Rock climbers are a breed apart. There he is, baggy shorts, shaggy hair, no shirt, hanging by his fingertips to thin cracks on the underside of a sandstone ledge, defying gravity. Has the body fat of a marathon runner. The taut, cut muscles of a gymnast.

Or there she is, in full climbing personal protective equipment. Helmet specially designed with an inverted “V” in the back to accommodate her ponytail. Sleek, hightech anti-glare eye protection. Gloves, boots, fall protection. Scaling the sheer ice face of a canyon wall, ergo-designed ice axes in both hands.

Climbing culture beckons the nonconformist. Individualists only responsible and accountable to themselves, or a small team. They are driven wanderers, seeking outrageous climbs, sometimes at the expense of local prohibitions.

“Climbing, after all, is about freedom,” writes Andrew Bisharat, in the June, 2010 issue of “Rock and Ice” magazine.

So what happens in this culture that prizes individual expression when a climber sees someone doing something dumb? Do they speak up? Intervene?

Rarely, writes Bisharat.

Laissez-faire climbing

But that doesn’t preclude climbers from thinking about saying something. Some are introspective, aware and attuned philosophers of the terra firma.

In his column, Bishart questions why he has allowed crazy fools to continue down their path of self-destruction. “Doing what’s right doesn’t come easily,” he says. The last thing the hardened climber wants to do is play safety cop, “that guy who runs around imposing his ego on everyone by telling him or her how to act.”

Angels Landing

Escape from Vegas

This past April I made my getaway from a business meeting in Las Vegas to drive three hours east to Zion National Park in southern Utah. Zion is climbing holy ground, with its 5,000 to 7,800-foot red, orange and white canyon walls, arches and hoodoos holding a “lifetime of adventure,” according to an article about the park in the June issue of “Rock and Ice.”

Believe me, I had zero intention of attempting any kind of vertical assault. I am a hiker, not a climber. My challenge would be Angels Landing. The trail to Angels Landing is 2.5 miles to a rocky viewpoint 1,500 feet above Zion Canyon and the Virgin River.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes the journey: “After a series of steep switchbacks, the trail goes through a gradual ascent. Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 steep switchbacks, are the last hurdle before Scout’s Lookout. Scout’s Lookout is generally the turnaround point for those who are unwilling to make the final summit push to the top of Angels Landing. The last half-mile of the trail is strenuous and littered with sharp drop offs and narrow paths. Chains to grip are provided for portions of the last half-mile to the top.”

Seven fatalities

Days after I made the trek a woman in her 60s, hiking alone, died after falling from Scout’s Lookout. Angels Landing is “particularly notable for fatalities,” according to an article in the Salt Lake City Tribune describing the incident. Last year, two women in their 50s died from about 1,000-foot falls on the Angels Landing trail. Since 2000, seven people have died on Angels Landing, including a 14-year-old Boy Scout, according to the Tribune report.

Had I done this Internet research before my trip, would I have stuck to the canyon floor and the verdant banks of the Virgin River? Not likely. I’ve climbed Angels Landing twice before, once with my then 17-year-old daughter. I was confident and determined this time around, the only traits I might share with serious climbers.

Personal experience trumps raw statistics and incidents I did not witness.

Ascending Angels Landing, though the way is marked and chained for you at times, cranks up your adrenaline and narrows your concentration to the rocks and grips straight ahead. Depending on the time of day and year, you pass any number of people going up and down the trail. There is little conversation between strangers, none during the trickier parts of the climb. You are absorbed in your own climbing calculations — do I go this way or that way? — and most aware of your grip, footing, and stamina.

What if…

What if I saw another climber, complete stranger, straying from the chains to carve his initials on a ledge 1,000 feet up? Would I say something?

Probably not. But it depends. If the stray climber was a ten-year-old seemingly by himself, definitely I’d be compelled to do or say something. If the boy’s father was nearby, well, I might say something to the dad. Or I might figure father knows best and be on my way.

If the person initialing the ledge was a tanned and fit twentysomething wearing REI climbing gear, I’d figure he knows more than I do and leave him be. Now maybe he smoked crack before making his ascent, but I’d calculate the odds are slim and leave him alone. If he was with friends, I’d be even less likely to intervene.

If that stray climber was a soloing 60ish grandmother type timidly inching toward the edge, I’d probably shout out to her.

Mitigating factors

To speak up or ignore someone taking an obvious risk involves a startling number of potential factors. What’s your physical condition at the moment of truth: gassed, alert? What’s your perception of the risk-taker’s experience and understanding of what he’s doing? Is the risk-taker alone or with a group of peers?

Says Bisharat: “Speaking up… immediately and inescapably intertwines you with the consequences of what happens. It can feel easier to live and let die.”

If I pull back the ten-year-old or a rapdily fatiguing grandmother, do I sacrifice making the summit to escort them back down?

Sometimes getting involved is a no-brainer. If someone is about to fall, there’s no time to second-guess and as Bisharat writes, “the self is forgotten and the moral course of action just takes place…”

But seldom is the situation so black and white. “Finding that right degree, the right speech and the right listener all need to come together, and I’m still not sure I understand how to achive that balance,” writes Bisharat.

Me, too.