Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman Reviewed

Chris Kalman’s second self-published book with cover art by Sarah Nicholson

Cochamó Valley in Chile is as close to Yosemite National Park before it had roads, crowds, and park rangers as it can be to when John Muir explored its wilderness in the 1880s. I first learned about Cochamó from Chris Kalman when he and I crossed paths nearly 10 years ago over writing assignments. Since then, I have, and perhaps you have too, learned how wrapped up he is with the valley, the Cochamó Valley.

When Chris first visited Cochamó he thought he knew how Muir felt first coming to Yosemite. And like Muir, Chris made first ascents, some free soloed, in the untouched valley. Kalman grew into a champion of Cochamó conservation because he admired its beauty, and he knew it could be ruined with a dam, mined for minerals, or trampled by crowds and luxury hotels. Muir knew Yosemite Valley needed to be preserved, and Chris likewise took action for his Valle when he established Friends of Cochamó to help protect this unique place on Earth.

Although you may not be as familiar with his favorite valley in Chile, you may be familiar with him if you consume climbing content these days. Chris has written for Alpinist Magazine and often conducts podcast interviews for the podcast The Cutting Edge, run by the editors of the American Alpine Journal, which Chris is an editor, of course. He’s also authored a guidebook and two fiction works. His first novella was As Above, So Below, which was self-published in 2018, and his second, despite the punny title, has everything to do with loving and protecting places, especially like Cochamó Valley.

Chris’s 2021 work, Dammed If You Don’ta 2021 Banff Literature Competition Finalist — takes us on the lifetime journey of John Mercer. Mercer visits South America and finds grand potential in the fictional Valley of Lahuenco. He awakens the eco-tourists and backpackers of the world through social media and slide shows to it peril. The valley quickly becomes trodden with campsites with an few visitors carelessly scaring grasslands from tent sites and littering. He discovers a new species of salamander, and valley becomes more valuable and even more popular, since it suddenly has a mascot and a new gimmick for visiting, even as it brings the species to the brink of extinction.

The story explored all of the possible permutations for Lahuenco with Mercer as the central agent of change. Chris presented the reader with the unintended consequences of Mercer’s affection for Lahuenco and the commercial or capitalist opportunities, as carried out by the antagonist Señor Ackerman, and asks not only who wins, but who is actually in control? The populace? Those with money? Those with the land?

Although Mercer’s adventure has similarities to Chris’ experiences with Cochamó, Mercer is a modern likeness to John Muir. Fit, constantly in motion, and fire-like (both a bright light and able to ignite combustibles,) Mercer carried his case for protecting Lahuenco to the world through advocacy and fundraising, instead of the President and Congress, as Muir had done with Yosemite. I won’t ruin the end for you, but tempt you to read it for yourself by stating that Mercer’s solution, though a little trite, was worth me pondering for days after I finished the book.

Interior art by Craig Muderlak.

Kalman makes wonderful observations about how the world works. It’s heavy at times. I don’t agree with the dark shading of values he used to illustrate Señor Ackerman’s reasoning and strategy for exploiting the Lahuenco Valley, but his points were valid, and did — despite his direct statement to the contrary — did make him appear to be a real-world Bond Movie villain. (Tangentially, it mildly inspired me to write a parody where Ackerman hangs Mercer from an overhanging cliff above a pile of sharp scree and forced his girlfriend on a tourist-attraction zip line that when passing would cut the rope. Exit Ackerman cackling before the she reaches the dangling rope.)

Dammed If You Don’t is fundamentally a discussion piece. Chris packed in a very long winding tale into a small package, and hits on the theme of preservation in several ways, with land, and Mercer himself to name two. Chris used a third-person narrator with limited perspective that limits the story from having even more impact; I wish I had gotten to know Mercer better. Though his values and how he dealt and overcame his challenges became apparent, I would prefer if I could have read it through stories and dialogue rather than being told first and shown later. For this reason, John Mercer doesn’t become a character I was emotionally attached. When his climactic moment arrived, I saw it unfold, but without a sense for how he would turn out after the book. But again, it’s definitely worth having a discussion over (shoot me an email if you read it, because I would enjoy debriefing about the book with you.)

