Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Spirit Of The New and Pushing The Envelope

It's been a good week for cutting edge alpinism with two really fine ascents in the Hymalaya; both achievements are at the cutting edge of what's possible and prove that the flame of adventure and the quest for new ground is alive and well. Firstly, a team have made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035m) which also counts as the first winter ascent of any of the Karakorum giants. Second, British guide Andy Parkin's has established an new route on the North Face of Dingjung Ri (6,249m) climbed solo, unsupported, and like the ascent of Gasherbrum II in good alpine style.

Gasherbrum II

First a bit of background; Gasherbrum II is an eight-thousander one of the 14 mountains on Earth that rise above 8000m, in fact it's one of the easier ones, probably the easiest. That's in summer though; in winter however  the whole of the Karakorum region is very cold, stormy, and plastered in deep snow making any winter ascent a challenge, never mind one as committing, long, and high as an eight-thousander. To complete a winter ascent of any big mountain is an achievement, to do it alpine style is world class.

Alpine style is simple to explain; small teams, usually of two or three climbing the mountain in a single push over a number of days. You start at the bottom and climb to the top, you don't fix ropes, you don't leave camps, you don't use oxygen, you leave virtually no trace you were ever there. It's a massively more committing style as there is no easy line of retreat back down via well stocked camps. Your limited to what you can carry on your back; climbing kit, sleeping kit, food, fuel must all be carried and consequently slight delays have significant effects on the seriousness of your position. 

Alpine style was developed as the name suggests in the Alps but has since been pushed into the greater ranges and the biggest peaks. It's considered the purest and best way a mountain can be climbed due to the self sported ethic and minimum impact of the ascents. Andy's ascent, solo, and alpine style of a smaller but much more technical face (up to 85 degree ice) perhaps marks the cutting edge of where our elite climbers are currently operating.

These achievements have also got me thinking, I have never really been that psyched by the eight-thousanders, driven away by the circus that exists on many of them, and most especially on Everest. In spring a thousand people pitch base camp below the Western Cwm before laying siege to the mountain with fixed ropes and bottled oxygen, building a series of camps that must almost classify as villages on the way to the summit. With the help of guides and an army of Sherpas (to be fair, Sherpas today are as good as most if not any guides) any fit person stands a good chance of reaching the summit. The result is traffic jams at 8000m on the two popular routes (both first climbed over 50 years ago).

Sentinel Peaks, Ruth Gorge, Alaska. Not really relevant but I like the picture.

These few mountains act as honney pots, drawing away those seeking their commercialised adventure leaving vast parts of the Himalayas little known and hundred possibly thousands of virgin 6000m peaks waiting for those who look. There is still huge scope for exploratory mountaineering and first ascents of all difficulties out there in the Himalayas.

I find most commercial expeditions uninspiring. I suppose it's partly through envy; I feel these people who have the money to do amazing things don't, and instead choose the same obvious challenges. An Everest fee could be put to so much better use! Now I'm not saying that commercial expeditions should start off taking paying clients off on winter suffer fests or beasting them up hard new routes. Its just with so much scope out there why do people not want to do something new? To be fair a few people do try and be different, Stephen Venables one of our best exploratory mountaineers recently ran a commercial expedition to Antarctica with the specific objective of exploring unclimbed peaks.

People want Everest or one of the other seven summits (the highest mountains on each Continent) essentially as a "big look at me tick on the CV of life". Now I don't want to belittle the personal achievement of these people who have no doubt pushed their envelope considerably. It's just in my opinion with a little bit more thought something far more worthwhile could be achieved, something much more in keeping with the ethos and history of mountaineering which has essentially been about filling in blanks on maps and gaps on faces.

Within ten years I would like to put together an expedition, ideally to Antarctica but in terms of cost more probably western China. The aim would like to put up a good quality route on an unclimbed peak. The kind of target where you have a small epic trying to get to the mountain because nobody is quite sure where it is. Perhaps I should be pleased Everest draws the crowds, keeping the vast potential out there under the radar.

Trans-antarctic Mountains, pretty much unexplored. Bit costly to get to though!

I'm sure there is a bit of arrogance, and hypocrisy in these ideas; is claiming a first ascent of a mountain any different on the CV ticking front as bagging Everest? Personally I think it. I just like the idea and the adventure of doing something new, and in however a small a way adding slightly to the knowledge of mankind (you are quite welcome to think this is just massive dose of hubris if you want).  

For me this is why these ascents are so inspiring; they may be cutting edge in their levels of commitment and technicality but the principal of trying something new is universal and should inspire us all.  Envelopes can be pushed at all levels, you just have to think about it a bit. Adventure is alive and well. 

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