How to Start Healing Everest

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Everest ought to be a pure temple or iconic symbol of dreams and lofty objectives that only the committed obtain. Unfortunately, it’s been spoiled, and exploited at the expense of the Sherpa.

Last season, I had hopes that Ueli Steck and company would put up a new route to the top, redeeming the pure style of climbing on Everest — done in small teams of experienced climbers, mostly alone and unsupported. But that ended in a dangerous fistfight and appears to be a precursor to the events that we are watching this year.

Since then, over the winter, the Nepali government seized the opportunity to reform how the climbs are run — including who was eligible to make an attempt. However, the government prioritized crowd control and enhancing revenue over everything else. Personally, I hoped that aspirants’ qualifications would be required, regardless whether fee increases were involved. That was unlikely to happen despite its merits.

Here in lies the biggest conflict with the dream of a pure mountain that I want and what Nepal and the Sherpa desire: The Sherpa want respect and Nepal wants foreign income (a very lucrative source). Nepal won’t get it without the Sherpa workforce. The cattle call of climbers can’t come and even make a modest attempt without the Sherpa. And to turn back the clock to the days before Mountain Madness, Adventure Consultants, IMG and Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. and other guides brought their clients wouldn’t help anyone. Except the Everest purist.

With 16 Sherpa dead from preparing the way for climbers, followed by a well-timed strike, I think everyone needs to do some soul searching. Maybe working as a porter is too dangerous. Maybe commercial “expeditions” are inappropriate. Maybe Nepal’s government needs to examine its priorities.

I regularly call the contemporary experience on Everest a circus. Via ferrata and zip lines wouldn’t be out of place. I once believed that there were no real victims on Everest climbs, but the events of the last few years, and even Freddie Wilkinson’s book about similar trends on K2, have shown me that the Sherpa are both super climbers and vulnerable people.

There have been expressions of respect for the Sherpa since the English explored Nepal, but they need more than adoring words. The we have complicated their existence, which was already a difficult one marked by hard conditions and poverty.

New ways to help the Sherpa, particularly the families of the 16 lost, have been emerging. Several artists, like Renan Ozturk, are offering limited edition prints this week only to raise funds to help the people the 16 Sherpa supported. The American Alpine Club is collecting funds for the Sherpa Support Fund. I urge you to give by clicking here.

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Dragons Slayed and McDonald Awarded

Bernadette McDonald having received the AAC Literary Award (taken by Bryan Rafferty and shared with permission from the AAC)

The American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner was held in Boston at the beginning of the month. It’s nice to have it on the east coast now and then. Edelweiss and I talked about attending, but we had a lot of excuses — top of the list was taking care of our new Wunderkind. So I am grateful to a few people associated with the AAC for helping me live vicariously once again from my cage in Peaklessburg.

The featured event of the evening was the celebration of the first ascent of Saser Kangri II (24,665ft./7,518m.), which was the second highest unclimbed peak in the world, located in the greater Himalaya of Northern India. The American team ascended the southwest face alpine style to establish The Old Breed (WI4 M3, 1700m), which as reported by Alpinist.com, “[O]ne of the highest first ascents of a peak in alpine style in the history of mountaineering.”

Perhaps the most significant piece from the accomplishment was that another giant has fallen. It’s sad, in a way, to witness this transition from an age of romance and unknowns on the map to… something else. That something else involves new challenges, but they stem from a level of familiarity. Then again, I think most explorers — climbers included — think they were born too late. The giants are still giants, but they’ve all been tackled.

And this is why there is mountain literature to pass on the stories and see the world as it was perceived then or to put the new challenges in a proper light. In part, for this reason, Bernadette McDonald was given the AAC Literary Award at the dinner.

 

Bernadette McDonald has written several books on mountaineering, including one recently to great acclaim. Freedom Climbers is about Polish alpinists that dominated high altitude climbing in the 1970s and 80s. It has received other significant awards, including at her native Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival, the Boardman Tasker in the United Kingdom and now at the AAC Benefit Dinner.

From all of these reports, McDonald’s work is both insightful and appears to strike the cord that appeals to both mountaineering experts and those that crave a good adventure story. However, she is also telling a story of a strong people that has often gone unrecognized; the Poles have faced great political and social adversity in the 20th Century and yet they excelled in the hills.