Go buy and read Chris’ book and shoot me a message. And I will look forward to visiting the Cochamó Valley with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz one day. I think Chris’s book will help it stay beautiful until I get there.

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.

New Books from Katie Ives, Chris Kalman, Leo Houlding: I’m Back!

Lazy view from my sabbatical wanderings; Downeast Maine (All rights reserved)

No, I am not dead and neither is T.S.M. Of course, I thought the world would come to an end a couple of times: Climbing is officially in the Olympics and I found climbing ropes and harnesses for sale at a big national sporting goods store chain. Climbing has more mainstream than I ever thought it would be years ago.

I did cheat on my blogging sabbatical and gave you a new book review and an update, just to prove to myself things were okay. Deep down, I prefer climbing as a niche activity. And books about climbing are here for more than just climbers. Well written narratives can let us feel the climb the way videos and Olympic climbing cannot. Here are three new books that were just released or about to be released:

  1. Damned If You Don’t by Chris Kalman (out now.) This is Kalman’s second self-published novel. His first book left his readers talking about the risks climbers take and their consequences. Kalman has taken his story-telling to a place near and dear to him in that some call the Yosemite Valley of South America. I will be reading it over the next few weeks and expect that he’ll strike me how he affected his readers with his first book.
  2. Imaginary Mountains: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams by Katie Ives (releasing October 1, 2021.) Mountaineers Books will be releasing Katie Ives’, the Editor-in-Chief at Alpinist Magazine, new book on October 1, 2021. I read nearly everything Katie writes and this is one I am pre-ordering. She’s previewed snippets in Alpinist Magazine and on Facebook and I am looking forward to taking in for the mystery and the storytelling.
  3. Closer to the Edge: Climbing to the Ends of the Earth by Leo Houlding (releasing in the UK in September 2022.) Houlding is a populist adventurer to some, and I don’t care for his television show, but if you ever listen to his interviews on podcasts, including the American Alpine Journal’s The Cutting Edge, he’s an insightful climber both about climbing and the times in which he climbs. I am going to be reading this one in curiosity.

I know that I said I would be back in July after a six-month break, but it was so good, I decided to go seven and wait until after my family vacation to New England. And then I was captivated by the climbing competition in the “2020” Olympics. Plus returning to work after two weeks off is difficult, so I’m back from my blogging sabbatical today.

Ending this blog crossed my mind. Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz are getting older, and surprisingly, need me more now than when they were smaller. Of course, they need me in different ways, like showing them how to run the bases or chip out of rough. The Habitat affiliate I run is growing and there are endless exciting challenges with that to ponder at all hours of the day, including how to building more homes with less and gain new donors. These were reasons enough to have dropped T.S.M. altogether, but the thought saddened me. Not because of the work I have done, but because I genuinely enjoy it. Even during my break I still read climbing books; I posted one book review despite the break, and I accepted two more climbing books explicitly for writing a review.

I am also glad that I waited the extra month for another reason. I got sucked into the plastic pulling in the “2020” Olympics. It has reminded me about why I started this blog in 2010. Although I don’t climb outdoors much any more, I still love to boulder at my gym and most of my fellow-gym climbers don’t read climbing books and they don’t know anything about the history of climbing, particularly climbing mountains. I am I right? I need to keep this blog up just so I can direct people to something that edifies them, and I hope my posts do that. As my old blog tag line circa 2010 said: Climbing matters… even though we work nine to five. I still believe that and hope everyone that needs to know that does too.

Since you’re here reading on T.S.M, you know that climbing is a special activity and that the ordinary day-to-day routine is dim without it. I’m with you. So whether you’re new to the sport thanks to climbing in the Olympics of you’ve been reading climbing books and wants to know what else is out there, you’re in the right place.

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.

