Everest......

16th May 2013

'If everything happened well, early in the morning on May, 15th Bolotov and I at light of small lamps we will leave Base camp' (a translation from Dennis Urboko's blog)

Everest has come up in conversation a lot over the last few weeks.  During the Everest season it's becoming impossible to escape regular news from the world’s highest mountain.  This year it is even harder than usual as 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s famous ascent.  It needs to be a year to celebrate the majesty of the world’s highest mountain, but Everest 2013 is also becoming notorious for other reasons.
 
I’ve never climbed Everest and have no plans to try, but I have always been fascinated by the mountain.  I remember reading about Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler making the first ascent without oxygen followed soon after by Messner’s incredible solo ascent.  I devoured Bonington’s books about his team ascending the South West Face.  I cried when I read of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker disappearing during their audacious attempt on the North East Ridge in 1982. Stephen Venables forging a route up the Kangshung Face, Alison Hargreaves soloing the mountain without oxygen or Sherpa support or the legendary Jerzy Kukuczka's new routing the South Pillar.  They have all been a big part of my climbing inspiration over the years.
 
Many of these ascents were completed in what amounted to, in my opinion, Everest’s golden age. I imagine, at the time, only a few teams on the mountain, simple living conditions and minimal support.  Of course there were still differences of scale.  Bonington’s South West Face team had a huge amount of logistical support whereas I remember reading that for Messner’s solo adventure there was just his girlfriend waiting for him at base camp.  But they are still a marked contrast from the tented city that now becomes base camp each year or the sight last year of several hundred climbers snailing their way up the Lhotse Face on the same day.
 
Peak Mountaineering runs commercial expeditions and I would never criticise anyone who seeks a personal challenge by climbing Everest, but I still can’t help longing for a return to that past pioneering spirit.  It’s amazing that there have only been 2 new routes successfully climbed on the mountain in the past decade.  So I was particularly pleased that, in this anniversary year, we did have 2 teams that promised to be really interesting to follow......
 
I saw a photo some weeks ago on Facebook.  It was a snap of Ueli Steck and Jon Griffiths as they sat on a flight to Kathmandu.  Their faces had beaming smiles and their eyes gave away that excited look of people heading for a great adventure.  I studied the scene with jealousy and excitement in equal measure.  I am always jealous when people are heading off for new adventures (unless I'm involved with one of my own) but I also looked forward to seeing what would become of their trip.
 
Jon is a talented alpinist and superb photographer and was heading to Everest for the first time. Ueli is a world famous multi discipline climber with stacks of notable ascents to his name (includes a previous Everest ascent without oxygen).  They were going to team up with another very talented climber, Simone Moro, to attempt a new route on the world’s highest peak.  This was certainly an expedition with great potential.
 
It didn't seem long after I saw that photo that, like everybody else, I was hit with the news that a fight had occurred high on the mountain.  The western climbers had, apparently, been set upon by a Sherpa 'mob' and forced to race for their lives to base camp.  I was devastated to hear the initial news reports and saddened to follow the barrage of conflicting reports that followed.  For days it raged on and even, unlikely as it seems, made the front page of the Sun newspaper (the photo above came from inside the Sun on that day).
 
Clearly something went very wrong that day.  I have seen reports blaming the European team for climbing too near the Sherpa rope fixers.  I have heard reports that there were disrespectful comments made.  I have also read that the Europeans did nothing wrong and the actions of the Sherpas demonstrates a breakdown in relations caused cultural differences that have been slowly bubbling to the surface (I recommend reading Jon's blog here).
 
I wasn't there and would hate to speculate.  I have climbed with Sherpas on several occasions and know they work incredibly hard and take significant risks to allow western climbers to realise their dreams.  Their efforts on Everest have, over many decades, allowed thousands to ascend the mountain.  Thousands who wouldn't have stood a chance unaided.  They live in difficult conditions away from their families for several months.  It's a big ask.
 
Of course Ueli's team weren't sharing the same plans as many of the Everest mountaineers currently on the mountain.  They were climbing independently and weren't relying on the services of Sherpas.  Their ascent was taking alpine style methods to a Himalayan giant.  So when I heard that they were leaving Everest (with Steck saying he will never return) I just felt extremely sad about the whole situation.  Sad for Jon, Ueli and Simone, but sad in equal measure for the Sherpas and the rest of the mountaineering community. I know mountains can bring out the best and the worst in everyone but, whatever the reasons, this marks a very sad chapter in Everest history. 
 
Once the furore died down the Everest machine rumbled on and my attention turned to Dennis Urubko and Alexey Bolotov’s attempt on a new line on the South West Face (details on their proposed climb are here).  Alexey is a legendary Russian mountaineer who’s previous ‘ticks’ include a number of 8000ers including 2 previous ascents of Everest.  He was also one of a very select group to have been awarded 2 Piolet d Or's.  Dennis is a mountaineer with an incredible pedigree having previously climbed all 14 8000metre peaks and many other significant mountains.  Dennis and Alexey had an audacious plan to climb a new line in alpine style.  This would undoubtedly be a ground breaking ascent in the purest way.  
 
Then I turned on my computer this afternoon and the whole game had changed.  I sat there stunned to hear that Alexey was dead.  Reports are confused at this stage but one suggestion is that a fixed line snapped as he traversed through the icefall and he was instantly killed in a long fall.  Such a numbing way to lose such a great mountaineer and my sincerest condolences to his family and friends.  Such a sad end to their exciting plan which would have given Everest’s 60th anniversary something unique to celebrate.  Everest has lost its shine for me this season.
 
Of course I am not disrespecting the mountaineers who use Everest’s standard routes.  I will never be in a position to follow what Ueli, Jon, Simone, Alexey or Dennis were attempting.  If I were climbing the mountain I would undoubtedly be ascending the fixed lines with everyone else.  But I still maintain that we need ascents that push the boundaries to keep the vibrant spirit of Everest mountaineering alive.  Past Everest mountaineers have inspired me and I hope future ones will continue to do so.  When I run up the steep hill behind my house later and want to stop for a rest I will take strength from the determination these climbers showed.  When I find myself struggling on a steep mountain face I will be thinking of Ueli or Dennis.  After this crazy season there will be calls for things to change on Everest.  For me the biggest change needs to be getting more of the pioneers back in action.
 
Posted by Paul