Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Researchers challenge historical records for 8000-meter peaks
Posted on: July 20, 2022
[This story has been updated to clarify that Billi Bierling is not directly involved with the research and that Kangchenjunga, believed to be sacred by local religions, is not among the peaks that are being reviewed for summit records.]
Annapurna (8091m). [Photo] Wolfgang Beyer, Wikimedia
A team of researchers has been working for the past several years analyzing climbers' summit photos from the world's highest peaks—particularly on Dhaulagiri (8167m), Manaslu (8163m) and Annapurna (8091m). On July 8, one of them, Eberhard Jurgalski, announced in a report on 8000ers.com that they could only find evidence to confirm ascents to the actual apex of all 14* 8000-meter peaks by three people: Ed Viesturs (USA), Veikka Gustafsson (Finland) and Nirmal Purja (Nepal/UK). [*There is a tradition of stopping just below the very summit of Kangchenjunga out of respect for local religious beliefs, and the researchers are not discounting ascents of climbers who did so.]
The person who has been credited since 1986 as the first to collect all 14 summits (and without bottled oxygen)—Reinhold Messner—does not appear on the researchers' list of their 14 confirmed summits. A story by John Branch published in the New York Times in May 2021 quoted Messner's response to earlier, less-specific reports of the researchers' work: "If they say maybe on Annapurna I got five meters below the summit, somewhere on this long ridge, I feel totally OK. I will not even defend myself. If somebody would come and say, this is all bullshit what you did? Think what you want... There is only the knowledge of what was yesterday, and the enthusiasm for what you are doing. I cannot say the line that Hillary did on Everest is wrong. It's his line, it's his piece of art. He expressed himself."
Regarding "Nims" Purja's speed record of topping all 14 peaks in six months and six days, Jurgalski's report reads: "During his big 2019 journey he also stopped, for whatever reason, at the [West Rocky Foresummit of Dhaulagiri] and later also at the ridge point on Manaslu.... He corrected it in autumn 2021, when he went to the true summits of both mountains. The six months, six days record must be deleted...but he still will own other records." (Norwegian climber Kristin Harila is currently poised to try to climb all 14 peaks in fewer than six months and six days.)
Purja had not responded to an email by the time this article was posted but Alpinist will update the story if he responds to us later.
8000ers.com is operated by Eberhard Jurgalski, who has been working with researchers for the past several years, including Rodolphe Popier and Tobias Pantel of the Himalayan Database, Damien Gildea, Federico Bernardi, Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn, and Thaneswar Guragai (of Seven Summit Treks). They have shared occasional articles leading up to this moment, so Jurgalski's latest report doesn't come as a complete surprise. Their research continues and decisions remain about how to handle long-established records.
Billi Bierling, who is the managing director of the Himalayan Database but not directly involved with the research, told Alpinist in an email:
We are facing something interesting. I really appreciate Eberhard Jurgalski's work as he is very precise, and together with his colleagues he has defined new parameters for Himalayan climbing. The Himalayan Database team will look into it and discuss what changes can be made. It will be very difficult to get 100% evidence for past ascents and a lot is unclear and even though I don't think we can rewrite history, we may be able to make some adjustments in the future.
In a Sharp End column titled "The Measure of a Mountain," published in Alpinist 69 (2020), Katie Ives quoted Jurgalski as saying "This is history. Why not tell the truth to people."
A July 2019 report, with a set of downloadable pdfs, had included the researchers' photo analysis of summit topographies for Manaslu, Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri I and suggested how many climbers, often simply by mistake, might have stopped at the wrong points, believing they were on the apex.
In "The Measure of a Mountain," Ives summarized the 2019 reports:
On Jurgalski's website, 8000ers.com, a report by [Tobias] 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."
In the July 8, 2022 post on 8000ers.com, Jurgalski writes:
When I found that some climbers were stopping quite a distance from the true top of Annapurna I back in 2012, I asked Rodolphe Popier to check the summit photos because he is fastidious about identifying all the features in summit areas. It seems he can identify every rock from all directions. Then he compared and compared and we needed help to confirm what he found out. The DLR [satellite photos from the German Aerospace Center] helped us with detailed digital data from the whole Annapurna I ridge....
