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Claiming the Summit Without Reaching the Top

By John Branch (c.2021 The New York Times Company)

Only 44 people have reached the summit of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, according to the people who chronicle such things.

Or, they now say, maybe no one has.

The difference rides on a timeless question getting a fresh look:

What is a summit?

Ed Viesturs believes he knows. He is one of the 44, the fifth to do it without supplemental oxygen, the only American on the list. In 1993, climbing alone and without supplemental oxygen or ropes, Viesturs reached the “central summit” of Shishapangma, the world’s 14th-highest mountain. Most climbers turn around there, calling it good enough.

Before him was a narrow isthmus of about 100 meters, a knife edge of corniced snow with drops to oblivion on both sides. At its end was the mountain’s true summit, a few meters higher in elevation than where he stood.

Too dangerous, Viesturs told himself. He retreated.

“You can let it go, or you can’t let it go,” Viesturs said. “And I was one of those guys where if the last nail in the deck hasn’t been hammered in, it’s not done.”

Eight years later, Viesturs climbed within reach of Shishapangma’s summit again. The ridge looked doable. With a leg on each side — “a cheval” in mountaineering, French for riding the horse — he shimmied across it. He touched the highest point of Shishapangma and scooted back to relative safety.

There is a summit. And there is everything else.

Can close ever be good enough?

Revelations from a team of respected researchers have thrust that question into the open like never before, putting special attention on the world’s highest mountains and most-acclaimed climbers.

By asking a simple-sounding question — What is the summit? — they are raising doubts about past accomplishments and raising standards for future ones.

Maybe they are making us all reconsider just what it means to reach the top.

‘Tell the Complete Truth’

In a small town in southwestern Germany, far from the Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges of Asia that are home to all 14 of Earth’s 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) peaks, lives a 68-year-old man named Eberhard Jurgalski. He has a robust, white beard and pulls his hair into a ponytail.

He has spent 40 years chronicling the ascents of the 8,000-meter peaks. He has not climbed these mountains, but he is widely respected for compiling the records of those who have. He is among the cadre of behind-the-scenes researchers who give credence to the claims that make others famous.

He can tell you the names of various expeditions, the dates, the details of the routes and whether oxygen was used. He has studied photographs and videos and satellite coordinates and accounts from climbers and witnesses.

And now he has some jarring news: It is possible that no one has ever been on the true summit of all 14 of Earth’s 8,000-meter peaks.

Some stopped on Shishapangma’s central summit, not daring to straddle the ridge like Viesturs. Some unwittingly went to the wrong spot on Annapurna’s broad ridge. Some stopped at a pole planted atop Dhaulagiri that confused them into thinking it was the summit. Some turned around at a popular selfie-taking spot on Manaslu without scaling the precarious ridge hidden just beyond it.

Few if any of them tried to lie about their accomplishments. They just did not get to the top in every case, Jurgalski and others say. They stopped a few meters short, whether by accident or tradition.

To keep itself honest, mountaineering relies on integrity and the power of a guilty conscience. For high-profile expeditions, it is the adventurer’s responsibility to prove what he or she claims to have done in some of the world’s remotest places. Evidence of important ascents generally comes from an inexact combination of photos and selfies, satellite coordinates and witnesses.

The inexactness leaves room for whispers of doubt.

For decades, Jurgalski worried that standards of a world-class summit were slipping. If he is a gatekeeper to historical records, doesn’t he have an obligation to double-check their accuracy?

Several years ago, Jurgalski enlisted help from a few other researchers, including Rodolphe Popier and Tobias Pantel of the Himalayan Database, and Damien Gildea, the Australian explorer.

Dissecting one claim at a time, they are studying all the key ascents, through photographs and written accounts, trying to place climbers in precise locations.

The unfolding revelations have Jurgalski nervous. He knows that reputations and livelihoods depend on summit claims. They depend on his list.

“I’m a fan of all them, you know,” Jurgalski said. “But when there is something wrong, me as a chronicler, as an accepted chronicler, must make a point to tell the complete truth.”

Jurgalski’s reputation is at stake, too. And he knows too much to let close be good enough.

He wants the historical record to reflect precision. He also wants to establish a firm standard for future generations of climbers, an expectation for what constitutes a summit.

“There are no two possibilities,” Jurgalski said. “There is only one. A summit is not halfway or 99% of the way.”

Mountain as Metaphor

It sounds simple, the idea of a summit. Every mountain has one. There is a top, and there is everything below it. By definition, a summit is the highest point, of a hill or an aspiration.

Just what does it mean to reach the summit?

It is a question both simple and cosmic, sure to divide absolutists from pragmatists.

