Three Things Climbers Cannot Ignore Much Longer

Did you get the email from the Access Fund asking you to take-part in their survey? It asked two heavy questions, and for me, it revealed three things we cannot pretend isn’t happening.

Question 1: “What do you believe is the most pressing issue the climbing community will face over the next 5 years?”

Answer 1: How Climbing and Mountaineering is Portrayed in Major Films

Bad climbing movies may be more than just an irritant. Everest. Vertical Limit. They’re more likely to steer people away from climbing and draw the public’s attention away from the craft involved, the discipline and skills, and the beauty of nature, and sometimes elusive goals. Instead, in movies, climbers that die look obsessed and the survivors like lost souls with regret. None of which tells a truth that can be generalized for all of climbing-dom.

Climbing movies made for a broad audience draw in responses from all walks of life, but the group that sees a high peak and only thinks of cold and discomfort rather than beauty of nature and the nobility of patience and fortitude probably won’t easily get it through a film; we’ll always be “crazy” to them.

Is there anything we can do? Possibly.

When U.S. military veterans were returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan they were depicted as battle-weary, likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and people that were owed something. In some cases that was true, but largely it was not.  It made it difficult for some to get jobs or at least the best jobs for them. Chris Marvin, an army pilot that was shot down and suffered many bodily injuries, returned to civilian life and started the veterans’ advocacy nonprofit Got Your 6, taken from a military phrase about protecting one’s blind spot; its mission was to refocus the public’s image of veterans as a public asset and to do so through a partnership through veterans nonprofit organizations and Hollywood. His effort was seen as successful and I recently invited and met him at a conference to learn more.

Climbing needs some ambassadors to the movie industry to help depict climbing in a more real light. Like the best comedy, where you don’t have to make things up, the best climbing film and stories, even for broad-audience movies, don’t have to be contrived and overly fictionalized (or even darkened) to represent what climbing is really like.

Answer 2: Integrity of Climbing When Transiting to the Outdoors

Climbing has been growing in popularity. (There are a lot of reasons to know this, but I’ll cite just this New Yorker story as the most comprehensive package.) This has been happening for a couple of decades but the last 10 or so years have been different because the attraction of indoor gyms have been leading the way to growth in the United States. And the movement by some to “advance” from gym to crag presents a new set of risks.

While there are efforts by gyms and even climbing groups like the American Alpine Club to educate people transitioning to outdoor climbing presents a unique risk to the activity for all of us.

New outdoor climbers need mentorship and support to ensure safety practices unique to the outdoors are done effectively, etiquette among climbers are maintained among other climbers as well as land holders and managers, and, last but not least, the traditions and history of climbing are passed on to younger climbers.

About traditions and history, it doesn’t surprise me but it bothers me too, that young climbers have no idea who some of the most significant climbers in history are, from Reinhold Messner, Walter Bonatti, to say… Fred Beckey or Tom Frost. These are leaders that set the bar for the expectations of what is possible and our new level of what is our horizon. These historical figures aren’t likely to be forgotten, but they seem to be easily dismissed or taken for granted.

Regarding etiquette and safety, efforts appear to be underway, but this singular concern, may have the broadest reach to affect all climbers. A few bad practices, a poor headline at the wrong time, could ruin access and costs for all of us.

Question 2:  “If you could change one thing about the Access Fund, what would it be?”

Answer: Promote the Development of Concussion Protective Climbing Helmets

I wore a yellow hard hat when I was a college kid working for my father’s general contracting business. My climbing helmet, which was the old version of the Half Dome from Black Diamond, was the same thing except with a chin strap. Like my hard hat, it was great to protect my skull and brain from hard falling objects. But if I ever took a whipper by head would be mostly unprotected from the jolts and my brain was squish to one side, hopefully unscathed.

But that’s the thing, as this article in Climbing magazine said, no climbing helmet on the market protects us from the injuries of a concussion. Skiing has gone from no skier wearing a helmet to nearly everyone wearing fully protective — including head trauma — helmets in a mere few years. Much research and science has gone into the development of better preventative equipment and treatment for concussions thanks to professional team sports like American football, hockey, and other sports. We should join in.

If the climbing community, or its leaders (such as the helmet manufacturers), guide services, and land managers, required better helmets we’d all be safer.

