I have a peculiar fascination with mountain climbing. Peculiar because I've never done anything like it, not even on local peaks like The Lions or Black Tusk. The most I've done is go from the ski area parking lot to the top of Mt. Seymour, which is a hike, not a climb. (Like The Lions, I can see the summit of Seymour from our front window.)
Maybe that's what interests me. Like Antarctica or outer space, high mountain peaks are somewhere I'll never go. I've written about how dangerous high-altitude mountaineering is. As a child, I was fascinated by TV documentaries on mountain climbing (I vividly recall a sherpa falling into a mud sinkhole on the way to Everest, before the team had even reached snow). Jon Krakauer's 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air riveted me from the first sentence:
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.
It remains one of my favourite books. Today another one of those scary mountain stories bubbled up, via Jason Kottke: a Vanity Fair tale of two young British men who died last year falling thousands of feet down part of Mt. Blanc. Because it's easy to access in the centre of Europe, but remains treacherous with difficult slopes and unpredictable weather, Mt. Blanc kills more climbers than any other peak in the world. Rob Gauntlett and James Atkinson, the climbers who died, were far from inexperienced.
A couple of years earlier, Gauntlett and James Hooper, both then 19, had become the youngest Brits ever to climb Mt. Everest. They followed that expedition with a trip from the northern geomagnetic pole to the southern one, from North America through South America to Antarctica—without any motorized power. At Mt. Blanc, Hooper and another school friend, Richard Lebon, had decided not to follow their colleagues up the mountain that day, and survived.
Even out my front window, I can see places (or at least, the tops of trees near places) where people wander off well-trodden tourist trails, get lost, and never return. Often in the summer. Once, a plane crashed on one of those slopes and wasn't found for decades. Mountains are beautiful and alluring, but fickle, and can be deadly.