On Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck: What comes next?

Kilian Jornet. (Sebastien Montaz-Rosset photo)

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.

Alex Honnold. (NatGeo photo)

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.

Ueli Steck. (Jonathan Griffith photo)

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?”

Bob Doucette

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Ueli Steck dies in a fall in the Himalayas

The mountaineering community suffered a huge loss on Sunday following a fall in the Himalayas that claimed the life of Ueli Steck. He was 40 years old.

Known as the Swiss Machine, Steck was well known for a high number of speed ascent records all over the world. He’s spent the last few years going to the Himalyas trying harder routes, and is credited with being the first to ascend  Annapurna’s south face solo. In 2015, he climbed 82 4,000-meter peaks in 80 days. He’s a two-time winner of the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest honor.

This spring, Steck was attempting to climb the Lohtse-Everest traverse, gaining Everest’s summit by its notoriously difficult west ridge. He was acclimatizing near a neighboring peak, Nuptse, when he fell 1,000 meters to his death on Sunday, according to Reuters.

For more on Steck and Sunday’s accident, read this report from Outside Online.

To see more on his planned project this spring, watch this video.

Everest, moviemaking, and scratching the surface of what happened in 1996

Everest-1

Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s signature work “Into Thin Air” knows just how good a story can be when you combine the elements of adventure and tragedy. Krakauer is a skilled storyteller and an excellent reporter, and his bird’s-eye view of the disaster that unfolded on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 gave him that much more perspective on one of the saddest — and most important — days on the mountain.

So it’s no surprise that “Into Thin Air” was the main source material for the new film “Everest,” which premiered last week in IMAX theaters across the country. Filmmakers used other sources, too, but “Into Thin Air” was definitely the foundation for the cinematic version of this story.

Krakauer didn’t pull any punches, trying hard to tell what he saw and learned as evenly and thoroughly as possible. The result, from a literary perspective, is solid.

Hollywood, however, has its own ways of storytelling. When forced to choose between telling it like it is and presenting it in the most easily digested fashion, it’s simpler to go with the latter.

I saw “Everest” last weekend. No way I was going to miss that one. It was worth the price of admission, although I’m an eternal skeptic when it comes to 3-D movies (I have yet to see a 3-D film that couldn’t be told just as well in 2-D, and for less money out of my pocket).

The film features an all-star ensemble cast, excellent cinematic special effects, and a well-crafted feel about how bad things can get on the world’s highest peak. More than any non-documentary film on mountaineering I’ve seen, “Everest” gives you a sense of scale and awe. Filmmakers have to take a little license here and there (we can’t have brightly colored mummies talking through goggles and oxygen masks the entire time). But generally speaking, this is a decent portrayal of mountaineering for general consumption.

But there are aspects of the fashion in which the story is constructed that are a bit too formulaic, and it has much to do with how the characters are portrayed.

Every adventure-disaster movie has to have a central good guy, a cocky fella begging for some humble pie, a wild card, and a few others who have varying shades of good and bad that push the story forward. It’s a cookie-cutter way of doing it, and that’s the one flaw with this film. To wit:

Is it fair to paint Scott Fischer as the somewhat resentful loose cannon — lamenting the crowds of commercial clients on the mountain — reluctantly going along with plans made by Rob Hall?

Did Beck Weathers really carry that much Texas swagger into the climb, to the point where’s he’d snap at his guide and talk smack to other climbers?

Was Anatoly Boukreev rightly portrayed as 100 percent heroic, or were Krakauer’s criticisms (he’d written how the Russian mountaineering pro could have gone up to rescue climbers higher on the mountain, but refused) more in line with the truth?

I can’t say I know everything about this incident, but it would be plausible to think that there would be some rivalry between Fischer and Hall. They were competitors, after all, chasing the same dollars guiding amateurs up the mountain.

And Boukreev did a lot of heroic things as the disaster unfolded, searching for stricken climbers who were wandering near-dead in a whiteout on Everest’s South Col.

And hell, every non-Texan in the world could believe that someone from the Lone Star State might show up with, shall we say, a little bit of self-confidence (kudos to the filmmakers digging deeper into Weathers’ multi-faceted character as the film progressed, though).

But the overall formula didn’t help tell the story. It hindered it, making it a little too easy to swallow without getting deeper into the people involved. There’s only so much you can do in two hours, I get that. And the star of the film isn’t any of the actors. It’s the mountain.

So I suppose what I’m saying is if you go see “Everest,” see it for the right reasons — to be entertained. The deeper lessons of the good and bad of climbing Mount Everest are only hinted at here. The movie is good (there are some scenes that will rip your heart out, emotionally speaking). But the written accounts about life and death on Big E are numerous, as are the lessons about the troubles that have plagued it dating back to that infamous day in 1996. If you want to go beyond being entertained, those are also worth a look.

