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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » March 27, 2013
Politics & Society
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Dicing Death
March 27, 2013   
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After two Polish mountain climbers lost their lives during an expedition to Broad Peak in the Karakoram range in early March, the media extensively cited a Polish public television cameraman who several years earlier filmed an unsuccessful expedition to Nanga Parbat, another 8,000-plus-meter peak in the Himalayas.

Back then he overheard a conversation during which several climbers were bragging which of them would sacrifice more frostbitten fingers in exchange for making it to the top. The first climber bet two fingers, then more bets followed until the last climber said he was ready to surrender all his fingers if only he could claim the world’s first winter ascent up a previously unknown trail.

That was too much for the cameraman to take and he returned to Warsaw the next day.

The bragging match was more than just testosterone talking because the number of climbers who lose bits of their flesh to frostbite reaches hundreds if not thousands every year. Reinhold Messner, the first man to have climbed all of the Earth’s 14 mountains more than 8,000 meters in height, has lost six toes and two finger tips. These insane statistics are topped by a Spanish climber who, forced to spend a night in the “death zone” at over 7,500 meters above sea level, was miraculously rescued and brought down by climbers from another expedition. His determination, however, cost him all his fingers as well as his nose. He still climbs mountains using prostheses.

Why are people so fascinated by dicing with death? Observers have been asking this question for centuries, but there is also another question that begs asking: why are those who risk their lives high in the mountains so highly respected? After all, as countless accounts show, many people are simply obsessed about climbing one peak or another regardless of the cost. These expeditions are not about scientific discovery and pave no new roads for mankind (other than for other climbers) nor do they solve any of humanity’s big problems. What is worse, Himalayan climbers these days are raising the bar to preposterous heights. First, they gave up on using oxygen masks which, in their opinion, were too much of a luxury for a true climber. The newest trend is to attempt ascents only in winter, the season hardest to survive in the “death zone.” What’s the next level? Climbers with blindfolds over their eyes? Climbing mountains backwards? All the while more people are dying and going missing in the mountains every month.

Expeditions to the world’s highest mountains are obviously just one of many ways to get an adrenaline rush by trying to defy death. Some people, just for the fun of it, risk high fines climbing skyscrapers with no gear or belaying devices, others drop down cliffs on rubber ropes and tiny parachutes. There are fans of diving to insane depths without oxygen bottles and some enjoy coming close to dangerous animals... The list goes on.

Sociologists have for years been saying that, for a growing number of people putting their life at risk has become the only way to find enough excitement to keep them going. Take motorbike riders racing along public roads at insane speeds of over 250 kilometers per hour. To make sure they die instantly in case of an accident, they wrap wires around their necks and tie these to their motorcycles. Compared to that, mountain climbers are far less dangerous—at least to other people.
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