Is high-altitude mountaineering Russian roulette?

  • 1 Vanderbilt University Law School, Nashville, TN 37203, USA; and Department of Statistics, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA
  • 2 Thanks to Jim Albert, Andreas Buja, Andrew Gelman, Ray Huey, David Madigan, Zach Shahn, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and conversations. Research was conducted under Columbia University IRB protocol IRB-AAAF3302 (exempt) and supported by a Bedayn Research Grant from the American Alpine Club.
Edward K. Cheng

Abstract

Whether the nature of the risks associated with climbing high-altitude (8000 m) peaks is in some sense “controllable” is a longstanding debate in the mountaineering community. Well-known mountaineers David Roberts and Ed Viesturs explore this issue in their recent memoirs. Roberts views the primary risks as “objective” or uncontrollable, whereas Viesturs maintains that experience and attention to safety can make a significant difference. This study sheds light on the Roberts-Viesturs debate using a comprehensive dataset of climbing on Nepalese Himalayan peaks. To test whether the data is consistent with a constant failure rate model (Roberts) or a decreasing failure rate model (Viesturs), it draws on Total Time on Test (TTT) plots from the reliability engineering literature and applies graphical inference techniques to them.

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