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Why The Sport Of Mountain Climbing Is Heading Downhill

People these days demand trails that are easily mappable online, and don't want to have to wait for optimal conditions. No time left in modern life for venturing into the unknown?

Going down from here?
Going down from here?
Stéphane Herzog

GENEVA — Mountaineering can be a slow pursuit, one that requires hours of planning, maybe even weeks of waiting for just the right weather conditions to finally scale that long-coveted peak. Perhaps that basic requisite of patience is the reason the classic outdoor activity is gradually losing ground to faster, less time-consuming alternatives such as trail running or mountain biking.

Bernard Wietlisbach, a well-known outdoorsman in Geneva and head of the Cactus Sports store, has been observing these changes since 1986, when he founded his small business in a garage. "The shift is societal," he says. "We want everything right away. People aren't prepared to wait for good conditions to set off. A kind of laziness has appeared, a refusal of uncertainty and the possibility of failure."

The idea of climbing a path without a precise plan is considered crazy these days. "If there's no information about the path, if there's a lack of information on the website, it's as if it doesn't exist," he says.

Wietlisbach has no doubt that the number of committed mountaineers has dropped. But he believes there has been an increase in the number of one-off climbers. "A large part of the equipment we sell here is used to climb Mont Blanc, or some other 4,000-meter peak, only once," says Wietlisbach, who is famous among other things for scaling the Grandes Jorasses, a 4,208-meter mountain along the French/Italian border. He thinks there are also more people taking to the trails on skis or snowshoes.

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The Grandes Jorasses — Photo: Didier Baertschiger

On Camptocamp (C2C), an international, Swiss-founded mountain website that has more than 44,000 users, we asked about the decline of mountain climbing. Though it's an historically male sport, a woman was the first to answer. Violette Bruyneel, a French physiotherapist, has been mountaineering since the age of 10. "Today, mountain climbers like a good ratio between the approach hike and technical difficulties," she says. "They fear uncertainty and challenging conditions more than they used to."

Most mountain climbers aim for "quiet sites in terms of security, but also perfect weather and, preferably, a nice refuge that offers local weather conditions online," Bruyneel adds. She says there's a good deal of male chauvinism within the mountaineering culture. "I've stopped counting the times when, while leading a roped party, I received nasty comments or was confronted with men who wanted to explain to me techniques I already knew."

Other perceptions of danger

Dad's mountain climbing may be something of a relic. "My uncles did really involved things in the 1950s with a rope around the waist and a bottle of red wine in their bag, and they didn't consider themselves mountain climbers, or even hikers," another user says. "They just went for a walk in the mountains."

The perception or the acceptance of danger seems also to have changed. "But, done carefully and correctly, this sport requires accepting a certain amount of risk," the same user says. "As a result, its practice is decreasing, as is the way people perceive time: because reaching an equipped climbing cliff, located 15 minutes away from the car park, where you also have a 4G Internet connection, is more in tune with our time."

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High altitude selfie — Photo: Didrik Johnck

Speaking about his taste for cross-country skiing and ice cascade climbing, another enthusiast notes that "these activities can only be done by the day, even by half the day, in nice sceneries and with rather fewer risks than in mountain climbing." In its adventurous version, this sport involves both technical and moral difficulties. "The objective risks of mountains — crevasses, falling ice or rocks — are more significant than in sport climbing," the mountaineer says. Other potential obstacles are the physical fitness and acclimatization that are necessary to complete major runs, which can last 10 to 15 hours. "Mountain climbing of a certain level requires experience, material and lots of availability to handle the hazards linked to weather," another C2C member adds.

The influence of climate

Then there are the effects of global warming. For instance, on the Sea of Ice glacier on Mont Blanc, the ladder descent towards the glacier has changed completely over the course of 20 years, with a strong impact on the access time. Everywhere, itineraries are being changed, extending or complicating trips. And the melting permafrost is leading to more falling rocks. These changes in the Alpine region are also pushing mountaineers to make runs earlier in the season, even in winter, to make the most of optimal frozen or snow conditions.

"Diminishing glaciers, darkening rock walls, rock slides, all this is happening in the space of one generation," another climber writes.

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