Why Dead Everest Climbers Have Become Landmarks

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

It seems that Smithsonian Magazine online has gotten into the game of writing content with click-baited headlines. I guess you have to when the website has lots of advertising. Well, this article from 2012 has made it around the social grapevine once more, as something to gawk at: “There Are Over 200 Bodies on Mount Everest and They’re Used as Landmarks.”

The writer, Rachel Nuwer, told the story of three climbers that attempted to climb Everest but never made it down. They’re tragic stories. The stories she doesn’t tell are tragic too. But as Robert MacFarlane wrote in Mountains of the Mind (2003), “What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.” By comparison, it wouldn’t be tragic for a baseball player to die sliding into third base; it would be singularly unique and virtually unthinkable.

While Nuwer introduces some new knowledge and shares some short biographies, she doesn’t provide a complete picture of why there are so many climbers lost and still high on the mountain. It’s complex, but I think the understanding all of reasons and factors in play are important for understanding why they’re landmarks, why the bodies remain in place and do not have a more respectable burial, and that nature of climbing on Everest today.

Why they Remain

According to Elizabeth Hawley’s notes on her Himalayan Database, 282 people have died on Mount Everest through spring 2016. Not all of the climbers that died are high on the mountain and some others were brought home, though on Everest that’s rare. (If you can’t log in to Hawley’s website, Alan Arnette has climbed and has been writing about Everest for decades, and he has a tremendous amount of resources on his website including some related tables that pulls from Hawley’s research.)

On most mountains, if a climbing partner or a member of an expedition dies during a climb, they’re partners and teammates make every attempt to bring the body home or at least down to the valley. In some cases this can be impossible, unreasonable, or plain dangerous to the rest of the party. In 1936, Toni Kurz was injured on the Eiger’s infamous north face and his rescuers were unable to reach him due to the length of their ropes. They combined two ropes but Kurz was unable to climb past the knot due to his lack of strength through the injury. He hung on the side of the mountain until much later when a team better equipped and better health was able to recover him.

Everest is different than the Eiger, of course. It’s at high altitude, where the air is thin and carrying even one’s backpack is a laboring activity. Climbers are subject to degrees of hypoxia and judgment can be impaired. The ridges on the popular routes are narrow and stumbles are to be avoided. Even then, on the south side at least, carrying a body through the dangerous Khumbu ice fall, where house-sized blocks of ice tip, fall and crush without warning, would risk several more climbers lives.

Let’s also contrast Mount Everest to the second-highest mountain in the world, K2. K2 is generally steeper for than Everest’s flanks, and for longer stretches. When a climber dies on K2 and is stranded, without the reasonable ability to recover their partner, the fallen climber is left to the effects of the mountain. Most of the climbing on K2 is on it’s face — a giant sloped wall. K2 avalanches sweep it clean of loose debris, which is why even the remains of Dudley Wolfe, who was died on K2 in 1939 were found years later by author Jennifer Jordan on the Baltoro Glacier at the base of the mountain. Everest isn’t as steep and has many more “pockets” for the things it moves. But along the major routes that most climbers attempting Everest take, the path is usually along ridges, less prone to avalanching. When a climber cannot go on, he or she usually settles into a personal pocket of snow drift or under a rock, in a storm to deal with their frostbite, edema, and/or fatigue to wait. Many climbers are displaced, but not usually swept away. And more often, exposed to the high altitude sun rays, and constant freezing and thawing, the remains become semi-permanent in the landscape.

Herding Paths

Before I moved beyond bouldering into ice climbing, my Uncle Tom would take me to climb the 46ers; these are the 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains that rise above 4,000 feet above sea level. They’re mostly in a cluster in the area known as the High Peaks, have bald treeless summits from the harsh winters, and the landscape is a more rugged and northern version of the Smoky Mountains. While we were usually bushwhacking alone up many trails to the top, sometimes we were clearly on the “beaten path.” Other hikers, sometimes right off big 80-person tour buses, were making a virtual conga line up some of the narrow areas. But the wider areas of the trail they hiked side by side; Uncle Tom pointed out to me how the trail and mud got so terribly mucky: “This is a herding path.”