Down the Everest Rabbit Hole: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott Reviewed

The Third Pole by Mark Synnott (2021)

I was thrilled that Emily Canders at Penguin Books’ Dutton asked me to review another book by Mark Synnott. I enjoyed reading The Impossible Climb (2018.) But when I saw that Synnott wrote about an expedition to Mount Everest, I worried that he sold out; Everest is for wanna-be mountaineers, not genuine off-grid climbers like Mark, right?

Synnott’s new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest (2021) was released by Dutton on April 14, 2021. It’s title has the feeling of having been used before and bordering on cliche, the subject of Everest is overdone, and yet, having read it, does add something valuable to the conversation about climbing today.

Until The Third Pole, Synnott had embraced mountain adventures that are not in the mainstream and tourist destinations. They were off the beaten path and sometimes truly exploratory in nature. Synnott explored the remote wilds of Baffin Island and wrote a beautiful guidebook about it in 2008. He lead expeditions for The North Face Global Team and National Geographic to remote island peaks and big walls climbers never considered before because they were barricaded by thick jungle. If it had been done, and there wasn’t a compelling new challenge, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. I would not expect Synnott to go to well-trafficked Denali, Mont Blanc, or Everest.

Yet, Everest has a magnetic draw. When Jon Krakauer went to Everest in 1996, that was not his first choice either. Krakauer had climbed off-grid climbs in Alaska. He did big routes and went alone. Everest was on-grid and crowded. Yet, he had an assignment from Outside Magazine and got caught up in the modern endeavor and fervor of climbing Everest and got swept up in history. That year, a major storm struck when many commercial expedition climbers were on the mountain, and many were left unable to return safely if at all. Eight climbers died on May 10, 1996 while trying to summit. Krakauer, as a good journalist, investigated what happened and told the story in his 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air. Synnott went looking for something historic, and he got it, similarly to Krakauer.

I am restraining my criticism about the topic of Synnott’s book, however. This is because what piqued Synnott’s interest in committing to an Everest expedition would have tempted me too: The mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, long before the commercial “expeditions” that have dominated since the 1990s, going back to 100 years ago when Mount Everest was off the grid. For most informed about this episode in Everest history, it’s not much of a mystery in a way; I don’t believe that Mallory or Irvine made it to the top in 1924 as some still like to speculate. Mallory’s body was found on May 1, 1999 on the north face of Mount Everest, but on that visit were actually looking for Irvine. Why were they looking for Irvine? Because Irvine was most likely carrying the Kodak camera and it may hold clues as to what happened to the duo on the first real attempt at the top. It even has the potential of holding a summit photo.

Solving a 100-year old mystery in 2019 involves historical investigation because there is no one to interview, gear to acquire for detective work, comfort, and survival, and physical training and preparations for the hard climbing at altitude just shy of how high jetliners fly. Synnott goes to England to conduct his investigation and gives us a charming lens on Irvine’s 1920s and the 1924 expedition, as well as a contrast to his own in 2019. Many of Irvine’s records are at Merton, where he attended school. Among other things, the Merton Library holds Irvine’s receipts from his preparations, which includes gear and clothing of natural fibers, mostly mailed away, or which he traveled to procure. Synnott comments on the receipts, explaining how they alone are works of art with their hand writing and letterhead. Irvine’s receipts were personal and intimate compared to Synnott’s e-receipts for his equipment mostly ordered impersonally via the Internet.

Synnott traveled to Everest with Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists for his multi-media art on canvas and giant rolls of paper done in the mountains,) who was also the team’s photographer and drone specialist. Drones were one of the modern and special gear used for the detective work. Everest’s North Face, where Irvine’s body was believed to rest, was fairly steep. At high altitude, and without arousing suspicion by other climbing parties or the Chinese officials, conducting a thorough search by a small group of mountaineers was impossible; a drone was partly what made this 2019 search for Irvine possible. Synnott shares an amusing, and hold-your-breath encounter with the Chinese authorities with the team while the drone was illegally flying, and it suddenly ran out of power and started to return to them. 