The 2020 American Alpine Journal published an article by Gildea titled, "The 8000-er Mess: The history of climbing the world's highest peaks is not what it seems," in which Gildea writes of the 2019 reports:
The summit is the highest point on the mountain and there is usually only one.... You might feel that you can stop 30 meters away and 10 meters below the very highest point and still say that you have "climbed the mountain," but you have not been to the summit.
The questions that have arisen in recent years are not the well-known issues with climbers stopping at the rocky foresummit of Broad Peak or the central peak of Xixabangma (Shishapangma). They involve three other 8,000ers....
It must be stated that in the vast majority of cases the research group believes these non-summits are due to honest mistakes or justifiable ignorance, rather than willful dishonesty....
These issues have surfaced only recently for several reasons. The last decade has seen a proliferation of self-propagated photos and other media from the 8,000ers, available online. This new material and other information has made it easier for researchers to compare ascents and claims, and to shed new light on the ascents of decades past. This wealth of information was not available to researchers, publishers, or climbers until very recently, a factor the research group takes into account when judging what anyone could have known previously about the summit locations....
Can any list ever be "final"? Revision is common and ongoing in all forms of history, including the history of alpinism—facts are rarely final, and there are many aspects to stories. A definitive list for this particular matter is likely an illusion—an illusion of precision that does not exist, an illusion of control over history that can never exist....
The research group has tried to come to conclusions that are topographically accurate, ethically fair, and socially acceptable, but this has proven extremely difficult. The group is reluctant to impose contrived rules on others or shine a harsh light on the minor missteps of inspiring climbers of the past. But they feel strongly that lines need to be drawn somewhere to clarify the historical record, to make the future chronicling of ascents workable, and to respect the efforts of those who have made the effort to go to the summits—particularly those who have returned to a mountain after realizing an earlier mistake, with all the risk, expense, and effort this requires....
The summit is the summit, but climbing is more than summits.
A July 13 Explorer's Web article by Angela Benavides delves into the specifics of some of the most high-profile disputes. "Many of those whose summit resume has been diminished are unfortunately not alive to object or explain," she notes.
"When we climbed, we climbed to what we considered the summit, the highest possible point, as far as we knew," Edurne Pasaban told her. "Each of us climbed according to our individual preferences and style, and we respected each other. We climbed out of love for the mountains and adventure.... But I do honestly believe...that I summited all the 14 8,000'ers."
In one section of her article, Benavides asks Jurgalski about questioning past records without interviewing all of the living people involved: "Jurgalski insists that the work they are doing is so huge that they simply cannot contact everyone personally, since they lack the resources. In his opinion, the photographic evidence is enough in many cases, removing the need to speak to climbers."
Later, Benavides writes:
We also asked Rodolphe Popier...what they mean by "no summit by body of proof or clue."
He explained: "We eventually chose to sort the ascents into two categories to make things simple: NO SUMMIT is the result for the ascents for which accounts and/or summit pictures eventually led to a negative body of clues/proofs; NO EVIDENCE is the result for ascents where we either haven't been able to access the summit pictures or when the pictures are impossible to analyze (because of the time of night, bad weather, etc.). But no evidence doesn't mean no summit!"
As Jurgalski observes, after the release of earlier reports, some climbers have already reclimbed certain 8000-meter peaks to "correct" their past expeditions and reach the actual apexes.
When asked if the team will eventually publicize the evidence it has collected, Popier told Alpinist:
Publishing a whole set of evidence for [all the] climbers involved...has indeed been a meaningful question raised since the publication. In practice writing a full report on the question is unworkable (consider that reading our sole topographic reports isn't exactly easy for casual reader), but we have already begun to answer direct respectful demands to provide evidence in private email exchanges. For now we guess that these concertations and their results might be published as the water flows, but we haven't yet decided about the best respectful form to present it.
(Alpinist will not come to any definitive conclusions about individual records before examining all the evidence about specific ascents.)
Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.