Bob Doucette

Updated: Nepal earthquake death toll tops 2,500; 17 killed on Everest

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. (cbsnews.com photo)

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. (cbsnews.com photo)

UPDATED: The Associated Press is now reporting the death toll in Nepal at more than 2,500 people, with more than a third of the casualties in Kathmandu. There are still people being dug out of collapsed ruins there and in other cities and towns across Nepal.

The New York Times is putting the death toll on Mount Everest at 17. Their deaths were caused by a substantial avalanche set loose down the Khumbu Icefall, sweeping into Base Camp and burying many people in their tents. Rescue efforts there are underway. Climbing teams are also trying to figure out how to get to people who are stranded above the icefall at Camp 1 and higher, as the route set through the icefall has been wiped out.

This video shows the scene from Base Camp as the avalanche struck:

****

For the second year in a row, natural disaster has struck Nepal, but this time in the worst way possible.

A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Himalayan country about noon local time, toppling buildings in Kathmandu and other cities and towns in the country while also triggering a slide on Mount Everest, where the spring climbing season is underway.

The Associated Press reports that nearly 1,200 people have been confirmed dead so far, but that the death toll is likely to rise much higher. Thousands may be injured, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, still missing. Many of the buildings in the Nepalese capital are not built to withstand powerful quakes, and this one definitely was — the strongest since an 8.2 hit Chile in 2014, and probably the deadliest since a huge quake rocked Japan in 2011.

It’s not yet known how badly damaged the smaller communities in rest of the country have fared, though the building construction problems are probably similar to what’s seen in Kathmandu.

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

On the south side of Mount Everest, the climbing season was just getting underway when the earthquake struck. The AP is reporting that 10 people were killed at Base Camp after the quake triggered a slide; another five were killed in Tibet, according to the BBC. Outside Online is reporting that the route through the Khumbu Icefall has been smashed, and there is speculation that this may end the climbing season on the mountain. If so, it would be the second year in a row that a season was ended prematurely, as a deadly avalanche shut down the mountain’s south side last spring.

The AP says this quake is the deadliest to hit Nepal in 80 years. Deaths were also reported in India and Bangladesh, though not nearly as many.

The Weekly Stoke: Cheating on Everest, a really young climber, trail running tips and a new run streak record

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Happy Friday everyone! National Trails Day is tomorrow, so I hope you all get out there and enjoy some outside time. Until then, here are some links to get you going.

It seems that beyond tales of heroism and tragedy, Mount Everest also cannot escape controversy. A Chinese climber who stayed behind after everyone left Everest’s south side is taking some heat after her successful summit, with allegations that she “cheated” to get to the top.

More from Everest: A 13-year-old girl from India became the youngest female to climb the mountain.

Thinking about making the switch from road to trail running? Here is a list of 21 tips for beginner trail runners.

And finally, here is a story about a California man who set a run streak record — he ran every day for 45 years. And change.

The Weekly Stoke: Deadly avalanche in the Himalayas, a new kind of trail running, pot growing consequences and flying off the top of Everest

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Summer is just about here! May your plans for the coming months include a whole lot of outdoor adventure. Let’s get started on this edition of the Weekly Stoke…

Mountaineering in the Himalayas goes beyond Mount Everest, and the other peaks are as dangerous or more than the world’s highest peak. Such is the case when an avalanche killed three climbers on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain.

Trail and road races are great, but a new trend called “fastest known time” on solo trail runs is now a growing trend. Something that may appeal to the hardcore trail runners who prefer blazing a trail in solitude.

Illegal pot growing isn’t just creating crime issues. Illegal grows on public lands are also causing significant ecological problems.

And finally, check out this story about Nepali Sherpas who paraglided off the summit of Mount Everest in 2011.

Everest, ethics, and dying in the name of adventure tourism

Part of a line of hundreds of climbers make their way up Mount Everest. (Guardian photo)

Part of a line of hundreds of climbers make their way up Mount Everest. (Guardian photo)

I’ve intentionally laid off from writing about what happened on Mount Everest a couple of weeks ago, when 16 Sherpa guides were killed by a massive avalanche while hauling loads up the Khumbu Icefall.

To get a couple of preliminaries out of the way, the icefall is considered the most dangerous part of the mountain on the Nepalese side, and those going up the southern standard route are required to go through this treacherous place multiple times.

This is even moreso the case for Sherpa guides and Western outfitters — they’re the ones hauling loads, setting fixed lines and establishing camps higher up the mountain. In particular, the risk undertaken by Nepalese guides is the highest, as they go up and down the peak much more frequently than their Western partners and their high-paying clientele.

