K2 and Curious Finds

One of our guests during the Thanksgiving holiday here in the states actually let me talk his ear off about Alaska and I even brought out the scrapbook. Among other things, I told him about a curious find I made while scrambling up Ptarmigan Peak outside of Anchorage, just off the Power Line Trail.

Well above the scree, as high on the choss as I felt I could climb, I found a bone. It was over a foot long and clearly from an animal’s limb. Because where I found it was so steep, it wasn’t clear how it had gotten there. The bone looked only slightly weathered, so it probably hadn’t been there for long.

We talked about some theories. My favored one places the animal on the ridge I later used to get higher on the peak, where it fell off or even died and it’s parts later came to rest on this ledge. The tarn at Ptarmigan Pass is right below about a thousand feet, where almost everything flows into a loose pile of broken stone, where the rest may have landed. It makes good bar room conversation.

But something a little more interesting caught my eye when I read Alpinist 37 last winter. The cover photo was fascinating: It is recognized as one of the oldest photos of K2, and it’s owner makes a solid case that it is the first photo of K2 ever.

Keese Lane did a brief write-up for Alpinist‘s High Camp newsletter about how this image arrived on the cover of 37. My curiosity has taught me that this story is just a starting point. The rest of the story is a bit bigger and a good one about climbing history.

As a related note, preserving these images and artifacts like this one of K2 is important. It inspires people like you and me to not only explore our mountains but also our libraries and other collections.

It’s also interesting to see what triggered the so-called “tipping point.” I’ll fill you in more later. For now, have a good rest of your week and check out that note from High Camp.

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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 Remaining 8,000ers Winter Ascents

Halloween is done. The first snow has already fallen. So now I’m thinking about winter, including skiing, snowshoeing, snowball fights and winter climbing. Oh… and seasonal lagers too.

It also means we can start watching for news of high altitude alpinists going after the virgin winter ascents in the Himalayan 8,000-meter peaks. Four remain, as the Poles have succeeded in tackling Everest (1st highest), Kanchenjunga (3rd), Lhotse (4th), Makalu (5th), Cho Oyo (6th), Dhaulagiri (7th), Manaslu (8th), Annapurna (10th), and Shishapangma (14th).

Gasherbrum II, the world’s 13th highest mountain, is the only winter ascent that wasn’t climbed by the Poles and was the first in the Karakorum Range of the Himalayas. It was topped out on Groundhog Day (February 2, 2011) by an international team, including Simone Moro of Italy, Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan and Cory Richards of Canada.
So that leaves us four to track:

2. K2 (28,250 ft./8,611 m.)

9. Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft./8,125 m.)

11. Gashberbrum I (26,470 ft./8,068 m.)

12. Broad Peak (26,401 ft./8,047 m.)

The challenge of an ascent in winter in the Karakoram means generally colder temperatures, more frequent storms, shorter days with less sunlight. The ice can be brittle. Snow slopes can load and unload regularly as is the cycle of avalanches — which happen with greater frequency in winter storms.

While you don’t need to climb in the winter of these high altitude peaks to be the biggest, baddest climber, it sure helps your reputation. While I wouldn’t try it — and I’m not recommending that you make an attempt — I am going to watch with admiration anybody the tries this winter.

DECEMBER 10, 2011: Here’s an update on the teams heading to make attempts on three of the remaining peaks. .

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Kaltenbrunner Summits 8,000ers – Deserves More Celebration

Shortly after the news was official, I announced through Facebook and Twitter that Austrian alpinist Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has become the first woman to summit the world’s fourteen highest mountains (above 8,000 m./ 26,246 ft.). That feat alone is worth an accolade and a book deal these days, but Kaltenbrunner went a step further. She climbed these mountains without supplemental oxygen.

Mountaineering celebrates first the way baseball does; first pitch and first ascents; leaders in batting average and leaders in categories. Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment has been sought after by men and women alike. While nearly 30 alpinists have topped out on all fourteen 8,000ers, only about a dozen – all of them previously men – have done so without using “gas.”

Gas is essential for climbers to get to that top. At higher altitudes, particularly above 6,000 meters, but also much lower, the lack of dense air can make mountaineers feel lethargic, similar to the feeling of a bad sinus congestion with sleepiness brought on from medication. Put into a fog that slows down reflexes and thinking processes, many climbers choose to use oxygen bottles to enhance their air density. In fact, some climbers find it necessary to use gas and would not be able to summit otherwise.

Earlier in climbing history, it was thought that it would be impossible for man to attain the summits of the Himalayas without gas. However, in 1978, Reinhold Messner showed the world that it was possible – through proper acclimatization and will power – to climb 8,000ers without, as Ed Viesturs put it, “cheating.” On May 8, 1978, Messner summited Everest completely under his own lung power.

It is unclear to me at this time whether Kaltenbrunner felt she was racing against other women to be first or had the ambition to be first. Regardless the title was clearly sought after. You may recall that in August 2010, South Korean female alpinist Oh Eun-Sun claimed that she summited Kanchenchunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), which if that attempt was not disputed by several reputable sources, would have made her the title holder.

Kaltenbrunner also deserves more attention. In North America, outside the climbing community, there has been very little coverage of Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment and even less about who she is and how she got there. I suspect that it is her language and nationality that separates her from my English-speaking world. But as a woman and a climber, her story should be retold more broadly. Everyone can benefit.

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Sources: 1) “Gerlinde Kalkenbrunner Summits K2!” PlanetMountain.com, August 23, 2011; 2) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top, Broadway Books, 2006.

Fritz Wiessner and Dudley Wolfe on K2

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K2 on Fire. (All rights reserved)

I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010).  Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book.  I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable.  In any case, here is my review of her take…

Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner.  However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.

Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time.  Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income.  He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time.  The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.

I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly.  The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?

Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance.  Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top.  There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened.  Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower.  He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.

Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII.  Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.

This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait.  Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too.  It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley.  Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety.  Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable.  This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.

As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically.  There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general.  On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.

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Lying Climber… Another One

It was reported yesterday that Austrian climber Christian Stangl is correcting his earlier story.  He claimed that he was the only mountaineer to top out on K2 this season.  Stangle recently confessed that he only reached about 27,200 ft./8,290 m. up the mountain.  Stangl says he lied because of sponsor pressure. 

Earlier this summer, Korean climber Oh Eun-Sun lied to the climbing community to claim that she was the first woman to reach the world’s 14 meter peaks (see the post Peak Baggers’ Integrity and its link for more informtain.)