Toni Kurz and the Insanity of Climbing Mountains

post by GeneSmith · 2022-07-03T20:51:58.429Z · LW · GW · 62 comments


  The Eigerwand: First Attempt
  The Eigerwand: Second Attempt
  What to make of the men who climb

This post has been recorded as part of the LessWrong Curated Podcast, and can be listened to on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Libsyn.

Content warning: death

I've been on a YouTube binge lately. My current favorite genre is disaster stories about mountain climbing. The death statistics for some of these mountains, especially ones in the Himalayas are truly insane.

To give an example, let me tell you about a mountain most people have never heard of: Nanga Parbat. It's a 8,126 meter "wall of ice and rock", sporting the tallest mountain face and the fastest change in elevation in the entire world: the Rupal Face.

Rupal Face

I've posted a picture above, but these really don't do justice to just how gigantic this wall is. This single face is as tall as the largest mountain in the Alps. It is the size of ten empire state buildings stacked on top of one another. If you could somehow walk straight up starting from the bottom, it would take you an entire HOUR to reach the summit.

31 people died trying to climb this mountain before its first successful ascent. Imagine being climber number 32 and thinking "Well I know no one has ascended this mountain and thirty one people have died trying, but why not, let's give it a go!"

The stories of deaths on these mountains (and even much shorter peaks in the Alps or in North America) sound like they are out of a novel. Stories of one mountain in particular have stuck with me: the first attempts to climb tallest mountain face in the alps: The Eigerwand.

The Eigerwand: First Attempt

The Eigerwand is the North face of a 14,000 foot peak named "The Eiger". After three generations of Europeans had conquered every peak in the Alps, few great challenges remained in the area. The Eigerwand was one of these: widely considered to be the greatest unclimbed route in the Alps.

The Eigerwand

The peak had already been reached in the 1850s, during the golden age of Alpine exploration. But the north face of the mountain remained unclimbed.

Many things can make a climb challenging: steep slopes, avalanches, long ascents, no easy resting spots and more. The Eigerwand had all of those, but one hazard in particular stood out: loose rock and snow.

In the summer months (usually considered the best time for climbing), the mountain crumbles. Fist-sized boulders routinely tumble down the mountain. Huge avalanaches sweep down its 70-degree slopes at incredible speed. And the huge, concave face is perpetually in shadow. It is extremely cold and windy, and the concave face seems to cause local weather patterns that can be completely different from the pass below. The face is deadly.

Before 1935, no team had made a serious attempt at the face. But that year, two young German climbers from Bavaria, both extremely experienced but relatively unknown outside the climbing community, decided they would make the first serious attempt.

One of the things which makes the climb of the Eiger unique is that nearly the entire face is visible from a mountain resort below. Residents of Kleine Scheidegg, a small resort town in the pass, could look directly at the north face when the weather cleared and observe all of these attempts to climb the face.

Kleine Scheidegg resort in Switzerland

All of this was in place long before the first attempt was made, so when the two young Bavarians decide to make an attempt, the world's press was literally staying at the hotel watching the men through binoculars when the clouds cleared.

Not knowing how long the attempt would take, they brought six days of supplies, estimating it would take two to three days to achieve the summit. They started off quite strong, making it all the way up to Eigerwand station before setting up camp for the night. Yes, you read that correctly. There are train tracks a third of the way up the mountain. Here's the view from a window looking down on (again, I'm not making this up), Grindelwald.

Grindelwald as seen from Eigerwand window

On the second day, they made little progress, having to contend with the first major ice field of the climb. On the third day, they made it to the second of these and were seen near the top before clouds set in and the view of the face was obscured.

When the clouds cleared on the fifth day, it became clear a major disaster was in store. The entire mountain face was covered with several feet of fresh snow, an unusual occurrence for the summer months. Avalanches crashed down the mountain, making it impossible for the climbers to descend via their previous route. The men had no choice but to continue upwards, hoping that they might make it to the top before their supplies ran out or they died of exposure. They were last seen alive on day five, high up on the third ice field with several thousand feet left to the summit.

Days later, when an airplane flew by the peak to try to locate the climbers, one was spotted frozen solid, standing up in the third ice field. This location later became known as "death bivouac".

Diagram of the North Face of Eiger

The Eigerwand: Second Attempt

You'd think that after such a tragedy, climbers might be at least temporarily deterred. But that would be an underestimate of how insane climbers are. From what I have read, several of the climbers that joined the search party to look for the two Bavarians mainly used it as an excuse to scout the mountain for their own attempt!

Ten men planned to make summit attempts in the 1936 season. But bad weather and climbing accidents reduced that number to just four by July.

Two groups decided to make an attempt in 1936: two men from Bavaria: Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, and two Austrians: Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer. During the preliminary expedition, the two groups decided to climb together.

The four climbers Top: Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer Bottom: Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser

On the very first day, Hinterstoisser fell 37 meters down the mountain face (but was apparently uninjured). Other than that the men made good progress. Hinterstoisser used a new technique with fixed ropes to cross a steep rock face now known as the "Hinterstoisser Traverse".