Certainly, there is a lot about the Everest scene that is different from what most of us know as “mountaineering.” Maybe it’s time to have an honest discussion about that.

If you look at the photograph below, I don’t think any of us would mistake what going on there as “mountaineering.”

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

That’s Half Dome, one of the iconic peaks of Yosemite National Park. Cables attached to bolted-in rails assist hikers up its steep, bare summit pitch, making it possible to ascend what would otherwise be a very difficult and dangerous climb. Thanks to the cables, any hiker with the mettle to hike to that spot and the nerve to finish the task here can stand atop Half Dome and enjoy some pretty amazing summit views.

So take a look at the next picture below.

The Everest conga line. (eightsummits.com photo)

The Everest conga line. (eightsummits.com photo)

What you’re looking at is just part of a line of hundreds of climbers — all attached to fixed line — heading up Mount Everest. To be sure, the air is thin, the pitch is steep and they are all carrying the gear needed to ascend (though most of these folks will go up and down the peak without ever having to use the ice axe affixed to their packs).

But is what they are doing really mountaineering? Are they using any of the required skills of mountain climbing? What percentage of them would know what their ice axe is for, and how/when to use it? Surely a lot of them would, but I’ll bet there are others who would not.

In any case, the overwhelming majority of the people who make a summit attempt on Everest are not the folks we’d normally associate with the term “mountaineer.” They may have mountaineering experience, but more likely they are people with a lot of money who pay others to do the bulk of the work to make a summit attempt successful. What’s left for the paying client is the task of 1) doing what you’re told by your guides; 2) getting dressed and geared up each morning; and 3) physically willing yourself to the top.

I want to stop here to note that for these climbers, a successful Everest summit is a real accomplishment. It takes a lot of heart, toughness and discipline to make that trek.

But I’d also say that if not for the huge levels of support they receive, almost none of them would ever sniff the summit. Instead, Everest would be left to the Ed Viesturses and Simone Moros of the mountaineering world — the people who could actually plan and execute a climb by way of their own skills and experience.

So that leads me back to where I started. What would you call the Everest climbing scene, if it is not really mountaineering?

In a word, tourism. Very expensive ($60,000 per person and up) and very dangerous tourism.

Paying clients risk their lives doing this. All of them could be injured or killed by avalanches, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, hypothermia, a fall or any number of other pitfalls that come with scaling the world’s highest peaks. But they keep signing up, in bigger numbers, paying handsomely for the privilege.

Guide services in the U.S, Europe, Australia and Asia reap the rewards of this, and the guides they employ find work doing what they love as well as opportunities to advance their careers. Those guys also risk their lives, and as we saw in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” sometimes they die.

But the biggest risks fall on the Nepalese and Tibetan guides. They haul more loads, fix more ropes and cross dangerous terrain more times than anyone else. They’re also paid the least, and unlike the paying clients, they don’t get to go home to lives of affluence. Sherpa guides earn far more money than their non-climbing countrymen, but their wages are significantly less than what you see in the developed world.

And now we have 16 dead Sherpas, buried by snow and ice as they were hauling loads and fixing ropes while traversing the nastiest part of the mountain last month.

These guys left behind families who, despite the insurance they may have had, are facing difficult times without the main wage earner around anymore. And lest we forget, economic opportunities for surviving family members in Nepal are far, far fewer than what we experience here.

The morality of this system looks a little questionable. Never mind the semi-imperialistic feel of it all — wealthy Westerners hiring locals to do the heavy lifting for small wages, all for the sake of earning a shot of personal glory before returning home. People are making their livelihoods — and risking their lives — all for the sake of what is really just tourism.

Read that again: Sixteen Sherpa guides died trying to satisfy the personal goals of tourists.

I don’t know what the answer is. Certainly, I’d like to see people continue to climb the world’s biggest peaks. I’d like to see folks who make those dreams happen get compensated fairly for what they do. But maybe the money involved in Himalayan adventure tourism is pushing people to take risks that are unfairly costing those who can least afford it.

A lot of high-paying clients on the south side of Everest went home disappointed this month when Nepalese guides shut down operations for the season. No doubt, many of them are wishing they had signed on to climb from the north side, where expeditions are still going on.

But at least they got to go home. Sixteen Nepalese men did not.

I’m going to keep climbing mountains, but it’s going to be with my friends, on much lower-profile peaks here in the U.S. Funds, time and limitations in my own experience/skills dictate that. If I had the ability and resources to try one of the Himalayan giants, I’d sure be tempted to go.

But I’m just not sure I’d feel right about going to Everest in light of what we know of that scene today.

Bob Doucette