A long time ago I claimed once or twice that climbing wasn’t competitive. That idea was one of the appealing parts of the sport. I mean sport in terms of it being an athletic activity but not necessary organized like baseball or hockey. (It’s also worth pointing out that it being a sport doesn’t preclude it from offering a wilderness or spiritual experience). I now know better.
Climbing, other than organized competitions like those at SportRock in the Washington, DC area or the ice climbing games at Ouray, Colorado, more about self challenge and measuring those personal bests against other climbers through tales in guidebooks, and word or mouth, but only if that matters to us. There are many that climb for themselves and don’t care how they rate against others’ performances.
Still, climbing is in fact a subjective contest of firsts — most notably in alpine mountaineering. If you do care about the ratings, the ones that really matter for the history books and to be included in the American Alpine Journal are the first ascents of peaks, new routes, the first alpine style ascent, and the first winter ascents, all of which that are lengthy challenges by being typically taking a full day’s effort or more. All other ascents may stand out for other merits, such as the climber, the style or the controversy.
But that’s not to say that the competition in climbing is exclusive of cut-throat pursuits or camaraderie. I think there is more camaraderie overall, but earning respect or “street cred” is important to participate; definitely don’t over sell yourself. Not everyone is worthy of partnering with Joe Josephson or Steve House.
The instances where people are desperate for success have ranged from embarrassing to down right ugly. One that comes to my mind was from 2010: Oh Eun-Sun, a South Korean alpinist, was in position to be the first woman to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen by summiting Kangchenjunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.) Unfortunately, her claim to have reached the top was put into significant doubt and the honor of this first has gone to Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner of Austria.
In another race, Reinhold Messner — now a legend — was in an unofficial race with Polish alpinist Jerzy Kukuczka to be the first person ever to climb all of the 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. In all honesty, it wasn’t ugly. For that, usually jealousy and suspicion had to come into play, like in another Messner ascent — the first ascent of the Rupal Face in 1970, or the distaster of the Frizt Weissner 1938 K2 expedition. Messner got his first, Weissner did not. Both returned to a lot of criticism.
I say all of this to put the news unfolding in the Karakorum into perspective. Four teams set out to be the first to top out during winter on three peaks: K2, Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum I. While they aren’t involved in any organized races, the teams are seizing the moment to claim the historic first on their mountain-objective.
The Russian team that was attempting K2 has retreated. Their 15-person siege style expedition lost a life in basecamp earlier this week. The impressive Vitaly Gorelik had made it to 7,200 meters but died, ultimately of heart failure. As Alpinist Newswire says, Gorelik had summited K2 in 2007 and was nominated for the Piolet d’Or for a route up Peak Pobeda in 2009.
Two teams are working on Nanga Parbat. One, with just Simon Moro and Denis Urubko, are working summiting via an incomplete route on the Diamir Face. They are, with the other team of Poles, Moro’s and Urubko’s neighbors in basecamp, are being rather patient with the weather; there has been a decent amount of snow and some avalanches.
I haven’t heard as much as the Polish/International team working on Gasherbrum I, but I have heard the weather has caused delays. More to come, I’m sure.
I am trying not to give the impression that these are a competition between each other, though I am probably not doing a good job of that. These are really about exploration — probably more so about human endurance and persistence than the mountain itself. Also, most successful winter ascents appear to put in the work in January and reap the rewards of the summit in mid-to-late February before winter closes out in March (that’s purely anecdotal). If you hear some more details, shoot them to me in an email or leave me a comment.