The Hinterstoisser Traverse

But crucially, he removed the ropes after making the traverse, and the same move would be much more difficult to pull off if the climbers needed to go back. Clouds settled in over the first night, and the view of the mountain was obscured to the spectators watching through binoculars and telescopes from Kleine Scheidegg below.

Early on the second day, it appeared to spectators as though something had gone wrong. Edi and Willy had stopped ascending. It looked as though Edi was attending to Willy. Andreas and Toni let down a rope to Willy, who seemed recovered enough to continue his ascent, followed by Edi.

Their progress slowed. By the middle of the day, they had reached Death Bivouac, the final resting place of the German climbers from the year before. But by this point, it was clear to spectators that Willy could not go on. Whatever injury he had suffered during the first day was bad enough to prevent him from continuing.

The four began descending and made good progress down the second ice field by the end of the second day. But the rock face between the first and second ice fields would be much more challenging on the way back down, as Andreas had removed the fixed ropes used on the ascent, and there was no clear route back down the face.

On the third day, a storm rolled in, and clouds and mist obscured the face of the Eigerwand to spectators. Avalanches could be seen tumbling down the mountain, bringing a shower of rocks with them.

When the clouds briefly cleared, onlookers could see the rock face by which they had ascended to the second ice field had been drenched in freezing rain from the night before.

A depiction of what the rocks of the Hinterstoissen Traverse looked like after the storm the night before

It became apparent that with the fixed ropes gone, the climbers could not return by that route. The only way down the mountain was to rappel off a 600-foot cliff face.

Sensing another disaster might be imminent, a mountaineer named Albert Von Almen took the train up to the windows in the Eigerwand tunnel, close to the base of the cliff that the four men were now preparing to descend.

When Von Almen poked his head out of the window of the Eigerwand tunnel, he shouted out for the climbers high above him. To his surprise, he heard four replies. All men appeared to be well, and said they would be down soon. Von Almen set to work preparing a pot of tea, which he hoped would warm the climbers after the brutal ordeal.

Minutes ticked by. After two hours of waiting, Von Almen became increasingly worried. He returned to the window and again shouted for the men. This time, only one voice could be heard: Toni Kurz.

The wind made it hard to hear, but Von Almen gathered two pieces of information: Everyone but Toni was dead, and Toni was stuck dangling in the air hundreds of feet above the train tunnel window, unable to descend any further.

Von Almen immediately phoned Eigergletscher Station in the valley below, telling them to send a rescue party immediately. At the time, the head of the mountain rescue committee ruled that no guides were to be compelled to take part in the rescue mission, given the extreme risk involved. But three guides volunteered and rode the train up to the window in the mountainside.

Image of a doorway leading from the train tunnel out to the face of the Eigerwand

The location of the Eigerwand railway windows on the face of the mountain

Exiting the windows of the Eigerwand tunnel, the guides traversed diagonally upwards on the face towards the base of the cliff from which Toni was hanging. He spoke to them, his voice still strong despite spending three days on the mountain.

The four men had been hit by an avalanche. Hinterstoisser, the strongest climber who had set the rope on the rock face during the ascent, had been swept completely off the mountain face, falling nearly a thousand feet to his death. Willy, Edi and Toni had all been tied together by a single rope, with Toni in the middle. Both Willy and Toni had been swept off. In the fall, the rope had tangled itself around Willy's neck and strangled him. Edi, still at the top of the cliff face and tied to both the fallen men, had been smashed against a rock at the top, fracturing his skull before freezing to death soon after. But his frozen body remained pressed against the rock, saving Toni from certain death.

Toni was alone, and with 300 feet of empty air below and above him, there was no way for the guides to reach him without climbing 600 feet up the crumbling ice between the first and second ice fields. The distance was too far to throw a rope up.

Diagram of Toni's precarious situation

With night having fallen, the guides realized they would likely die attempting to climb the ice face and rescue Toni from above. They promised Toni they would return the next morning for another rescue attempt. Toni shouted to them that he would not make it through the night. Long after they left, they could hear him pleading for help as they descended back to the window in the train tunnel.

When the guides returned the next morning, Toni has 8 inch icicles hanging from his boots. During the night, the wind has ripped off his left mitten. His hand was now frozen completely solid, along with his lower left arm.

It was clear to the guides that there was simply no way to ascend the cliff. With modern equipment, it would have perhaps been possible, but with the mountain climbing equipment of the 1930s there was simply no way to climb a frozen rocky ice face.

The first rescue idea was to throw Toni a rope. They even brought rockets to launch a rope up to him. But this plan failed with all the ropes flying out away from the cliff face into empty air. The second idea was for Toni to lower a small rope, to which they would tie one of the rescue ropes. Toni could then tie that rope to his and descend the rest of the way down. But Toni had no remaining rope to lower. Somehow he needed to make more rope.

The guides could think of one plan that might work, but it relied on Toni having remaining physical strength. They told him to climb as far down as he could, then cut away the dead body of Willy. He would then need to climb back up, tie himself again, and cut the rope just underneath him.

Then, with one frozen arm, he would need to unwind the short section of rope and fasten together the pieces to lower down to the rescue team. This thin rope (not strong enough to hold Toni's weight) would then be used to raise up a stronger rope supplied by the rescue team, which he would need to tie to his own and use to descend.

