Posted on: July 15, 2009

New Myth?

I'd like to point out an irritating fiction that Ed Webster and practically everyone else unfortunately perpetuates ("Mt. Everest: Part I" in Alpinist 26). Tibetans and Sherpas do not consider Mt. Everest to be the "Mother Goddess of the Earth."

The Sherpa and Tibetan name for the mountain is Jomo Langma, which refers to the abode of a local deity named Miya Langzangma ("Immutable Elephant Fair Lady"), who can bestow beauty, prosperity and food upon those who pay her proper respect. She is one of five sisters who reside in the peaks and lakes around Khumbu. As Lama Jamyang Wangmo writes in his book The Lawudo Lama, these sisters are not deities of the enlightened mind, but worldly goddesses of the land who can be fickle and all too human in the way they operate. Wangmo's writing confirms what I first heard from Edwin Bernbaum, author of Sacred Mountains of the World.

If Mt. Everest truly were believed to be the "Mother Goddess of the Earth," we would see, as at Kailas, streams of pilgrims pouring to her from all across the land, and we would never have been allowed to climb it. I'm not an expert on Tibetan and Sherpa mythology, but I do know that while the country around Khumbu and Everest is revered and thought to hold passages into hidden and sacred realms, Jomo Langma doesn't seem to be a particularly sacred feature. [For one Sherpa climber's perspective on the mountain's sanctity, see Dawa Steven Sherpa's essay, Page 50 of this issue—Ed.]

For Sherpas the most sacred peak is the relatively minor one in the center of the Khumbu, Khumbilha. For Tibetans it seems that the most revered places are (or at least were) the meditation caves near the Rongbuk Monastery, as highly adept and famous yogis once used them and were said to have "subdued" the local deities.

From what I know, the Sherpas and Tibetans don't even have the concept of a "Mother Goddess of the Earth," and so we have to ask, who contrived this new myth, and why?

—Andy Selters, Bishop, California

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

Different Rules

In reference to the use of oxygen and fixed ropes by guided parties on K2 ("Darkness Falls from the Air" in Alpinist 26), from a guiding perspective, the problems of K2 are analogous to those of guiding on Everest before 1990. While K2 has tended to have a higher fatality rate than other 8000-meter peaks, if you look at the statistics before 2008, all K2 climbers who summited using bottled oxygen survived. [Between 1978 and 1997, 71 percent of K2 summiters did not use oxygen. Only after 2000 did the percentage of oxygen users start to approach 50 percent—Ed.]

As an example, in 1993 we had a perfectly good day when I went up to Camp 4 on K2. Meanwhile a group of six climbers were summiting. There was no wind and the weather was perfect. Only three of the summit group came down alive. The other three died of altitude-related causes. They were not on oxygen.

The objective danger of the Bottleneck may have increased in recent years. (It certainly looks so to me.) Previously this section would have been not much more serious than Mt. Everest's Khumbu Icefall. The escalated risk may count against a guided trip, but it should also count against an amateur trip.

As for K2 being a "mountaineer's mountain," that designation rather depends on what you mean by a "mountaineer." The normal use of the phrase implies alpine-style climbing. All mountains can be "mountaineer's mountains" if you try difficult new routes on them. Look at Andrzej Zawada's expeditions to Cho Oyu and Everest for example. [See Page 37 of this issue—Ed.]

The Abruzzi is not a new route, and it has large amounts of fixed rope on it. In that sense it is already a high altitude via ferrata and not an alpine-style climb.

From an ethical point of view, I have no problem with clients using fixed rope and oxygen for 8000-meter ascents. A purist would eschew these things, but then a purist should also only climb by a new route and onsight!

Climbing is a game in which we set for ourselves our own rules and objectives: one for Reinhold Messner, another for guided clients. There is no reason to confuse one set of rules and objectives with another. I have a foot in both camps. As an amateur, I approach new routes following the rules that are appropriate to that form of climbing: alpine style, ultra lightweight, no oxygen, no fixed ropes. As a guide, I would be highly irresponsible to subject my clients to that regimen. I have no problem with making this distinction.


The question of how good the clients have to be is simply an extension of any quide's assessment of the suitability of his team for a given objective. Kenton Cool's ascent of the Eiger North Face in winter with Sir Ranulf Fiennes is a good example of that decision-making process. Kenton's careful preparations made that climb an acceptable risk. Again, I see no problem with that approach.