“The summit does matter,” said David Roberts, a climber and author who has written dozens of books on Himalayan expeditions, and co-authored books with the likes of Viesturs, Jon Krakauer, Conrad Anker and Alex Honnold. “Why does it matter? Because it’s the whole point of mountaineering. It’s the goal that defines an ascent.”

There is no true governing body for mountaineering, no single arbiter of what constitutes a feat worthy of adulation. For top mountaineers, it is a fuzzy world subject to personal satisfaction and occasional peer review. Accomplishment is judged by some indescribable mix of difficulty, imagination and style.

It does not always matter if the top is reached. As Viesturs pointed out, it is called climbing, not summiting. The point is often the process.

But the summit is a rare tangible accomplishment in climbing, the one yes-or-no proposition. It can turn humans into heroes. It can bestow fame and forge reputations.

More philosophically, it has meaning. It exists as the ultimate metaphor for achievement, a vertical finish line that says you have gone as far as possible. There is nowhere higher to go.

“The summit is an ideal we can aspire to,” said climber Michael Kennedy, a former editor of Climbing and Alpinist magazines, with a list of high-level mountaineering accomplishments to his name.

In 1997, he wrote an editorial for Climbing titled “Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.”

“Issues of style aside, success is measured along a single axis,” he wrote. “You either reach the summit or you don’t. Not much room for debate. Or is there?”

Kennedy still believes that “if you want to say that you’ve climbed it, you should climb to the summit.”

But does it really matter?

“I don’t know,” Viesturs said. “I mean, who’s counting? Who’s watching? Who’s paying attention?”

Maybe the questions do not belong just to the mountaineers, but also to the rest of us. If we find that the world’s greatest climbers have been coming up short of their goals, purposely or not, maybe our response says more than the deception itself.

Maybe we are the ones who must reckon with the notion of a summit, in all its literary and metaphorical forms. Maybe we are the ones who must decide where the limits are.

“If you let these things go,” explorer Gildea said, “and then you let more of these things go, when do you stop letting these things go?”

A Misleading Pole

Of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, “six or seven,” Gildea said, are ripe for false summits. The difference is a vertical meter or two in some places, no more than about 20 in others. Those few vertical meters might be an hour’s hike — or a dangerous straddle and scooch — away.

The work of the researchers has focused, so far, on Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu.

Manaslu may be the most blatant example of summit slippage. The background of most “summit” photos today show, clearly, more mountain to climb.

Researchers found that in 2016, only 15 of the 175 climbers who claimed to reach the top of Manaslu went to the true summit, sitting at the end of a precarious ridge. The Himalayan Database put asterisks next to the names of the others that year.

“People are stopping short because it’s too hard,” Gildea said. “And I say, that’s not really a good excuse for a climber.”

By contrast, the issues with Annapurna and Dhaulagiri have been mostly ones of confusion, not deception. The top ridge of Annapurna has approaches from different directions. Once there, it can be nearly impossible to discern the highest point, even without debilitating factors like exhaustion, whipping winds and whiteout conditions, and a dearth of oxygen starving the brain.

“We’ve spent time wandering around on the summit ridges,” Viesturs said. “Like, let’s go further, let’s make sure. Is that bump down the ridge a little bit higher? You might spend a little extra time making sure that you go to that highest lump or bump, instead of just going, ‘Eh, we’re close enough.’”

That “close enough” range is the gap that Jurgalski and his researchers want to close.

The German Aerospace Center provided Jurgalski with precise elevations across Annapurna’s ridge. The center discerned two high points, about 30 meters apart. Researchers found that about half of those credited with reaching the summit never got to either of them.

They found similar issues on Dhaulagiri, partly because a metal pole planted decades ago lulled climbers into thinking it was the high point. These days, there are no such excuses for not finding a major mountain’s true summit.

Guy Cotter has reached the highest points on all seven continents, and has summited seven of the 8,000-meter peaks, including Everest five times. He is chief executive of Adventure Consultants, an expedition company founded by former climbing partner Rob Hall, who died on Everest in 1996 during the “Into Thin Air” tragedy.

“There’s a difference between thinking that you’re on the summit and there is no further to go, and knowing there is further to go and not going further,” Cotter said. “The standards are slipping.”

Each mountain carries unique summit challenges. On Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain behind Everest and K2, there is a tradition — fading with time, some said — of not touching the top. Viesturs is among those who said he stopped short.

“The locals asked us, as we trekked into the mountain, to please not disturb the home of their gods, which was the actual summit,” Viesturs wrote in an email. “In respect to their wishes we stayed just a few feet away.”