Over the course of five painstaking hours, Toni worked to make a new rope to lower to the guides. He cut Willy's body from the rope, but it did not fall, as the freezing rain from the night before had frozen it solidly to the cliff. He then climbed up about 25 feet with one working arm and frozen feet, and used his ax to cut a section of rope below him. Then using his teeth and his one good hand, he began to unwind the short section of rope and tied each section together to lower to the guides.

The sun passed its peak in the sky and began to sink slowly into the west. At one point an avalanche thundered down the mountain bringing rocks and snow careening past the guides. The debris unseated Willy's frozen body from the cliff face, and it hurled past the rescue team, tumbling down the mountain into the valley below.

Finally, Toni finished his makeshift guide rope and lowered it to the rescuers. His strength was nearly exhausted. The guides attached a thicker stronger rope to it, along with some climbing supplies in case Toni needed to climb down the cliff face. But even the rescue rope was not long enough, so they tied a second rope to it near the bottom.

Somehow, after four nights of no sleep, exposure to the wind and rain, and with one good arm, Willy managed to slowly haul the rope and gear up over the course of an hour. He then began the slow, torturous descent.

Toni came into view, fifty feet above the guides. Now thirty feet, then twenty. Then suddenly, he came to a halt. The knot the rescuers had tied to attach the second rope to the first was too large to fit through Toni's carabiner. He could not descend further.

Toni's stuck Carabiner

The guides could hear him groaning as he fought to get the knot through.

“Try, lad, try!” the frustrated rescuers cried to encourage the exhausted man. Toni, mumbling to himself, made one more effort with all his remaining strength, but he had little left; his incredible efforts had used it almost all up. His will to live had been keyed to the extreme so long as he was active; now, the downward journey in the safety of the rope-sling had eased the tension. He was nearing his rescuers now; now the battle was nearly over, now there were others close at hand to help….

And now this knot … just a single knot … but it won’t go through…. “Just one more try, pal. It’ll go!”

There was a note of desperation in the guides’ appeal. One last revolt against fate; one last call on the last reserves of strength against this last and only obstacle. Toni bent forwards, trying to use his teeth just once more. His frozen left arm with its useless hand stuck out stiff and helpless from his body. His last reserves were gone. Toni mumbled unintelligibly, his handsome young face dyed purple with frost-bite and exhaustion, his lips just moving. “Was he still trying to say something, or had his spirit already passed over to the beyond?

Then he spoke again, quite clearly. “I’m finished,” he said.

His body tipped forward. The sling, almost within reaching distance of the rescuing guides, hung swinging gently far out over the gulf. The man sitting in it was dead.”1

UKC Articles - The Eiger Nordwand Revealed: Rainer Rettner Interview

What to make of the men who climb

I remember when I first finished hearing this story being simply overwhelmed by it. It was so terrible, with so many chances for things to have gone differently. If only Willy hadn't been hit by falling rocks. If only they had turned back an hour earlier they would have completed the belay an hour earlier and avoided the avalanche. If only Hinterstoisser hadn't removed the fixed ropes. If only one of the guides hadn't dropped the longer rope, there would have been no knot for Toni to get stuck on. If only Toni hadn't dropped his glove in the storm he might have had use of both hands. If only these brave idiots had decided not to make an attempt that season like the other five climbers who left weeks before.

So what do we make of these men, who risk so much for so little? Are these urges to go forth and conquer, to take great risk for little practical benefit, simply evolutionary vestiges of a world now gone? Are they misdirected expressions of an inner urge to distinguish oneself? Are they simply far out on the tail end of the distribution of a trait that in moderation, is actually quite helpful? Do these actions somehow make sense in a way I don't yet understand?

The idea that these climbers don't understand the risk they are taking on doesn't seem to hold water. They understand the danger of climbing these mountains (especially those that haven't been climbed before). Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest climbers of all time, and the first to summit Everest without oxygen, explained that when he climbs, his mind tells him to go back, to not venture forth into the dark, cold and desolate winds. Yet he does.

And I watch, with a mixture of horror, dread, and fascination. Like one of the gawking tourists at Kleine Scheidegg, I watch through my glowing rectangle the pain and the tragedy these men endure to stand on top of a mountain that has already been climbed.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by romeostevensit · 2022-07-03T22:02:21.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Some lead lives of loud desperation.

Replies from: amaury-lorin, Seth Herd
comment by amaury lorin (amaury-lorin) · 2023-07-25T13:55:23.043Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sounds nice [LW · GW] but is it true? Like, that's not an argument, and it's not obvious! I'm flabbergasted it received so many upvotes.
Can someone please explain?

Replies from: romeostevensit
comment by romeostevensit · 2023-07-25T16:23:49.249Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's somewhat an applause light being a paraphrase and extension of a Nick Bostrom quote.

comment by Seth Herd · 2023-12-01T19:26:02.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What? What does this explain? What are these people desperate for?

comment by maia · 2022-07-06T01:07:52.630Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An uncle of mine was a professional mountain climber for years. I vividly remember him telling me a story about when he and his best friend started to slide down an icy mountain and had to pull their ice picks out to drag along behind them. I was waiting to find out how they got out of it, when he said "And that's when my buddy died." It was real life, not just a story.

