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Highest-Stakes Adventure

Mark Poutenis

On May 25, Erik Weihenmayer was sitting on top of the world. Well, technically speaking, he was lying near the top of the world. With his stomach convulsing. He'd just yanked himself over the 39-foot rock face called the Hillary Step, the last technical hurdle on the way to the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.

"I celebrated with the dry heaves," he told a reporter later, after he'd trudged to the top and then, after a celebratory moment of victory, made the equally treacherous descent.

Weihenmayer, of course, is the climber from Golden who, two months ago, became the first blind person to conquer the 29,000-foot peak. It was a day of records for the 33-year-old motivational speaker and his support crew. The team, heavily sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, also boasted the oldest person ever to summit (64-year-old Sherman Bull), the second father-and-son combo to top out (Sherman and his son Brad) and the largest group to bag the peak (nineteen members of the team made it all the way). The whole saga will appear later on a documentary video.

Weihenmayer has received more good wishes and accolades than he can count. Of course it has been gratifying, yet he is the first to insist that his disability is but a small part of him. To hear him talk about the feat is a lesson in how truly to appreciate the magnificence of nature, visible or not. "The mountain is totally beautiful," he says, "whether you can see it or not. You can feel it under your hands."

He is, as he must be, ambivalent about the feat. There will always be the familiar tension between knowing you're different and spending a lifetime convincing people that you're not, really. He is aware that what he did was historic, and that it will be an inspiration to many. But he will be sure to tell you: "I honestly don't think it was any more dangerous for me to climb it than for a person with sight."

In a way, though, that assessment misses an important point. It may not have been any more dangerous for a blind person to climb Everest than for a person with sight. But that doesn't make it safe. There are numerous ways to die on the Himalayan slopes, as the 165 climbers who have succumbed to the mountain have discovered. There are avalanches and icefalls to crush you, bottomless crevasses to swallow you, and hypothermia and cerebral edema to drain the life out of you from within, to name only a few. It is skydiving with a bedsheet, running the high hurdles over landmines. In short, despite innovations in climbing safety, climbing the world's highest mountain remains a perilous undertaking.

And so I couldn't help wondering: Weihenmayer's climb was inarguably a huge success, but was it responsible? Not because he was blind and needs our collective caution to keep him safe, but for a much simpler reason: He has a wife and infant daughter who expect him to come home. In life's complicated math, how does one weigh risk against obligation? Is a father who freely undertakes a personal adventure -- with only slightly better odds for survival than those in a game of Russian roulette -- an inspirational hero or a reckless daredevil? So I asked him.


In the closing days of World War II, a boating accident occurred in New York harbor. Amid the bustling traffic created by the war effort, a barge called the Anna C, loaded with flour, broke loose of her moorings and drifted into a tanker. The tanker's propeller ripped into the barge, and within minutes, the boat sank. The owner of the barge sued the tug company charged with the care of the barge; Carroll Towing's bargee had been ashore, and so the job of tying up the Anna C had been left to a less qualified worker. As it turned out, he did a lousy job.

The lawsuit made its way through the courts. In 1947, the famous federal judge Learned Hand wrote an opinion that was to become a classic of modern torts. He concluded that Carroll Towing had been negligent in the sinking of the Anna C. Yet what history remembers better is the way he decided. Applying the rules of mathematics to the law, Learned Hand came up with a formula: BPL.

Translated, it meant this: If the probability of harm (P) multiplied by the importance of the loss (L) is greater than the burden needed to take adequate precautions against an accident (B), then there has been negligence. The hardship of having a trained man on board to tie a proper knot was less than the likelihood the barge would bust loose and lose its valuable cargo -- hence, negligence. Learned Hand's formula has come to be known as the calculus of risk.

There is a calculus of risk in everything we do, although we don't always make a conscious decision about it. At some level, most of us have concluded that the potential peril of getting into a car crash is low enough to take a chance on driving. On the other hand, most of us over the age of nineteen have also concluded that drag racing down a lonely dirt road at 120 miles per hour is stupid.

It's the same with sports: Each activity has an element of risk. Before beginning a game, for example, we all contemplate Learned Hand's B: the burden of preventing accident or disaster. Sometimes it's just an ibuprofen or a bicycle helmet or a pair of boxing gloves. (One person's burden is another's prudence: Not all hockey players wear face shields.) When it comes to more dangerous sports -- leaping out of an airplane, say -- most people decide the burden of providing adequate precautions is so high they simply can't do it: Skydiving while the plane is still on the ground really isn't skydiving.

