I always knew they were crazy people

Not that it’s a bad thing.

I was browsing Bob McKerrow’s weblog this morning, which is typically fascinating reading, and he’s pointed out a 2005 study by Erik Monasterio, a psychiatrist, who suggests that over a four year period, 8.2% of experienced New Zealand mountain climbers might have suffered fatal accidents — that’s a mortality rate of around 1 in 12 in four years. Bob has also noted, through several quotes, that New Zealand mountains can be exceptionally dangerous due to their proximity to marine weather patterns, but are often underestimated due to their low altitudes when compared with mountains overseas.

The details of Erik Monasterio’s study were published in the New Zealand Medical Journal some time ago, and although it was intended to collect psychological characteristics of climbers, it also produced interesting (albeit very preliminary) results about accidents.

The study involved a survey of 49 experienced New Zealand climbers. Between them, there had already been 16 moderate accidents and 10 severe accidents (the latter meaning hospital for three months or more). When the original survey was followed up four years later, seven had retired from climbing and a further four of the respondents had died in climbing accidents — two of whom were qualified mountain guides and all of whom had been climbing for at least five years. Two of these deaths were avalanche-related, and two died as a consequence of falls. Two more had had moderate accidents involving hospital admissions for between a week and three months.

The author correctly notes that the data is crude in several ways as well as likely to be biased, and more detailed and carefully collected data from larger studies would be very interesting to see, but 8.2% of experienced New Zealand climbers dying over four years is still a huge proportion compared with what I personally expected it would be.

Last year we had a tramping club talk from Lee Davidson, who spoke about her PhD topic of investigating the types of people who take up mountaineering as a sport. I joked about it during my report about climbing Mt Travers (technically very tame compared with what serious climbers do), but it’s true that these people who climb seriously are in a different category to be so devoted to a pastime that has such a high level of risk, and which routinely claims lives of people who are considered experts among their peers.

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