The Greatest Climber of All Time


Forbidden Kangchenjunga. (All rights reserved)

We’ve identified five great climbers to be among the Greatest Climbers of All Time.

5. Walter Bonatti;
4. Alison Hargreaves;
3. Riccardo Cassin; and
2. Jointly, Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka.

So where does this journey end? Who do we meet on its summit?

Or rather, what do we see from this summit? What enlightenment has this journey brought us?

I sought to try to provide a little education for those less knowledgeable about climbing’s history. At the same time, I wanted to make some tough decisions about who are the best in order to stir conversation. It seems that I was successful.

However, at this moment, I feel like we’re approaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Prior the mountain’s first ascent, climbing great Joe Brown and George Band had to seek permission to climb the sacred peak from the Maharaja of Sikkim. The Maharaja consented so long as they stopped short and did not set foot atop the actual summit. That has been standard procedure for the classier climbers ever since.

I think the question of Who is the Greatest Climber of All Time is equally sacred. It can’t be answered. It shouldn’t be answered. At least not with anything giving it authority or weight, like the American Alpine Journal or even this modest TSM blog.

There are too many styles of climbing, types of accomplishments, ways of meriting great-status, that to keep going mocks the things we love about climbing. It’s blank canvas, liberating qualities, ability to build bonds, and it’s comforting embrace for the restless… It’s all sacred.

So I am leaving the space of the Greatest Climber of All Time as undisturbed white space.

The greatest climber of all time is out there, and while there are benefits to naming five of the Greatest Climbers of All Time, crowning someone at the apex draws too much attention away from the the others that I featured.

I want to express my gratefulness to Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn, Caroline Cowan, Damien Gildea, and Katie Ives for their guidance, insight, knowledge and sometimes their ability to say both how enjoyable and foolish this quest has been without discouraging me.

To the rest of my readers, commenters and social-media followers, I’m humbled by your knowledge about these great men and women. Thanks for chiming in so frequently. It made a difference.

So what’s next on The Suburban Mountaineer? I’ve collected a backlog of posts and some have treats, like a set of beautiful photos from Jason Stuckey on a recent first ascent in Alaska.

I’ll also share with you my new project of tearing down and rebuilding my climbing library. Currently I have a lot of miscellaneous books that I have collected, before I understood my real climbing interests and what kind of library I want. The library will have classics, a focus on Alaska plus the American Northeast and a little of every type of climbing, not just alpine, which, as you know I admire the most. I should note that this is a traditional library with hardbound and paperback books; no ebooks here.

I also received some used climbing books with some engaging and sometimes mysterious notes in the margin from an interesting source — a climber we knew and who wrote a beautiful book himself. More on that shortly.

Well, thanks for stopping by and for following my series on Facebook and Twitter. There is a lot more to cover.

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Bhutan is Forbidden but Sikkim is Open

When it comes to the Himalayas, you probably think solely about Nepal and Pakistan. Well, India and China have some big peaks too, and so does the country of Bhutan. In fact, the mountains to the east of Nepal are rather interesting as I was recently reminded.

The highest unclimbed mountain may never be topped out and may remain the highest unclimbed mountain indefinitely. It seems the only way anyone will climb Gankhar Puensum (7,570 m.) on the China-Bhutan border is to cheat; it’s a sacred peak to the Bhutanese, like all Bhutanese mountains, and climbing it is forbidden by law.

Interestingly, China has helped enforce that edict once. However, that may have more to do with spiting the Japanese who were seeking approval to climb the mountain. It’s just a guess since things are not always friendly between them.

The region between Nepal and Bhutan, east of the third highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga, is Sikkim. For all practical purposes it was shutdown to mountaineering and travel in general because it was disputed by Nepal, China and India. In 2004 China released its claim and things settled down. While there are sacred peaks in Sikkim, there are several that are designated as “alpine peaks,” which are available to be climbed with a permit.

At my last American Alpine Club section meeting (Blue Ridge Section), I was introduced to a member of the 2010 Expedition to Sikkim. Their primary aim was Jopuno (5,936 m.) for a second ascent by a new route. Anyway, I’ll tell you more about Sikkim, the expedition and the opportunities later… There is a lot to tell.

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