The research on the 8,000-meter summits got little attention for years. Then Gildea, one of the key researchers, wrote an essay about it, published late last year in the prestigious American Alpine Journal.

Gildea has emerged as a public conscience among adventurers. With extensive experience in Antarctica, he was a vocal critic of Colin O’Brady’s “solo” and “unsupported” expedition across the continent that received international attention. (Among his criticisms: O’Brady followed a maintained road and stopped “hundreds of kilometers” from sea ice.)

The journal essay gave voice and validity to a tender topic. Credibly suggesting the possibility that no human has been on the true summit of all 14 8,000-meter peaks undermines the claims of dozens of esteemed mountaineers.

Proving precisely how high someone climbed years ago may be impossible. Some climbers are dead. Others may have no incentive to cooperate. The effort might provoke unsolvable debates, maybe lawsuits.

Fear of a backlash is why Gildea and the researchers stripped all the names from the essay. It is why the essay is filled with disclaimers and compliments.

“These climbers’ places in history are set, and questions about the precise topographical details of certain climbs should not change the cultural importance of their exploits,” Gildea wrote.

It is also a reason why Jurgalski created the idea of retroactive “tolerance zones.” The researchers determined, peak by peak, what would be allowed as a summit — what would be close enough.

“But not for the future,” Jurgalski said. “Only for the past.”

Of the 44 climbers said to have summited all 14 peaks, there are seven with blatant shortcomings in at least one of their ascents, Jurgalski said. That would reduce the list to 37, including Viesturs (“Ed Viesturs is one of the people who we at least know has gone to some of the questionable ones like Dhaulagiri and Manaslu and Shishapangma,” Gildea said).

But doubt has been cast, no matter how carefully it is couched, on many of mountaineering’s legendary figures. The shadow falls most on Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was first to claim all 14 peaks. Messner, climbing’s biggest star and greatest showman, now 76, would seem to have the most to lose if any of his accomplishments were diminished by even a few meters.

On a video call, Messner said he made 31 attempts on the 8,000-meter peaks, reaching a summit 18 times, all without supplemental oxygen. He acknowledged the possibility that he has not stood on the precise high point of each mountain. On Annapurna, he said, after scaling a wall long thought impossible, he reached the “flat summit ridge” in a wicked wind with poor visibility.

“If they say maybe on Annapurna I got 5 meters below the summit, somewhere on this long ridge, I feel totally OK,” Messner said. “I will not even defend myself. If somebody would come and say, this is all bullshit what you did? Think what you want.”

Giving a tutorial on modern mountaineering history, Messner said that leading climbers before him focused mostly on summits. Each of the 8,000-meter peaks was conquered between 1950 and 1964. (Everest, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in 1953.)

Those who followed focused on new routes, degrees of difficulty and matters of style. The summit, Messner said, was a secondary goal. Tomaz Humar’s solo climb up the south wall of Dhaulagiri in 1999, a route that Messner attempted with no success two decades before, ended short of the summit but high in climbing lore. Messner called it “the most important ascent of the decade.”

“There’s no right or wrong,” Messner said. “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.”

A New Record Book

Jurgalski ultimately sees two lists. There would be a new one, starting now, for a new era of climbers who indisputably get to the true summit of the world’s highest mountains. With today’s technology, there should be little debate.

And Jurgalski would have a historical list, with those 37 names. His plan is to create a scoring system. The true summit for each of the 14 peaks would be worth 1,000 points; a perfect score would be 14,000. Maybe a climber gets 980 points for coming up 20 meters short on that mountain, or 970 for that one.

“Then we can say, this is the historical table, where all the claims are in it,” Jurgalski said. “All these things I want to clear, before I leave this planet.”

Plenty will say that none of this truly matters. If climbing itself has no collective purpose, then how can a level of achievement within it be considered critical knowledge? If climbing is a personal journey of discovery, then why keep score?

But there are stakes. There are rewards of fame and adulation. There are sponsorship deals and lecture circuits. In some countries, cash rewards and government jobs await those who ascend the highest peaks.

And there are always races to be the first — the first climber, the first woman, the first from your country, the first with a disability. Motivations to climb these mountains may be personal, but not always.

Jurgalski’s idea to reset the record book might inadvertently start a new competition, with new incentives to cut corners — or to stop short of the ultimate goal, literally and figuratively. Who will be the first to definitely prove to have stood atop all the true summits?

“Why are we doing this? What do we want to happen?” Gildea said, posing the key questions to himself. “I just want people to know, and I want people to have the discussion. And if it all comes out that nobody cares, nobody does anything, well, OK. I still go on with my life, and I still climb what I want. But at least people know. They can’t say they didn’t know.”

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