He mentioned with some regret that he'd never climbed Everest, "but at least I'm alive and still have all my toes."

Replies from: Marion Z.,
comment by Marion Z. · 2022-07-08T03:01:22.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m a casual climber and know a lot of former pros/serious climbers - the death rate is simply staggering. I get that these people just have the drive and can’t imagine not pushing the boundaries even further, but when a single guy can tell me three different stories about watching a fellow climber or paraglider or whatever else they do in the mountains dying in front of him, that sport is too much for me to go further into. I remember reading outdoor magazines about the exploits of the most famous climbers fifteen or twenty years ago, and I look them up now and a solid chunk of them are dead. It’s wild, but there’s something appealing about it in a primal sense.

comment by NoBadCake ( · 2022-08-24T13:59:45.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"started to slide down an icy mountain and had to pull their ice picks out"
Alive and toed was regret well spent, IMO!
Ages ago I spoke with a roofer who told me of a time he was on a steep two story roof and started to slide on some loose shingles.  He quickly took our his straight claw hammer to slam it down into the plywood underneath. As he pounded the roof repeatedly while skidding to the edge he recalled having borrowed another guy's curved claw hammer that day.
He fell but lived to tell the tale!

Great article, thanks for posting!

comment by Raemon · 2022-08-23T16:50:39.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


This post has been sitting in the LessWrong "maybe curate?" list for ~2 months. I'm not quite sure why. It's a pretty random-ass story, that doesn't obviously tie in with central LessWrong themes. But something about it has felt vaguely (hauntingly?) compelling to three different LW team members. Me, Ruby and Ben I think each had somewhat different takes on it.

Ruby's take on the post was "Holy christ, mountain climbers do crazy shit. The human brain has the capacity to end up in a weird state where they pathologically need to get to the top of the biggest mountain, via an actively dangerous route. Geez. Am *I* crazy in some analogous way?"

For me, something I find kinda haunting here is connecting this post to Paul Graham's Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. Sometimes humans get obsessed with things. Sometimes those obsessions matter, and are combined with talent/dedication, such as Newton getting obsessed with physics. Sometimes they don't matter, such as someone obsessed with collecting bus tickets. Or, Newton getting obsessed with Bible codes. Or, mountain climbers getting obsessed with mountain climbing.

There's something vaguely inspiring about this to me, and something kinda horrifying. But one lens I'm looking at this now is something like "humanity periodically gets to have geniuses/visionaries/pioneers. The cost of having the valuable geniuses is amortized over all the different ways that obsessive genius manifests, and this includes mountaineers freezing to death.I... don't know whether this actually is all that useful to know, but something about it strikes me.

Replies from: gwern, ramiro-p
comment by gwern · 2022-08-23T22:25:46.644Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, the striking point is "reality is not a story". Sometimes you just die - game over, no do-over, you lose, I said good day sir! That's the real world, a world beyond the reach of god [LW · GW]. 31 brave experienced prepared climbers set out to climb it and conquer the story... and just plain frigging died (cf maia's comment). You can defy the odds and be mere feet from rescue - and die anyway, because the atoms just weren't right, and there was no way from here to there. That's the real world. You solve the problem or die, and failure is always an option.

Replies from: lc
comment by lc · 2022-08-24T10:24:53.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very respectfully: Can neither you nor Raemon imagine that there are people out there for whom shooting a 1 in 10 shot climbing Big Hill is a good decision? What is it exactly you think they should have done instead? Get an office job? If they hadn't attempted to climb this mountain, they'd still be dead right now anyways and nobody would know or care about who they were. You wouldn't be writing about them and their great grandchildren probably wouldn't even know their names or ten facts about them if their lineages had managed to extend to the present day.

I literally mentally cannot suppress my respect for based mountain man's attempt to scale big hill, just because his final (obviously serious) attempt failed. I realize that to some people it might seem more "Rational" to do so until they actually survive the attempt, yet the affinity tracker inside my brain does not care. My main takeaway from this post is that climbing mountains is based and I wish I were as cool as the people that attempt to climb mountains.

Replies from: Raemon, szoltomi, Benito, Seth Herd
comment by Raemon · 2022-08-25T02:17:22.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be clear, do also see the inspiration/excitement here, and don't think they were necessarily making the wrong call.

My comment here is somewhat downstream of this romeostevens comment [LW(p) · GW(p)]from awhile back:

Seems to me like what happens is that redirection of sex or survival drives get caught up in some sort of stable configuration where they can never be satisfied yet the person doesn't notice that aspect of the loop and thus keeps Doing the Thing far past the time normal people notice. Essentially they've goodharted themselves in a way that creates positive externalities for others.

So, like, I think there's something... off/weird about the way Elon Musk's drives got wired, but, I still think it's overall good to be in a world where some people get that runaway feedback loop. 

comment by szoltomi · 2022-08-24T11:18:17.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, deadly extreme sports are not irrational. They are an uncheatable filter of fitness. Most modern costly signals are often skirted through luck, background or socially toxic behaviour. 

