Meru and the Piolet d’Or

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The Magic Line Up the Shark’s Fin. (All rights reserved)

The international judges collected by Montagnes magazine gave the 2012 Piolet d’Or to two climbs and gave an honorable mention to a third. You probably already knew that, since the awards were given in March. One climb I thought ought to have won wasn’t even mentioned and one that was actually awarded I don’t find completely worthy.

So I have been bothered by this for half the year, it would seem. It’s clear to me that judges made a mistake. I’ve become more convinced with time and reading up on the other ascents.

The award was given to Slovenian amateur alpinists Nejc Marcic and Luka Strazer for their ascent of K7 West (21,702 ft./6,615 m.) in the Karakorum and American veteran alpinists Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson for their ascent of Saser Kangri II (24,665 ft./7,518 m.) in a remote part of the southern Himalayas. The honorable mention was given to the late alpine hard man Bjorn-Eivind Aartun and his climbing partner Ole Lied for their ascent of Torre Egger (8,809 ft./2,685 m.) in Patagonia.

The K7 West team had never previously climbed in the greater Himalaya. They were young, ambitious climbers on the adventure of their lives. Their new route up the to the western of four peaks on the mountain climbed 1,600 meters and they rated it VI/5 M5 A2. They faced large, looming seracs along the ridge and dehydration over the three-day climb; they descended to BC on the fourth. Being their first trip to the range, they managed to get in several other climbs. The adventure went well and they were successful on a peak that has a glowing reputation for unsolved problems on an enormous scale.

The Torre Egger ascent by Aartun and Lied that earned them the honorable mention was a new line of mixed climbing that was described as “ephemeral” and “imaginative” by PlanetMountain.com. Reading the accounts in Alpinist 39 and the 2012 American Alpine Journal its plain to see why. Their line was relatively direct and they climbed light, efficiently as though the risks we face on our own cliffs didn’t exist, without being reckless. More to the point, the climb was about the climb, and the objective just happened to be somewhat iconic.

The first ascent of Saser Kangri II ticked it off the list as the world’s second highest unclimbed peak. (The first, Ghanker Puensom, is in Bhutan where climbing is forbidden.) It was also one of one of the longest alpine ascents of sustain vertical ice and rock in the Himalayas for a first ascent. The team even devised of a special hammock for collecting snow to pack it and create artificial ledges as no natural rest areas were on the smooth southwest face. After two nights in the two hammocks, they went for the top but had to endure a night hanging in their harnesses — never a pleasant way to catch some shut eye or, er, find relief. PlanetMountain.com said, “A wealth of experience enabled the team to take a very minimal lightweight alpine style approach in achieving the first ascent of the peak.”

The climb that was nominated but received no notable accolades from the judges, including from American Michael Kennedy, was the ascent of one of Meru’s sub-summits, Meru Central (20,702 ft./6,310 m.), often referred to as the shark’s fin because of the shape of the final section. It had been climbed once before by Russian Valeri Babanov — but well to the right of the shark’s fin ridge. The Shark’s fin has been the objective of several expeditions over 30 years; only two teams have stood on the top consisting of four climbers total. Only one team made it up the fin’s knife edge, which included leader Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists, by the way.)

Over 30 years, the ascent of the Shark’s Fin grew to legendary proportions. Failed attempt after failed attempt, only skilled, experienced climbers could even think of being so ambitious. As Chin explained at National Geographic Live in 2011, “It requires every kind of climbing,” meaning rock, ice, mixed and various styles. The three-man team employed a hybrid style to get over physical and psychological “hump” of the fin: Big wall technique with an alpine-light set of gear. That sounds a like an oxymoron and it is to large extent; they aided portions of the route with minimal gear.

The route was coveted by Anker’s climbing mentor, the late, legendary Mugs Stump. He never completed the fin. Anker went three times. Anker took Chin and Ozturk on his second attempt in 2010. After the endless tunneling, days on the wall with less than adequate food, bad weather, it left them wasted. Chin vowed never to come back. The dream was over and Meru’s Shark’s Fin persisted as one of those last great problems.

Some mountains, after failed attempts, grow larger and larger until the wall is thoght to be twice its size. If that has been the case for Anker, Chin, Ozturk and even Stump, then Meru likely grew bigger than Mallory’s unclimbed Everest.

As it is obvious, the team did indeed return and they almost miraculously climbed the Shark’s Fin’s knife edge ridge to Meru Central’s pinnacle. The achievement was emotional particularly for Anker and Chin but also for Ozturk; Ozturk nearly died months earlier in a skiing accident and underwent brain surgery due to the severity of the crash, which also may have risked his life in the high altitude. They didn’t know what his condition would do to his ability to climb or what that would mean for his teammates. Fortunately, only his words, and not his skills or judgment, were occasionally obscured.

The alpinism that I hold in high esteem is about climbing amazing, steep routes in small teams with high exposure and with as little gear as possible. It’s also about the challenge of getting deep within ourselves by attempting ambitious and often intimidating objectives. I think the Shark’s Fin team deserved one of the 2012 Piolet D’Or awards. While I appreciated the Saser Kangri II ascent, it did not present the challenges, test of character, or the intimidation factor that weighed on anyone even contemplating an ascent of Central Meru by the Shark’s Fin ridge.

I realize that the ascent by Anker, Chin and Ozturk was not a bona fide first ascent and that it was a variation of an existing route and that the other winners we’re clearly new routes with one true first ascent. Are first ascents of unclimbed mountains and new routes valued higher than significant variations? Usually not, but this might be the grand exception. And the publicity around the Shark’s Fin ascent in the major climbing publications featured it in dramatic fashion. Still, I believe the climb — and the story — needed no embellishment. It was the climb of the year.

Steve House once criticized the Piolet D’Or for not awarding the most progressive ascents. The judges later recognized that House and his partner were in fact among those worthy. Still, I think the judges made a mistake concerning the Meru climb. The ascents they recognized are admirable at a high level, but Anker, Chin and Ozturk deserved much more. It’s Meru’s Shark’s Fin that will inspire climbers to dream, perhaps more than many others.

Thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter if you haven’t already because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

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