Autographs from the Climbing Community and Other Notes

Autographs from Mendi (Szalay 2014)

Mine got lost in the mail. Everyone received their copy weeks earlier. I wasn’t even sure what I was waiting for but I was convinced it was special because it was coming from Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn.

Before Bob left Bilbao, Spain and the Mendi Mountain Film Festival for home in The Netherlands, he had asked a few friends for their current address. I gave him mine right away.

Whether it’s in Banff, Canada, Kendall, United Kingdom, Bilbao or someplace else, the mountain film festivals bring the climbing community together, and their reach goes beyond the gatherings at climbing events like the Ouray Ice Festival or Red Rock Rendezvous. Active climbers show up at the climber meets, but active climbers, artists, filmmakers, authors, and armchair mountaineers go to the mountain film festivals.

The postcard I received was an illustration of the broad gathering at Mendi, and also its status.

After some prolonged waiting, I got mine. What we all received was a picture of the Guggenheim Museum, which was near the Mendi festival that was held all over Balbao. On the other side there was no message, only the signatures of four extraordinary members of the climbing community: Award winning author Bernadette McDonald, legendary Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki, Polish climbing star Adam Bielecki, and leading Kazakh mountain climber Denis Urubko. Most of their marks were barely readable.

At the top, in the return address space, signed with only his first name, is Bob himself. He and I joked about how it devalues the postcard’s value with the other four autographs (how it’s gone from several hundreds of dollars to mere cents with his pen stroke).

In reality, in my opinion, Bob has played a valuable role in telling and retelling some of climbing’s greatest tales. He is a historian with a incredible memory for detail and he has a collection of climbing autographs and memorabilia you might not believe. Yet, his name only appears in footnotes in some of the books and periodicals you might read, particularly from National Geographic and Alpinist.

The fact that Bob thought to send me one of his several signed postcards from Mendi has sent me soaring. When I learned the other recipients I blushed; those I knew are people that I admire. It was good company.

Thanks, Bob, for making me feel like a part of your community.

As a total aside, there has been a lot of climbing news worthy singling out or at least a mention. I’ve mentioned them all through my Twitter feed (@SuburbanMtnr) but I can touch on them a bit more here:

The biggest and saddest news from the past couple of weeks has been the loss of Chad Kellogg, the well known speed climber and less well known alpinist. He ascended Fitz Roy’s Northwest Ridge with Jens Holsten and was killed by rock fall on the descent in the Supercanaleta, only three rappels below the summit. Jens descended alone. I didn’t want Chad’s story to be over yet.

The opposite side of the coin of sadness yielded this development: The same week Kellogg was lost, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold tried some Patagonia alpine rock and were the first to complete a full traverse of the Fitz Roy massif via a unified ridge with an ascent of 4,000 meters. It’s been dubbed the Fitz Traverse.

Several climbers continue to work toward making the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. As March 21 looms, the ascent just gets more exciting. Raheel Adnan has been covering the details on his blog, Altitude Pakistan. I also post much of his material on my Twitter feed.

Lastly, I conducted a few brief interviews with some of the leading climbers in Alaska today and asked them about some of the boldest ascents to remember. Well, it’s not pretty, but the list is longer than I thought it would be and the climbs are more daunting than I originally considered them (when the leaders are impressed, you have to be more scared than they are, right?) So look for the first post on that later this month.

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Being First and the 8,000ers Winter Ascents

A long time ago I claimed once or twice that climbing wasn’t competitive. That idea was one of the appealing parts of the sport. I mean sport in terms of it being an athletic activity but not necessary organized like baseball or hockey. (It’s also worth pointing out that it being a sport doesn’t preclude it from offering a wilderness or spiritual experience). I now know better.

Climbing, other than organized competitions like those at SportRock in the Washington, DC area or the ice climbing games at Ouray, Colorado, more about self challenge and measuring those personal bests against other climbers through tales in guidebooks, and word or mouth, but only if that matters to us. There are many that climb for themselves and don’t care how they rate against others’ performances.

Still, climbing is in fact a subjective contest of firsts — most notably in alpine mountaineering. If you do care about the ratings, the ones that really matter for the history books and to be included in the American Alpine Journal are the first ascents of peaks, new routes, the first alpine style ascent, and the first winter ascents, all of which that are lengthy challenges by being typically taking a full day’s effort or more. All other ascents may stand out for other merits, such as the climber, the style or the controversy.

But that’s not to say that the competition in climbing is exclusive of cut-throat pursuits or camaraderie. I think there is more camaraderie overall, but earning respect or “street cred” is important to participate; definitely don’t over sell yourself. Not everyone is worthy of partnering with Joe Josephson or Steve House.

The instances where people are desperate for success have ranged from embarrassing to down right ugly. One that comes to my mind was from 2010: Oh Eun-Sun, a South Korean alpinist, was in position to be the first woman to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen by summiting Kangchenjunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.) Unfortunately, her claim to have reached the top was put into significant doubt and the honor of this first has gone to Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner of Austria.

In another race, Reinhold Messner — now a legend — was in an unofficial race with Polish alpinist Jerzy Kukuczka to be the first person ever to climb all of the 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. In all honesty, it wasn’t ugly. For that, usually jealousy and suspicion had to come into play, like in another Messner ascent — the first ascent of the Rupal Face in 1970, or the distaster of the Frizt Weissner 1938 K2 expedition. Messner got his first, Weissner did not. Both returned to a lot of criticism.

