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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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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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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