The support of Sherpas on the mountain, which are so often misunderstood, was discussed at length. They are increasingly less overlooked in climbing stories and are competent and skilled mountaineers in their own right. Many of them came to the work at Everest and other mountains in the Himalaya and Karakorum because the work is lucrative. And the pay is better for more experienced Sherpa, including how many summits they’ve achieved. This presented a challenge for an expedition focused on finding Irvine’s remains below the summit. The Sherpa wanted to reach the top, and climbing without intending to reach the summit was out of the question. Synnott’s telling of his conflict explains how Everest isn’t just the destination of passion for climbers like Mallory and Irvine, but the source of mountaineering Sherpas’ livelihoods and the conditions their family lives.

The book shifts its attention significantly as a major storm strikes. Like Krakauer, Synnott was at Everest during a major catastrophe on the mountain. You may recall the infamous Instagram photograph by Nims Purja showing the long, line of climbers heading up Everest’s south route, which was taken before the weather went foul. Later that day, the jetstream shifted and a blizzard stranded climbers stranded high on the mountain. Eleven people died. Synnott was still in basecamp, watching the other line on the northern route, similar to the one Purja photographed. Synnott followed the event’s aftermath and covered the human stories, including the story of Kamaldeep Kaur, or Kam, whom everyone assumed was lost and dead.

Synnott takes a rumor and makes it a full-blown conspiracy theory about why Irvine’s body wasn’t discovered by his teammates and himself. The story is worth an acknowledgement but I think it may be given too much credence. If some evidence arises that proves it to be true, then that’s what this book will be most remembered for and should be. In the meantime, it should not.

The Third Pole feels like two stories in one. It’s not Synnott’s fault; he went to participate and retell the story of Sandy Irvine and witnessed another Everest tragedy firsthand. In this way, it is a valuable report on the state of the mountain, including the work underway to preserve its history and the commercialization of the challenge to climb a great peak.

I am torn on how I feel about this book; I am as conflicted as the intent of the book as with it’s outcome. It is as if I turned on ESPN for baseball highlights and only got legal analysis about the star football player charged with battery in a domestic dispute. I wanted Sandy Irvine climbing Everest’s Second Step and what I got was a conga line. And yet, everything Synnott said was true. And I have to remind myself that even Everest is what it is. And it is today what it is and has always been: The highest mountain in the world and a great challenge. Although I am deeply interested in human adventure in the mountains, I generally steer clear of Everest to avoid its pettiness and sensational news, but Synnott got me caught up without feeling like I needed a shower.

I was also tempted to recommend that you skip this book and to read it’s precursor by Conrad Anker and David Roberts, The Lost Explorer (1999,) where they actually find the body. But that wouldn’t be fair to you and would leave you lacking some relevant insight on the nuances of a topic most readers don’t get below the surface. Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole is the book for anyone interested in Everest today, even if you don’t want to be interested in Everest like me. I would also say — and this is not on a limb by any extent — that this book is for every climber that despises the on-grid climbing of Everest. Read it and be better for it. 

Thanks again for stopping, especially during my blog sabbatical. I should be back in July with more regular content. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.

What I Am Reading Now During My Hiatus

What I am reading now in March 2021.

Did you see the announcement from the American Alpine Club about its new membership structure? Well, it used to be almost $100 to be a member for a year. I joined to receive the American Alpine Journal annually (in print) and have the privilege of borrowing books from the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Library in Golden, Colorado; plus I only had to pay the return shipping!

Now the AAC includes the Library at the Supporter level for just $45. And if you want your copy of the AAJ, that is available at the Partner level, which starts at $65. Click here to learn more and see the other benefits.