Having hard evidence of one's superiority can be just the thing necessary to live a fulfilling life, instead of being locked in a stagnant cycle of constant doubt. For some, the latter is even worse than death.
I'd wager people suffering from impostor syndrome rarely have anything else under their belt than safe skills. 

Looks like I was wrong, impostor syndrome will still happily present itself in climbers, see gbear's counter. It even looks like it's the other way around: unfulfilled lack of self-worth fueling never-ending pursuit for achievement.

Replies from: gbear605
comment by gbear605 · 2022-08-24T12:44:10.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doing some research, it sounds like imposters syndrome is totally present among mountain climbers. Unless you’ve conquered Everest, there’s always some taller or more dangerous mountain that someone else has done.

See, for instance, this article about a climber feeling imposters syndrome after climbing a difficult cliff, because “I felt like it must not be as hard as people said it was because I was able to do it.” It also quotes a psychologist who works with athletes as saying “Imposter syndrome is very common, very pervasive, ... It’s most common among high achievers. It’s also prevalent in individual sports like cycling, running, swimming, and—you guessed it—climbing.”

There are many other articles on the internet about people who are achieving huge climbing goals but still feeling imposters syndrome. Based on many of those, it seems to me like imposters syndrome is connected to the culture around an activity more than the actual content of the activity.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2023-05-11T00:51:57.355Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always wondered if part of the reason impostor syndrome is so common among high achievers might be because imposter syndrome helps people become high achievers. If you never think you're good enough, you will never be satisfied and will always keep striving to do better. And that's what it really takes to be the best.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2022-08-25T02:57:39.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can neither you nor Raemon imagine that there are people out there for whom shooting a 1 in 10 shot climbing Big Hill is a good decision?

It seems to me just the wrong genre from "good decision". Good decisions are like building new political systems or doing science or navigating existential risks. 31 people who crawled up a mountain and died seems not related to any of the things.

The fearsome part to me is that I am one of these people. They are not that much different from me. My life trajectory will in all likelihood probably make about as much sense looking back on it. 

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2022-09-01T16:47:01.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment seems super weird to me. Do good decisions not also include ‘did a thing that was fun or meaningful to you?’

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2022-09-01T16:52:23.116Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am thinking in the set of "things you will give your entire life to", given that these people dedicated themselves to it, and it killed them.

comment by Seth Herd · 2023-12-01T19:32:49.050Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These are exactly the sort of people I think are not cool. In particular, I'd hate to see them in charge of any project bigger than going out drinking. And even then you'd want to bow out at some point before it got dangerously crazy.

Imagine this personality in charge of a military unit or a business. I think utter destruction would be the likely outcome in both cases.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2023-12-01T21:29:59.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well I know of at least one other famous climber (Nims Purja) who was part of the SBS in the UK military and was quite well respected during his time of service. So I don't think it's universally true that all people willing to take big risks climbing are unsuited for leadership.

Replies from: Seth Herd
comment by Seth Herd · 2023-12-01T23:12:08.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. I do wonder if he ever took the kind of extreme risks in climbing described in this post.

comment by Ramiro P. (ramiro-p) · 2022-08-24T02:05:55.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I'm kinda sure climbers wouldn't like to brain-upload to a utopia simulation, so maybe there's some connection between this and AI alignment.
(Curiously, just read today Will MacAskill's WWOTF mentioning he used to climb buildings in Glasgow in his teens, until he was almost cut open by glass...)

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2022-07-04T20:51:17.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such a fascinating account of human beings, and an intense read, this is one of my personal favorite LessWrong posts of this year. (I wish I had the time to say something more about how it affected me but I am very busy.)

comment by Thomas Kwa (thomas-kwa) · 2022-07-04T00:45:06.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this post, but it's intense and maybe deserves a content warning.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-07-04T03:23:24.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do I do that?

Replies from: thomas-kwa
comment by Thomas Kwa (thomas-kwa) · 2022-07-04T03:28:32.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

click "Edit" then add "Content warning: death" or something to the top of the post.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-07-04T03:32:21.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ahh, I should have guessed. I thought perhaps there might be some way to tag it.

comment by Vika · 2022-08-25T18:46:37.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post resonates with me on a personal level, since my mother was really into mountain climbing in her younger years. She quit after seeing a friend die in front of her (another young woman who broke her neck against an opposing rock face in an unlucky fall). It seems likely I wouldn't be here otherwise. Happy to report that she is still enjoying safer mountain activities 50 years later. 

comment by Mateus Resende (mateus-resende) · 2022-08-24T13:49:51.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a casual climber and despite some people might not believe me, I'm extremely afraid of heights. I don't intend to start doing ice climbing nor to become a professional of some sort, but I'm very motivated to always try something different, a new route, a harder move, a new technique. I completely understand the frustration some folks might have: "why on earth would someone risk their lives for something like this?". I also don't plan to understand how anyone's mind works (the one's who climb nor the one's who don't). 

