Legendary Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck recently fell more than 3,280 feet to his death while free soloing (climbing alone) in the Himalaya.

While our mountains here in Hawaii have nothing near the same degree of objective danger as the Himalaya or Alps, it seems like every few weeks yet another hiker dies or is seriously injured here. Although each individual case is different, it may be worth posing the questions: “who are these people?” and “why did they die or get hurt?”

There are the more factual reasons for death or injury: lack of preparation, inexperience, recklessness or sheer bad luck. But I’ve come to the conclusion that there is also a systemic reason: we are living in a culture that leads people to take inordinate risks and – sometimes – die.

The precarious Haiku Stairs on Oahu get plenty of attention on social media.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

As a long-time hiker, rock climber and (more recently) mountaineer, I’ve noticed a not-so-subtle shift in how some people think about the outdoors. When my cousin and I completed another difficult hike in the “old days,” it never really occurred to us to brag about our exploits. Moreover, we wouldn’t have been able to brag even if we had wanted to. There were no GoPros, YouTube was yet to be born and boasting about one’s outdoor achievements just wasn’t done.

Nowadays, one can post to forums and put video footage of one’s exploits on YouTube, accompanied by chillingly dramatic music. I recently learned that the “pretty difficult hiking” I’ve been doing for years is now called “extreme hiking.” And someone told me that young men take their dates hiking up on Pu’u Manamana (Crouching Lion on the east side of Oahu) to try to impress them.

Apart from gaining bragging rights, some people seem to be driven by the need for cheap thrills. Unlike mountaineers or climbers, these are the real adrenaline junkies. People like this were no doubt the ones who installed the swing at Haiku Stairs some time ago. This cheap thrill could have resulted in a rescuer risking his or her life or caused the state to shut down more sites. Removing the swing cost taxpayers at least $23,000.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog: “On our recent trip to Hawaii, we were determined to find scary, exhilarating, epic, and possibly deathly hikes.” If you really need to flirt with death, then I’d first get some training.

Speaking of training, there’s a common misconception that climbers and mountaineers are addicted to risk. I would argue that the reverse is actually true. Most of the elite climbers and mountaineers in the world, people like Tommy Caldwell or Conrad Anker and, until recently, Ueli Steck, are continuously evaluating and, when possible, mitigating risk.

Sure, Steck took huge risks when he free soloed and speed climbed an alpine route. But the difference with many of the people tramping around Hawaii’s trails is that he understood the risks he was taking, and had a wealth of experience as well as decades of specialized training. Steck, also known as the “Swiss Machine,” was also fanatical about training and preparation.

Through a carefully controlled training regimen, he reached a level of fitness comparable to that of many Olympic athletes. Moreover, he pioneered the “fast and light” approach to mountaineering that meant that he was exposed to objective risk for less time.

While we do not yet know the precise reasons for Steck’s death, it is highly unlikely that lack of preparation, poor judgment or irresponsible risk-taking had anything to do with it. If elite mountaineers made a regular practice of taking risks disproportionate to their abilities, more of them would be dead.

The author nearing the final peak of Les Pointes des Cinéastes in the French Alps.

Courtesy of Paul Arinaga

Most mountaineers and climbers know what’s at stake, and would rather live to climb another day than foolishly endanger their lives. In fact, surviving in the mountains is as much about exercising good judgment as it is about technical skills, physical strength or mental toughness.

Unfortunately, we now live in a culture fueled by social media. Rather than becoming one with the mountain, the mountain has become yet another object to feed some people’s crass narcissism.

Sometimes this is about machismo. On a website for outdoor enthusiasts I recently posed some questions about the potential dangers of a challenging Windward Oahu hike. I wanted to better understand the objective risks and see if the most dangerous sections could be made safer by applying alpine techniques such as placing protection and using a rope – instead of free soloing. One fervent king of the mountains and a self-described “extreme hiker” accused me of lacking experience and boasted that he had “been up and down those ridges in all kinds of weather.”

As someone with a fair bit of experience in the French Alps, Pyrenees and other mountain ranges, I found this comment odd. Mountaineers continuously assess weather conditions and try to avoid climbing in bad weather. That’s why mountaineers often begin a climb in the wee hours of the morning; the plan is to reach the summit and descend safely before the weather changes dramatically.

Compared to most places, Hawaii’s mountain ranges have very stable weather. Grossly underestimating weather conditions, therefore, seems more like a case of poor planning or foolish risk-taking than something to boast about.

This and the previous comment show that too many people take a cavalier attitude towards risk. They want to live dangerously, show off or be the king of the mountain. Sadly, they may lack the experience or training they need to be safe in the mountains.

Rather than seeking cheap thrills or macho bragging rights, I hope that we can instill a culture of respect for nature and for the disciplines of hiking, climbing and mountaineering, as well as outdoor adventure generally. Learn, gradually improve your skills and increase your level of experience, yet always remain humble. Don’t seek cheap thrills. Instead, work on a real mountaineering, climbing, trekking or hiking project … and earn the right to attempt it.

I met Ueli Steck a few years ago in Brussels, Belgium. One thing that struck me about this mountaineering legend, a two-time recipient of the piolet d’or (golden ice axe), mountaineering’s highest honor, was how modest he was. We took a picture together and I later invited him by email to visit our climbing gym. He took the time to write back, lamenting that he wished he had more time to “just climb.”

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