So while I am on my six-month blog sabbatical, I have been reading things not on my personal climbing library shelves (well, not yet anyway,) and not even from the AAC Library. Here I have a book from a symposium I attended, a Christmas present, and a book Emily Candors from Penguin Random House’s Dutton publishing house asked me to review; since it was by Synnot, I couldn’t say no, even on my sabbatical! So here is what I am reading now:

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant (2008) — I attended (virtually) the New Strategies symposium out of Georgetown University last fall in my official role for my local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. There I met Leslie Crutchfield. She was there talking about the work in her newer book, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t (2018). We had several copies of Forces for Good on our shelves. I had glanced at the chapter titled Advocate and Serve when I was lobbying in DC but hadn’t read the whole work. It’s more relevant to me now as a manager and not just as an advocate. Crutchfield wrote the book because for too long nonprofit consultants had been measuring nonprofits by for-profit business standards, and this book makes the point that that is wrong because successful nonprofits flout those “rules” and are considered success for for six other reasons, which she writes about with concrete examples.

The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest by Mark Synnott (2021) — Ordinarily, I wouldn’t read a book about climbing Everest after the 1990s, when the mountain became the setting for commercial expeditions and off-grid climbing was where the real action was. But publicist Emily Candor from Dutton reached out to me with another Synnott book and it was about looking for Sandy Irvine and his camera. The Lost Explorer by Conrad Anker and David Roberts (1999) was about the discovery of George Mallory’s remains, and it gave me a great blend of classical mountaineering when it was exploration and current-day Everest by contrast. I am a fifth into it and it has been very enjoyable, if not great. It is being released to the public on April 14th.

Golf’s Holy War: The Battle for The Soul of a Game in an Age of Science by Brett Cyrgalis (2020) — I play golf for fun and I dabble in following pro golfers and what organized clubs are up to, but I prefer ignoring that to just taking pleasure being outside and making the ball fly to where I envisioned it going. It’s thrilling! Still, I play and pay attention enough to see that is a movement toward technical perfection and efficiency in the golf swing. This book goes through the history of how that came to be, how instructors and computers play an increasingly larger role with a growing group of players, but how the — well, I’m not sure what else to call it — metaphysical side of the game, is still strong for a minority of golfers. I am still reading it, and set it aside to finish Synnott’s book, and have yet to see the whole story through. The first chapter was mesmerizing and I feel like Cyrgalis has me on a path and I am picking up new insights in each one about the game, and even what I prefer in the midst of all this noise with spirituality and technology.

Well, that’s it for now. Its going to be nice Saturday so I’m taking the family for a hike. I hope you get out too!

Ueli Steck Believed, But Why Should You?

High Memorial. (All rights reserved)

As I was about to edit this part three of three posts about Ueli Steck and his climb on the South Face of Annapurna, I was wrapping things up at work and taking nearly two weeks vacation, when there were still family responsibilities for Christmas undone, and, perhaps worse of all, I came down with a sinus infection. As if that wasn’t enough, my doctor wanted to rule out the plague of 2020, so I got tested and waited anxiously to see if the disease would ruin our Christmas plans. Fortunately, it was not detected and we carried on. For Christmas, Natalie gave me a copy of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which is on my long short-list of books to read, which I look forward to finally reading. But lets get to the reason you’re here… the conclusion.

HE MAY NOT HAVE REACHED THE TOP

The two glaring incidents that mare Ueli Steck’s remarkable climbing record to many knowledgeable climbers and climbing historians were his climbs on Shisha Pangma in 2011 and the South Face of Annapurna in 2013. Randolphe Popier analyzed what we knew about both climbs and gave more credence to anyone with any doubt. Still, Steck was honored with a Piolet d’Or for completing the Béghin-Lafaille route on the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push.

I have been writing about this in my last two posts, the culmination of two years of research and pursuing interviews about Steck’s alleged or disputed Béghin-Lafaille route first ascent. Unfortunately, there is no new groundbreaking evidence. Popier and climbing data collectors like Eberhad Jurgalski and even Damien Gildea have all made a solid case against Steck about those climbs. While their points are impossible to argue, there is the chance that despite the lack of evidence, Popier’s conclusions are wrong. None of us were there. Perhaps that works into the favor of a solo climber.

