100 Peaks #18: Dome Peak and Perceived Risk

Before I’d ever thought about climbing Dome Peak, the only time I’d ever heard it mentioned was in the stories my friend Chelise told me about this rescue on a Mountaineers trip that took place there. I knew it was pretty far from any road, which is why the incident, in which an ice climber slid down a steep slope into a crevasse, was especially scary. Also, the “remoteness” is perhaps why I didn’t hear much about it, as it isn’t as popular as other basic climbs. And with such a frankly uninspiring name, I wasn’t immediately interested in it, either.

The story of the rescue scared me more than some, not because of the crevasse, but because losing control on steep snow or ice is probably what I fear most. As I have started talking to people about mountaineering, it seems clear that no one is naturally rational, that no one is actually equally afraid of or averse to all equally dangerous things. A classic example cited by climbers trying to comfort their family members is that sport climbing is probably less likely to result in a death than driving to work for a few months, but many people consider it “too dangerous.”

Even though mountaineering is frequently more dangerous than driving (by hour, or by practicioner), not every risk is the same, and it takes a lot of effort to overcome biases in evaluating them. Personally, it took me a really long time to be okay with walking downhill even on rather safe steep snow slopes, but I’ve been stupidly scrambling up class 4-5 rock without hesitating since I was a child. On the other hand, despite my usual lack of fear on low fifth-class terrain, I get scared sometimes on harder but well-bolted routes, where a fall wouldn’t really matter. Worst of all, on my first trad leads, since I am paradoxically more comfortable scrambling than “actually climbing,” it was sometimes tempting to run the shit out of everything. Moving quickly and not falling feels familiar, but finding a good stance gives me time to get the fear shakes. I see these paradoxes in everyone I know– to me it may seem weird that someone is unwilling to travel unroped on a late-season, unspicy glacier but doesn’t wear a helmet in rockfall areas. But then I remember that I am just as bad at being logical. For this reason, both sympathy and clarity are necessary when going on a trip with a group. Sometimes risks aren’t easily quantifiable, and it is guaranteed everyone is going to feel differently about them. Though there are some proven best practices, until more study is done it is often pointless to argue over absolute right and wrong regarding relative risks.

How well-founded are all of these specific fears? Well, based on this wonderful visualization of accident statistics by Steph Abegg, it turns out my intuition is definitely not doing me a favor as falling on rock is far and away the leading cause of mountaineering accidents (40%). It is, however, notable that being more afraid of rockfall than crevasses is reasonable, since rockfall accounts for around 7% of accidents. More visible, dramatic dangers, such as avalanches (3%) and crevasse falls (2%) are definitely more frequently talked about. To me, it seems that avoiding rockfall and just protecting your climbs well is worth more attention, while maybe people frequently spend a lot of that time preparing more than adequately for unlikely events such as avalanches. That’s not to say you shouldn’t know about them– especially if you backcountry ski. But it makes sense that people are afraid of climbing very steep things and of avalanches, because these things are visceral. It can be hard to remember that rockfall (or another unsexy danger, rappelling errors, at 3%) is a major concern, unless of course you visit a volcano in the fall and hear the continuous, ominous rumbling.

This is all best taken with a grain of salt, of course, because currently little data is available based on the hours of exposure. Maybe Mountaineers just spend more time on rock than snow, hence the larger number of accidents? Maybe we can’t know. This is further complicated by the fact that every person and trip is so different. Of course, just because avalanches account for so few accidents, that doesn’t mean that if you go out on a high danger day in steep terrain that you aren’t likely to encounter one.

When we started out on our trip to Dome Peak, we walked along the rolling hills of an established but infrequently-used trail for a while, then we began “bushwhacking.” Though it wasn’t too bad as far as bushwhacking goes, this part of the approach is what probably keeps Dome off many people’s lists of “RAD MEGA CLASSIC MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB.” There was definitely something resembling a climber’s trail, and we found it most of the time. Sometimes, the brush was very deep, and I would look back over my shoulder to see rustling plants instead of Kincaid.

The remoteness of this trip obviously adds some amount of danger to any hazards, but from the rescue story it is clear that accidents on the glacier could frequently still be accessed by helicopter. And the ascent would involve no class 5 climbing (arguable) and only a simple glacier crossing (again, arguable). And the weather was good.

