Fritz Wiessner Has a Woods and a Bar but Here’s Why He Deserves More

Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

The trees rose from a cushion of pine needles to great heights with silence, except for a gentle rustling of branches through refracted rays of sunlight. Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak, with their ski trails — with once the highest aerial tram in the world — rose from this valley, but none of this could be seen or sensed through the woods. When we left our Subaru in the trailhead parking lot, we were in his territory.

I walked with one trekking pole while little Wunderkind walked with the other. Schnickelfritz was riding in the kid carrier on my back. Their mother and grandparents understood the significance of these woods here in Stowe, Vermont — the reason we came — but I had to tell the story of its namesake with a little more color for Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz. The Stowe Land Trust owns the 79 acres that makes up Wiessner Woods, which is the only permanent memorial to Fritz Wiessner.

While there were many stories to share, the one Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz had to know was from K2 on July 19, 1939. It was late in the day. Wiessner had climbed up above 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters) on second-highest mountain in the world, which was 28,251 feet (8,611 meters) tall, with Pasang Lama without supplemental oxygen. They were alone; they had no radio or way of communicating down the peak to their teammates. They climbed up steep, black rock and were nearly to a point where the rock stopped and it was merely snow all the way to the top, at about 27,500 (8,382 meters). Wiessner was on the cusp to be the first person to climb K2. Except it was getting dark and Pasang was scared; he believed evils spirits dwelt on the summit at night. “No, Sahib,” Pasang said to Wiessner. With his partner unwilling or unable to go, Wiessner turned around with Pasang.

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A mere 79 acres of joy. (Natalie Stern)

Sadly, while Wiessner intended to return, he never would. His high point would stand for 15 years, until Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli became the first people to stand atop K2 in 1954. But Wiessner’s and Pasang’s record for reaching so high on K2 without supplemental oxygen would stand for nearly 40 years, when Louis Reichardt and John Roskelley climbed the mountain without supplemental oxygen in 1978 in only the mountains third ascent to date.

Since then, my kids set up the tent and grabbed their toy hammers as pseudo ice axes to pretend they are climbing K2. Wouldn’t you?

WORTH DRINKING OVER

The forested cushion of pine needles that make the floor of the Wiessner Woods doesn’t actually stop at its edges. The same woods rolls onto an adjacent 26-acre hillside where a rustic post-modern ski lodge called the Stowehof commands views of Mount Mansfield. It has a German-Austrian alpine flair at its core, that is best celebrated with it’s recently renamed bar.

Fritz Bar is cozy and has private corners and tables to make an evening intimate. It is also decorated with photos of Fritz Wiessner, with his hairless head and broad smile, surrounded by mountains and adorned with thick hemp ropes. I dropped in after our visit to the Wiessner Woods to buy Natalie, her parents, and I a round, get the kids a salted pretzel to share, and toast Fritz.

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At the Stowehof, down to the Fritz Bar. (All rights reserved)

Not everyone was always willing to toast Fritz Wiessner, however. Shortly after moving to the United States from Germany in 1929, Wiessner had raised the standard of American climbing at several remarkable North American destinations. In 1938, the American Alpine Club had secured permission to send an expedition to attempt K2 and they’re first choice to lead the team was Wiessner. However, his ski-wax business in Vermont had too many orders to fulfill so he graciously turned them down, and the AAC turned to Charles Houston instead.

Houston thought Wiessner’s decline had dubious intent almost immediately; why would he turn down K2? Both Houston and Wiessner knew that the AAC had a permits to attempt K2 for two years, so if Houston’s team failed to make the top, Wiessner could learn from Houston’s mistakes and get the glory. Although The New York Times celebrated the team’s high mark of 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters), Houston was bitter. Not to get too far along into Houston’s life story, this illustrates how much ownership he claimed to K2’s first ascent: The year after his second attempt, and the year before he was to use his permit for an attempt in 1955, Houston briefly went missing and suffered from global amnesia after hearing the news that the Italians finally climbed K2.