Learned Hand's next variable is P -- the probability of harm: What are the chances I will get hurt? This is statistics. While there have been a number of deaths on Longs Peak, the fatality rate -- deaths divided by climbers -- is tiny enough to convince many weekend athletes that the P is low enough to shlep up the hill safely. The odds deteriorate when you consider more treacherous peaks, though. Thus they are attempted by only a handful of climbers who either are more comfortable taking risks or manage to convince themselves that the statistics don't apply to them.

The last factor in the judge's equation is L, the potential loss, or what is at stake. The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons last year found that of all sports played in the U.S., basketball had the highest rate of injuries, with 1.6 million. But most of those were sprains and strains -- minor setbacks. On the other hand, a neurosurgery organization recently concluded that 90 percent of all professional boxers have sustained some sort of brain injury. That's as good a reason as any to hit the court and not the ring.

The ultimate loss, of course, would appear to be death. It's the specter of catastrophe that keeps all but a few away from, say, skyboarding. A softball mishap might require some ice; a skyboarding mistake, probably a coffin. (So what is the world's most dangerous sport? Statistically, it's horse-racing, with a fatality rate about two and a half times that of hang-gliding.)

But is the loss of your own life really the biggest potential toll to consider when doing a calculus of risk? In his 1997 bestseller, Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer chronicled the tragic 1996 season on Mt. Everest. A truly heartbreaking part of the book was when the experienced climber and guide, Rob Hall, who was hunkered down just below the summit, reached his wife, Jan Arnold, by satellite phone.

Arnold, who was pregnant at the time, was an experienced climber herself, having conquered Everest three years earlier. She was under no illusions about the danger of her husband's expedition. She understood that there was a chance he would never return to be a husband and a father. She also knew he was in trouble when he called.

According to Krakauer, Hall's voice "rasped" over the phone. Perched on a ledge just below the summit, he was unwilling or unable to continue his descent. "I love you," he told his wife by phone. "Please don't worry too much." His body was found twelve days later, half covered by snow.

Comparatively speaking, freezing is a peaceful death. Far less easy will be his wife and daughter's life without him.


What are the chances a climber will die on Mt. Everest? Compared to other similar-sized mountains, not too bad, really.

In their 2000 book, Climbing the World's 14 Highest Mountains, Richard Sale and John Cleare calculated that as of the end of 1999, the highest peaks had been summitted 4,664 times -- at a cost of 591 deaths. That's nearly a 13 percent fatality-to-success rate. (The rate of attempts to fatalities is a much softer number. No one knows for sure exactly how many climbers are on a given mountain at one time or how many of them are seriously contemplating getting to the top.)

The death rate varies among the individual mountains. Annapurna is the world's most dangerous, with one person dying for every two who reach the top. Next up is K2, in Pakistan, the world's second-highest peak, which kills about one person for every three who enjoy a victory shot at the apex.

On average, Mt. Everest's fatality-to-success rate stands at about 14 percent. The number varies from year to year, and in general, the climb has become safer. Up until 1952, the mountain was conquered by no one while killing thirteen -- infinitely bad odds. By contrast, 142 people summitted last year, the most ever, with only two dying from the effort.

Still, a big part of the danger of climbing the world's big peaks is that you never know what the mountain will do, so the fatality rate is impossible to predict. In 1982, eighteen people made it to the top of Everest, but eleven died trying. In 1996, the year in which Krakauer took notes, fifteen people died. It's one reason why, in 1987, a North Face-sponsored expedition attempting to put the first American woman on top of the world requested that team members not have families -- a sea-level attempt to minimize grief in the relatively likely event of disaster.

In short, Everest's mortality rate looks reasonable only out of the context of how it compares with the world's other big mountains. Indeed, most judicious people would flee at such awful odds. If you knew that each time you got into your car there was a one-in-seven chance you would die before reaching your destination, would you drive?

Weihenmayer says that he took all that into account when he decided to make the climb. "I don't consider myself a daredevil," he says. "What I do is very calculated; I'm not shooting myself in a rocket across the Grand Canyon. There are people who thrill-seek just to do it. I'm not one of them."

For example, he says, he has parachuted out of a plane more than fifty times. But he knows that skydiving is not entirely safe, and so he takes strict measures to make it as risk-free as possible, insisting on three separate backup systems to guard against disaster.

