Gone Climbing

I feel a little weird saying this, but the question “Who died?” is a common one late at night in my home. After Wunderkind goes to bed, Edelweiss and I like to read in the evenings. I usually have a climbing book or magazine. Then it comes.

I’ve started lying that no one in my current chapter or article died. Mostly it’s true. But there are a lot of stories of being stranded with HAPE, HACE, worsening frostbite, falling, avalanche, rock fall and snow bridges or cornices collapsing into voids, or alpinists learning of friends that go missing on a climb. I’m not morbid. I’ve never read these stories to contemplate death. I’m interested in the climb and the life of the climber. So my wife’s question, has bordered between becoming tiresome and comical.

Before I started writing this blog I read past the headlines of deaths of climbers, including the famous ones. Dying on a climb was something I avoided both in practice and in… I guess you’d call it concept or theory. I kept thoughts of dying climbing in the distance. But much of the news about climbing, except in the sources I typically refer to (see Mountain Links) are only talking of accidents and death; I just wanted news of attempts on jagged peaks.

Reading of climbing deaths in histories of Alaska or the Himalayas is somewhat detached. I notice deaths as if it were the death of Lou Gehrig — an important man in baseball from before my time, but I never had a reason to mourn.

In the process of obtaining best “inside track” for news on current climbing news through  the American Alpine Club, climbing magazines in print and online and connections through social media, I’ve developed some relationships — a term I used in the broadest possible sense. Some I’ve conversed with once or twice, others I just follow like they are celebrities.

Along the way, my interest in them has developed a familiarity. When news came of Bjørn-Eivind Årtun’s death with his partner Stein-Ivar Gravdal on attempting a route in Norway, I did not react the way I have before. I couldn’t dismiss it. I felt I knew him. He climbed with Colin Haley on Mount Foraker. He was strong and progressive.

Then there was Michael Ybarra. I didn’t follow him, but I knew about him from his writing in the Wall Street Journal. Then Yan Dongdong — a pioneer of Chinese alpinism — and just recently, Roger Payne. Roger left his wife, Julie Ann Clyma.

I wanted to hear more from them. I wanted to hear about their next ascent or plans to tackle something in Sichuan. I wanted them one day to say, I’m too old for this, go on into old age and die comfortably in their easy chair with family or their life partner nearby.

These climbers are heroes and people that inspire us and some of us live vicariously through. Hearing of their demise in their pursuit for their next objective — their quest for happiness, arguably — makes their conclusion harder to take. They’re end is not like that of hearing about your favorite actor or baseball player; actors don’t die from the risks of their performance and ball players don’t pass away from the conditions in the outfield.

My climbing heroes die doing what I want to do. It doesn’t make me appreciate climbing less — at least I don’t think so. At the moment, it adds a more complex, personal element about my acquaintance’s humanity and my own.

So to Bjørn-Eivind, Michael, Dongdong and Roger… Thanks for sharing your stories.

And thank you for dropping by yet again. If you got something out of this post, you might want to consider following me on Facebook or Twitter because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Mountain Explorers Lost

It seems most of the world has been mapped — including most of the world’s mountain ranges — tread upon by man and shared through issues of National Geographic, Patagonia catalogs and Youtube videos. While only pockets of un-tread mountains exist, and that’s a fairly recent development. One of the explorers of these final pockets recently died in an untimely death.

I never met him, but I was introduced to him a little over a year ago subsequent to attending a Section Meeting of the American Alpine Club in Washington, DC. Among several other presentations, Paul Swienton of Maryland, and a Blue Ridge Section Member, spoke about the climbing he and some Scottish mountaineering friends did in one of those rare places with virgin rock and ice: the Sikkim region of India. The international team intended to make only the second ascent on Jopuno (5,936 m.) by a new route. It didn’t work out as planned but they managed a consolation first ascent of a neighboring peak.

When I worked with Paul on a post about their climbing in Sikkim I soon learned that the trailblazer in that region was Roger Payne with his wife and fellow professional mountain guide, Julie Ann Clyma. In fact, Roger wrote the article in the American Alpine Journal that inspired the international expedition to Sikkim and Jopuno in 2010. It’s also worth taking the time to read, especially to learn about one of those areas rarely visited by Westerners.

Roger died in an avalanche in the French Alps just a few days ago alongside two fellow British climbers and six others.

Getting to know Roger’s work in Sikkim and later through references to him in other climbing projects and ascents has been one of the pleasures of making armchair mountaineering a serious hobby. Roger became a character, even if rarely seen, that became reliable. I’m sorry that his story is over.

Separately, if you’ve read “Little Sister Dream: Qionglai Range, China” under On Belay in Alpinist 39 about the attempts on Little Sister Peak (20,505 ft./6,250 m.), there is more sad news. The author, Yan Dongdong of Beijing, died in a crevasse fall while attempting Quelebosi Peak, in China’s Tianshan Mountains.