Everest has become a popular stop for the tour-bus equivalent of climbers, the commercial expedition. Today, you can pay a guide to handle the food preparation, most of your technical gear, and expedition fees paid to Nepal or China (depending on the side of the mountain you’re climbing). Hand over $40 – $50 thousand dollars and you’re set. You just train (because, as they’ll tell you, you cannot train enough for this mountain), and they’ll make you a path up the mountain. K2 by comparison, has a growing expedition “bus” visiting, but it hasn’t had a boom of business the way Everest has since the 1990s.

This has made climbing the world’s tallest mountain — the third pole — very accessible to interested adventurers. This is also another reason why so many have perished, in my opinion. While not everyone that climbs is an amateur, this commercial approach to climbing the mountain sets up different expectations of what is expected (making the summit is often one of them.) I genuinely hope things change so that the next climbers don’t become permanent hosts.

Life and Climbing

Like MacFarlane pointed out, death is part of the deal. But death is always part of the deal. There are more bicycling deaths every year than climbing accidents (400-600:30). So wear your helmet. I am a pedestrian most of the week, so I’m totally cautious crossing the street.

Legendary climbing writer David Roberts is fighting cancer. It hasn’t been pretty. He’s been one of my heroes and I pray for his health, (despite that he might urge me not to waste my time.) It’s made reflect on the 60 or so people he’s known that have died climbing. And yet, he wrote this in Alpinist issue 56 from this past winter, in an essay simply titled, “Death and Climbing”:

It is not climbers alone, of course, but modern Western culture that is hindered by a systematic avoidance of death. We no longer hang self-portraits holding skulls as memento mori, the way seventeenth-century thinkers did. Our poets seldom face the terror of terminal illness as squarely as the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe…

Roberts and other climbers usually avoid the topic of death. I think we need to understand it better. It’s not something to gawk at. It’s something real. It happens to loved ones. It happens on Everest, K2, the Eiger, the Adirondacks, and all around us. I think in puzzling over it, we can understand our draw to climbing and the mystery of things that excite us.

Be safe and be well.

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The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition

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Bill Corbett’s latest book. (Szalay, All rights reserved)

Until now, Jonathan Waterman’s High Alaska was only practical climbing guidebook that I would consider suitable for a long flight or for pleasureful beach reading. It told the first ascent stories, as well as the technical aspects of the routes, of the Alaska Ranges’ three most significant peaks, Denali, Beguya, and Sultana. But Bill Corbett updated his earlier guidebook of the Rockies with a new edition. It’s exquisite and practical.

Corbett’s The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition is rich with the history and stories of the climbers that made the first ascents. With Rocky Mountain Books, Corbett produced a beautifully illustrated book with the maps required of a top-notch guide, with well-chosen color photographs of the mountains, and insightful commentaries that goes well beyond the route.

Steep

Mark Twight, with his terse ways, said that if you have to train in North America for high altitude climbing and the hardest climbs elsewhere in the world, you must train in the Canadian Rockies.In fact, when I was a boy, it was Twight’s elitist assessment of North American climbing, in general, that made the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies stand out in high relief. The Canadian Rockies are not the tallest, but they were cold and were begrudgingly steep.

Corbett’s book doesn’t attempt to make a claim of the Canadian Rockies like Twight’s, but he illustrates over and over again how unique these mountains are, and perhaps more technically challenging than many other mountains throughout the continent. It certainly lends fodder to Twight’s point.

By comparison, Corbett compares the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies to the 14,o00ers of the Colorado Rockies. Here’s my paraphrase: While Colorado’s are sloped, requiring some advanced upward relentless hiking, the northern high peaks of the Rocky Mountains were cut by receding glaciers leaving great walls and exposed alpine ridges, demanding technical skills, equipment, and more courage. Corbett also observed that the guy that “ran up” all of the Colorado Rockies in 2015 was a mere 10 days. Meanwhile, the speed record for climbing all of the 11,000ers “is more than seven years,” and only 11 climbers have completed the circuit.

A Quest for a Lifetime

The new edition lays out a plan for adventure, similar to the heralded Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Steve Roper and Allen Steck (1979), but seemingly more stirring to the imagination.