The same planning and caution went into the Everest expedition. "We had backup systems for everything, so that if something went wrong, we were covered," he says. For example, the team toted oxygen tanks up to a camp at 27,500 feet, higher than most climbers bring extra tanks, just in case Erik (or anyone else) suddenly needed it after the ascent.

"I have outer limits," Weihenmayer says. "For example, I won't consider climbing K2. It's just too dangerous. Everest, though, I thought I could do. I thought the benefits outweighed the risks."

And despite all the acclaim he received for attempting the climb with his disability -- not to mention the NAB sponsorship -- Weihenmayer admits that those benefits are mostly personal. "I have a copout," he says. "I climb for selfish reasons, but I know that this also had a side benefit, which is that, for a lot of folks, it was going to change their perceptions of what it was to be blind."

A skilled and experienced climber, Weihenmayer says he made up his mind to tackle Everest before his wife was pregnant. But even after they learned she was carrying Emma, he says Ellie never tried to talk him out of the trip. "She was nervous, but she supported me the whole time," he says.

Besides, he adds, she knew what she was getting into when she married him. In 1995, as he summitted Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska, Ellie flew over the mountain in a plane to watch her husband's moment of victory. "I know she was super nervous watching," Weihenmayer says, "but always supportive." The two were married on Mt. Kilamanjaro in 1997.

Still, her husband's obsession with climbing mountains made her nervous. "After several climbs, I felt the mountains had become his mistress," Ellie told Sports Illustrated recently. "'Just one more, Ellie,' he'd say. 'Just one more mountain.' Then, last June we had Emma, and he learned how baby girls tug at your heart. Still, he wasn't ready to give up on Everest. I understood. If you're going to call yourself a mountain climber, you have to climb a major Himalayan peak like Everest."

He agrees that, eventually, the reality of having responsibilities at home is bound to have an impact on his life of adventure. "As my daughter gets older and I become more of a father, I will reconsider what I do and change," he predicts, adding that, even now, "I definitely would not go back and do a Mt. Everest climb again. You kind of fall more into the role of being a dad, whether you like it or not. You start being more cautious."

Yet Weihenmayer is quick to point out that a life without risk is impossible -- and uninteresting. "Your whole life is a calculated risk," he says. "When you're blind and you first cross the street, you're taking a big risk. Risk is what you have to go through to get where there are those wonderful feelings and experiences; there is value to adrenaline and excitement and happiness. To achieve them, you've got to confront risk."

Besides, he says, when you are a blind mountaineer going where no one has gone before, you never know when your calculus of risk is going to be off, because no one has ever performed the math. (For anyone who's counting, there is currently a 100 percent success rate of blind people climbing Everest.)

"Everyone dreams," he explains. "Sometimes people dream beyond their capabilities. I always worry about that, because for me, no blind person has been there."


The one thing that Learned Hand's calculus of risk doesn't cover, of course, is the benefit to be gained by taking a particular risk. Sometimes big risks taken for the sake of sports make sense. They can serve a higher purpose -- as when Jackie Robinson ignored death threats to integrate baseball.

Other instances are at least arguable. When the great climber Alex Lowe disappeared in an avalanche in 1999 on Shishapangma, in Tibet, leaving behind a wife and three young boys, he could at least make the case that he was pursuing his livelihood. (Not so with the already-wealthy Sugar Ray Leonard, who risked blindness by coming out of retirement to fight with a detached retina, merely to buff his pride.)

But what about everyone else, those who risk it all because, well, they want to? We have been conditioned to automatically give epic adulation to those who attempt epic feats. We accept as praiseworthy their explanations of obsessive drive: "I simply couldn't not do it," or "Because it's there."

Perhaps Erik Weihenmayer's achievement will inspire other disabled people to climb their own peaks, a wonderful accomplishment. And in a sense, a debate over the peril he exposed himself to is pointless. He succeeded and so walked off the mountain holding it all: a landmark ascent and a safe trip home to his family.

But he also left his wife and infant daughter in a Denver suburb to join an expedition on one of the world's most dangerous mountains. "When there was no news -- and on a few occasions there wasn't any for several days -- I felt as if my air supply had been cut off," Ellie told Sports Illustrated about her feelings during her husband's climb.

Every person, it is clear, must do his or her own math. Sometimes you just have to pray the numbers work out.


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