Kodak Courage: Social Media and Risk in the Mountains

High above the clouds a shadow skips across the rocky, knife-edge ridge. To either side are drops of hundreds of metres — a slight tumble and the worlds most talented mountain runner would fall to his death.

 Kilian Jornet is part of a new breed of mountain athletes who combine running endurance with mountain skills. They move fast and light across exposed knife-edge ridges and dizzying paths. The GoPro videos and Instagram selfies they share fuel a growing thirst for high-octane mountain action.

Reflecting this demand, mountain-running events known as “Skyraces” are being played out on ever more technical terrain. “Races like Tromso and Glencoe are getting more and more difficult to feed the extra demand for technical challenges,” says Robbie Britton a professional ultra runner based in the mountain running mecca of Chamonix.

Jornet’s video drew equal amounts of admiration and trepidation. Chrissie Wellington, a former professional triathlete declared, “I can’t even look at that, let alone try to walk or run along it.” 

 Not all were impressed though. One viewer commented that the video might lead to more accidents, “There are people who see Killian and do it, then there are deaths in the mountains…you do not know who will see it.”

But does such content normalise the risks if you see enough of others doing it? Will it lead to inexperienced copycats getting into trouble in the mountains?

Jeff Mercier, an elite climber and member of the Chamonix Mountain Rescue, suggests although videos like Jornet’s are highly visible, mountain runners may not necessarily be coming to grief more regularly. “These kind of videos are easy to find on Instagram, but I can’t say this increases the number of rescues,” says Mercier. 

However, in 2017, there were two separate deaths of French trail runners on Mont Blanc, who were wearing shorts and trainers and carrying no climbing equipment. 

Interestingly Mercier suggests, “they did want to copy Kilian, but we see less and less guys like them. They were a sad exception.” Robbie Britton adds that most who copy extreme runners remain unscathed, but does recall runners not being prepared for the mountains around Chamonix, warning “it doesn’t take much to pick up some speed and slip down a slope that doesn’t have an end for a while”.

In the wider mountain world, social media has been attributed to playing a role in luring the inexperienced onto terrain they may be ill-equipped to deal with. In 2017 the Instagram famous Capitol Peak in Colorado, saw five deaths occur on its slopes in six weeks. 

One of the dead, Jake Lord had persuaded Peter Doro, a hiker afraid of heights, to tackle Capitol’s knife-edge ridge. The dizzying YouTube videos the pair pored over proved too alluring, the potential feeling of triumph too great to miss. Indeed before his fateful climb, Lord messaged his friends “This is what I’m about to do, It’s going to be sick.” 

Mercier believes the most dangerous are “the free riders [off-piste skiers and snowboarders] with their videos where they ride steep faces and sometimes play with avalanches. After, the young guns want to do the same without experience and assistance.”

In 2004, before social media, Ian McCammon, an avalanche expert, published research outlining six factors contributing to avalanche accidents. This included the need to do risky activities to be noticed or accepted. The idea has been dubbed “Kodak Courage”. 

Social media has undoubtedly brought a new edge to Kodak Courage. As Britton says, “It’s all exciting stuff, and it seems like people are going to greater extremes to impress.” Sponsored athletes such as Jornet are under pressure to supply ever more interesting content for their followers, but Britton believes it must be shared responsibly.

 “If you have a big following on social media, then you should be aware of its impact and try to educate on mountain safety too,” he says.

While it’s hard to say the likes of Kilian Jornet’s daring videos are directly increasing risks for mountain runners, the role social media plays in blurring reality between virtually experiencing extreme mountain experiences and going out and doing it for real needs further thought.

The issue for viewers of ever more extreme mountain content, regardless of experience level, is that these are digital mountains, where the terrain looks manageable, nerves don’t jangle, and the weather never turns.

Ash Routen