05-03-2009, 10:12 AM
Mountaineering: the fatal attraction
An interesting article taken from Sunday Star Times in New Zealand.
MILES VINAR thought his brother, Mark, was going crazy. It was December 2007, and the brothers were attempting to climb Mt Tasman, New Zealand's second-highest peak. They had set off from the Pioneer Hut at 1am (most attempts on Tasman and Cook begin in the early hours) and Mark, at 43 the older of the brothers by a year, was confused and irritable.
Miles, the better mountaineer, decided to call off the climb, and they returned to the hut at about 6am. An hour later Miles was woken by other climbers and told his brother had gone walkabout. In his socks. In the snow. At 2400m.
The hut is perched on the edge of a cliff and Mark had sleepwalked over the edge. Miles found him on a ledge about 15m down the cliff.
A doctor who was staying at the hut was winched down by rope and tended to Mark's injuries, which included a broken bone in his foot. Mark was winched up and eventually choppered off the mountain.
Miles resolved not to climb with his brother again but back home in Perth, Mark, a doctor, had an email in his inbox warning about bizarre side effects of a sleeping pill called Stilnox. Mark, who had no memory of the night on the mountain, had been taking the drug.
Satisfied that his brother was not crazy after all, Miles decided to climb with him again, not knowing that much worse was to come.
Most people would be put off a sport after such a bad experience, but mountaineers are a different breed. The Vinars' decision to continue climbing together is typical, says forensic psychiatrist Erik Monasterio, who has studied the personality traits of extreme sportspeople such as base jumpers and mountaineers.
His study tracked 49 climbers over four years (four of whom died
in accidents) and found that when confronted by uncertainty and risk, mountaineers tend to be confident and relaxed, scoring very low on a "harm-avoidance" scale.
This also means they are less responsive to danger and prone to "foolhardy optimism", he says.
Monasterio says other studies have found that even after an accident, only 3% of mountaineers develop post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to rates of about 20% among firefighters.
"If you watch your mate die then you're at risk of developing these conditions. My sense is that the meaning mountaineers acquire from their sport protects them."
Monasterio, who has climbed Mt Cook, says mountaineering can become an all-consuming obsession: "There's almost a compulsive element to it."
It can be very rewarding, he says, but also hugely punishing, and twice he has suffered pulmonary oedema, the accumulation of fluid on the lungs which can kill climbers.
One of Monasterio's first climbs, in the early 1990s, was to retrieve a dead body from a mountain in Bolivia.
"After that my drive to climb became very intense. In the face of tragedy there was something shining through about collaboration and camaraderie that I found incredibly reinforcing. I guess the fact you play a high stakes game was one of the challenging sides of it."
A FEW MONTHS after the bizarre end to their attempt on Mt Tasman the Vinar brothers knocked it off, and in December last year they returned to New Zealand with their sights set on Tasman's next-door-neighbour, our highest peak, Aoraki-Mt Cook.
At 3754m, it is not high by world standards but is technically challenging and has the grim statistic of having claimed 71 lives since 1907.
Bryan Carter, of Alpine Guides, says the mistake that many foreign climbers make, especially those from Europe, is thinking they can get up and down the mountain in three or four days and fly home again.
In some parts of Europe they can take a cable car to the height of Mt Cook, Carter says, and the weather is more stable. But Mt Cook has a maritime alpine climate which causes glaciation and its associated dangers, as well as strong winds and precipitation.
Plenty of people climb Mt Cook an estimated 120 to 150 a year (exact figures aren't kept as you don't have to register) and plenty get into trouble: there are between 15 and 30 search and rescue incidents in the area each year.
The Vinars were choppered into Plateau Hut, from where most ascents of Mt Cook are made, on Saturday, December 6, just a day after the death of Japanese climber Kiyoshi Ikenouchi, who, along with companion Hideaki Nara, had spent a week huddled in a tent near the summit and died just a few hours before rescuers arrived.
"We'd been following the story for the last couple of days as it played out," Miles told the Sunday Star-Times. "We did talk about it, but... it had no influence on our plans or decisions."
The brothers had booked 10 days at the hut so had plenty of time. The weather was bad for the first four days, and it wasn't until Tuesday night that a window of opportunity arrived. The forecast was for a couple of days of clear weather before it closed in again on Thursday night. That gave them the 24 hours they conservatively estimated they needed for an ascent, and they set off at 1am on Wednesday. They had forgotten to enter their plans into the hut's logbook, and they were the only climbers on the mountain. The brothers spent a couple of hours crossing the Plateau Glacier before reaching the start of Zurbriggens Ridge, which has claimed nine lives. They spent most of Wednesday climbing the ridge individually. They struck a patch of unstable rock and began "pitching", leapfrogging each other using a rope and belay and setting an anchor in case of a fall.
"It was extremely time-consuming and slowed us right down," Miles says. They climbed until about 9pm and decided to bivvy for the night. Unlike the Japanese climbers, who had packed a tent, the Australians had decided to travel relatively light.
"It's always a trade-off when you're mountaineering," Miles says. "You can go fast and light or slower and safer but heavier. We went midway."
Carter, of Alpine Guides, says the Japanese had been slowed down by all the gear they packed, but their principal mistake was to pitch their tent near the summit ridge "the most exposed place in New Zealand" with nothing shielding them from howling winds.
