On The Digital Dilemma – Accuracy at Altitude

Photo by David J. Swift

Alpinist Magazine editor Katie Ives sat on one of the many panel discussions during the 2011 Banff Mountain Film Festival. In a rousing discussion moderated by University of Calgary mountain literature specialist, Harry Vandervlist she and fellow panelists Anthony Whittome, Freddie Wilkinson, Dr. George Rodway, and David Roberts explored the role electronic media plays in reporting the great ascents of climbers throughout the world. Called The Digital Dilemma –Accuracy at Altitude, the panel explored how modern technology helps to overcome but sometimes contributes to a false accounting of the facts under circumstances where human perception can be compromised.

With the ability to post expedition details instantaneously to the Internet via satellite, alpine men and women can update their online followers, including journalists, within moments of reaching a distant summit or safely returning to base camp. But in this environment where altitude and exhaustion can cause extreme disorientation it begs the question as to whether or not these reports can be deemed reliable. And in the interests of accuracy there is likely a case to be made for a slower, more traditional approach to storytelling in the hopes of keeping the record straight.

In her comments Ives’, a writer and editor, delivered a well-informed, thoughtful essay on how mountain reporting could benefit from old-fashioned journalism conveyed with serious deliberation as painstaking as the climbs themselves. With Ives’ permission her story is published here to continue the discussion and perhaps raise a few more points of interest. ~JEM


The Footsteps on Mt. Hayes

In the spring of 2011, a team of British alpinists had a high-tech website with bright images of a dark-blue sky and sharp-white ridges. They had a satellite tracking system intended to keep viewers informed of their location in “real time,” on they thought would be the first ascent of the West Ridge of Alaska’s Mt. Hayes. The only problem is that, unbeknownst to them, their objective had already been climbed—thirty-three years before.

The original West Ridge climbers had deliberately avoided any media attention. Nonetheless, the American Alpine Journal contained at least one oblique clue to their existence. Richard Ellsworth’s brief report of a 1978 alpine-style ascent on the Southwest Face of Mt. Hayes concluded with a mysterious reference: “We descended the West Ridge, following in the steps of two friends, who had made their ascent two days prior.”

Alaskan climbing writer Jeff Benowitz learned of the British team’s plans, and he told them about the footsteps that had been recorded decades earlier in the snow. The Brits chose another route, but they added a good-natured comment to their trip report about locals who preferred to “keep ascents to themselves, allowing others the pleasure of the ‘second first ascent,’ a good way of keeping the adventure true!”

I later tracked down one of the anonymous 1978 climbers. When I emailed him to confirm what I’d learned about his unpublicized first ascent, he responded, “There are many footsteps on Mt. Hayes.”

That statement has resonated in my mind ever since. To me, it’s an emblem of all the traces of untold or incomplete stories—those ghosts and fragments that haunt the written chronicles of mountaineering. And it’s also a sign of the limits of what we can ever fully know about the present and the past.

Glossy magazines, popular websites and classic books comprise merely one layer of the countless events that make up the immeasurable whole of written and unwritten climbing history. Beneath that surface, there are untranslated expedition accounts that haven’t spread beyond the borders of the writers’ own countries. There are the lives of scarcely known women like the late Zorka Prachtelová, who accomplished some of the hardest female rock climbs of the 1960s and early ’70s in Eastern Europe and who then faded almost entirely from view, marginalized because of Cold War politics. There are the tales of great alpinists like Charlie Porter who refused to publish details of his groundbreaking 1976 solo ascent of the Cassin Ridge. There is the underground lore of climbers in parts of Alaska and the American desert who have kept their exploits largely secret.

And deeper still, there is that silence at the heart of climbing—the original experience itself, which at its most profound moments eludes all words, printed or unprinted, spoken or written—and which can never be fully replicated. As the Slovenian alpinist Marko Prezelj once wrote, “The essence of a climb burns out in the moment of experience. The core of an alpinist’s pursuit will always lie in ashes.”


And yet, those of us who are writers, and who chose to tell stories about alpinism, must work to uncover at least something from these ashes—searching for those vestiges that have an urgent beauty and an ethos of their own, and trying to reflect a vision of the faded experiences behind them, one that might flash within our readers’ minds, if only as the afterglow of a dying coal.

At first glance, it seems as if the digital world should give us more material to reconstruct a more accurate vision. The Web appears to represent a raw, unedited polyphony of voices reporting in so-called “real time” from the wilderness. But as the Canadian climber Michael Down points out,  “The digitized discourse is more complete, but it can also seem more inaccessible—with so much noise, so much chatter, reams of it, layers and layers.” The American philosopher and mountain guide Jack Turner compares the innumerable narratives of modern climbing to the sounds of birds in a rainforest, “with all the multiple amplitudes, pitches and volumes,” sometimes interfering with each other.

