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The Popular Media and Climbing


Submitted by mnutz on 2003-04-29

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In Death On The Eiger, accomplished British mountaineer and author Joe Simpson recounts an experience he had while mountain climbing in September of 2000. Simpson and his climbing partner Ray Delaney were attempting to summit one of the world’s most famous alpine peaks, Switzerland’s Eiger, via it’s treacherous north face. Their attempt was cut short when two other climbers, Matthew Hayes and Phillip O’Sullivan (also attempting the north face), fell to their deaths. A nearby television crew was able to film the accident in its entirety. Although Simpson and his partner did not witness the actual fall, they were able to provide expert post-accident analysis while viewing the footage.

Accurate accident analysis is an extremely important aspect of mountaineering. It is one of the many informational tools that climbers rely on to further their pursuit of adventure. Despite the detailed record of events, the newspaper coverage of the incident was horribly inaccurate. The blatant errors in reporting led Simpson to wonder how much else of what we read in the press is untrue.

Simpson states in his recent book, Dark Shadows Falling, that he “has a go at the press.” When a journalist asks him why he did this, Simpson replies, “Because I was sick to death of reading woefully inaccurate accounts of climbing deaths.” He then added, “Some were so bad that you didn’t even need to know the real story to realize that the report was fatuous, unchecked speculation on a subject that the reporter clearly knew nothing about and . . . was happy to present as fact.” It becomes apparent that these gross errors in reporting could be intentionally designed to bolster print sales. [page] Simpson next mentions some of the other events that the press has recently latched onto. He writes that, “Every year smoking related diseases kill thousands, yet the popular press would rather demonise [sic] Ecstacy, author of far fewer deaths.” This is a great example of the press’ disregard for the general well-being of the public in an attempt to garner more readers with catchy headlines.

Simpson muses “. . . that journalists should hold an exalted position in the affections of this country’s [United Kingdom] citizens.” His suggestion that, “It could be argued that they are the most vital element in a working democracy . . .” is certainly an interesting theory. The press is definitely in a position to effectively communicate a government’s intentions to its people. Of course this would require a high level of journalistic integrity, which seems to be in short supply these days.

In discussing the events following the accident on the Eiger, Simpson describes in detail the incredible number of inaccuracies that were reported by the press. One reporter, whom he had been personally interviewed by, wrote in her article, “. . . that three other climbers had already died on the face this summer despite my repeatedly telling her that the deaths of Hayes and O’Sullivan were the first fatalities in ten years” (Simpson). Where the reporter could possibly have come up with this sensationalistic item, I’ve no idea.

Simpson documents many, many other errors in reporting. The bodies of the deceased climbers were reported to have been recovered from a valley below the mountain, when they were actually recovered from the face. The section of the mountain that the climbers fell from, as well as the manner in which they fell, was also reported incorrectly. The name of the nearest town, Kleine Scheidegg, was erroneously reported to be the name of a nearby mountain. The various people and organizations involved in the body recovery, and the roles in which they acted, were greatly confused by the press. The date of the first successful British ascent of the Eiger was reported wrong, by 15 years. [page] One publication confused the Eiger with the Ogre. “Eiger and Ogre mean the same thing, but one is in Switzerland the other in the Karakoram, Pakistan” (Simpson). In one of the most severe cases of misinformation, Simpson writes that, “They [The Telegraph, a major U.K. newspaper] reported that I had survived an accident on the face 15 years previously and that I had witnessed the fall first hand.” This is completely wrong. As mentioned earlier, Simpson and his partner did not witness the accident; and Simpson had never been on the north face of the Eiger prior to the day in question. Simpson had been in a serious mountaineering accident 15 years earlier, but it occurred halfway around the world, on the west face of the Siula Grande in Peru. This fact is common knowledge among mountaineers, as it is one of the most well-documented accidents in climbing history. Simpson states, “I wrote about this experience in a widely available book called Touching the Void that is known throughout the climbing community both in Britain and overseas.” Coincidentally, this book is about to become a major motion picture, probably the first realistic climbing movie to ever hit the big screen.

Soon after the plethora of erroneous newspaper articles began to circulate, Simpson was contacted by the British Mountaineering Council. They asked if he would be willing to personally telephone the understandably shaken relatives of the deceased climbers and clear up the details of what had actually happened on the Eiger. Simpson says he, “. . . was willing but saddened to do so and also angry that people already suffering great grief should be put in this position.” He then points out that the mistakes made by journalists, intentional or not, can easily cause much harm. He concludes by correctly inferring that, “. . . they [journalists] should not expect respect back in return, or be surprised if they find they are held in the sort of contempt that much of the population has for them.”

Death On The Eiger makes a very strong statement about the lack of journalistic integrity in the press today. Simpson provides a very convincing portrait of a news media that is wildly out of control and cares for nothing except ratings and sales.

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