The sad story that came out of Wiessner’s 1939 expedition was bad news for Wiessner and overshadowed all of Wiessner’s other accomplishments. While Wiessner and Pasang made it to 27,500 feet, Dudley Wolfe, the expedition’s primary financier was languishing and dying at Camp VII. With the exception of Wiessner, the 1939 team was by far a weakest group that climbed high on any Himalayan peak prior to the HImalaya’s Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. Wolfe was an enthusiastic, though inexperienced,  adventurer. Wiessner knew this, and despite this, he sincerely wanted to help Wolfe to the top. Except, Wolfe’s inexperience, lack of fitness, and the overriding effects of altitude took it’s toll. Critics blamed Wiessner both generally as leader and specifically for allowing Wolfe to climb and stay so high for so long, and finally not for returning for him (though the risks were significant, and his condition was too far gone.) Combine anti-German sentiment that festered during the years during and after World War II, Wiessner’s reputation was tarnished, and in some circles, his wrongdoings were exaggerated into shameless smears.

In the 1930s we were just beginning to understand the devastating effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude on the human body. No one had ever stayed in a high camp so long as Dudley Wolfe had before. Wolfe could climb up well enough with help, but descending the steep grade was a bit more technical. Wiessner, by contrast, raced up and down the mountain and in between camps, in a valiant effort to position his team to reach the top. Both men wanted to reach the summit, and Fritz probably, foolishly yet earnestly, promised it to him.

Despite the tragedy of the 1939 expedition, I sat down to toast Fritz. And I remembered Dudley Wolfe too.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENTS

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No, Sahib / Prost, Fritz (All rights reserved)

Wiessner was born in Dresden, Germany in 1901. After an impressive climbing career in Europe, Wiessner left Germany for the United States in 1929 for the chance to improve his beyond what Dresden and Germany offered. He quickly demonstrated that his climbing skills were beyond what had ever been attempted by Americans, making a similar impact to what Austrian-immigrant Conrad Kain had in Canada.

Between 1931 and 1937, he worked up quite the resume. Here are the most historically significant:

  • Cannon Cliff, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains;
  • Wallface Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks;
  • Making the first-free ascent of the iconic Devils Tower rising up from Wyoming (predecessor’s used excessive aid); and
  • Climbing the mysterious Mount Waddington, in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada.

On K2, what also makes his high point so remarkable was his sharp analysis of the risks on the route past the bottleneck, where an oversized serac haunts the path to the top. Although it has been generally stable (and when it hasn’t been the consequences have been tragic,) Wiessner didn’t know that. Wiessner avoided the bottleneck and the hanging glacier by climbing the steep rock band to the left, which no one had climbed since. Ed Viesturs wrote, in his book on K2 he wrote with David Roberts:

It’s not easy to judge other people’s climbs, but I’d venture to say that nothing of comparable difficulty at such an altitude would be performed by anybody during the next nineteen years, until Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri’s brilliant first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958.

After the 1939 expedition, Wiessner was the subject of an unprecedented investigation and accusations of being a Nazi spy. The AAC investigated the failure and criticisms of the climb, including what lead up to Wolfe’s demise. Though it was not a court of law, the conclusions loaded all judgment on Wiessner. As Ed Viesturs and David Roberts put it: “And Frtiz Wiessner was a German-American, at perhaps the worst time in the twentieth century to be one.” Two members of the investigating committee, Al Lindley and Robert Underhill, stood by Wiessner and disagreed with reports. Underhill wrote, that despite many poor circumstances:

Wiessner, and Wolfe behind him, was the only one who still wanted to climb the mountain… [T]his leads me to appreciate Wiessner the more. He had the guts — and there is no single thing finer in a climber, or in a man.

Wiessner passed away at his home in Stowe, Vermont in July 1988. While his moments on K2 were what everyone reads about, he lead a life where he shared climbing with others, particularly younger climbers, and had the enduring respect of his community. The blemishes from the turmoil of aftermath of the 1939 expedition are hard to forget, but Wiessner remains a constant light and joyful in what the mountains and climbing could bring. Perhaps Wiessner deserves more than a woods and a bar.