The most persuasive argument against the summit on the South Face of Annapurna was that at night, without instruments, and not being intimately familiar with the features around the summit, it would be difficult to say with confidence, yes, you were there. Steck’s headlamp was seen high on the Béghin-Lafaille route at night, but not at the top. And at the end of the vertical portion of the Béghin-Lafaille line, there are a series of slopes that would easily be mistaken for the mountain’s highest point. Could Steck have thought there was no higher to go after one of of the slopes — a hump, really — descended, but not realizing it was a modest col before the final rise, or next-to-final rise, to the summit?

WAS STECK INCENTIVIZED TO LIE?

Going into this climb, Steck was in a traumatized state. Earlier the same year, Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith were going to attempt a new route on Mount Everest. It was early in the climbing season and the fixed lines of the commercial guide services were not yet finished by the guide services’ local skilled climbers, colloquially referred to as Sherpas these days. Steck, Moro, and Griffith, ascended independently without the Sherpas’ fixed lines. The fixed lines to the summit were not finished and the Sherpas were still building the anchors between Everest and Lhotse, and that’s where the conflict erupted. Steck, Moro, and Griffith were trespassing according to the Sherpas; their work wasn’t complete and it was unsafe and disrespectful to pass them. Shouts ensued with some derogatory language aimed at each other. The disagreements turned to violence and threats with punches and thrown rocks in Camp 2. Melissa Arnot has been credited with brokering a truce.

Steck and his partners did not return to their route but instead went home. Steck says in his autobiography that he felt as though life was out of control on Everest. He tried to return to training and climbing, though in retrospect he admits that he was merely covering up his emotions rather than dealing with the events. Was this enough to motivate him to take great risks, of himself and his honor, to feel accomplished and in control again? The expedition to Annapurna had been on his itinerary for the fall even before he left for Everest, and the opportunity to attempt and succeed on the Béghin-Lafaille route took on new significance.

It can’t go unsaid that professional climbers like Steck also make their money in advertisements, promotions, and public speaking. Steck, I was told by a climber familiar with European professional climbers, that Steck would be paid more than most and had enough means, if he avoided debt, to keep anyone reasonably content. Of course, like in any career, does that income continue to flow if there become a string of failures? After the Everest mob, did Annapurna also create a need to grab, a by any means possible, a historic milestone?

A scene from the television sitcom Seinfeld keeps coming to my mind where the character George gives Jerry golden advice on lying: “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

WHO STANDS BY STECK?

Ueli Steck was called the Swiss Machine because he climbed fast, often alone, and seemed to rarely stop moving. He died in 2017, which seems longer ago than when I thought. He fell 1000 meters, though we don’t know precisely if he slipped or the snow and ice wall on Nuptse he was climbing gave way. He was 40 years old. In remembrances, everyone expressed admiration. He was unique, special, a good guy, a good husband, and a great climber.

Steck has been a star of many amazing climbing films and stories. His autobiography, My Life in Climbing (2017), came out, ironically, in December after his fateful fall in April. Steve House wrote the Afterward, dated September 2017, and expressed admiration for Steck how we should follow his approach to life. I reached out to House about the South Face of Annapurna. House and I have exchanged messages over other topics before to help my stories or introduce me to people. My questions about Steck and the South Face of Annapurna, which there were several over months, were all read, but I never received a reply.

I reached out to Steck’s other climbing partners multiple times. I didn’t get any replies about this subject. Everyone was quiet. Considering the controversy, I understand the silence about the South Face of Annapurna. What advantage do they have in defending him now, and why reopen a wound.

I believe that Steck believed he climbed the Béghin-Lafaille route, but that he could not prove to anyone, nor disprove to himself, that he did not reach the summit. Camera lost? So what, it’s damn dark out here. Altimeter and GPS tracking broken? Crap. But who would doubt me if they see my headlamp on this clear night. And isn’t this climb supposed to be more about the climb than the summit anyway?