Corbett updated the book, in part, because the list of 11,000ers have changed, at least at the bottom of the list. I learned a great deal, without getting stumped with mysterious technical terms, about why this is and why the highest mountains are undisputed. In fact, the story of the initial and successive measurements were part of a good introduction (and perhaps the beginning of the allure of these mountains, if you’re familiar with the legends of Mounts Hooker and Brown.) In the end, the “original” list of 50 peaks at or over 11,000 ft. (3,353 m.), has expanded to 54. In fact, there are 13 on the fringe based on modern measurements, with Mounts Murchison (10,997 ft.) and Cromwell (10,994 ft.) in the zone for error.

The book lays out the challenge of each peak first with a color photo of the objective and Corbett’s own commentary of climbing the mountain, which is particularly useful, as he might share that waiting for the route, like those on Mount Alberta 11,873 ft. (3,619 m.), to come into shape requires patience. Next Corbett shares the unique history of the mountain’s earliest and most important ascents. He closes each passage on these mountains, which can go on for several enjoyable pages, to the route, including the approach, and some details about how much time one might expect to take in decent conditions.

Like High Alaska, you do not have to be planning an expedition to the Canadian Rockies to enjoy this book if you love mountains, adventure, and have some interest in climbing them. In fact, I imagine one day when my children are bit older, I would come home from work and things would be quiet. I would find one of them having discovered this book, drawn in first by the photos, and now reading about Conrad Kain, Don Forest, and Nancy Hensen. If nothing else, they might get a sense of adventure and the sense of being committed to a long, big, rewarding endeavor.

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Why Kyle’s and Scott’s Stories Aren’t Over Yet

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Baintha Brakk II. (All rights reserved)

The obituaries are the underrated part of the American Alpine Journal. They cover lifetimes of climbs, and speak to the people that make each edition of the Journal what I have loved to pour over since I was a kid in high school.

But reading them requires different tolerances: The 71-year old and the 91-year old that passed away at home from old age or poor health covers climbs, careers, marriage, children, are about a degree of fulfillment and respect. Reading the ones of younger AAC members, like Dean Potter and Justin Griffin are more difficult to read through without getting choked up.

Justin was originally from Kentucky but got into climbing and moved to Bozeman, Montana. He finished college and became an architect/builder. He was married to a woman he loved. He helped buy her a stable, where she could train horses for clients. Justin and his wife also had a young daughter and lots of plans for the future. He died in the fall of 2015 on descent after putting up a new route in the Himalaya. His climbing partner Skiy DeTray, was unable to revive him, and had to come home alone.

There seemed to be fewer early deaths of young climbers in the last couple of years (or so it seemed to me.) But then something unique, in my experience, happened; News of two climbers I admired were missing, and not only that, the news came with a plea for help. I gave a little money and urgently helped spread the word about the need for a search and rescue for Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson. What happened next was simultaneously wrenching and inspiring.

A Vigil

Once or twice a day I scan the climbing news headlines and feeds on Facebook or Twitter. It’s usually a pleasant distraction and helps me shift gears between big tasks at work of managing a team and a network of stakeholders fighting for affordable housing. I mainly look for inspiration for daydreams and an innocent attempt to live vicariously.

Yet, at a little before 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 31, 2016, I read an unusual headline on Adventure Journal: Alpinists Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson Missing in Pakistan.

Normally the headlines are about an accomplishment (like “team makes first alpine style link up”), or about controversy or conservation (“President names new national monuments”), or someone was heli-evaced or died. But this time, two well-known climbers were overdue and the AJ article included a link to the GoFundMe campaign page that their family and close-friends had set up. Thousands of us waited hoping for news that Kyle and Scott were coming down Baintha Brakk II. Perhaps they were coming down the wrong side of the mountain, and maybe a little hungry and scratched up but alive and well. The GoFundMe campaign page, as of yesterday, September 11, 2016, reported having over 15,000 shares.

For three days, we collectively held a quiet vigil. Not at temples, churches, bars, or living rooms, though some of us may have done so, but mostly through our phones, waiting for updates and good news on Facebook and Twitter. We all shared in hope and put our money down as an act of faith and friendship.

The actual giving was another story by itself.

Giving of Alms

In 16 hours, the friends and fans of Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson gave $100,000 (US) toward their search and rescue. The giving didn’t stop there. The money kept coming. The “positive thoughts” and prayers carried on too.

