A reflection on risk.
Once upon the side of a Himalayan mountain, when digital watches were the latest cool accessory and mobile phones were science fiction, three ambitious young mountaineers tilted their heads backwards and gawped at the fearsome ridge towering above them. They were the first people to set foot on it. The ridge was unclimbed and unknown, and if they were successful in climbing it, their achievement would be hailed as a great ascent of its time.
The lower slopes of Annapurna III
After three days of climbing up soft snow and shattered rock, the young men reached the start of the main difficulties where they left a stash of supplies at 5800m. Then they descended, returning to base camp for a few days' rest before their summit attempt.
Each of them had their own private contemplations. One of them, the leader, was eager to get to grips with the climb, seemingly oblivious to its dangers, his focus unwavering.
The unclimbed ridge
In contrast, the youngest team member was overawed by the scale of the objective: its obvious difficulty, its extreme commitment, and the real possibility of obliteration. When he looked up the ridge, he understood that he’d overreached.
The mind of the third climber hovered between these two extremes, happy to go with the flow, whether fearlessly upwards or submissively down. For him, just being there was enough.
The three climbers shared the same objective but brought different mindsets that would ultimately determine the expedition’s outcome.
Sensing his forthcoming doom, the youngest climber didn’t go back up. The leader and the more faithful of his teammates set off, leaving the youngster alone with his premonition of death and an earnest hope, for their sakes, that he was wrong. Either way, he never found out, for they returned a week later having reached a point beyond which there would have been no return without summit success.
Yet, in a way they did succeed. They found the line and paved the way for future attempts. It drew the attention of some of the world’s best climbers including, in 2016, a team of athletes sponsored by Red Bull. But for forty years after its first attempt, no one went further than Tim Leach and Nick Colton’s 1981 highpoint where the point of no return was clear for all to see and back away from.
Nick Colton (standing) Tim Leach (L) and Steve Bell.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if my mindset had been different and I’d gone back up with Tim and Nick. Sometimes I wish I had. I can imagine the thrill of venturing into the great unknown, of teetering on the tipping point of my existence; of finding, up there in that inaccessible and unvisited abode of the gods, an answer to the question of why we take risks. Perhaps we would have succeeded. But I doubt it.
I’m glad I didn’t go up, for if I did, all three of us would probably still be there. Perhaps three Ukrainians would have found us, when, in November 2021, they made the first ascent of the southeast ridge of Annapurna III.
Risk-taking with Tim forty-one years later.
Last week Tim Leach dropped in from the UK. We swung the lamp over our teenage ascents of Alpine north faces — the Matterhorn, the Dru, and the Walker Spur — memories made fonder by wine from here and whisky from a place where we used to climb. We also talked about what happened in 1981.
Since then, we’d both been married twice, had children, and had burned up the bulk of our lives. As might be expected for a couple of aging survivors, we talked about our different attitudes to risk-taking.
There are active risks, such as mountaineering, and there are passive risks, such as drinking too much wine. Who would want a life without risk? Risk is to be embraced. We’re wired for it. The trick is, to see the point of no return before it recedes into the distance behind us.