Steck’s ascent of the Béghin-Lafaille route is notable. It was not a hoax. It was unique. It was flawed. It was exciting. Just like the man who climbed the line.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I’M TAKING A SIX-MONTH BREAK

After a lot of thought I have decided that I will take a six month break from blogging on The Suburban Mountaineer starting now. It is my blogging sabbatical. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years on this site. I have a stack of unread books about climbing and non-climbing subjects, and hope this will allow me to read them as well as complete other projects in a timely manner. Moreover, I am hoping this will refresh my perspective. I may just continue blogging or do more print article submissions. We’ll have to wait and see how life guides me.

However, I will still be posting on Twitter and the Facebook page (mostly Twitter, by the way.) I enjoy blogging here, so you can bet I will return in July 2021. I will still be reading and taking notes — I can’t help myself — so maybe I will have some posts from the inspiration I find over my break.

For now, be well. Have a good 2021. Climb safe. And keep reading!

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.

Ueli Steck and the Graziani-Benoist Odyssey on Annapurna

Climbing alone into the night. (All rights reserved)

Before I get into Ueli Steck and Annapurna, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of a very special and influential alpinist. As you probably heard, Sir Doug Scott passed away on the evening of December 7, 2020. He was part of the first ascent of the Southwest Everest expedition in 1975–where he was benighted and suffered through the highest open bivy to date on the descent–and embraced traveling in small light teams on his 30 other ascents that included El Capitan, Mt. Asgard, Denali, Mt. Waddington, Shivling, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga, Pic Lenin, and many more. He also did a great deal of charitable work benefiting Himalayan communities.

As accomplished and pioneering as Scott was, he was not unapproachable. Alex Rodie, the editor at Sidetracked Magazine, shared a story like several others I recalled hearing over the years but hadn’t recorded to share. Rodie gave me permission to share what he tweeted about Sir Scott’s passing: “Saddened to read this. Doug Scott was once very kind to me as a young and clueless amateur climbing historian nosing around in the Alpine Club archives.” I raised a toast, and hope you’ll join me, “To Sir Scott: For his accomplishments and that he lived to be 79.”

Last week, I asked if you believe Ueli Steck climbed the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push through the night, and more importantly why? Many of you admitted that you were not familiar with the controversy, some stated firm positions on both sides, several significant partners of Steck were deliberately silent, and one asked posed a different question for all of us. But first, let’s get everyone caught up on the facts.

OCTOBER 9, 2013

Camped on a grassy knoll, Steck’s intended partner, Don Bowie of Canada, and Tenji Sherpa, one of Steck’s climbing friends, Dan Patitucci, a climbing photographer, and a filmmaker named Jonah, waited in camp at the base of Annapurna to the south. Steck and Bowie only went up to camp at 6,100 meters on an earlier attempt days before, and came down. Bowie was sick, or at least not in good shape, and wasn’t going to proceed with Steck. Steck immediately started thinking about going alone. Now he had been gone for over a day, saying he was going to cross the Bergshrund, which he felt was in bad shape, and go as high as he could, perhaps only 5,000 meters at ABC or their high point. But Tenji Sherpa saw a headlamp creep up slowly during the night, and saw it as high as about 200 meters below the summit.

The South Face of Annapurna had been climbed only a few times. It is one of the largest continuous slopes globally, quite steep, and requires advanced technical climbing skills across snow, ice, and rock. The first ascent was by Don Whillians and Dougal Haston as part of a seige-style British expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonington in May 1970. It was the most challenging route on an 8,000-meter peak to date. Nil Bohigas and Envic Lucas went up another line to the east of the first ascent that was more direct to the summit in 1984. Then there was an attempt by a route that captured Steck’s imagination created by Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille in 1992. Béghin died during the retreat and created a true epic for Lafaille over a five day struggle to return safely to home. Lafaille tried again in 1995, 1998, and then, reached the summit in 2002 by the East Ridge with Alberto Inurrategi.

