Slippery Slope


Climbing up the sheer rock face of a mountain supported by ropes no thicker than your middle finger and wearing a helmet, yes, but otherwise no more protective gear than a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers—this can be dangerous. Proper training can make it safer. That seems logical and obvious. Less logical though increasingly more obvious these days is that our legal system creates another kind of danger—financial destruction—for any group that might offer this kind of training.

The Sierra Club has discontinued its rock-climbing and mountaineering school rather than pay an insurance premium of $325,000, which would more than triple the club's total insurance bill. The insurance company hiked the premium this year, club financial director Andrea Bonnette explains, after settling several claims in the past few years for serious injuries. The courts no longer recognize individuals' choices to take risks (see "Courting Danger," April).

"The insidious thing about this," says Bonnette, "is that all people, even those who want to engage in dangerous sports, want to do so in a risk-free environment. They make a conscious choice to engage in activities that most people would consider dangerous. They knowingly go into this with their eyes open about the risks, and they get injured and then turn around and expect to be rewarded."

As in many other cases, the courts' obsession with making life risk-free may in fact make mountaineering less safe. People may continue to climb but without proper training. Says Bonnette, "If you have a passion, you'll pursue it."