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Inspirations, Part V: The Wisdom of Exploration


No one has ever become rich or famous from INFO; it has required constant personal effort on the part of passionate individuals, and to this day it remains under threat from the necessary evils of advertisements and profit margins. But it's just as threatened by the increasing apathy for new, non-famous mountains that aren't on some tick-list, or about people who don't pull V12 or have a personal blog and clothing line. So many climbers don’t care about working out how to climb something new in an interesting area; they just pay someone to help them up something else, something their friends have heard of. But I don't worry about them much any more. Maybe it's better this way. Keep the crowds on Everest and off Kanjut Sar. Festoon Ama Dablam with rope, and leave Sani Pakkush alone. Northwest Yunnan? Oh no, there's nothing good there. The Chapursan? No, Pakistan is dangerous, a terrible place. Best you stay away. I hear Elbrus is real nice.

"A mid-1990s INFO had a photo of the fluted north face of Gangchempo and reports of illegal Spanish ascents, so I thought I'd have a look. Around the same time INFO also covered in some detail a solo of the north face of Langshisha Ri by Slovenian climber Vanja Furlan. For some reason this really appealed to me much more than a lot of the bigger stuff going on then, so I figured Langtang was a good place to go. I'd spent several weeks in the upper Langtang, wading through heavy winter snow, avoiding avalanches and learning how bad the weather can be down low in the Nepal pre-monsoon. Finally, I attempted a new route on the north face of Naya Kanga but gave up around dawn at around 5100m, up to my chest in snow (I'm 6'7"). It was disappointing, but at least on that occasion I'd actually got up on the route, tried as hard as I could and been beaten by truly bad conditions. As I turned to descend I saw the rising sun hit the east face of Langtang Lirung, in this photo. It was more beautiful than I'd realized and a nice view to finish the climb. In hindsight this trip was very unsuccessful, but I learned that I personally got a lot more satisfaction making my own decisions, no matter how uncertain I was at the time that I was right, and not relying on someone else for my safety. I thought about some of the other climbers I'd met in Kathmandu and wondered how they were going. They were on Lhotse and Everest and their big objectives made me feel like I was wasting my time. It was the first week of May 1996. Days later I left the valley and on the bus from Dhunche to Kathmandu a copy of The Rising Nepal reported that Scott Fischer was dead, Rob Hall was missing and some clients were dead. I didn't know any of them personally, and I had no inkling of what would follow those events, but I just felt happier having done my thing." [Photo] Damien Gildea

For me part of the real attraction and fun of expedition climbing was seeing a photo somewhere of a mountain you didn't recognize—"Holy crap, what is that? Look at that couloir!"—working out what it was, where it was, whether or not it had been climbed using INFO and the AAJ, and how you might get there using maps and more mainstream material. Or better yet, finding a map that had high mountains marked on it but no names, in an area that wasn't already written up somewhere else. You had to cross-reference between a wide selection of materials, often working out for yourself where errors had been made—often only after having been to the place. It was an international quest that brought you into contact with like-minded fanatics. The slow penetration of obscurity was part of the fun as well as the challenge. You had to make it happen. You couldn't buy it from a brochure. You had to want it.

Things have changed lately, especially with Google Earth, which is both amazing and terrible, plus the digitization of Ms. Hawley into the Himalayan Database, the Alpine Club's free online Himalayan Index and the more recent archiving of INFO available free online. [Mountain INFOs are available as free downloads from Please support this indispensable resource. –Ed.]

Frustration and failure—how I often felt in the mid-1990s—this time on Bubuliomoting (6000m), Hunza, Pakistan, 1995. [Photo] Damien Gildea


Now mountains have nowhere to hide. The diffusion of knowledge over the last ten years via the internet has changed the expedition mountaineering scene quite a bit, helped largely by the opening of China and her associated ranges. Now there's so much info on the web, so many photos and so much faster communication that it is all much easier. But still fun. Of course the web is largely unedited and full of misleading "information," lists and claims, but INFO and the AAJ are actually edited by knowledgeable people with significant experience and resources, so they're something of a clearinghouse for all the crap. They occasionally make mistakes, of course, but compared to the sheer amount of information pouring in, the quality they turn is impressive.