Steck is a speed climber and traveled very light to begin with. He brought with him a down jacket, a fleece hoody, a GPS watch, a camera, a 6mm rope, propane and a stove, a thin primaloft jacket, a tent, heavy down mittens, hardshell pants, double-layer gloves, a little food most of which appeared to be energy bars and chocolate, five bolts, and an ice screw. He didn’t bring a sleeping bag or wear the hip belt on his pack. It was very light and, generally speaking, proven on his solo excursions in the Alps.

In the morning, Bowie, Tenji, and Patitucci went up the snowslope prior to the ice fall to meet Steck with tea. He was alive, well, and reported he had successfully summited the mountain. News flew over social media fast and reached my device. Sometime in the next day or two, Steck was interviewed by Elizabeth Hawley, the great Himalayan climbing archivist, in Khatmandu. She recorded his solo ascent as a bona fide successful climb to the top.

However, while Miss Hawley was satisfied, Steck’s story faced stringent scrutiny from a new generation of critics who’s standards were far more technical than Miss Hawley’s questioning about the climb and what the climber saw, and weighing the climber’s character. At the heart of the evidence against him, Steck had no route data due to a malfunction in his GPS wrist-watch and he reported losing his camera during a small avalanche early on the ascent. While he was clearly on the Béghin-Lafaille line started in 1992, whether he reached the top in the dark was disputed.

DOUBT AND A PIOLET D’OR

During climbing’s rise to being mainstream (not that alpine climbing has ever truly been mainstream,) the New York Times covered this topic: “Swiss climber’s feat honored despite lack of proof,” read the headline. The Piolet d’Or is an annual award that honors the greatest climbs of the year. If you believed Steck, there was no doubt his ascent was worthy of such a trophy.

When I first heard the criticisms, I wasn’t annoyed. The critics were nitpicking; Steck had an honest character. He had no need to lie, conflate, or exaggerate his claims. But my attitude shifted during my annual volunteer work for the Banff Centre’s annual literature competition; I read Ed Douglas’ story in Rock and Ice #251 from July 2018, “The Other Annapurna,” a title inspired by how Maurice Herzog ended his book on the first ascent of the mountain, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Douglas wrote about two French climbers, Yannick Graziani and Stéphane Benoist, nearly eclipsed by the fanfare around Steck.

The coverage here in the states about Graziani and Benoist was limited to PlanetMountain.com, if I recall correctly, but it was there. The news I read at the time was modest, but the gist was shortly after Steck returned, the Frenchmen went up the Béghin-Lafaille route too and experienced much harsher conditions, made it to the summit, experienced severe frostbite, and were rushed to Kathmandu for treatment after an eight-day slog. Shortly after they returned, Douglas says Graziani might have seen some ice axe pick marks in the snow higher up but could not be certain. The only other sign that Graziani and Benoist did see was a tent platform cut out, and that, they told Douglas, was before the “real difficulties.”

Douglas also mentioned a report on Steck’s 2011 Shisha Pangma climb that struck Graziani in retrospect. The author was French climbing analyst Randolphe Popier, and he concluded, though Steck was on the route, he could not have made it to the summit of Shisha Pangma in 2011. Graziani told Douglas: “If [Steck] can lie once then he can lie twice.” Popier produced an even more thorough analysis on Steck’s 2013 Annapurna South Face climb. In the Annapurna report Popier used more photo illustrations and points in time to demonstrate credible reasons for doubting Steck. Asking other’s opinions on these reports, after having read them most tell me the same thing: He climbed incredibly but he could not have actually reached the summit and he lied to all of us.

Graziani’s and Benoist’s story was far more credible than Steck; compared to their Odyssey on Annapurna, Steck’s seemed vague, and as Popier and others have pointed out, inconsistent. How can you believe Steck? But could we all be wrong? Or could Steck have been so consumed by pressures that delusion and ego rose up and enveloped his sense of truth? My curiosity rose from just doubt and suspicion to Steck, to a new question: Could Steck still, in light of this research, have made the top of Annapurna, and if he didn’t what happened that compelled him to claim he did?

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