As the spring of 2017 unfolded, new frontiers in climbing and mountaineering were opened.
On May 21, Kilian Jornet set a speed record ascent of Mount Everest, climbing the world’s highest peak in just 26 hours. For most climbers, whether they’re paying clients of expedition companies or elite climbers in their own right, a climb of Everest is an endeavor measured in weeks, with the final pushes taking several days. Jornet did it from the lower base camp on the Tibet side of the mountain in a shade over a day.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Jornet did it again: Starting from Advanced Base Camp (10.4 miles up and 4,000 feet higher), he reached the summit in just 17 hours. Jornet climbed the mountain in a fast-and-light style that has served him well in setting speed ascent records on Denali, Mont Blanc and Matterhorn.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, another audacious plan was coming to fruition. Alex Honnold had quietly been preparing to do something that had never been done. Honnold is famous for his free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. But the monarch of Yosemite, El Capitan, had never been free-soloed.
That changed on June 3, when one of the world’s best rock climbers set off to ascend the 3,000-foot tower without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment. In just under four hours, he topped out, standing alone with what might be the most impressive feat of climbing ever undertaken. Keep in mind, most people spend days climbing El Cap.
These two climbers, the greatest in their respective skills, have done things most of us cannot comprehend. Even their peers are in awe.
It begs the question: What comes next? Will someone else free-solo El Cap from a more difficult route? Or follow up Honnold’s feat in less time? Can someone race from the Tibet base camp to Everest’s summit in less than a day?
It’s hard to take stock in this. The passage of time has given us improved equipment, better climbing techniques, more knowledge of the mountains and advanced training methods that push the boundaries of mountaineering. But it wasn’t that long ago that mountains like Everest were unclimbed, and that scaling a face like El Capitan was unimaginable without climbing aids and a significant commitment of time.
So, what’s next? Can these feats be topped? One thing I know is that someone will try. If not these two athletes, then someone else, a name we might already know, or perhaps a climber currently cutting their teeth at some unknown climbing gym or perfecting techniques on their local crag. Or maybe there’s a trail runner burning up local races in the mountains we don’t know yet who is experimenting in mountaineering and climbing that, when he or she is ready, will give it a go.
And that leads me to a third mountaineering story from this spring: the death of Ueli Steck.
Steck fell and died April 30 during a solo training climb on Nuptse, elevation 25,791 feet, a peak in the same neighborhood as Everest. He’d been gunning for an ambitious climb of Everest’s west ridge, then traversing to the summit of neighboring Lhotse.
Steck was an athlete in the class of Jornet and Honnold, at least in his accomplishments. Credited for the only known solo climb of Annapurna’s south face, he’s also summited 82 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps in 80 days. And now he’s gone.
I’m not sure why the feats of Jornet and Honnold bring up thoughts on Steck and his demise, but they do. Perhaps it’s because these things happened within a couple of months of each other. Or maybe it’s the fact that pushing the envelope of mountaineering – and the risk that entails – makes me wonder what story we’ll see in the future.
The early days of alpine exploration were a strange combination of scientific curiosity and nationalistic drive. That’s not the case anymore. Corporate dollars are on the line, as many of the elite in the mountaineering world are sponsored by gear companies. Social media can fuel this further. I’d hate to think that dollars and likes are what drive us now, but these are different times.
But the common thread of what people do now and what they did decades ago is as old as humanity itself, that of seeing just how far we can push the limits of physicality, of mental steel, and of commitment to a goal.
So I say this knowing that it’s likely that someone will try to climb Everest faster the Jornet, and someone will climb something harder than Honnold. Most will fail, but a few will probably succeed. And as is too common in mountaineering, someone will probably die trying. At that point, we’ll be awed by the accomplishments and saddened by the loss. And asking ourselves again, “what’s next?”