Posted on: June 1, 2003

A Word from the Pirates

First of all, thank you so much for getting it right. Finally, a magazine committed to putting the death back in climbing.

Getting something else right might be a bit more complicated. The report in Alpinist 2 [pp. 90-91] noting the "first ascent" of Nepal's Peak 41 by a Slovakian team may have answered a question many of us had about how Alpinist was going to deal with the persistent editorial dilemma of the Himalayan "record." Though my one-eyed and parrot-shouldered brethren may order me to walk the plank for speaking up here, it may be useful to remind your readers that the standing record of "permitted" ascents obscures a long, and some might say honorable, history of Himalayan piracy of both permitted and unpermitted peaks.


The piracy issue, for both climbers and editors, is a complex one. Rightly or wrongly, for many people, the heart of climbing lies in freedom, and nothing seems more wrongheaded than paying, or being given permission, to climb. So pirates elect to climb wherever and whenever they want. Some pirates doubt the legitimacy of a government's authority to grant permits or question the degree to which the permit fees go to the local people or help the mountain environments, and so they refuse to pay. This argument is made all the more salient by the irritating fact that the countries charging fees seem for the most part to be run by fascists, fundamentalists and nuke-waving ultra-nationalists who oppress and torture the people who carry our loads. Pay them money? Not on your life.

On the opposing side, others, including several notable alpinists like Doug Scott and Reinhold Messner, have very publicly said that piracy only hurts the climbing community's future, because governments get very pissed off when they think they have not been obeyed (and thus might ban climbing altogether), and because local economies that often depend on climbing are not supported by the small stealth teams.

The editorial issue—how to get the record straight—is also confounded by a number of factors. First, of course, many of the pirated ascents are never talked about (both because that might limit the pirates' chances of getting back into the country, but also, more nobly, because there is a feeling amongst many pirates that climbing without being able to talk about it is the purest path in the game. Every ascent becomes a first ascent, and what a joy that can be). Second, several of the "official" recordkeepers, Elizabeth Hawley most prominently amongst them, rabidly refuse to recognize black ascents and appear to quite willingly credit the official ascents as "firsts" even when they know differently. (Does make one wonder what the true agenda is—history or politics....)

For all the above reasons, most climbing publications also seem to have a standing policy of not reporting black ascents, and this has created a humorous situation in which the cognoscenti smugly shake their heads when reports of yet another black "first ascent" of Peak So-and-So make the rounds and sees them burst into laughter when the "first official" ascent happens years later.

The matter was made all the more humorous when the Nepalese started bulking up the permitted peaks list a few years ago by including many easily accessible peaks. A rule of thumb? Any mountain on that list that is anywhere near a previously permitted climbing or trekking peak has been climbed already. Several times. But so what? Just go climbing.

So. The first ascent of Peak 41? I'll have to ask those guys if they brought down the picture of my dog. Sheesh. Next you'll be reporting the first ascent of Kutang Kang, the peak on the Annapurna circuit that was added to the list last year, one about as virgin as that sixty-five-year-old hooker in Thamel—you know, the one with the removable leg and the three teeth....

Oh, sorry, that's another story.

Aye Matey, etc.,

—Long John Silver and the pirates of the Khumbu

Editor's Note: While the history of unpermitted ascents of peaks in the Himalaya is indeed a long one, Alpinist will continue to report "official firsts," as the climbers are ordinarily forthcoming about information that can help future parties interested in climbing the peak.


In reading the section "The Climbing Life," I was reminded of a short climb in Boulder Canyon I did in 1980. I was on lead, way above my pro (which was under a roof), on nubbins on a face and beginning to lose balance, to the point where I called out "falling!" Knowing I would get hurt way bad if I fell, I searched in a last moment of desperation for anything to keep me in check. What I found was a protrusion at nose level. This is true: I stuck out my tongue and did an undercling on the nubbin. Those few ounces of pull got my balance regained, and I finished the pitch.

Not many years ago I measured the pull of my tongue on my mom's ancient postage scale, and found that it's a good twenty ounces' worth, like most anyone's tongue.

Here's the clincher: my two partners on the climb, John Freeman and Mike Bearzi, saw the whole thing, but they are now both dead, so I have no living witnesses to my claim. Not at all Maestri, but hey, I'm alive.

—Dieter Klose, Fort Collins, Colorado

Vertical Excess

We climbers tend to be braggarts, and this shows itself disturbingly frequently in crass exaggerations of vertical height gains on routes and faces. The Robson photo-topo [p. 82] is particularly egregious. Robson stands 3954 meters; Berg Lake is 1638 meters. The greatest possible height gain on the northern flank of Robson is 2316 meters. Yet every route (except Infinite Patience) is attributed a height gain of 2500 meters. How so?

Fact is, nobody considers a route to have started 'til it... starts! So, Emperor Ridge starts (in the most generous sense) down near Emperor Falls, at about 1750 meters, giving an elevation gain of 2200 meters. Eliminate the approach for the Emperor Face routes (to about where the line for routes 3 and 4 starts on your photo), and you're starting at about 2200 meters. Overall height gains for routes 5, 4 and 3 are thus 1750 meters, not 2500. For perspective, the Stump-Logan rises 750 to 800 meters from the 'shrund (ca. 2750m) to the Emperor Ridge (ca. 3525m).

As for the North Face and Fuhrer Ridge, the stated height gains are simply ludicrous. You walk up from Berg Lake to the shoulder west of Berg Glacier at just over 2600 meters, hardly putting a hand on the rock. Then you walk again up the glacier to cross the 'shrund on the north face at about 3150 meters: the height gain for the route is 800 meters, not 2500! And the Fuhrer Ridge rises from the col behind the Helmet, which is just under 3300 meters: the route height gain is 650 meters, not 2500.

These are big, serious, difficult, scary, threatening faces, and every person who sets foot on any one of them has my utmost respect. My point is to browbeat climbers into telling the truth, at least in public. This bullshit is remarkably prevalent everywhere. Let's save the "lies" for face-to-face in the bar!

—Don Serl, Vancouver, Canada

Editor's Note: The elevations for the routes noted above were taken from Sean Dougherty's book, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies. Mr. Serl’s point is well taken, though, as we have increasingly seen climbers give optimistic interpretations to route lengths. For consistency's sake, Alpinist encourages climbers to use route lengths based on the starting and ending points of the technical climbing.

The Usual Suspects

Regarding the New Zealanders in the photo (see "Contents," Issue 2), I remember this expedition because it occurred just as I started climbing (I was twelve). Several of the members are still alive. They are: Ted Coats (swigging red wine from wicker basket); Hugh Logan (next to him drinking beer); Darryl Thompson (underneath Hugh, sitting with hands clasped); and Tim Wethey (the guy leaning to the left with his face in the sun).

—K. Cameron Falkner, Louisville, Kentucky

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