Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland's close-knit climbing community, A' Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.
Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland's most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens' best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.
Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A' Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.
The book can be purchased from the SMP website.