The risk and adventure of climbing will still be ever present, but by reducing the risk of the potentially years-long or life-altering concussion injury.

Your Job

Whether these are really tasks for the Access Fund or some other organization like the AAC or AMGA, I don’t know. What I do know is that all of us that care about these things must speak up and say these three things are important.

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From Gongga Shan to Mount Everest

Here are some final notes about the adventure surrounding the first ascent of Minya Konka in 1932 and even a reflection on the government shutdown in America. But first, here is a factoid that a friend and reader in Seattle highlighted for me.

Sizing Up

Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for the mountain in Sichuan Province, China, where it is better known as Gongga Shan, has a spectacular rise. Our friend in Seattle is knowledgeable about prominent mountains like Gongga Shan or Mount St. Elias in Alaska, for example. Despite the mountain’s status in this regard, he says he has never heard anyone say that they’re dreaming of climbing Gongga Shan. It’s a shame; says, “It is one of only eight peaks in the world that rank in the 50 highest and 50 most prominent peaks on earth, and only 6 are both higher and more prominent.”

It’s points like this that make the original, sloppy measurement of 30,000 feet by Joseph Rock appear, if not forgiveable, at least understandable. It certainly appeared to dominate the sky. It lends some sense, based on his observations, of why he thought it could be true. Perhaps he wanted it to be true.

While I have retold the story of Burdsall and Moore climbing to the top of Minya Konka in 1932 in terms of a single-minded mission, it was, in fact, more complex. The full expedition was indeed determined to attempt the mountain, but there was widespread skepticism on the mountain’s actual elevation. While the possibility that Rock was right, there was no way to be certain except by going there and finding out for themselves.

Even Rock wrote, “Not being supplied with a theodolite, I could not take the actual height…” The chief cartographer at National Geographic later learned that Rock didn’t even use a mercurial barometer, and that he only used a simple pocket sighting compass and an aneroid for setting his baseline. However, when Rock published an article in National Geographic, Minya Konka was marked at 28,000 feet. In fact, it was the editorial revision; because of the tools he used, 28,000 feet was as high as they felt comfortable publishing.

The expedition, as commissioned by the Explorers Club under the leadership of Gene Lamb, would explore the region up close, determine the elevation using the most modern technique, and attempt to reach the summit. And there was one more thing…

Ulterior Motives

The expedition also served as a probe or trial balloon for another purpose. If the climbers could obtain official permission to cross China, Lamb believed, it may be possible to also cross Tibet and make the first American attempt of Everest, thereby skirting India and Nepal, which the English held through a mountaineering monopoly.

This was a significant reason why obtaining permission to climb Minya Konka was critical to the process. And if you recall, when the elusive right to climb it was granted there was a condition attached: The Americans would be allowed to attempt Minya Konka if, and only if, they promised not to proceed beyond Sichuan Province, enter Tibet and attempt Mount Everest.

This was 1932. The English had a hold on Everest. Conspiracy theories aside, China aided in that strangle hold. I don’t believe there was any arrangement between those nations’ governments, but the Chinese interest in controlling foreigners and access to their land, was a valued piece to their public policy.

Government Influences

Politics and policy processes (which is how I make my living) is how we express society’s values. It’s also a force that can limit our freedom of the hills. The Chinese and English interests, while for different values, worked in concert to limit access. It was also an era of strong feelings of nationalism. Today, I think of climbing and hiking as so innocent, but it’s not when national pride is at stake.

Here in the United States, our national government has been shutdown for 13 days. It’s not the record (the American government shutdown for 21 days in 1995 for the longest in history,) but access to public lands, like Yosemite has been limited. Roads are closed and backcountry activity is strictly prohibited.

I don’t think this is entirely bad; the land and animals will be left alone to be wild. When things reopen (and they will eventually,) I hope that it gives us a glimpse into what Burdsall, Moore, Emmons, and Young experienced crossing into the unknown.

I appreciate you stopping by for a read once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Alison Hargreaves: One of the Greatest Climbers of All Time

ALISON HARGREAVES — 1963-1995. English.

No. 4

Some may be irritated that Hargreaves made this list. This wasn’t meant to be a “crowd pleaser.” Regardless of the standard accusations surrounding her, Hargreaves belongs among the greatest.