VERMONT AND THE ADIRONDACKS

When I stand in the Wiessner Woods, with the scent of pine always in the air, I feel much farther from the bustling ski resort at Mount Mansfield or event the sheik Stowehof. Maybe that’s why he liked it there.

While Wiessner had climbed major alpine peaks, and discovered landmark crags, like the Shawangunks outside New Paltz, New York, his favorite places were in Stowe and in a tiny corner of the Adirondacks that I touch on in this blog periodically: Wallface. Wiessner preferred going to and climbing at Wallface not because it was big, though it’s respectable in scale, not because it is firm because it’s a little chossy, but because it’s a long way from the road. It’s quiet. It’s rarely visited.

Wiessner never let the 1939 K2 expedition detract from his life, or hold him back from what he sought to do next. He lived his life. He had his children and grand children. He ran his business. He shared climbing with others. And he retreated for a respite, now and then, to the woods of Vermont, and sometimes making the long trek to Wallface.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy receiving my newsletter with more climbing history, news on upcoming books, and climbing art by some talented artists.

References: 1) Jennifer Jordan, The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of An American Adventurer on K2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 188-191. 2) Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), 151-153, 174-177. 3) Don Mellor, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing (Woodstock, Vermont: Countryman Press, 2001), 68-69.

What I am Reading Now and Exploring Pennsylvania

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Here is what is on my bedstand for March 2018.

I usually complain that there is never enough time to do everything. I said such things when I worked in Washington, DC and I am saying this in Lancaster, PA too. However, it took moving to Pennsylvania to truly realize that with all of my interests and ambitions, time is my most valuable commodity. Which brought me to ask myself, What is worth my time?

Keeping up with work is important (I enjoy it too, which helps immensely,) and spending time with Natalie, Wunderkind and Schnicklefritz is even more valuable to me. Reading and keeping this blog up, both of which bring me great joy. And so is getting outside on trails, or just and taking in nature in some way, even like through a snow day, like yesterday.

In reading, I am doubling down on my interest in reading the climbing classics. There are lists out there, and I am developing my own list too. But I haven’t read everything yet, so I can’t say my list if ready for prime time; this journey is a long way off. And some books I feel the need to re-read. One day I’ll have a solid list of English language climbing classics to share. For March 2018, this is what is in my weathered orange Patagonia half mass bag:

The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman (1956) — I thought starting with a satire for a chuckle now and then was a good idea. Bowman’s classic certainly does the trick. It particularly helps if you have read any official expedition books, like Tillman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi from the first half or so of the twentieth century; Annapurna, while French, might be the most widely read example. From the characters names to absurdity of the nation of porters required to carry equipment of base camp, it’s like one big inside climbing joke. I took this out through the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library.

The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti (originally published in 1998) — As I said before, Walter Bonatti is one of the greatest climbers of all time. This book I have looked at and read snippets of, but never from beginning to end. So the experience will start next week after I finish rereading Rum Doodle. Robert Marshall translates Bonatti’s words for us, but it is Bonatti himself that recounts his tales of adventure in the Alps, K2, and (what I am particularly interested in) Patagonia.

Alpinist issue 61 — This issue celebrates “Indomitable” Fred Beckey, who passed away last October. Brad Rassler points out that everyone has a story about Beckey, seemingly because we all want to be a part of him. It’s true, even I have one. Also, Eileen Guo takes us mountaineering in Afghanistan, including with a manless climbing school.

50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania 4th Ed. by Tom Thwaites (2001) — Natalie gave this to me for Christmas, among some other gifts, to help us navigate the new landscape around us. We discovered that there is much more to offer in Pennsylvania where we now live in Lancaster County than we even thought when we decided to take a new job and move. In fact, within a 30-minute drive we have a great bouldering destination (and I don’t mean Spooky Nook or RecROC gyms) and a world-class destination for bird watching at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. I think balancing work, my reading ambitions, and family fun with some outdoors time, will pay loads of dividends.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy receiving my monthly newsletter with more climbing history, news on upcoming books, and climbing art by some talented artists.

