The Measure of a Mountain

Posted on: March 6, 2020


[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The summit ridge of Manaslu (8163m), as featured in the 8000ers.com report. [Photo] Paulo GrobelThe summit ridge of Manaslu (8163m), as featured in the 8000ers.com report. [Photo] Paulo Grobel

JULY 1985, Karakoram, Pakistan: For days on the Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV, the Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka and his Austrian partner Robert Schauer struggled over passages of rock that seemed as smooth as marble. Dusk bounced off ripples of stone, creating phantasmagoric reflections. The rope floated in long arcs, attached by scarce pitons to the peak. Snowdrifts shimmered into avalanches. By the time they reached the top of the wall, each forward motion seemed like a "step into infinity," he told his biographer Bernadette McDonald. He knew that he and Schauer would die if they kept going to the summit. So they headed down. Cold, isolated, hungry, dehydrated and hypoxic, they descended through a fog of mirages: the shadow of an invisible third man; the calls of invisible birds; notes of strange music.

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Afterward, Kurtyka declared that since they hadn't arrived at the apex of the mountain, their first ascent of the Shining Wall remained unfinished. Yet he'd attained something else: an indefinable sense of mystery, of closeness to eternity. "He was convinced there were remote corners of the brain that could only be accessed in extremity," McDonald wrote in The Art of Freedom, "Gasherbrum IV had opened the door to one of those secret places." Years later, Kurtyka recalled in Alpinist 2, "Strangely enough, the climbing community accepted the ascent as a finished work. That's an obvious hint that alpinism is an art rather than a sport. Only in art does a missing link contribute to the meaning of a piece." To those who described their highly difficult and committed adventure as "the climb of the century," however, Kurtyka replied, "Does it make sense to declare a poem the poem of the century?"

AT 7925 METERS, GASHERBRUM IV is only slightly below the number that draws collectors to the world's 8000-meter mountains, where fixed ropes might stretch for long distances, where hundreds of feet have trampled the slopes, and where discarded oxygen bottles sometimes mark the snow. Within the standard lore of peakbagging on normal routes, the substantiation of a summit claim becomes paramount: there is no metric for spiritual experience. And yet, after years of closely examining summit photos and satellite images, an international team of researchers—including Eberhard Jurgalski, Rodolphe Popier and Tobias Pantel—has ascertained that many climbers who announced their ascents of Manaslu, Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri I never actually stood on the real apex of those 8000-meter peaks. Often, simply by error, they'd stopped at lower points that appeared like summits instead.

On Jurgalski's website, 8000ers.com, a report by Pantel notes a "hazy summit topography" on Manaslu where a ridge rises and falls over a series of fore-summits, and a ninety-degree bend hides the highest point from view. When there's little snow, the final tower is mainly rock, a crisp silhouette against the sky. But the wind and heavy drifts of summer monsoons can sculpt wild cornices along the ridge, creating seemingly impassable obstacles. During recent autumns, many commercial expeditions have ended at one of the fore-summits. In another report by Popier, a satellite photo of Annapurna's immense summit ridge shows numerous bumps, the lowest of which is 26.8 meters below the tallest. And on Dhaulagiri I, a similarly confusing summit landscape includes a metal pole stuck in the wrong place.

Jurgalski has suggested that a "tolerance zone" could be determined for any past ascents that ended, unbeknownst to the climbers, within a certain distance of the apexes and an "elite list" for those who truly reached the top. Nonetheless, he concludes, given the potentially large number of inaccurate summit claims, "the whole 8000ers history should be rewritten."

IT MAY SEEM ASTONISHING that as late as this past decade, on some of the most famous peaks in the world, so many people—commercial clients and experienced alpinists alike—could appear bewildered about where their summits actually were. Yet the history of exploration is also the history of error, approximation and myth. It can be easy to forget that much of cartography remains an act of metaphor, often representing multidimensional places in the form of flattened and conventional symbols.

Few mapmakers have ever fully agreed about how high, steep and autonomous a landform must be to earn a universal term for mountain. Implications of altitude and prominence shift according to climates, topographies and cultures. On 8000ers.com, Jurgalski lists a history of geographers' varied calculations in different ranges, including his own elaborate system. "To a large extent," Roderick Peattie argued in his 1936 study Mountain Geography, "a mountain is a mountain because of the part it plays in popular imagination. It may be hardly more than a hill; but if it has distinct individuality, or plays a more or less symbolic role...it is likely to be rated a mountain by those who live about its base."

For hundreds of years, the heights of peaks eluded any form of exact quantification. Religious and literary traditions have long depicted summits as piercing the very heavens. In the ninth century, the Chinese poet Po Chu-I described his ascent of Incense Burner Peak as a means to encounter "the limits of sight and hearing" and to "know the vastness of the universe." Early mapmakers recorded unearthly altitudes around the world. As late as the seventeenth century, the German geographer Bernhardus Varenius believed that Pico del Teide in the Canary Islands soared above 38,800 feet.

During the mid-1600s, however, the development of barometers made it possible to dream of pinning down more accurate elevations. By the 1800s, the technology improved to the point that surveyors could try to undertake "the systematic measurement of mountains throughout the world," as Swiss geographers Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz explained in The Mountain: A Political History. The results helped spur an interest in altitude records and in peaks above a certain threshold: "4000 meters in the Alps, over 8000 meters in the Himalaya." Yet mountains themselves remained hard to capture in a wholly numerical system. Romantic theories of the sublime reflected an ineradicable fascination with mysteries beyond the limits of human reach. Older ideas about summits as sacred geography persist to this day. University of London professor Veronica della Dora has observed the "strange paradox" of high peaks in Mountain: Nature and Culture: "They are spatially localized and finite, yet they stretch toward the infinite, the eternal, the ungraspable."

SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL, wanderers have sought out other parts of mountains besides their apexes: pilgrims have crossed alpine passes on the way to sacred sites; monks have journeyed in search of beyul within the interior of Himalayan massifs; mountaineers have stopped just a few meters shy of the apex of certain holy peaks to respect religious traditions. And as recreational climbers attained the highest summits of each range, many began to feel that the act of standing on the top was secondary to the challenge of getting to that point: whether by a more challenging route or by a more minimalist style.

During the twentieth century, controversies stirred over whether a new alpine route had to reach a summit to be complete, or whether it was enough to attain some other significant point, such as the top of a mountain face, the intersection with a previously climbed ridge, or the oft-cited "end of technical difficulties." In the 1997 American Alpine Journal, Jack Roberts described his fear of what might be lost: the unique sensation of giving as much as possible to a climb, and then of standing in a "sacred" place with "nothing else above" except the sky.

Other mountaineers, meanwhile, had drifted away from a fixation on apexes for environmental or philosophical reasons. Pacific Northwest writer Harvey Manning worried that climbers would only fight to conserve the upper regions of rock and snow, while the lush, old-growth trees of valleys would succumb to logging. In his 1965 book The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland, he praised mountaineers who could learn to appreciate the entirety of a range: "As they once bagged summits, now they bag cirques and cols, rivers and forests.... Every view is a new experience."

To Nan Shepherd, Scottish author of the 1977 classic The Living Mountain, the whole plateau of the Cairngorm range represented its "true summit." She strove to encounter the "total mountain"—each crystal of snow, ice and quartz; each curve of leaf and petal; each arc of ridge and cadence of line; each light-struck hill and shadowed chasm. This form of ascent can never be completed: the top of any one peak is only part of an endless journey, far more demanding than any record book could ever contain. "If I had other senses, there are other things I should know," she wrote, and added, "The thing to be known grows with the knowing."

IN DECEMBER 2019, Jurgalski told me he'd noticed relatively little response to reports about missed summits on Manaslu, Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri I. His work and that of his fellow fact checkers remains unfunded. In our era, while traditional journalism struggles to survive, native advertising and branded stories thrive. Social media is awash with embellished tales. For people who have based careers on publicizing their ascents, there could be enough at stake that they might want to ignore or deny any news that puts their claims, implicitly or explicitly, into doubt. Amid a ceaseless flood of global information, some audiences may be too overwhelmed to care about correcting mountaineering records.

Nonetheless, as researchers release more information about specific expeditions, momentum could gather and debates could ignite. Historians might add asterisks or footnotes to lists of past climbs. Mountaineers might return to complete ascents they now feel they'd left unfinished. New aspirants might race to become the first-of-whatever-category-to-reach-the- actual-apex of every 8000er. Storytellers and readers might recall that striving for veracity has its own value: a reconnection to a sense of something genuine and real, all too easily eroded in today's world. "This is history," Jurgalski says. "Why not tell the truth to people."

There's another outcome that could arise: a growing awareness of the fallibility of dominant ways of envisioning climbing. The location of particular summits might not be the only matter we've been getting wrong. In The Living Mountain, Shepherd wrote that alpine mirages and topographic illusions "drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number." At the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival, speakers and audience members discussed the inadequacy of relying only on common means for judging cutting-edge ascents: difficulty, commitment, style. In our current climate crisis, they suggested, measurements of carbon footprints are also urgent. Lauded climbs of the future might be ones that take place closer to alpinists' homes and require the fewest resources to accomplish. Expeditions might resemble Cole Taylor's second ascent of the North Pillar of Taalkhunaxhk'u Shaa (Devils Thumb). In 2017, instead of traveling by air, he sailed alone from Port Hadlock, Washington, toward the Baird Glacier of Alaska, and then hiked a chaos of crevassed ice to the base of the peak.

We live in a precarious age in which the weight of each human activity is keenly felt. Many no longer find it palatable to imagine alpinism as a purely innocent act or to praise it as a conquest of the "useless." As mountaineering scholar Amrita Dhar observes, we're now more aware that climbers and summits are "inevitably embedded in a wider world." The assessment of a climb should include its environmental impacts, Dhar proposes, as well as the labor of any people who fixed ropes, hauled loads or made the gear; but the ascent should also have the potential "to start some kind of long-term good." Perhaps, she muses, an ideal climb could generate an unpredictable, yet transformative idea in the mind of someone who hears the story.

At dusk, the icy stone of the Shining Wall still glows like candle flame behind cold glass. Michael Kennedy once compared it to "a glimpse of perfection," a summons to something never fully defined. By describing his great route as incomplete, Kurtyka evoked the possibility of an even more wondrous vision, beyond imagining. Perhaps, following his metaphor, we might consider ascents as lines of poetry, requiring the utmost honesty to compose, and yet still hinting at states of being that can't be fully captured by numbers or words, of realms that vanish before our etch marks in ice or our tracks in snow. "I see one suitable role for my life's work," Kurtyka said in an interview, proposing a mysterious, but essential aim, "for it to be a gift to others."

[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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