In 1986, on her first trip to the Himalayas, she was part of an expedition with Americans Jeff Lowe, Tom Frost and Mark Twight forming a new route on Kantega (22,241 ft./6,779 m).

Most notably, she was the first – male or female – to solo all of the great north faces in the Alps in a single season.

She climbed at local crags solo and at a moderately high grade.

She made two visits high on Mount Everest (29,035 ft./8,850 m.), the first in 1994. With the summit close in view, she made the tough choice to turn around due to increasing numbness in her limbs.
Hargreaves returned six months later in 1995, and became the first British woman to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. And she did so by climbing unaided of help from Sherpas or other climbers. This stands out because of the cultural resistance of Great Britain at the time, where pursuing such activities as a woman, even higher-grade rock climbing, was unconventional in the extreme.

Her ambition aimed to climb the three highest peaks in the world, Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga.

She died on the descent after summiting K2 in August 1995.

The Everest ascent was her crowning climb, but it was merely the result of a culmination of style and character that had developed over more than a decade of climbing at the highest grades. Hargreaves was pioneering, demonstrated strength, independence and a large degree of spirit.

It’s true that except for her accomplishments on the Great North Faces of the Alps, she was rarely first on a global scale. Lydia Bradley, for instance, had already summited Everest without supplemental oxygen before Hargreaves. Still, Hargreaves’ climbs, in combination with the adversity from outside the climbing world, was more significant than many female climbers before and went beyond the surprise and interest of a woman wearing pants in an era of woolen skirts.

However, Hargreaves drew more attention from being a mother of two young children and a climber, than the technical feats she accomplished.

In fact, today, there is so much written about Hargreaves’ that is critical of her approach to motherhood and pursuing a life climbing that what she accomplished as an alpinist has been somewhat dimmed. In some ways, the criticisms raised were at such a high volume because she caught the attention of the mainstream media, which connected with traditional British sensibilities, which conflicted with her acceptance of risk.

In many ways, she is the penultimate model of being “mum,” and also being simultaneously independent. Her model disregarded traditional values and gender roles with abandon.

Hargreaves was repeatedly called a bad mother for endangering her life at her children. She did, after all, climb the Eiger while she was five-months pregnant. However, in leaving her children, they clearly admired her, and reports were that they were pursuing climbing after her death. Admiration can’t be said every mother.

Controversies aside, Hargreaves pursued her objectives over a relatively long career, that would likely have been much longer had her K2 expedition ended differently. In that time, what she pursued was a pure climb.

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

A useful source: Venables, Stephen, “Obituary: Alison Hargreaves,” The Independent, 21 August 1995.

Click here to see who is listed at number three.

Everest Distractions, Mooses Tooth and K2 at First Sight

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The first photographic image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 (Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn / Top of the World Books)

So you’ve heard about the fiasco that pulled Wool Stick (ahem, that’s Ueli Steck, actually), Simone Moro and Jon Griffith off of Everest this past weekend. There was a dispute that turned physical around a protocol that was unique to siege-style climbing, which was in conflict with the freedom of climbing unsupported in alpine style. There was even some early speculation that there than me have theorized that the self-centered Western climbers (in general, who are usually guided clients) haven’t treated the Sherpa and other native assistants with the respect they deserve and that the Sherpa and other assistants are now lashing out, but doesn’t seem to be panning out to be the case.

Still, Chad Kellog through Facebook called the event a “show stopper.” Melissa Arnot — who played a leading role in settling the conflict — was disturbed by the events and had to regroup in order to continue guiding. Garrett Madison, a guide that played a role managing the Sherpas for a commercial expedition, has been attempting to explain both sides of the conflict. But Simone Moro claims Madison’s story was “completely false.”

It’s sad that whatever goes on around Everest is more akin these days to the adventures from the History Channel television show Ice Road Truckers than pure climbing. In pure climbing, it’s about the style and the achievement, but the journey alone might be the achievement. In the TV show, the goal is to go from point A to point B on treacherous terrain to deliver machine parts to a remote Canadian diamond mine, return and collect your reward. The promo calls it “the dash for the cash.” When you’re dashing for reward, what’s the journey worth?