Alaskan Alpinist Steve Hackett, and Other Notes

Spooky Nook Climbing Gym Boulder

The stand-alone boulder at Spooky Nook, Lancaster County, PA (All rights reserved)

I recently read an article about how expectations can kill relationships — any relationship. For instance, for someone that hasn’t gone backpacking before but wants a romantic stroll into the outdoors to see beauty and feel refreshed might be jolted by the hard work and occasional bad weather. The article recommended that we let observation dictate our vision and judgment rather than our expectations. It’s a little different than just “going with the flow,” because its the essence of adventure; mystery. Don’t try to set expectations, rather let the world tell you the story it has and accept and embrace it for what it is, whatever it is.

This makes me think of Steve Hackett’s great adventure. In 1976, he set off alone to the remote Brooks Range in Alaska’s far north. His objective was Mount Igikpak. It wasn’t grand like Mount Huntington or the Matterhorn; in fact most of the images I’ve seen of it make it look worthy of being overlooked. It had been climbed twice before in no distinctive style; first by a team lead by David Roberts in 1968. Hackett had a bold vision.

Hackett traveled solo by inflatable kayak and on foot to the peak. He went alone, without support, and no bush planes and before helicopters were popular. The summit pyramid presented overhangs on every flank. His limited protection gear forced him to rely on old gear from the previous ascents, which could easily have been deemed stupid or reason to turn around to many other climbers. Despite the danger, he was bold, considered the risk, and went for it, and stood on top.

After returning to the base, he waited for friends to travel together. They never came. He got his inflatable kayak back out and paddled 365 miles in under eight days down the Noatik River.

Where would Hackett have been had he not adapted to the challenges and only allowed expectations to get in his way?

TSM Moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania

I worked in Washington, DC for 15 years and owned a condominium across the Potomac River for 10 of them. For a while I thought I lived in suburbia; in terms of my commute it felt like it, except that area of Northern Virginia, like all of Northern Virginia, is urban. I have been a sham of a suburbanite. Natalie and I once considered renaming this blog The Urban Mountaineer. Well, all that started to change in July when I accepted an unexpected job offer with a Habitat for Humanity in Central Pennsylvania

I am now entrenched in a suburban neighborhood. I bought a house, a second car, a lawn mower, changed the home’s flooring, and painted the bedrooms.

I had never considered living in Lancaster County until the job came along. It’s more than an Amish, rural, or a tourist destination. It is a beautiful diverse community with hard-working farms, hills, and wonderful neighbors. But it’s also one of Pennsylvania’s most urban counties outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And Lancaster County currently hosts two climbing gyms — Lititz recROC and the gym at the Spooky Nook Sports complex.

I feel closer to the earth here, the way I do when I visit Vermont. The small farms in Vermont give visitors intimate access to their work, but also reinforced Aldo Leopold’s notion of community where it’s more than just institutions and people, but land and wildlife too.

My boxes of climbing books, magazines, and maps are all back together. The contents are all on a shelf, though a little disorganized at the moment. I’ve realized that I need those books, not just the Internet, to write this blog. As much as I want to believe reading is reading wherever you find it, my attention to a nuanced story about a climb or a personal struggle can’t be interrupted by text messages or news alerts. My new piece of advice for any reader, if you’re going to read, set aside some time devoted to reading and reading alone. Personally, I like to read after the kids go to sleep and reading in the same room as Natalie in our new home.

I think with things settling down and coming together, the monthly newsletter will finally get off the ground and into your inboxes. Thanks to everyone who have subscribed — and wow, there are a lot of you — you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy receiving my monthly newsletter with more climbing history, news on upcoming books, and climbing art by some talented artists.

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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