Table Mountain suicide graphic above by alistair pott
CABLE CAR ENTHUSIASTS argue that the Pinnacle Road is dangerous whereas a cable car would be safe, but in a bizarre twist, the cable car could make the mountain more dangerous than it is, and the mountain itself become more deadly than Mount Everest.
Mountains are dangerous places. kunanyi has thousands of hectares of trackless bush to get lost in, miles of vertical cliffs to fall off, gales and ice to freeze in. Its long and narrow, horse and buggy era access road is poorly marked and badly guard-railed.
On the face of it, an aerial transport system appears less risky than a road and a Pinnacle Centre safer than any hut, but the facts show otherwise. Firstly, the dangers—real and supposed—have rarely translated into deaths on kunyani. No one has died on the road to the summit in many decades and even road accident injuries have been very minor. Several climbers have died by misadventure on the Organ Pipes and, over a century, a handful of day-walkers have come to grief in the cold. In 2017 the skeletal remains of a woman missing for 30 years were found on the mountain, her cause of death remains unexplained.
But perhaps a cable car could be even safer. When an emergency rescue crew used the cable car on Table Mountain in South Africa to rescue a stricken rock climber, the MWCC claimed that their cable car might be a saviour. Wrong. The cable car rescue was necessitated because the far-better equipped rescue helicopter was blocked by the cable car’s cables.
But how could the insertion of a cable car up kunanyi lead to more deaths? More visitors = more chances = more deaths on the mountain: that is the statistical inevitability answer, but how could it be more dangerous than Mount Everest?
Cape Town’s Table Top mountain (commonly offered by the MWCC as an exemplar) is more deadly than Everest. About half a dozen people die on Everest each season. Last year (2017) twenty people died on Table Top Mountain. Again, statistics explains most of the disparity. During its short climbing season a few hundred people attempt Mount Everest whereas a million take the cable car to the summit of Table Mountain each year. Visitors to Mount Everest are fit, well prepared, experienced and guided. Not so on Table Mountain.
A thesis by Sairita Maistry examined deaths on Table Mountain over a ten year period and tabulated the four main causes: over-exertion, falls (frequently while attempting to take a selfie, but also while rock-climbing), exposure (disorientated and ill-prepared—a few got lost in the clouds and died of exposure), murder (five) and then suicides. A considerable number go up the mountain to kill themselves. All these deaths occurred despite patrols, signage, mapping and barriers.
It will not be too many years before kunanyi draws a million visitors, and being further south and higher, kunanyi is colder, cloudier and more snowy than Table Mountain: it is inherently more dangerous. Alcohol exacerbated many of the deaths on Table Mountain, even though no alcohol is sold in the Park and its consumption is strictly prohibited. The MWCC plans to operate three bars at the summit.
Each death—however caused—would be bad for the reputation of the cable car, the mountain, Hobart and Tasmania; and a newspaper like the Mercury would make much of each incident.
The darkest deaths are the suicides. Researches world-wide have reported that places of scenic beauty can become suicide hotspots, with the suicidal drawn to “an iconic feature like a mountain range, waterfall or forest”, survivors reporting that “dying at famous landmarks added dignity and grandeur to their existence and provided a sense of tranquility and peace before dying”.
The cable car had a part in many of these deaths in South Africa, how high a part Maistry does not examine, but as well as increasing the number of visitors, the necessity of popularising kunanyi in order to increase patronage would itself transform the mountain’s status and perceptions of it.
What is most significant is this: when you make a profound change, there are always unintended and, indeed, unknowable consequences.