“It was the best of times and the worst of times.” With all respect to Mr. Charles Dickens, I’m talking about the 2022 climbing year, not the French Revolution in 1775. Oh my, what a year. Hundreds of new people tried out the sport, while old hands showed up after a couple of down years. Operators and countries generated much-needed revenue, and some people accomplished their lifetime dreams.
As I’ve written several times while covering the high-altitude mountaineering world, I believe history will consider 2022 as an inflection point in the evolution (or devolution) of mountaineering.
First, let’s address the evolution. We saw a record number of climbing permits for some of the highest and most exciting peaks. Chalk it up to pent-up demand from two years of COVID or other factors, but the fact remains that more people tried climbing, many for the first time, which is good news for the sport. In addition, countries, guides, and the tourism industry benefitted from the revenue after a couple of lean years due to the pandemic.
One word, “style,” captures the problem. I’ve never been a fan of using style to evaluate anyone’s climbing accomplishments. After all, it’s rare to be asked by anyone outside of a small circle of ‘experts’ if you use oxygen on a climb, much less the flow rate, how many Sherpas supported you, if you cooked your food or broke trail. However, there lies the issue for many followers. This year some climbers used methods popularized by some operators and record seekers at a scale rarely seen.
For example, on Everest, The Himalayan Database reported 671 summits from the Nepal side made up of 256 members supported by 415 Sherpas, or high-altitude workers of other ethnicities, for a support ratio of 1:1.6, dwarfing the previous record set in 2016 of 1:1.21. In Pakistan, according to tourism officials, they issued 348 foreigner permits for K2 and over 700 for all the Pakistani peaks, a record. And on Manalsu and Ama Dablam this Autumn, Nepal broke the bank with 404 and 460 foreign permits, both records for permits.
The Hills were alive with the sound of …
You may ask, “So what that so many support climbers helped out? Doesn’t this means the local climbers get more work, and the mountain is safer?” Well, yes and no. Of course, getting more people to work at fair wages is extremely important and feeds the overall economy. However, the issue is the support ratio is used to lure inexperienced clients on climbs that haven’t earned the right to try. Also, in seasons with short weather windows, as we saw on Everest in 2019 with only three days, there are too many people on the route simultaneously; thus, the risks increase.
Some followers see it as a problem of crowding and an environmental disaster. Others see it as work and opportunities for novices that didn’t exist a decade ago.
Moving on …
And the Style Winners Are
In the World Cup of climbing, the annual Piolet d’Or awards were presented for 2021 in November 2022 in Briançon, France. Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll of Belgium was honored for his Moonwalk Traverse of the Fitz Roy Group in Patagonia, and to Archil Badriashvili, Baqar Gelashvili, and Giorgi Tepnadze from Georgia for the first ascent of the NW Face of Saraghrar Northwest in Pakistan. Ukraine alpinists Nikita Balabanov, Mikail Fomin, and Viacheslav Polezhaiko received a Special Jury Award for the first ascent of the southeast ridge of Annapurna III at 7,555m. Also, Slovenia’s Silvo Karo received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The French magazine Montagnes and The Groupe de Haute Montagne have given these awards since 1992. In the polar opposite of this year’s 8000-meter climbs, the style and manner of climbing are favored over achieving the goal itself. The climbers are judged on their skills, and the use of mountain guides, high-altitude porters, fixed ropes, oxygen, and any doping substances is an instant disqualification for the prestigious award. The climb must be very technical and original i.e., a first ascent.
Great Effort but No Medals
In early 2022, we saw several teams do exciting and challenging winter climbs in Nepal’s Himalayan Range. German climber Jost Kobusch made a no-O’s solo attempt on Everest’s West Ridge. Simone Moro, Alex Txikon, and Oswald Pereira made a valiant attempt on Manaslu along with Sofie Lenaerts, who climbed separately. And two Nepali teams made a rare attempt from the Nepal side of Cho Oyu, Gelje Sherpa, and Pioneer Adventures’s Mingma Dorchi Sherpa. And in Pakistan, Taiwanese climber Tseng “Grace” Ko-Erh, supported by seven support climbers through Dolma Expeditions, made a winter attempt on K2 and subsequently became controversial about other 8000-meter summits she claimed. German climber David Göttler tried for the summit of Nanga Parbat. Unfortunately, none of these teams made their objectives primarily due to poor weather in the form of heavy snow and strong winds. But it demonstrates that climbing the big peaks in style has not yet fallen into a bottomless crevasse.
