THIS MONTH'S TRAGIC climbing accident in the North Cascades, which claimed the lives of three people from the Mountaineers organization of Seattle, follows soon after three deaths on Mount Rainier. Add another casualty from McClellan's Butte near North Bend in March, and you might think the sport is undergoing some kind of lethal boom—more reckless daredevils exposing themselves to more needless risks. In fact, though rock climbing and mountaineering have grown steadily in participation since the 1960s, when baby boomers took up the sport, then saw a surge of interest following (ironically) Into Thin Air, the American Alpine Club just released a May report concluding the opposite is true. It states, "The fatality rate for climbing has dropped dramatically over the last several decades . . . refuting the commonly held perception that the rapid growth in the number of climbers has translated into more rescues and more fatalities."
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AAC Deputy Director Lloyd Athearn wrote that report, and he adds, "There's been a huge decrease in the rate of fatalities" even though the absolute numbers have been about the same since the '70s. Now, as then, around 20 to 40 people die each year in the U.S., as tracked by the club's annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering. One of the benchmarks Athearn uses is climbing registration on Mount Rainier, which leaves a statistical paper trail to follow. Though annual attempts on the mountain have surged upward from around 400 in the '50s to more than 11,000 today, the fatality-rate curve plunges steeply in the opposite direction (with the exception of the 1981 spike for the ice fall accident, the worst in U.S. history, that killed 11).
Though not all climbing areas require permits, Athearn thinks the Rainier trend is "probably fairly representative" nationwide. Among the increased safety factors he points to are better gear (helmets, rock protection, stretchy and almost unbreakable ropes) and preparation—satellite weather forecasts, superdetailed guidebooks and route descriptions, and classes such as those taught by the Mountaineers. When fatalities occur in clusters, "They're just sometimes sort of flukes," statistically speaking, compressed by the Cascades' generally short climbing season.
Speaking for the Mountaineers, Executive Director Steve Costie says participation in climbing classes has probably declined somewhat from the '70s (now hovering around 300 among all club branches), while climbing outings have increased—to around 150 per year, involving perhaps 600 to 700 people. "We have an accident here and there," he says, including fatalities in 1997, 1999, and 2001. Three at once is much worse, of course, but Costie calls the triple fatality at a North Cascades peak called Sharkfin Tower "an anomaly . . . such a huge jump off the scale." In other words, if you average all climbing fatalities and injuries for the Mountaineers—and for the sport as a whole—over a longer time frame, they're in line with the AAC's generally encouraging data.
Since Sharkfin is not known as a particularly hard or dangerous climb, the fatal rock fall comes under the category of "objective hazards," like storms or spontaneous avalanches, that are essentially beyond a climber's control. (You can only minimize your exposure time in such zones.) "So often, the less technical area is the critical zone," says Costie. This is where improved gear and good training provide little if any buffer between the risks that always have been, and always will be, part of the challenge of mountaineering. Those numbers don't change.