Law student and rock climber Aidan Howes, makes the case for maintaining the status of unregulated climbing in Australia, despite calls for its regulatory overhaul and the continued intrusion of nanny-state mentalities.

2009 is a year marred in the minds of Australian climbers after the tragic death of Nick Kaczorowski. The 24-year-old outdoorsman fell an estimated 80 metres on a Blue Mountains multi-pitch route after a wall bolt ruptured, prompting a chain of devastatingly harmonised events that culminated in his rope breaking.

Calls For Regulation

Naturally, a public response ensued, which called for the regulatory overhaul of a sport seemingly as wild and untamed as the bush itself. How could a dutiful society sit back and leave its citizens at the mercy of slivers of steel a couple of inches long, driven into remote rocky walls by unappointed volunteers with no guaranteed expertise?

Suggestions were raised that the National Park authorities assume oversight of bolt fixtures. Others considered heaping greater legal scrutiny onto the individuals who install climbing fixtures, establishing a basis of liability in the event that one was to fail.

After all, one cannot rule out that initiatives like these might have prevented the death of Kaczorowski, or at least brought some responsible party to justice.

But at a time of ever encroaching surveillance and supervision, our society needs these strongholds of independence more than ever; opportunities to take responsibility for our lives, even in the most acute sense of the word, and remember what it is to do something exceptional on our own terms.

Aidan Howes rock climbing putting your life on a line

Photograph of Primo Levi, 1986, Image: Silvio Ortona

Primo Levi, born in Italy in 1919, led a remarkable life as a Holocaust survivor turned writer, chemist and hiker. In one piece he describes the stoic nature of a number of mountaineers resting overnight in an alpine hut, and captures this idea of freedom beautifully, where he speaks of the want:

‘to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head’

His words beg the question, how often is it that we find ourselves reliant on none other than ourselves?

At this point, I should emphasise that I am not generally anti-regulation, nor is this some libertarian call to disobey signs in national parks. As a final year law student, I understand the need for governance more than many. Not that you need to be Atticus Finch to observe the hopelessly overcrowded and rubbish-strewn state of Mount Everest – the outcome of years of inadequate regulation in an environment that clearly needs it.

The Psychology Of Blame

But what six years of studying law has taught me is the hastiness with which people look to blame someone or something. The inherent human reaction to something undesirable happening is to remove our own causal responsibility from it.

And this mentality breeds slackness. It’s why road fatality rates did not fall as expected when seatbelts were compulsorily introduced into cars in the late 1950’s. People took the extra safety feature for granted, and adjusted their own recklessness accordingly.

However, outdoor rock climbing teaches the opposite – to take nothing for granted, to take full responsibility for your own well being.

A friend who taught me much of what I know about climbing told me years ago that climbing is an exercise in risk mitigation. Sure, this isn’t the adrenalin-soaked impression of the sport you might draw from films like Vertical Limit, but this sobering lesson is at the heart of any self-respecting climber.

It’s why much of my first weeks and months of climbing focussed on lessons in safety. Tying knots correctly, safely placing gear, preventing your anchors from shock-loading in the event that a bolt should break.

Aidan Howes rock climbing gear and equipment putting your life on a line

Climbing a route beside Blue Lake NSW with my friend Sam
Image: Maggie Liuzzi

And there’s something profoundly satisfying about applying these lessons – knowing that all that remains between you and oblivion is the knot you’ve tied, the gear you’ve placed or the bolt you’ve inspected.

Someone not prepared to humble themselves enough to properly assume these practices should consider a different pastime, perhaps backgammon.

Kaczorowski’s death occurred under exceptionally unordinary circumstances. There are remarkably few reported cases of ropes breaking in modern climbing history, and had this particular rope not reached its full tautness right as it struck a sharp rock lip, it arguably would not have split and its owner might well be alive. What this incident should teach us is to be aware of these risks, and to respect the conditions that we ultimately submit ourselves to when we venture outdoors.

What it should not teach us is that someone else is to blame, and that regulation must therefore intervene to correct this. The implementation of climbing route governance in any conceivable form would breed complacency; “It’s fine, this is a classic route, I’m sure the climbing inspector has made sure these bolts are solid.”

This is not the sort of culture that climbing should attract; because it is not the ethos that climbing should teach.

Instead, we should learn to identify when it’s time to retire a rope, and study the signs that a bolt or a trad placement has been made safely. And all the while we should be grateful for the opportunity to experience the self-sufficiency that few today are offered.


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