Today, the Polish alpinists are continuing to work at their goal of climbing all of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya in winter — in fact, Artur Hajzer’s team just summitted Gasherbrum I last week! The leader of their alpine club set forth a mandate that they grab those first winter ascents for the good of national pride and for being a role model to their youth. The grand record of all 14 is out now, but the quest continues.

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The AAC: Support for Achievement

If you climb regularly and are already a member of American Alpine Club (AAC), you know the value it brings.  If you don’t climb regularly, you might be tempted to think the US$75 dues are not worth it for you.  Even if you don’t enter the vertical world frequently, your passion for the mountains and the sport will benefit from membership. 

I wanted to join in the late 1990s to join the ranks of its members like Bradford Washburn, Charles Houston, Steve House and others.  But the dues were expensive for me, when I was still a high school student.  Now I am a working professional and a proud member that benefits from the AAC even though I hardly hit the steeps as often as I once did. 

The AAC offers climbers a great deal of support, even if you’re the Suburban Mountaineer in Peaklessburg.  The AAC works to ensure climbers maintain access to climbing sites in conjunction with the Access Fund and will engage in regulatory advocacy; it was quite active in the negotiated rulemaking in Denali National Park regarding climbing fees this past fall. 

The club also has adopted the spirit climbers embrace: Only through adversity and challenge can accomplishment truly be appreciated.  The membership ranks are climbers with the same adventurous spirit.  We may hike and fly fish, work in cubicles or outfitters, be introverts or extroverts, but we share the desire to solve vertical challenges.  And while the name implies alpinism only, today members are boulders, trad climbers, sport climbers, ice climbers and alpinists. 

Enjoying mountaineering from my desk and armchair these days and rarely visiting New England’s hills or the Pacific Northwest’s peaks, I enjoy the access it offers to the Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library, the online issues of the American Alpine Journal, issues of Accidents in North American Mountaineering,  invitations to climbing community events in my region or across the country, discounts  to huts and lodges, as well as the support the AAC provides to climbers in rescue insurance, conservation efforts (including efforts in Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia) and grants to the truly adventurous members. 

I enjoy the network a great deal, but the borrowing privileges at the library and access to the AAJ really impresses me.   I considered joining the Friends of the American Alpine Club Library for US$50 in order to borrow books for the Suburban Mountaineer site.  With that I would have had to pay shipping from the library and the return postage.  And I would not have had access to the AAJ back issues available only to members.  The membership dues seemed to be a significant bargain suddenly!  With membership, books are shipped to you as part of your dues; you only pay to return them. 

If you are not a member already, I recommend it.  It might even inspire you. 

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A Mountain Geek’s Treasure Chest: AAC Archives

As you know, I am much more of an armchair mountaineer these days with my career and family in Peaklessburg.  But even when I climbed and hiked with more regularity, I enjoyed coming across old maps in yard sales and climbing narratives from the 1930s in antique stores. 

I still do and I have to tip my Major League Baseball cap to the Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library in Golden Colorado for maintaining and continuing to build upon the “collective memory” (their words) of the mountaineering community.  The library has a circulating collection available to American Alpine Club (AAC) members and Friends of the American Alpine Club Library, rare and non-circulating books in the AAC Archives, and photographs which can be considered documentary or art, depending on who is appreciating it. 

Mountaineers are also encouraged to donate their letters, diaries, photos and scrapbooks, expedition reports, films, and even gear to the library in the hopes of maintaining a continuous thread of history.  The library indicates that not everything may be accepted however based on its “appropriateness” — perhaps they mean historical value.  Their website, at least, does not elaborate on that point.  Regardless, this invitation helps ensure the collection will remain the current today as we look back tomorrow.

The libary’s archivists just began reviewing and catalogueing the Bradford Washburn archives with the climbing community’s financial support.  Washburn is one of the greatest Alaskan mountaineers in history, with multiple ascents of Denali, an epic first ascent of Mount Lucania and he was a talented mountain photographer.  He also lead the expedition to map the entire Wrangell-St. Elias Range when no one knew what was in that territory. 

The Washburn archives include 20 unopened file boxes, five flat unopened boxes and over 20 rolled maps.  Staff and resources are needed to properly go through these records of the great mountaineer and explorer.  Individuals may adopt the archives in $100 increments to help complete the work. 

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