I don’t like reporting any of this, but I no longer feel like I can conveniently ignore the deaths of climbers, as I once did. I feel closer to these climbers now more than a few years ago. I don’t know if this diminishes the value of mountaineering and climbing to me, but it certainly complicates it.

Through social media, including this blog, I feel as though I have been introduced to many great people like Roger, Dongdong at a party. We weren’t friends but we’d connect through Facebook and share our lives. They were heroes and I was a fan. I didn’t want them to go. I wish I could have gotten to know them better and been a distant witness to more of their accomplishments.

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

Rarely Visited Sikkim: 2010 Expedition

Paul Swienton on the summit of Lama Lamani with Jopuno in the background (Swienton personal collection, rights reserved 2010)

Day dreaming of alpine mountains that are rarely seen and trampled by Westerners can be difficult these days. The Khumbu Valley may seem like it is being overdone. Going to Patagonia is hardly remote any more. The solution might be the Sikkim region of India, which is wrapped in Nepal, China, Tibet and Bhutan.

I recently learned of the region and its potential from alpinist Paul Swienton of Maryland at the Blue Ridge Section meeting of the American Alpine Club (AAC). Swienton was a member of a 2010 expedition of Scottish mountaineers lead by Geoff Cohen, who lead other Highlanders Bob Hamilton, Richard Isherwood, Steve Kennedy and David Ritchie. Together they intended to make only the second ascent of a new route on Jopuno (5,936 m.) in West Sikkim.

Sikkim was explored in the early days by Alexander Kellas — the first authority on high altitude mountaineering — in 1907 and 1921, but was virtually inaccessible for nearly 50 years while China, India and (to some extent) Nepal squabbled over the rights to Sikkim. During that period, few ventured in to climb or hike. The disputes were resolved in 2004 and Roger Payne and his wife Julie-Ann Clyma stormed in to establish themselves as the Western authorities on the climbing there. Payne’s article on Sikkim in the 2008 American Alpine Journal inspired the 2010 expedition.

Swienton reports on the 2010 climb in the upcoming 2011 American Alpine Journal. If you are an AAC member you can read it now before the book is in print in the members-only part of the website. I won’t repeat what he reports on there, but rather provide some interesting and informative pieces that the expedition learned in 2010.

While the expedition’s main objective was Jopuno, the team also climbed the west face to Lama Lamani’s “North Top” (5,650 m.) for a second ascent by a new route and Peak 5,500 m. (between Jopuno and Lama Lamani) for a first ascent.

The expedition attempted Jopuno last and worked to establish a feasible new route for its second ascent. However, due to dangers on the other proposed routes, the group decided to climb the original route up the West Ridge. In addition, one of the climbers was not sending at full strength due to altitude sickness. Around 5,450 m., the team roped up again on another icy section to attain rock, though covered in snow. Further up, the “black rock” section (a stretch of 300 m.) was slow going and it became clear that the day was spent. Fortunately, this climb was more about exploration, camaraderie and alpine climbing.

Conveniently, these were all day climbs from the expedition’s high camps (approximately 4,900 m. for Lama Lamani and Peak 5,500 m. and 5,100 m. for Jopuno.) This allowed the expedition to function to keep gear higher up and maintain a full-working base camp with a kitchen (and plenty of Scotch whiskey) below.

The 2010 expedition members received much helpful guidance from Payne. He recommended the staff of Sikkim Holidays located in Sikkim to serve as the travel agent. The staff, including Barap Namgyal Bhutia, were extremely helpful in making transportation arrangements from Kolkata and Delhi (depending where the expedition members flew in to) all the way to Gangtok and Yoksam, as well as working with the Indian government on the expedition’s behalf.

One piece of advice from this expedition to the next says when hiring guides and porters in-country, be sure you know ahead of time who is expecting to be fed and what their role will be during the journey. There was a little surprise when the porters did not come “self-sufficient” and were expecting to fix ropes on the slopes to boot. So much for the alpine-style climbs! Fortunately, the expedition’s positive attitude won the day and the trip went smoothly.

Over all, the journey gives one hope in virgin peaks in, untamed exotic locations. In fact, consider this last point: there is no rescue service in Sikkim. So many other areas have infrastructure to be ready for the unthinkable. Here, it’s still wild.

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Sources: 1) Paul Swienton of Maryland, USA; 2) Jopuno Expedition 2010 Memorandum/Report by the expedition party; and 3) Payne, Roger, “Emerging From the Mists: The Sublime Alpine Peaks of Sikkim, India,” 2008 American Alpine Journal pp. 112-127).