I wish all of the mountains were a place where it’s just the climber and the wild. However, on Everest, its less wild (in the natural sense) because it’s the domain of the commercial guiding companies, and you have to play by their rules, whether you’re on their “expedition” or not. At least that’s how Moro, Steck and Griffith felt, I’m sure.

Mooses Tooth

It’s also a shame that the banter about Steck, Moro, Griffith and the Sherpas on Everest have dominated climbing news; this story from the Alaska Range has been more significant in terms of actual climbing: The Mooses Tooth, which rises like broad daggers on the east side of the Ruth Glacier, saw a lot of activity including the first free ascent by Scott Adamson and Pete Tapley. They also pitched a bivy that Alpinist accurately called “Dr. Suesse-esque”.

Be sure to click those links on the Mooses Tooth climb; they’re well worth your time.


On a gentler note, Natalie and I are unpacked and settling into our new place. It’s nice to see my gear in one pile in the basement. It’s been in an attic-like space, mostly out of site, for too long. My mountaineering library is on shelves and has also been reunited with the rest of my modest collection; its a disjointed grouping and is actually overflowing the bookcase.

Next to the bookcase is my desk set against a blank wall. I’ve been thinking about acquiring some special climbing-inspired art for years. While now may not be the right time financially while paying private school tuition, but I do like to browse and the blank space has been tempting me…

Climbing Art on K2

I would like to own my own mixed-media piece by Renan Ozturk or even a sharp, well-composed photograph by Alexander Buisse, but another piece holds a certain fascination, especially after writing that series on K2’s first photograph.

Do you remember when I talked about my acquaintance with Greg Glade? He was one of the references cited in Alpinist 37 about the first photo of K2 along with Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (the photographer) and Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn (the climbing historian and collector). Greg is the merchant.

Greg’s shop, Top of the World Books, is a unique bookstore located not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains in North America. It specializes in arctic and mountaineering books, both new and collectibles (drool), plus artifacts, historical reproductions, DVDs, and even art in the form of prints and posters.

Bob, the current owner of the Jacot-Guillarmod image of K2, has made a general print and a limited edition high-resolution print available for purchase through Greg’s shop, Top of the World Books.

This image, originally captured on delicate glass plates, was taken in haste. As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, there is some remnant equipment in the foreground on the path up the Baltoro Glacier. This was the first time the 1902 expedition probably saw the mountain. They stopped and gasped. Nothing in Europe compared. At that moment, the climbers, including Aleister Crowley, either were inspired or fearful — maybe a little of each — because they had come fully intending to, at minimum, climb higher than anyone else had ever climbed.

When you know that, you can see it in high res print of the first image of K2. Maybe it says something else to you.

It might not hang on the blank wall where I live now, but maybe at my next home. Maybe you’ll appreciate it even more than me; go check it out.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Everest 1963

Mount Everest‘s earliest attempt was in 1922. Its first ascent was in 1953. Its first winter ascent in 1980. Somewhere in the early 1990s current events stopped being interesting.

It became like the American space shuttle program. At first everyone watched every launch with wonder. Then attention slowly evaporated. Then no one cared unless the stale routine turned into a deadly fireball.

I regret that the mountain has become Burning Man on the Khumbu. Okay, that’s a bit off. Even unfair. Burning Man is a much more exciting event today.

So until some wild alpinists successfully traverses Lhotse, Everest and Nuptse in a single push, the activity around the mountain will likely remain less than compelling. But I still enjoy Everest for it’s history. And this spring marks the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by an American.

Over the holidays I read Jim Whitaker’s 1999 autobiography, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, published by the Mountaineers Books in Seattle. My copy was pre-read and evidently bought at an Eddie Bauer based on the price tag firmly baked into the dust jacket.

Whittaker recounts his introduction to climbing as a child, his involvement in mountain rescue organizations, his career as a guide on Mount Rainier, how he grew and expanded outfitter REI, his relationship with the Kennedy family, and of course, his ascent of Mount Everest.

