After you reached the top of Denali, you tugged at your left mitten with your teeth and let the fingerless glove dangle on its tether. Your hand, covered in a blue fleece glove unzipped your chest pocket and reached in for your camera. You snapped shots of the view, with the ever-changing camouflage pattern of gleaming white and gray cast over the West Buttress by shifting clouds. Finally, you put your arm around your two partners and snap a selfie.
When you tell your story with your family or your Mountaineering Section of the Appalachian Mountain Club, that photo of the three of you always comes out. To you, it was the culmination of so much time, money, and above all, heart. The photo shows the three of you, with grey sky on the left and bright sunshine on the right and in between your heads is snow and indication of a valley, or maybe that’s just dark from a cloud’s shadow. In fact, your other photos, of the North Summit and the West Buttress, and possibly the one of not-so-distant Begguya, were better proof of your arrival on the summit.
The honor system is widely applied worldwide. Climbers generally accept other climbers claims so long as the climber claiming their first ascent or summit is of good character. For infrequently visited summits, if the story is doubted, a summit record is occasionally disputed in the record. Usually only the larger mountains, that are more competitively climbed where climbers doubt and dispute summits.
My favorite example is the dispute of Frederick Cook’s claim that he made it to the top of Denali in 1906, then referred to as Mount McKinley. Cook visited the range, retreated, and suddenly turned around with one lesser partner and returned with news that he had climbed the highest peak in North America. He even had a photo as proof. His story was dubious to knowledgeable climbers, yet Cook published a book and was generally regarded as the first ascentionist among the general public. The doubt spread by climbers incensed at his injustice, and in 1910 Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker, who Cook made the initial retreat with, returned to the Alaska Range and replicated Cook’s photo-of-proof and debunked the climb altogether. Cook went on denying any hoax.
Summit photos are evidence, particularly with landmarks, even at a distance. Narratives are evidence, and the timing and conditions must be reasonable. Maps or even a GPS-tracked route, are very helpful. All of which could be fabricated, but the honor system still holds generally speaking. As Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Trust, but verify.”
Eberhard Jurgalski of 8000ers.com has records, some of which aren’t widely known, of disputes around the summits of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri I, and Manaslu. To be more precise, there are questions of whether the climbers reached the actual summit. And if the actual summit wasn’t reached, has a custom or norm been created where the area surrounding the summit is considered a successful climb?
Over the last year, in between more pressing life things, I have been talking to established climbing researchers and perusing Jurgalski’s website and have been fascinated by the system he and others have developed using peak photos. Through some painstaking work, they have collected quality views from and of the summit, and labeled all of the notable features with letters, A, B, C, and so forth. The photos submitted as evidence of a climb can then be compared to these points. For example, if the rock covered in snow forming a knob, feature E is always in line with peak D in the distance with a certain amount of visibility from the lower peak in front of it, from a southwest camera angle, then you can clearly see where on the climber stood on the summit.
Of course, with so many instances of climbers reaching the top but not actually arriving on the summit, Jurgalski and others have suggested in 2019, for a point of discussion, introducing summit Tolerance Zones. This is essential for the work on 8000ers.com where counting climbers, by name and date, who reached the summit. When it was assumed everyone was reaching the true tippy top, tallying summiters was simple. The photographic evidence has shown the treatment of summits as a, well, slippery slope.
I believe the summit is the summit. We should be reaching the top, even if there is only room for one person at a time. I’ve done that on much less significant peaks. However, I would hate to have my “expedition” scrutinized like this. I like the self-reporting of the Alpine Journals everywhere, but while the Elizabeth Hawley-like verification prevents more Frederick Cooks, I just want to climb, I don’t want to write a book about how I was first. Of course, too many are speaking to corporate circles and giving Ted Talks (supposedly) about their perseverance and vision through their summit of an 8000-meter peak. Fine, go climb and tell. I’m going to find some better peaks that are under the radar and enjoy it for what it is, a summit. And I know there are others, that will find more impressive lines to go up than a summit to verify. Thanks, I hope I’ll stumble on your story.
UPDATE (Nov. 30, 2020): A few days after I posted this essay, the American Alpine Club published an extensive piece by Damien Gildea, Antarctic alpinist and author, about the dilemma of climbers claiming summits they have not stood upon. He goes in depth into the discovery and the challenge it presents to archival accomplishments as well as what we do going forward.