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Editorial


The Alps: a fatal attraction for older men?




Watch your step, it's a long way down (Keystone)

Watch your step, it's a long way down

(Keystone)

The news we won’t report: men over 50 are at risk of falling off mountains.

One of the inherent risks of being an editor is deciding what constitutes news, which is why a recent television report about the danger of hiking in the Alps – especially for middle-aged men like me – caught my attention.

It is true that men fall off mountains and die. So do cows and sheep. And most likely other animals too, which the Swiss may or may not keep statistics for. But what intrigued me as editor was the emphasis on gender and age in a report candy-wrapped with aerial shots of knife-edge trails snaking along a high grassy ridge, as this clip illustrates.

Before moving ahead with a swissinfo.ch version of the report originally aired on the nightly current affairs programme, we fact-checked the story. Lo and behold, the Swiss Alpine Club actually keeps such statistics. Of the 142 people who died in the Swiss Alps last year, 114 were men. And 86 of the total were over 50 years of age.

Slippery slope

For people in search of conversation starters, the statistics are surprising: 58 people met their deaths while traversing snow or ice in the mountains, and one elderly hiker – a woman – was trampled to death by cows.

By the numbers, this certainly makes the mountains a dangerous place for a Sunday stroll – especially if you’re me. But the real risk is to draw conclusions by taking statistics like these at face value.

One could also conclude from looking at the numbers that Germans (18 deaths) are particularly prone to falling off mountains compared to Israelis (1 death) unless of course you know that Germans constitute by far the biggest single group of foreign visitors to Switzerland while Israelis are among the smallest. You could also be led to believe that December is the safest time for Alpine hiking since only six deaths occurred in the last month of the year compared to 29 in August. It’s clear, though, that winter is less conducive to hiking.

Straying from path

But let’s not stray too far from the path. How dangerous is hiking, really? Looking at another study – this one partly commissioned by the federal government – we find that about three million people make use of Switzerland’s network of trails, with each outing lasting an average of three hours. Adding it all up, the average person goes on 20 walks a year, each lasting about three hours.

Keeping it simple, a comparison of the number of people taking to the hills each year with the number of fatalities shows that the risk of dying is only 0.0047%. Slightly higher for men (0.0076%), but still not too much to worry about.

The statistics are sure-footed in explaining, to a large extent, why – when someone does fall off a mountain – the chances are greater it’s an older man. Between 50 and 60% of men over 50 years of age hike regularly. That’s nearly 10% more than women in the same age bracket and about 20% more than men or women in their 30s and early 40s.

Even taking this into account, the percentage of dead male hikers is still higher than it should be. Do men (who should know better) become more reckless in their later years and choose the path less well travelled (with loose rocks, or snow and ice)? How many of the fatalities were caused by heart attacks or other health issues that would also have killed them while sitting on their sofa? Too many unanswered questions, which is why you won’t find this report on swissinfo.ch.

Have you had any close calls while hiking in the mountains? Let us know.

Follow the author on Twitter @dalebechtel

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