Whittaker’s ascent was actually only the seventh ascent of Mount Everest. With so few lines completed to the top of the mountain at that time, the American expedition, which included Tom Hornbein, and Willi Unsoeld among others, had a virtually blank canvas and yet Whittaker and the majority of his teammates drew over the same line climbed by Hillary and Norgay 10 years earlier. Whittaker’s ascent became the popularly marketable climb through National Geographic and others because he was among the firsts. Yet, the next to reach the top, just days later, took a bold, original line and completed the first traverse of Everest. That climb receives plenty of accolades too, but in many ways deserves more.

During the1963 American attempt, the expedition split into two teams above the Ice Fall. One team, which Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu eventually lead the way to the top, took the route established by Hillary and Norgay up the Ice Fall along the South Col. Meanwhile, Hornbein and Unsoeld were going to create a new route up the West Ridge, and descend by the South Col.

There were more variables with the new route. The West Ridge was steeper and the progress was slow. Hornbein and Unsoeld arrived on the summit quite late in the day. They later spent a cold, strange night on the South Col route at high altitude with two of their partners that had summitted earlier that same day. Overall, their ascent was light and fast. In some ways, the climb was ahead of its time in the same way is was old fashioned; like going up an Alp in the 1800s with only your axe, a loaf of bread and a blaze of courage.

Years later Mark Twight would write with venom about the death of the American alpinist. Since we now know that Steve House and others have redeemed the American alpinist, I guess we can say what Twight perceived wasn’t really death but rather dormancy. Clearly the American alpinist went into hibernation after the West Ridge ascent, because Hornbein and Unsoeld were very much awake and alert American alpinists.

We can’t all be Hornbeins and Unsoelds or Whittakers. But perhaps there is some of that American alpinist dormant in us, ready to keep things interesting.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter. And feel free to share this post with your friends. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Sources: 1) Whittaker, Jim, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1999); and 2) Hornbein, Tom, Everest: The West Ridge (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1998).

Everest Fever

Sadly, 10 climbers are now dead from the events  over the past weekend on Everest. It was reported earlier as 11 dead, but fortunately, one climber, Italian Luigi Rampini was found alive and rescued!

If you’re looking for the latest news on what happened or some insight into what is happening on the mountain now, I only wish I had something to share especially if you know one of the hundreds of climbers on or around the mountain. I am trying to understand what is happening like everyone else.

I keep thinking of Freddie Wilkinson’s book, One Mountain, Thousand Summits. He delves into the 2008 K2 disaster from a journalist’s perspective, as well as a climber, and attempted to reconstruct the frenzy of what friends and family around the planet where doing to find out if their loved-climbers were okay. Satellite phones, email, Twitter, Facebook have all changed the way we see what was happening. It’s a powerful story of loss, what people thought was happening on the mountain, why the public thinks climbers climb, and an introduction to some of the unheralded heroes. I’m sure family and friends were searching for news through phone calls throughout the day and tracking social media. In that, truth and misinformation are intermingled.

As for the events on Everest, no doubt truth and misinformation have been trickling out or even flowing out liberally. For instance, author and producer Jennifer Jordan — who is well connected with leaders in climbing — posted an amazing and worrisome photo on social media of easily well over 100 people walking up in what resembles a conga line or reminiscent of gold prospectors heading over the pass in the Yukon. I don’t know when it was taken or who actually took it. I don’t know conclusively what it means. Regardless, I had the same thought everyone else made: Wow, that’s unreal! As one put it, that was crowded even on a good day on Mont Blanc.

I want to judge those climbers. I don’t like the look of their climbing style. I don’t like conga lines. You don’t have conga lines in the wilderness. In the wilderness you have small teams and alpine ascents without fixed ropes.

I shouldn’t judge them because I do know this: Some climbers just want the top. They want to get up there. Whether it requires pain, thin air, altitude sickness, maybe even frostbite, and perhaps a conga line. Everest is the biggest. Maybe it’s not the baddest, but it’s a universally recognized icon. I suspect if you’re on the rope line heading up you’ll go to the top even if it means sharing the top and the struggle with the entire neighborhood from that crowded basecamp. For them, it’s an acceptable price of admission to the Everest club.

There are plenty of other climbs around the world, offering their own challenge. But when you think you can do Everest, isn’t that a notch in your belt you want to have? Why not me? Why not you?

For those who were lost, injured or failed in their attempt, they did what they needed to do to feel complete. In that, I’m positive they felt alive.

Thanks for dropping by again, as always. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ‘em!