But to be honest, this is not something I do to prove anything to anyone. It's something I do for myself! When I'm putting myself on a rock, it's like it makes the world completely disappear and the only thing that matters is me and the route I'm taking on that moment. It doesn't matter how my day was, what challenges I'm facing, how my job is, how my personal life is. It clears my mind completely and it's like I have a reset for a couple of minutes. And the feeling you get after reaching the peek of something hard is simply indescribable. It's a constant challenge against yourself and it's an addictive feeling. So my guess is that they are so addicted to this feeling that the moment they see a challenge this big, they only see the reward. Of course they plan for the challenges, but they are only thinking of the satisfaction, happiness, excitement, and energy that achieving this would grant them.

I also feel horror, dread, and fascination when I'm reading stories like this. However, I believe that the fact that they try this with all the hard work and training someone can possibly do during years, is what makes us go forward as a society. This counts for many different areas, if it weren't for the people who risk their lives to achieve something great, we would not be where we are today. I admire them so much and I cannot even think of myself taking on a challenge this big.

comment by Vitor · 2022-07-04T14:52:25.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This story has been adapted into a (relatively faithful) movie:

comment by zeshen · 2022-08-23T20:18:42.637Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Because it's there" - George Mallory in 1923, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. He died in his summit attempt the following year. 

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2022-07-04T06:52:31.793Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting story. Note that you seem to get the names mixed up near the climax.

Replies from: Vanilla_cabs
comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2022-07-04T09:22:18.951Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Finally, willy finished his makeshift guide rope and lowered it to the rescuers.

Finally, Toni finished his makeshift guide rope and lowered it to the rescuers.

comment by philh · 2022-07-10T12:55:41.800Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

31 people died trying to climb this mountain before its first successful ascent. Imagine being climber number 32 and thinking “Well I know this mountain has a 100% fatality rate, but why not, let’s give it a go!”

As a nitpick, this assumes no one survived a failed attempt. From a quick glance at Wikipedia they did, so the fatality rate was less than 100%.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-07-10T20:03:09.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. I've corrected the post with slightly more careful language.

comment by GeneSmith · 2022-07-03T21:01:37.006Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sources: "The Beckoning Silence" 1936 Eiger climbing disaster The white spider (book)

I may have gotten some of the details slightly wrong here, as some of the sources are slightly inconsistent, and the main original source for everyone's accounts ("The White Spider") was written several years after the events of the 1936 attempt.

If you're intersted in more stories like these, I strongly recommend "14 Peaks". It's a documenatary about perhaps the greatest climber of our generation, a Nepalese man named "Nims Purja", and his team of climbers who tried to climb all 14 8000+ meter peaks in a seven months. Before this attempt, the record for climbing all 14 peaks was seven years.

comment by kerspoon · 2022-08-26T11:41:14.119Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a related story of a climber who set out to climb the highest peak in each continent. He succeeded and has some incredible successes and stories along the way but the thing I took from it was that the book is an incredible account of turning around and going home when that's was correct decision.

On the final mountain, after failing to summit twice before, with a film crew, heavily sponsored, and leading a team of experienced climbers, a load of press coverage, after waiting for weeks to get the right weather they get about 200m (600ft) from the summit and ... go home. The man in question decided it was too dangerous to do any more they knew they were miss the weather window for a repeat attempt. No fanfare, no story of success, go home, tell your funders you failed to summit, survive.

I'll try and look up the book later I'm sure I've misremembered some important details and can't remember his name.

comment by MondSemmel · 2022-07-04T10:29:43.373Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


  • a third of the up the mountain -> of the way up
  • Histerstoisser Traverse -> Hinterstoisser
  • Almen immediately phone Eigergletscher Station -> phoned
  • the head of the mountain rescue committee rules that -> ruled that
  • Finally, willy finished his makeshift guide rope -> Toni finished
  • in case Edi needed to climb down the cliff face -> Toni
  • Are these urges to go forth and conquer, to take great risk for little practical benefit simply evolutionary vestiges? -> benefit, simply
  • of a world since the past -> ? (something like: "of a world long gone")
  • Kleine Sheidegg -> Kleine Scheidegg
Replies from: GeneSmith, clearthis, TAG
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-07-04T20:05:50.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. It's a bit embarassing that half the comments on my top-rated post of all time are about typos. I suppose that's what I should expect given I wrote half this story at midnight.

Replies from: MondSemmel, MondSemmel
comment by MondSemmel · 2022-07-05T01:20:17.368Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Incidentally, you might get more (reddit) comments if you crosspost this essay on the r/slatestarcodex subreddit. The interests of LW and SSC have some decent overlap, and it's sometimes easier to get comments on reddit than on LW.

comment by MondSemmel · 2022-07-05T01:14:49.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're welcome :). Anyway, feel free to delete my typo comments once you've read them; it's not like they serve any further purpose in the comment threads once they're fixed.

comment by Tobias H (clearthis) · 2022-07-04T13:57:29.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also: The last name is "Von Almen" not "Almen"

comment by TAG · 2022-07-04T13:57:52.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Repel -> Rapel (or abseil)

Replies from: Hoagy
comment by Hoagy · 2022-07-05T17:45:08.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's actually rappel!, no 'rapel' entry.

comment by MondSemmel · 2022-07-04T10:39:22.116Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What an intense story! Thanks for writing about it.