I say all of this to put the news unfolding in the Karakorum into perspective. Four teams set out to be the first to top out during winter on three peaks: K2, Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum I. While they aren’t involved in any organized races, the teams are seizing the moment to claim the historic first on their mountain-objective.

The Russian team that was attempting K2 has retreated. Their 15-person siege style expedition lost a life in basecamp earlier this week. The impressive Vitaly Gorelik had made it to 7,200 meters but died, ultimately of heart failure. As Alpinist Newswire says, Gorelik had summited K2 in 2007 and was nominated for the Piolet d’Or for a route up Peak Pobeda in 2009.

Two teams are working on Nanga Parbat. One, with just Simon Moro and Denis Urubko, are working summiting via an incomplete route on the Diamir Face. They are, with the other team of Poles, Moro’s and Urubko’s neighbors in basecamp, are being rather patient with the weather; there has been a decent amount of snow and some avalanches.

I haven’t heard as much as the Polish/International team working on Gasherbrum I, but I have heard the weather has caused delays. More to come, I’m sure.

I am trying not to give the impression that these are a competition between each other, though I am probably not doing a good job of that. These are really about exploration — probably more so about human endurance and persistence than the mountain itself.  Also, most successful winter ascents appear to put in the work in January and reap the rewards of the summit in mid-to-late February before winter closes out in March (that’s purely anecdotal). If you hear some more details, shoot them to me in an email or leave me a comment.

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Cold and Controversy

I’ve been thinking about the four expeditions working on the Himalayan 8,000ers. If they are having as mild of a summer there as we are here in North America (especially here in Peaklessburg,) then the teams might succeed in getting the first winter ascents. Of course, the season is not the only factor.

With work and my new training schedule, I have struggled to find time to catch-up on what has been happening in climbing news lately, but one story has been inescapable. A simple passing over the headlines kept bringing me to news about the Compressor Route.

In case you’ve been climbing somewhere remote without your smartphone or stuck in endless business meetings, here’s the recap: The controversy began in 1970 when Cesare Maestri climbed the Southeast Face of Cerro Torre in Patagonia with the aide of a compressor drill weighing nearly 100 lbs. The route has been heavily bolted and the drill has hung along the route ever since. Since then, the route has become one of the most popular routes up Cerro Torre. The appropriateness of the bolts have been debated ever since.

Fast forward to January 2012 and Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk climbed the route and chopped about one hundred of the bolts on their descent. The reactions have been mixed. Some praised them for restoring the wall and others criticized them for ruining what was essentially a great sport route. The police detained the two alpinists for a brief time as well. Then, days later, David Lama with partner Peter Ortner successfully freed the Compressor (or is it Formerly Compressor?) Route, while the debate on the Kennedy-Kruk climb went on.

What I don’t understand is the acceptability of placing permanent bolts in the first place. I realize blank faces have few options for protection. This isn’t a subject I’m experienced in. The only place I’ve ever climbed with bolts is the gym. Plus, my focus on alpine mountaineering, for the most part, hasn’t discussed the ethics of bolting on routes. Perhaps you can shed some light on the subject for me.

News on the four attempts to bag the first winter ascents of the unclimbed 8,000 meter peaks has been harder to come by, at least through the main news sites. In short the stories are still unfolding. The saddest news, and most significant to date, came from the Polish expedition; one of their climbers died on Nanga Parbat. So there is more to follow with the Russians on K2, the two expeditions on Nanga Parbat and the international team on Gasherbrum I.

Well, thanks for dropping by once again. If you enjoyed this post, and the many others, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

The Sought-After First Winter Ascent in the Karakoram Achieved

On February 2, 2011 (Groundhog Day in the states) Simone Moro, of Italy, Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan and Cory Richards of Canada have completed the first winter ascent of 8,000er in the Korakoram Range in Pakistan.  According to Alpinist Newswire and several other sources, they made the climb to Gasherbrum II (26,361 ft./8,035 m.) in a three-day push from basecamp.

Until now, all the 8,000ers that have been sended in winter were accomplished by Polish expeditions.  No one had been able to reach the top of any of Pakistan’s Karakoram 8,000ers in winter.  The fortune of the Moro-Urubko-Richards team no doubt gained a lot from Moro’s previous experience when climbing on the Pole’s other successful expeditions, including up Shishapangma (26,289 ft./8,013 m.) in 2005.

The Poles, lead by Artur Hajzer, continue to work their way up Broad Peak even now.  According to Himalman Ie, the route is still advancing and one alpinist needs medical attention due to lung issues.  Despite slow progress, I am optimistic about the Polish Broad Peak expedition.

A third stab at a Karakoram 8,000er winter ascent is also underway on Gasherbrum I (26,509 ft./8,080 m.) lead by Canadian alpinist Louis Rousseau.  Rouseau’s group appears to be facing the most adversity going into his climb.  Their team is smaller than planned, which could have been a financial set back as well.  Nonetheless, they are in the Karakoram and moving forward.  This attempt, if successful, might have the makings for the story we retell again and again.

In general, these attempts and ascents are signs that the Himalayas are in the second or third phase of mountaineering.  The first phase is always about first ascents of the peak, usually by the easiest and most direct route.  The second phase is usually climbing the mountian by more challenging routes and claiming an early ascent (like the second, third or fourth ascent of the peak).  The third phase involves stunt climbs (please forgive the term), where the climbers will send the mountian in a particular style, in winter, including a ski descent or base jump, for example.  I have just begun thinking about the evolution and trends in the natural flow of exploring so I might amend this in the future.

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