It is impossible to tell how those risks balance out to compare to general mountaineering accident statistics, but if I had told my mom the drive was more dangerous than the climb, would I have been right? Even for a trip to climb a few routes at the local crag, not actually! Driving all the way across the country is the same approximate risk as a few rock climbs. While these statistics are for all types of climbing cumulatively, it’s likely that they are closer to the risk for cragging since far more hours are spent that way than on remote alpine climbs. However, it is worth noting that if you consider a climbing day to consist of 6 “climbs” (3 micromorts each), a person who commutes 30 miles each way would accumulate the same amount of risk commuting for about 2 months. A wine drinker would also accumulate equivalent risk over however long it takes them to drink 10 liters of wine (2 micromorts per liter). So the point remains that “regular people” make choices that are just as risky as rock climbing all of the time, and parents should probably let their adult children clip those bolts in peace. On the other hand, climbing the Matterhorn is nearly 1000 times more dangerous than a single rock climb. And an Everest attempt is more than 10 times more dangerous than that. But climbing above 7000m is known to be far more dangerous than other mountaineering endeavors, and even the Matterhorn’s statistics are probably not representative of our climb. Our trip to Dome Peak probably involved more experienced climbers than the average person attempting the Matterhorn, possibly fewer of some types of objective dangers, but increased risk due to remoteness and routefinding challenges. As a trip it was almost definitely far less risky than the average Matterhorn attempt, but it is impossible to say how much. This report acknowledges that calling climbing “high-risk” is an oversimplified view, and that a standardized metric for risk would need to be developed, but that realistically it is reasonable to compare it to other recreational activities.

After hiking from 4pm to dusk, we camped at the lake and woke up next to a beautiful frozen lake after sunrise. After coffee we went around the lake and started climbing a snow field. We passed an impressive field of recent icefall, including some chunks larger than all of us put together. We discussed how to tell exactly when it fell, but of course did not linger long.

When we got to the glacier, we all asked if anyone wanted to rope up for it. “It looks chill,” someone said, and all three of us seemed to think setting up a rope team was more trouble than it was worth. Maybe many people would make a different decision, but we had a rope and plenty of time, so I don’t think anyone felt any pressure or was uncomfortable with the choice. This is a very real concern, as team dynamics account for much of the irrationality mentioned above, especially when people give in to majority opinion.

We made our way quickly up the glacier and stopped at a little rocky saddle. We still hadn’t seen anyone all day. After the saddle, we went around to the other side of the peak and climbed a short rock scramble. I was in front, and the last few moves, an exposed traverse from one end of the summit block to another very slightly higher end, were especially fun. I’ve always enjoyed the freedom and focus I feel making careful moves on a short exposed section, like walking in the sky.

Once I got to the true summit, I looked back and saw Westy and Kincaid getting out the rope to protect the dangerous part of the scramble. I hadn’t even realized they hadn’t followed me, and maybe I should have been communicating better. I waved to them. We had brought a tiny rack after reading online that some people liked to protect the scramble, and Westy went first and found a couple of placements.

Scrambling can be weird to plan for, as anyone who has tried to use Mountain Project knows. For the uninitiated, “class 3” is something along the lines of “difficult hiking on rocks, but you don’t need rope,” and “class 5” is what most people refer to as rock climbing. I read something once along the lines of “there are only two types of class 4 terrain: terrain you don’t want to feel like a wuss for roping up for, and terrain you don’t want to admit you should have probably brought a rope for.” To me, advice on the internet seems close to meaningless in this area, as I have climbed what somebody considered low fifth class terrain without even thinking about it, but other people will call things I found alarming “definitely class 3.” Calling technical terrain class 4 feels like a dick-measuring contest on Mountain Project at times. And this is a great example of a type of risk where personal experiences come into play. In addition to team decisions, scrambling and other tricky unprotected travel is a place where you can easily tell that past trauma, or a lack thereof, influences the decisions people make.

On the way down, I ran gleefully down the slopes as they glissaded. We saw a group headed toward Sinister, a nearby peak, and passed a group doing the Ptarmigan Traverse, a popular long trek in the area. We got back to camp just before dark. Then we began the bushwhack down, and as the plants scraped against my legs I was reminded of my biggest failure to evaluate hazards: wearing shorts and no sunscreen.

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