8000-meters – Let Me Count the Ways
Perhaps a bellwether or a canary in the coal mine, the spring season in Nepal saw an unusual number of attempts to link multiple 8000-meter peaks in one season. I won’t go through the full list, but if you are interested, see my ongoing reporting on this blog. However, three remained off-limits, with China keeping Tibet closed, ostensibly due to COVID.
However, China did allow a national team to climb Everest from Tibet, and another installed a weather station on the Tibet side, almost on the summit. In a thin-air game of upside-down Jenga, a team from National Geographic also installed a weather station on the Nepal side, but it is a few meters higher than the Chinese.
Back to the 8,000ers, Everest always takes center stage, but this spring, it felt like one of the entrees and not the main course. Kangchenjunga, Annapurna, Makalu, Manaslu, and Lhotse joined Chomolungma as targets of desire.
Led by stout Nepali operators, outstanding Sherpa teams enabled climbers, some with limited skills and others highly qualified, to reach summit after summit after summit. The operators used a formula honed on these peaks the last few years of solid support, extra oxygen, and schedules designed to their client’s energy reserves.
The formula follows the Everest model created by Adventure Consultants in the early 1990s. They hired strong Sherpa teams to break the trail while fixing the rope to the summit. Then, they set up and usually stocked all the camps with tents, stoves, and fuel, and sometimes with clients sleeping bags (and pads) and personal gear. The clients did a minimum of acclimation rotations on their chosen 8000er since many used altitude tents to “pre-acclimitize” at home and then climbed a safer, lower 6,000 or 7,000-meter Nepal peak before arriving at Base Camp. Once the weather provided a suitable window from Base Camp to the summit and back, they took off, following the Sherpas.
But something else happened in 2022 out of the ordinary with respect to “style.” Many clients began their scavenger hunt on Dhaulagiri, then flew, and I mean flew by helicopter, to Annapurna, then to Makalu, and on and on to rinse and repeat. This strategy had people all over Nepal on most of the eight 8000ers. In the old days, say 2021, the most common combination was Everest-Lhotse; after 2022, the list has dramatically expanded.
Kristin Harila and Pasang Dawa (Pasdawa) Sherpa led the multiples as they were on a quest to summit all 14 of the 8000ers in record time. They got six 800ers in Nepal in 2022: Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Everest, Lhotse, Kangchangua, and Makalu. Next was Indian Baljeet Kaur with Dawa Wangchuk (Dawa Ongchu) Sherpa with five: Annapurna, Everest, Lhotse, Kangchangua, and Makalu. Six people got four, and 16 got three. Finally, a whopping 103 individuals summited ‘only’ two 8000ers, 81 doing the Everest and Lhotse double – another record. Of note, Sherpas dominated the multiple summits making up 80 out of the total of 129 people, 62%. Another interesting note is that 19 of the multiple summiteers were female, including two Nepali – Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita and Purnima Shrestha.
Returning to Mr. Dickens, “It was the best of weather and the worst of weather.” Incredibly good weather throughout May drove a lot of the spring success. While a few bad days spoiled the party for some, almost everyone could spread out and avoid the crowds.
But what Mother Nature gives, she takes away, and in the Autumn on Manaslu, heavy snow and winds created avalanches that cut the season short and tragically took lives. The massive crowds and support never got the opportunity to develop, and a fraction of the total people with permits made the true summit.
With summer in the Southern Hemisphere, climbers flocked to Aconcagua, Ecuador, and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif, all open now after two years of uncertainty. The business was brisk and mostly safe in the Southern Hemisphere.
With today, December 21, the winter solstice, a few people are going for winter summits. As I’ve covered extensively over the years, the argument of what defines a winter climb will never end, some saying it’s from the beginning of December to the end of February, while others use a sundial to measure the season, holding the official dates as December 21, 2022, to March 20, 2023. Meh.
Perennial winter climbers include Simone Moro, who is attempting a winter summit of Manaslu again. Alex Txicon is with him. This will make his fifth time to claim this feat. He defends his definition on FB:
When I keep repeating that astronomical winter is the one and only beginning of the true and only winter climbing season in the northern hemisphere, it is because after 22 winter expeditions I know what I am saying. It is not to create a controversy with friends who start climbing earlier, but just to make you understand why I agreed to fail after December 21st instead of changing the rules in my own favor. I never touched the mountain before December 21st
What can we expect next year? Well, with all the success of local guides around the world, we can safely predict more of the ‘formula climbs’ – low prices and high support that bring new people to the sport. Also, we can expect to see Generation Z, Millennials, and a few tough old-timers take on new routes and challenges and climb “where no one has climbed before.” At least, that’s my New Year’s wish for them.
Happy Holidays to all.
Memories are Everything
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