The search and rescue efforts blossomed from a sole helicopter reconnaissance and a neighboring expedition pausing its efforts to look for Kyle and Scott, into multiple flights and assistance from the Pakistani military. The bill expanded as well, and the goal increased from $100,000 to the current goal of $250,000.

Kyle and Scott had rescue insurance, however, it would only cover a small portion ($10,000) of the massive bill accumulating as more resources were enlisted. The helicopters and pilots were the greatest cost. And the final total, according to Black Diamond Equipment, 11 days after the public call for help was made, still hasn’t been realized with some costs and fees still coming in and payments being made. (Unspent money will be repaid to contributors, but how that process will work will not be decided until the debt is paid, which it might not fully be.)

The cost is hefty and heftier still because we couldn’t find Kyle and Scott. The hole in the pocket is deeper than financial, and sadly the momentum to keep the money flowing in may be dwindling. After eight days, over 4,900 people gave $198,000. After three more days, fifteen other contributors have given an additional $400, still hundreds away from the amount currently necessary to settle the debt.

But what has amazed me, and amazed so many others, how 4,980 people (as of yesterday, September 11, 2016) have opened their wallets; many of whom after the family and immediate friends of Kyle and Scott called off any further searches.

As much as we wanted Kyle and Adam to succeed on Baintha Brakk II, we also wanted them to come home safely. We wanted them to come home safely even more. Even in the era of social media in climbing, it’s still about the climbers not the climb.

Keep Giving

Had Justin Griffin still been with us, his wife and his daughter, he would have made the number of individual contributors as of yesterday 4,981. Justin climbed with Kyle in Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. Kyle was the more experienced alpinist, and Justin was catching up quickly.

And I think there are dozens more stories like this about Kyle and Scott. They probably are underlying the individuals of the final tally. I never met Kyle but I remember the first time I came across him. It was of a photo of him leaning on a table in the coffeehouse he co-owned in Utah advertising Outdoor Research, I think. While his Piolet d’Or and grants validated him, it was that photo that made him out to be a role model or hero to me. He ran his own business, an admirable accomplishment by itself, and he managed to climb at a high level.

On top of that, everyone who actually knew him liked him. One of his editors recently told him that he was extremely likeable and he really listened to people. For Kyle, life was not about him or an ego, but the people around him. He was the type of person that is given the grand, rare moniker of being “just a good guy.” That’s someone I can tell my kids about; they’ll know him as the guy that climbed mountains and owned a cafe, but I want them to remember that he was a good guy to everyone he met.

Climbers are not a wealthy bunch, generally speaking. And their family and friends shouldn’t get stuck with the bill for our mistakes, accidents, and risks that don’t play out as we want. If Scott or Kyle’s lives have touched you, or this story has affected you in some way, please help their families grieve and don’t leave them with a bill. I’m going to give a little more. Maybe you can too.

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Bold Alaska: Colin Haley’s Infinite Spur Solo

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Infinite Spur Solo. (All rights reserved)

Go ahead and grumble, if you want to, that mountaineering and climbing isn’t what it was in the 1960s in Yosemite or the Himalayas of the 1950s, or even that exploration is actually dead. Go ahead. But you might be missing some of the more amazing things happening in climbing.

For instance: fast-and-light ascents are being claimed with greater frequency (that’s not necessarily taking the fun out of sufferfests, for those of you fans of alpine suffering), routes like the Compressor on Cerro Torre have gone free, long traverses are being claimed from the Mooses Tooth to the Mazeno Ridge, lengthy linkups are dispatched in hours rather than days, and women are demonstrating an unquestionable prowess in alpinism.

Still, for the last couple of years, nothing has wowed me more than the solo ascent by Ueli Steck of Annapurna’s South Face in October 2013. I actually found it chilling. I think I lived on a happy high over it for some time. So it’s been relatively dull, by comparison… until yesterday.

By now you should have heard about Colin Haley’s solo ascent of Mount Foraker’s — er, well, since McKinley is going rightly by Denali now we ought to call Mount Foraker more formally Sultana — Sultana’s Infinite Spur. If you haven’t heard click here for the recap and here for Colin’s personal take.

Flash

Just over a year ago, I named the first ascent of the Infinite Spur by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 as an Honorable Mention among the top five Boldest Climbs in a Alaska. That climb took Kennedy and Lowe 14 days to navigate and deal with the conditions before topping out on Sultana’s north (and higher) peak.