—Victor Saunders, Chamonix, France

Deja Vu

I went into Whole Foods tonight. You know the one. It used to be Wild Oats and before that it was our beloved Alfalfas. The world has changed in so many ways. Yet, every once in a while I look around the corner and find a vestige of something that has been there for twenty years. Tonight, it was the magazine rack that created the deja vu. It was Alpinist staring me in the face. After the demise of the magazine, I had heard rumors of its resurrection. To see it there and to read the editorial was as if I had turned the corner and bumped into an old friend. While I still climb a great deal, probably as much as I ever have, I have lost interest in the climbing culture. I spend days climbing and skiing with my little crew—the rest has gotten a bit tiresome. I have had the sense that everything has changed and I'm no longer into it.

Your editorial and Alpinist 26 gave me an urge to re-engage with the larger climbing community. Thanks.

—John Winsor, Boulder, Colorado

Utter Disgust

As a loyal reader of your fine publication for all five weeks I've climbed, I've come to rely on your well-tick-marked route photos, finger- and toehold descriptions, exact clipping stances and correct cragside fashion. I'm now accustomed to expect the complete iPod playlists of each rap-ascensionist.

It was thus with utter disgust that I read Albert Newman's disingenuous rhapsodies in Alpinist 26 ("Devotion: Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona"). I mean, come on, an article praising long approaches to crappy rock? If you can call it rock. The whole place sounds like a kid's sandbox.

Perhaps one of the most telling lines is Newman's confession, "I've built and burned friendships over this all-too-often solitary obsession." How can he, in good conscience, lure partners to unclimbed 1,500-foot chosspiles? What if a hold broke off and crushed their iPods? No wonder that poor lost bastard is out there alone! Maybe he’d better just stay out there. What if he were to convert other climbers to his unnatural practices? (Newman's pseudo-naturalist spray just falls flat: if God had wanted us to climb choss, he would have at least put colored tape marks on the decent lines and Xs on the bad holds.)

And then, worst of all, when Newman goes on to describe that suspicious visiting climbing guru he calls a "shaman," the story takes on a totally blasphemous twist, which frankly as a God-fearing American makes me uncomfortable. "Devotion"? Sounds more like black magic to me.

If Newman must continue to practice his (clearly dark) "art," we insist that he do it quietly in his own sand pile. We feel it is anti-American for such a "free spirit" to roam untamed and if he strays into the gyms where our families climb we intend to keep a close watch on him for any suspicious acts.

—Joseph Plumber, Gymsville, Little Boxland

Old and Joyful

I suspect there's some unwritten rule in our climbing culture that you become "old" when you enjoy recounting stories of the "old days" just as much as hearing about the achievements of today's crazy kids. Somehow when I joined the climbing "lifestyle" back in the 1980s, I never expected to be telling stories of that time to newer generations of recruits.

And, lo, it has come to pass—the waters in which I swam, as a guppy climber, back in those days, the heroes to whom I offered silent adoration and whose exploits I envisioned as I was pushing myself through some teenage training frenzy—they are now "the past." Who knew? I just thought that I needed to get stronger and climb harder, and then amazing adventures would manifest themselves, as they did for my heroes at the upper bounds of the sport.

But of course that's not how it works. I was having my own wondrous escapades with my own climbing mates, building a lifetime's worth of fundamental experiences no less powerful for lacking the big grades behind them. Of course, the top guys (and gals) back then said exactly that: it's not the difficulty, it's the process, and so on—hippy, happy philosophy that ends up being 100 percent true.

Now, too many of those climbing (and BASE jumping) mates are dead, and all that's left of those relationships are the memories. When your friends die, and then the friends of your friends die, it's tough to share stories of the "old adventures" when everyone else is gone.

Well, that's how it goes: buy the ticket, take the ride. I'm just deeply resonating with the new energy of Alpinist. Ours is a "sport" of inclusion. The top sets the tone, and we're blessed that so many of our heroes are people of humility, grace, honesty and genuine good spirits. Lynn Hill was just as friendly and amazing to me as she was to top climbers, and Peter Croft was no less essential as a role model even though I couldn't climb (much less solo) most of those routes.

Through good times and bad, the memories (and lessons) of climbing have done as much to make the good parts of me stay together as anything else in my life. Thanks for reminding an old "never-quite-was-so-can't-really-be-a-has-been" climber like me, not only was it worth it—it still is.

—Douglas Spink, Sumas, Washington

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