If you like stories about huge accidents, you might also enjoy this video episode about a plane accident in 1990 where the captain got sucked outside of the cockpit and the co-pilot had to land the plane alone.

comment by Neil (neil-warren) · 2023-08-04T08:59:15.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I rarely read disaster stories, but perhaps I should change course on that (I hear Shackleton’s story is good). This post is useful for me as a reminder that I live beyond the reach of God [LW · GW], in a place that does not wish to see me live. The universe is a ridiculously dangerous booby trap, [LW · GW] an arrangement of energy which seems to want to kill me in every place but in the strongest fortresses that have been built by humans. Just look up at the sky to see how vulnerable we are: above you is 100 kilometers of air or so and that’s it. After the Karman line, by definition, it’s the infinite and hostile expanse of space. (100 kilometers is nothing: it’s 300 Eiffel Towers or so.) There is no strong border because the Karman line is imaginary: all that is protecting you from the vacuum of space is gas particles. Mere air. You live inside a very thin scrap of gas, the membrane of a bubble of air that clings on to the surface of a speck of dust because of the weakest fundamental force. This scrap of gas (which is really where we live, not “Earth”) is not beyond the reach of death either: it is not an Eden and can only go so far in permitting us to live lives unhampered by a universe which very much wants to kill us. (We are statistical anomalies and entropy dislikes us.) People still die, sometimes horrible, morbid deaths on the icy edges of mountains that barely reach the 8% mark of the air-scrap’s surface. Like with a serial killer in a horror movie who can hear you breathing no matter where you hide in the mansion, whose creaking footsteps are painfully slow and obvious, there is nowhere to hide.

Humans often go out by throwing the closet door they were hiding in to the side, running and roaring toward the killer. I’m not sure what to think of it. It probably has something to do with what makes us the species that has the best chance of actually circumventing death (temporarily). Whatever brain-quirk makes Toni Kurz throw himself willingly at the Eigerwand, it’s also responsible for every success we’ve had in consolidating our thin membrane.

comment by MichelJusten · 2022-08-24T05:26:44.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really enjoyed this read! 

comment by sairjy · 2022-07-10T13:54:21.128Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very engaging account of the story, it was a pleasure to read. I often thought about what drive some people to start such dangerous enterprises and my hunch is that, as you said, they are a tail of useful evolutionary traits: some hunters, or maybe even an entire population, had a higher fitness because they took greater risks. From an utilitarian perspective it might be a waste of human potential for a climber to die, but for every extreme climber there is maybe an astronaut, a war doctor or a war journalist, a soldier and so on.

comment by Phil Tanny · 2022-09-02T12:36:41.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first photo was incredible, amazing!  Thanks for sharing that.

So what do we make of these men, who risk so much for so little?

Macho madness.  Youtube and Facebook is full of it these days, and it truly pains me to watch young people with so much ahead of them risk everything in exchange for a few minutes of social media fame.  

But, you know, it's not just young people, it's close to everybody.   Here's an experiment to demonstrate.  The next time you're on the Interstate count how many people NASCAR drafting tailgate you at 75mph.   Risking everything, in exchange for nothing.

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-09-04T03:10:46.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people posting on social media have much more of an incentive to act crazy for fame than mountain climbers. Very few of these climbers became famous.

comment by Sting · 2023-11-30T03:10:25.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One last typo:

"Hinterstoisser fell 37 meters down the mountain face" -> "Willy fell"

Replies from: GeneSmith
comment by GeneSmith · 2023-11-30T04:08:51.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that’s actually correct. It’s what the Wikipedia article says.

Replies from: Sting
comment by Sting · 2023-12-01T19:01:15.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looks like you are right. I was confused because two paragraphs after the fall Willy is described as injured with no explanation how. And the phrase "apparently uninjured" seemed to foreshadow that whoever fell was injured after all.

[Wikipedia]( [explains]( what happened:

"During the ascent, [Willy] Angerer was injured by falling rocks loosened by the warmth of the rising sun as they crossed the first ice field."

"A rock fall injured [Willy] Angerer in the head on 20 July 1936, forcing them to descend."

comment by RomanS · 2022-08-24T07:20:34.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quite a read, thanks! 

But, at the risk of being the Captain Obvious, I must remind the readers that mountain climbing is stupid. At least until we have reliable mind uploading tech. Because, as the story illustrates, there is a very high risk of permadeath, and for no good reason. 

In many readers, even the tragic stories like this trigger the deeply rooted desire for adventure, the desire for bravely risking your life to achieve greatness. But:

  •  Mountaineering is a rather banal adventure. You're climbing a rock. It's not even the most interesting man-vs-nature adventure. 
  • These days, there is zero greatness in mountaineering. There is no greatness in being the 5001th man who climbed Everest, not to mention less important rocks. 
  • There are much more noble and altruistic ways to risk your life.

Compare: drinking gasoline to impress TikTok followers.