But as Colin points out, no one had yet soloed the Infinite Spur. Other significant lines on Denali had, of course, been done alone. But Sultana has often been overlooked.

Colin’s experience here was also a powerful footnote to say that the climb is only half done upon reaching the summit. He got to the top in under 13 hours, but it took days in low-visibility to descend to safety.

Bold Solo Ascents

I have always been attracted to great solo feats and performances. I like goalies in hockey and pitchers in baseball. They’re unique and critical role to their team can’t be overplayed. A shutout and a perfect game are the pinnacle for those athletes.

In climbing, partnerships are highly valued. Teams are celebrated. And most of all, they are best experienced with teammates; because there is always more to climbing than climbing, just as there is more to fishing than fishing. And in regards to the Infinite Spur, even Steve House and Rolando Garibotti pulled off a lightning ascent in 2001.

But once in a while, someone like Reinhold Messner, Johnny Waterman, Ueli Steck, and, heck, even Alex Honnold, need to try something different.

Climbing is a game and the scenarios and the rules change (perhaps terms is a better word than rules), and the challenge is different. The failure and the accomplishment is weighed differently. Decisions are praised and criticized in that context.

It’s a matter about style, ultimately. Colin demonstrated boldness and style. I don’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps and approach, but when the next climber is ready, hopefully their judgment is sure and fortune will be with them.

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Conjuring Up the Mountain High through Art

Baffin Island in color. (All rights reserved)

I risk embarrassing myself quite a bit with my new interest in drawing mountains and climbing scenes, but I figure if I don’t share them I might not keep practicing and working on improvement. So here’s the announcement: you can follow me on Instagram and see more of my drawings of the mountains.

I draw for similar reasons for keeping this blog: Trying to hold on to the feeling of being at peace of some degree of bliss from being among the mountains is generally elusive. But I have found that mountain art has helped make the mountains come to me, even in the Washington, DC metro area. And writing on this blog has always conjured up the mountains and most of those feelings.

Alpine start. (All rights reserved) Alpine start. (All rights reserved)

Until recently, I have just been taking in other people’s art, like Renan Ozturk‘s paintings. But with some nudges, including from my wife and friends, I finally gave in and started to try drawing again.

Generally, I try to use as few lines as possible and use colors that capture a feeling of the landscape more than accuracy. What do you think of that approach?

So come follow me on Instagram and please comment, let me know what needs improvement. Let me know when the low-lying fog looks more like lava. Let me know if you like the combination of colors.

I draw whatever interests me at the time, but I want to connect with you too, so please don’t be shy.

The shriek that was turned to stone. (All rights reserved) The shriek that was turned to stone. (All rights reserved)

 

Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved) Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

 

Denali rising (All rights reserved) Denali rising (All rights reserved)

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John Muir and Hudson Stuck Feast Day

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Rock hopping. (All rights reserved)

In 2009, two significant historical individuals close to climbers and outdoor enthusiasts were given a status near Sainthood: John Muir (1834-1914), the great explorer and photographer, and Hudson Stuck (1863-1920), the leader of the first successful ascent of Denali, were named Holy Men by the Episcopal Church.

Because of their status as great Episcopalians, Holy Men are assigned a feast day, a day of celebration, on the church’s calendar. April 22nd was named their combined feast day. Not coincidentally, April 22nd is also Earth Day.

If you’re Episcopalian, or even Catholic, you know that there was nothing resembling a Thanksgiving holiday on any saint’s or holy person’s feast day. Rather it is a day to contemplate, dwell, or meditate on the holy person’s life and work. However, there are particular mentions, prayers, or readings from scripture assigned or associated with the feast day’s honoree (or in this case, the honorees) on their feast day to help celebrate and speak something to one’s soul.

The official record by the Episcopal Church in naming these men as Holy characterized Muir as a “Naturalist and Writer” while identifying Stuck as a “Priest and Environmentalist.” (Stuck was an Archdeacon in the Diocese of Alaska.)

You may read the prayer and scripture readings by clicking to this page of the Episcopal Church’s website.

So on their upcoming feast day, ask yourself (and maybe even your friends), what does John Muir and Hudson Stuck mean to you and your community?

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Sources: 1) EpiscopalChurch.org, 2) Sierra Club and 3) Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.