Within this chaos of information, the most insistent, the fastest and the loudest voices are frequently the only ones that people hear. Often, the Internet fosters a kind of media environment that promotes whatever news can be most easily forwarded, in which the most familiar and “extreme” qualities have been heightened for easy recognition. Linked and reposted across the Web, replicated and reshaped into second-hand newsflashes and editorials—misleading or even inaccurate reports can become so ubiquitous that they solidify into entire worlds of seeming fact.

All too soon, before there’s time to think critically, a flood of new images surges through the Web, diluting the memory of the last. Entranced by bursts of bright pixels and loud sound bites, audiences sometimes forget that this proliferation of rapid news may be only—what Dougald MacDonald, and what other journalists have called—“the first draft of history.” By the time the corrections appear in the footnotes and in the comments section of one Web page, readers have already, swiftly, moved on to the next.


We live in an age that has become enthralled with the shrinking of distance and time. Many climbers now announce the news of their ascents as soon as they reach the summit. But, as the filmmaker Cory Richards argues, “‘real time’ or ‘almost real time’ is just a concept; it doesn’t erase the possibility of editing moments into an effective sequence, conveying whatever message you want…. The Internet merely shortens the temporal gap between the experience and the portrayal.”

Racing to publication, as any editor knows, rarely results in greater accuracy. There’s a danger, too, of leaving something else behind—a quality of awareness that only has space to grow during longer intervals of unmediated and unconnected time, a way of purely being in the natural world. When Royal Robbins went to solo Yosemite’s Leaning Tower in 1963, he initially told his plans to no one except his future wife. After a blizzard continued for days, Liz Burkner asked Jack Turner to check on Royal. Turner recalls hiking toward the base of the wall until he could finally see a distant spot through his binoculars. “Only the powder blue of Royal’s jacket and the rope” were visible, he says. “It was as though he were hanging from a cloud. The rock was so overhanging that the snow was falling without touching him.” Turner watched him for a while, “enchanted.” It was as if all that existed was a climber, the rock and the snow.

“What you pay attention to,” Turner concludes today, “is what you experience and what you experience becomes your life; when you’re climbing in the way that Royal was, you’re paying attention to exactly what’s happening right here now. Nothing else. That purity of attention begins to be diluted as soon as you start worrying about other things, by the time you’re worrying about whether or not your logo is being seen, it’s a totally different experience…. There’s an absence of translation.”

For now, those moments of existential quiet and almost cosmic aloneness are more difficult to find. Social media encourages even private individuals to promote themselves like brands. Adventures turn into media product before they can fully unfold. Instead of mysteries, mountains become updates and messages. “Authenticity” can become, as a recent New York Times article stated, merely an advertising catchword. Our society risks losing all recollection of what the word actually meant—as if, one day, it might only signify a commodified nostalgia for a vanished past.


In a book called Slowness, Milan Kundera wrote: “Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man…. Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?… The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

I think it’s essential for us to pause in the midst of this incessant flow of information. And to think about what kind of record of our era, what quality of memory, we want to leave for the future. We need a slower approach to the Internet—one that would encompass more of the traditional values of print and that would preserve a sense of the mountains as a place apart. One that would leave time for research and reflection, and space for the silences of the unrecorded and the inexpressible. One that would support journalists who try to weave together stories of historical and personal significance that will last beyond all this ephemera—and who strive to remind their audiences of what it’s like to be wholly immersed and focused in the living world.

As the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender itself to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.”

It takes time to notice faint traces like those footsteps on Mt. Hayes, to look beyond the eye-catching messages of marketing and hype, to see something more nuanced than the hasty judgments of stock media responses, and to craft something with more immanent, human value out of the layers of tellings and retellings that accumulate, gradually and softly—over many days—like ashes and like snow.

But modern storytellers have an urgent task to catch some fragments of quieter tales before they fall completely out of recorded history. For such slower climbing stories recall to us the enchantment of silence, distance, solitude and wildness. And they speak for the enduring, inner worth of mystery, of creation and of memory.

[This speech, delivered during a panel discussion at the Banff Mountain Book Festival, was loosely adapted from an article the author published in Alpinist 35. See http://www.alpinist.com/doc/ALP35/9-the-sharp-end.—Ed.]


The Joy Trip Project Adventure Media Review is made possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia and The Walton Works

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.