Gadd’s Truth: Forget the Haters

Will Gadd sits outside of his tent on Mt Kilimanjaro on 25 February, 2020 in Tanzania, Africa. // Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202005300146 // Usage for editorial use only //


Idiots, morons! Mountains need policing for jokers like this! I’d never do that! People must be stupider than the rocks they climb!” In the aftermath of any outdoor accident, the online comments from the public are often nasty—but so are those from other supposed outdoor enthusiasts. I don’t think the people writing or saying them really understand the impact (I have said similar things without thinking), but after 40 years of post-accident experiences I’m less tolerant of the haters and I know we need to do better. First, those comments are often as self-delusional as they are nasty. “We” can be safe because “we” would never do “that.” If we can look at an accident and say, “Well, that was avoidable idiocy, I don’t climb/paddle/fly like that,” then we can pretend we are still somehow always “safe.”

But here’s the thing: in hindsight, we are all idiots to one degree or another and infinitely capable of screwing things up in ways we never see coming. I’ve yet to talk to a person who had an accident who said, “Yep, I saw that coming and did it anyhow!”

TO PARAPHRASE NOTED rock-climbing free-soloist Alex Honnold, everyone thinks they are making great decisions right up until they get hurt or killed. When I hear that someone thinks they would never have done, “that,” then I know they just haven’t been out in the mountains enough to know the other 10 zillion instances of “that” waiting for them. I can’t always see myself having a specific accident, but I’ve had enough wrecks to know it could have been me. I never have a day where I get home and think, “No errors were made.” To err is human, and the mountains do not care.

The second reason I hate the “idiot!” comments is because they are read by the family and community of the injured or dead person. It’s like telling the family of someone who died at war that their son, daughter, wife, dad, died in vain because of their personal idiocy. Even if this were true, it’s cruel to throw it at a grieving person. When someone posts or says something awful, I think of the victim’s family. I highly doubt anyone with such a self-assured opinion would say it to the bereaved family. That’s the test for such comments: would you say it to their mom? And to those who say people in mourning shouldn’t read online comments, that’s idiotic. They are looking for something, anything, to understand the impossible.

Third, in most cases it may take weeks or even months to gain a more-than-superficial understanding of a poor outcome. I have seen so many wannabe-experts mouthing off about something completely erroneous after accidents. In the words of Lou Reed, “Don’t believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” I don’t see the real experts on Facebook; they know better than to offer opinions right away. I don’t know what compels people to speculate about accidents publicly; maybe to feel self-important, or convince others that they have inside knowledge and therefore special access to facts?

There are some situations where immediate information needs to get out, and there are channels for that, but most of the time the quality of information and understanding improves with time. Erroneous speculation may actually cause poor information to spread—and take emphasis off the real factors. Rumours fly, facts walk slowly.

Finally, how we respond to accidents has a profound effect on our own future safety. While there are a zillion ways to screw up in the mountains, there are patterns and I have definitely saved my own life after reading about other accidents. But I have had friends, fellow guides and partners say, “Well, I’d like to share what happened to me, but I don’t want to deal with all the attacks.”

This is a great loss. No one wants to share anything personal or difficult if the response is a chorus of keyboard warriors firing missiles into an already painful experience. Within all the good safety cultures I know, people share their accidents with the knowledge that the goal is to improve safety for all, not attack those who have incidents. Because in open safety cultures, everyone has the humility to know it could have been them, or someone they work with. Sharing is caring, but only possible if the share is received with humility and understanding.

WHEN I WAS younger, I always assumed that after any sort of major accident, mountain or otherwise, there were designated people to help, tell us what to do, offer resources and provide structure. But, broadly, across North America, there’s not much beyond a quick interview with a version of “victim services,” which are useful but far from what many people need. There are a few great groups such as Mountain Muskox and the American Alpine Club’s Grief Fund, but mostly, we, as friends, family and community, are the real support system even if we don’t know it. And, while many of us know our ABC system for first-aid, we don’t have any training for the aftermath of a traumatic event. I don’t either, but I’ve lived through the aftermath of a lot of mountain wrecks, and here’s what I‘ve learned.

Search-and-rescue groups and Emergency Medical Services have professional structures to deal with the aftermaths of critical incidents, but they also know what to do for their own: support the people involved. We need to do the same. For friends or family, all we need to say is, “So sorry this happened to you. Can I bring over a lasagna or a six-pack? This sucks, and I care about you.” The aftermath of an accident is often a dark-and-lonely hell (even without the trolls), but just as nasty words can make it worse, a few kind words and slice of pizza can be a ladder out of this darkness.

No words will really fix something unimaginably difficult or help make sense of chaos right away, but the sense of human connection goes beyond mere words. Reach out, not to question or learn more right away, but to be there for the hurting person or group. Offer specifics: food, an ear, money, child-care. The minutia of life is often a mountain range after an accident.

Listen without judgement. A big part of processing a traumatic event is personal understanding, and people need to talk about it to integrate it. Don’t solve it. Just be there with the person.

And, just as the professionals have their critical incident debriefs and therapists on retainer, survivors may need professional help to put things in place. I wish I had done that in my twenties after working on my first fatality, but I didn’t know it was even an option. Maybe that’s part of why I’m writing this piece: yes, the online haters do real damage, but if enough of us reach out then we can not only shut the trolls down, but we can also make a hard time a little better and move our outdoor culture toward better outcomes for all.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue. (“Gadd’s Truth,” page 24).

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