A distant view of the unclimbed Yashkuk peaks from the moraine of the Yashkuk Yaz Glacier, south of the Chapursan Valley. "I visited the Chapursan after my attempt on Passu Sar, looking for something different. The valley has a 70km long jeep road that leads from the Karakoram Highway almost to the border of the Afghan Pamir, but had been closed to foreigners until 1999. I visited in July 2001, appreciating the relatively unknown peaks and wondering what the future held for the inhabitants of such a beautiful, unsullied valley. Not two months later this area was closed off after the September 11 terrorist attacks, being so close to the border. Climbers have returned to make a few ascents since, but no summits of the main range have been reached from this side." [Photo] Damien Gildea

But is INFO "literary"? I don't care, though I recall that art is about knowing what to leave out. OK, so on a more literary level, Victor Saunders' two books Elusive Summits and No Place To Fall were both pretty influential on me—and not just because in Australian bookstores there were bulk copies of them piled in the $5 remainders bin at a time when I had no money. They were well-written, proper books, not the pretend books of collected magazine articles that publishers love now. They were real expeditions involving laid-back, slightly quirky guys doing hard new routes in lesser-known areas, always with an almost overdone self-deprecating humor. And, quite frequently, those expeditions failed. Unfortunately they probably made me a bit too OK with failing, and it's taken me a while to work past that, though at least I'm still alive to know it. But when the climbing world of the early 1990s was about to slide into Everest hype and guided internet heroes, you had the understated account of Fowler and Saunders launching up the Golden Pillar of Spantik, one of the most stunning lines on the planet, or the still-unclimbed 3000m high Hidden Pillar of Ultar. Right now there's only a handful of people climbing like that at the hard end, or better—Graziani and Trommsdorff, Prezelj and some other Slovenians. Then there's some dedicated and successful exploratory guys like Chkhetiani, Ioffe, Djuliy, Normand, a few Kiwis and Brits. You won't see them pimping a booth at the outdoor trade show, but they all read INFO.

Everyone else is just walking in the ashes of someone else's fire.

—Damien Gildea, Australia

Damien is Alpinist's Antarctica Correspondent.

The sacred peak of the unclimbed Kawa Karpo or Meili Xueshan (6770m) at dawn, viewed from the summit of an unnamed peak above the Baimang Pass. The peak has been attempted about six times and remains unclimbed; when a joint Chinese-Japanese team attempted the peak, a massive avalanche killed seventeen members of the team—one of the worst life-taking incidents in mountaineering history. "When I first went to northwest Yunnan in 1998 the nearby town of Deqen had just been put on the open list for foreigners, and you could only view these peaks from across the Mekong River. When I returned in 2002 there was a backpacker's lodge and glacier tours. I was first drawn to this part of Asia by random photos seen in an old Himalayan Journal and by brief notes in a mid-1980s INFO. I originally went to explore the then-unfrequented Konkaling Range in western Sichuan but saw a photo of Kawa Karpo in Kunming and changed direction." [Photo] Damien Gildea

The north face of Shispar (7611m), rising more than 3000 meters above the Passu Glacier. "In 2001 I visited the area to attempt Passu Sar (7478m) but found it dangerously out of condition. Looming above us all the time was Shispar, a peak I'd also seen a lot from the south when I attempted Bubliomotin in 1995 and 1996. Shispar has only had two ascents, both from the east, reaching the summit up slopes behind the left skyline. Under new regulations the peak fee is only US$400 and you no longer need a Liason Officer here, plus it's only two days walk from the highway. Pakistan's Karakoram is full of these little-known giants, and you won't see many photos of such peaks unless you read INFO." [Photo] Damien Gildea

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Ha - Victor Saunders' "Elusive Summits" in the $5 bin in Australia. I always wondered why I was given that book for xmas one year... ...and yes it did fuel a desire to search for beautiful and memorable places that promised adventure, instead of being lured by hype or metres above sea level.

2009-04-21 16:06:55

Absolutely brilliant Inspirations piece, thanks. Indeed, Lindsay Griffin is the man all climbing journalists/info-minded-folks should aspire to. I've often figured that if I could have just one source of info for world alpinism, it would be Lindsay's brain. Great passion in Damien's piece here, too — again, thanks.

2008-04-18 00:32:35
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