Miles and Mark Vinar simply pulled on warmer clothing and tied themselves to an anchor on some rocks on a slope, about 600m from the summit.
The weather was still good in the morning, but clouds were starting to appear and the brothers decided to call off their climb. "There was no debate or argument," Miles says. "The discussions revolved around the best route to take down."
It was at this point that the brothers made a fatal decision.
IT'S A typically warm Perth day and Miles Vinar, a systems programmer, is remembering the events that led to his brother's death from the safety of his back yard. It's a detached and unreal experience for him.
He tries to put himself back on the northeast face of Mt Cook on the morning of Thursday, December 11, 2008.
"Basically there were two options," says Miles. "We could have pushed on for another 100m or so and got to the Linda Shelf, and from there you can head down the other side of the mountain. Once you hit the glacier it's a nice easy slope all the way down to the hut.
"Or we could take a more difficult route down Zurbriggens Ridge. We decided [on that], which might seem foolhardy, but the deciding factor was that cloud was coming in and we didn't want to be stuck on the Linda Glacier in a whiteout situation. Whereas if we went down Zurbriggens... we could pick up our footsteps and if cloud came in, follow our footsteps all the way to the hut. Looking back, I still think it was the right decision to take."
The brothers headed down the ridge and hit a section of ice, with rocks on either side and a step about three to four metres high.
Miles went over first, facing the slope and sinking his ice picks into the ice at the top of the step. He had to stretch out a bit and reposition one of the axes, but found it a pretty easy piece of climbing.
He moved to one side and watched Mark.
"His body was over the step and his feet were on the snow slope. For whatever reason his ice tools at the top came loose and he fell backwards and tumbled down the slope."
Miles describes the horror of what happened next with a kind of detached calmness: how his brother desperately tried to flip onto his stomach so he could do a "self-arrest" use his pick axe as a brake but had built up so much speed he had no time.
Mark did manage to get onto his stomach but then fell over another large drop and started tumbling again, eventually disappearing from sight.
"It was all over in seconds. Once you're tumbling you've got no chance, you build up speed so quickly, it's just amazing. The very first thought that came into my mind when I saw him fall was `he's dead', and that was it."
Mark made no sound as he tumbled, and his face showed no fear, only grim determination. He fell about 500m to the base of Zurbriggens Ridge and is believed to have fallen into a crevasse or become buried under debris. His body may never be found.
Miles's ordeal was only just beginning. He was able to block out the emotion and focus on getting down the mountain.
He made it about 200m before hitting a heavily crevassed area. Knowing the weather was closing in, he decided to dig a snow cave and wait to be rescued.
From the spot he selected he could see a trail of blood about 20cm wide snaking all the way down the slope, a result of a massive injury his brother had obviously suffered while falling. He could see Mark's backpack, which contained gear including a burner, but could not reach it.
Miles started digging his cave and had to keep popping his head into the hole as rocks and debris were falling around him, set loose by the melting snow as the day warmed.
"Remember that movie Starship Troopers and the noise those big flying bugs made... that buzzing, humming noise? That's the noise the rocks made as they came whizzing past."
Miles would spend the next two nights in the cave. The first night was horrific, with a blizzard sending huge piles of snow into his cave every few minutes, which he had to shovel out with a crampon. He thought he was going to die.
He made himself eat, but his big problem was water. He had to melt ice using his body warmth.
On Friday the weather started to clear, but Miles began hallucinating. "I could see parties climbing up... I was yelling out to them, thinking `why the hell can't they hear me?' After a while you look closely... and you realise you're looking at rocks and shadows."
His continual worry was whether anyone had even noticed he and Mark were missing, as they hadn't signed the logbook.
Shortly after daybreak on the Saturday he saw a small party moving towards him, but still thought he was hallucinating. It wasn't until a helicopter appeared that he allowed himself to believe he would be saved.
LOOKING BACK, Miles Vinar believes his ability to stay rational saved him.
"It's not about being strong or weak, it's just the way you're put together, I think. Fortunately, I could blank out that emotional stuff and still function."
It wasn't long before he heard the call of the mountains once again.
"I tossed up for quite a while whether to continue with mountaineering or not. The strange thing was that once I got back to Perth I just really wanted to get back into the mountains. It sounds weird, I just had this huge urge to get back. I think part of it was looking for some connection with Mark."
Miles left last week for Alaska, where he is to undertake an advanced mountaineering course, and hopes to return for another attempt on Mt Cook late this year or early next, if he can find another climbing partner.
He struggles to understand what draws him back to the mountains. "There is some driving force deep inside pushing you to take that next incremental step to try something harder, or higher or colder or longer.
"For me, there is something pure about mountaineering. There is no money or glory, nothing really to prove to anyone, no ego trip. You travel to these environments with most of the layers of security and comfort that we surround ourselves with stripped away, and you just give it your best shot to get up and back in one piece. It is a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience which just makes life richer, and I am not yet ready to give it up."
Miles has started writing down every detail he can remember of the Mt Cook trip, so that one day Mark's two teenage daughters can read about their father's last days.
"I don't know if I'll do Zurbriggens Ridge again, it might be a bit too personal. My main concern will be climbing with another partner I'd hate to lose another one."
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