Replies from: GeneSmith, ethanmorse
comment by GeneSmith · 2022-08-26T21:43:39.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Having read quite a few of these stories now, I don't think "aspiring for greatness" is what really drives most of these people. It's clearly a motivating factor for some, like Nims Purja, who remortgaged his house and quit his lucrative job in the British Special Forces just to be the first guy to summit all fourteen 8000 meter peaks in one year. He explicitly talked about the importance of having the "first all-Nepalese team" be the ones to do this, and about "wanting to show people what is possible".

But most climbers aren't like that. Sure the best ones have sponsorships and social media. But my impression is they mostly do that to financially support themselves so they can continue doing what they love.

I still don't completely understand why they do it, but my impression is they really do view climbing as a grand and terrifying adventure, and one they can't really get anywhere else besides the mountains. I also think a lot of them enjoy the experience of being completely and utterly focused on the moment-to-moment experience of climbing. The "flow state" of climbing, if you will.

Is it irrational? It seems that way to me. But humans execute strategies that have been rewarding in the past, and in these weird adventurous types, climbing mountains seems to generate positive rewards so strong that it overwhelms all these other considerations.

comment by ethanmorse · 2022-10-15T16:43:52.045Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect you don't know much about mountaineering based on your comments:

  • "Mountaineering is a rather banal adventure" - have you ever climbed a mountain? If so, how dangerous was it? I doubt those that have climbed K2 consider it banal.

  • "zero greatness in mountaineering" - there are still unclimbed peaks and new routes to already-summited peaks.

  • "noble and altruistic ways to risk your life" - some people don't care about nobility or altruism the way LW users do.

Replies from: RomanS
comment by RomanS · 2022-10-16T15:12:41.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Mountaineering is a rather banal adventure" - have you ever climbed a mountain? If so, how dangerous was it? I doubt those that have climbed K2 consider it banal.

Danger and banality are not opposite. E.g. speeding on the road is both banal and dangerous. Same for climbing K2. Sure, you get some animalistic pleasures: adrenaline, nice views, some respect from similarly wrong people. But that's it.

"zero greatness in mountaineering" - there are still unclimbed peaks and new routes to already-summited peaks.

I don't see how climbing a moderately big rock is a path to greatness. 

"noble and altruistic ways to risk your life" - some people don't care about nobility or altruism the way LW users do.

Well, they're both wrong and are bad people. 

Especially if they know that there are alternatives like donating for anti-mosquito nets, and yet they still decide to waste resources on mountaineering.

Replies from: ethanmorse, lc
comment by ethanmorse · 2022-10-16T22:15:37.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm starting to think you're trolling.

  • Views and challenges are unique for each mountain, hence not banal by definition.
  • How do you define greatness? Would climbing something that no one else has ever climbed before, despite being attempted multiple times by professionals, fall under your definition?
  • I find your "still decide to waste resources" argument poor. Where does the logic end? Should people have zero fun and live like beggars just to donate every last cent to fighting malaria? Why are you commenting on LessWrong when you could be out doing something altruistic?
Replies from: RomanS
comment by RomanS · 2022-10-17T08:08:44.642Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you define greatness? Would climbing something that no one else has ever climbed before, despite being attempted multiple times by professionals, fall under your definition?

Not sure if there is any greatness in climbing rocks at all. 

Compare: finishing an unusually large pizza. It is dangerous, no one ever ate such a large pizza before, there is a lot of joy in eating a good pizza, and maybe your name will be mentioned in Wikipedia. But the feat is so pointless and banal, there is not greatness in it at all. 

I find your "still decide to waste resources" argument poor. Where does the logic end? Should people have zero fun and live like beggars just to donate every last cent to fighting malaria? Why are you commenting on LessWrong when you could be out doing something altruistic?

Fair enough. I myself not sure where it should end. But some things are clear indicators of not caring enough for fellow humans. For example, installing a toilet made of pure gold, or spending 20k for being the 5000th person to climb Everest. 

comment by lc · 2022-10-16T18:08:17.156Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Someone here do this template but for pseudorational mountain climbing criticism

Replies from: RomanS
comment by RomanS · 2022-10-17T08:13:28.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have nothing against having fun. But there is a moral difference between having fun playing video games, and having fun spending the (money equivalent of 100 saved lives) to climb Everest.

Replies from: lc, Ansel
comment by lc · 2022-10-17T16:49:36.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mountain climbing isn't that expensive, but if consuming large amounts of money on non-EA activities was your real gripe, you would be complaining about the nigh infinite number of things people with disposable incomes of above 50k/y spend their money and time on in general, and not obviously be specifically opposed to mountain climbing. It's not so you're not.

comment by Ansel · 2022-10-17T14:56:42.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like you've retreated fully from your bailey: 

"at the risk of being the Captain Obvious, I must remind the readers that mountain climbing is stupid"

to your motte: 

"There is no greatness in being the 5001th man who climbed Everest"

I suspect most people responding take greater issue with the former position, so maybe if you still stand by it you could defend that one. 
To me, it seems like the standard of "if it increases your chances of dying, it's a stupid recreational activity" is one that is unlikely to be applied evenly by just about anyone.

E.G., if you want to apply that consistently, you should probably have a very restrictive diet, and definitely not play video games for moderate to long periods of time (risk of death from blood clots, sedentariness, etc)