Am I a notorious complainer? Actually, everything sounds great. A record number of summiteers on Annapurna, some firsts: the first six Nepalese women on the otherwise dangerous eight-thousander, one of them – Dawa Yangzum Sherpa – even without bottled oxygen, the first two women from Mexico, the first Albanian woman, the first climbers from Pakistan, the first Greek …
And there were no fatalities. A Taiwanese climber, who had ascended without breathing mask, was taken off the mountain by helicopter on Sunday – it remains to be seen whether this was really because of slight frostbite, or because he wanted to return to Kathmandu as quickly as possible to continue his journey to Dhaulagiri. Three Russian climbers, who got into mountain distress during the descent, were finally found on Monday and also flown back to base camp on the helicopter long line. So all done and dusted?
Luck on the operator’s side
Not for me. The long queue of summit aspirants seemed to me almost like a déjà vu of the conditions on Mount Everest. I do not classify Annapurna as a suitable mountain for commercial expeditions. It is not for nothing that it is considered the most dangerous eight-thousander; the avalanche danger is high on both the north and south side of the mountain.
This spring, luck was simply on the side of the expedition operators: the dry winter in Nepal caused an unusual amount of blank ice in the upper part of the normal route, but the avalanche risk was lower than usual.
Speaking of blank ice: It led to the various groups, which totaled more than 70 (!) climbers, running out of fixed ropes during the summit attempt at around 7,400 meters. Bad management or simply unexpected conditions? Anyway, normally this would have led to an abort of the attempt. The climbers would have descended to base camp, waited for the next good weather window, and then ascended again, with more rope in their packs.
This time, however, the missing ropes were flown by helicopter to Camp 4 at 7,300 meters, along with more bottled oxygen, food and gas cartridges – just what commercial expeditions need for an extra night at very high altitude. This had never happened before on the eight-thousanders. Another form of heli-doping, known until then only at lower altitudes.
Who thinks about the pilots?
Many will say: This is a pragmatic solution, much safer than descending and ascending again. This may be true, but I wonder whether this view also takes into account the risks that helicopter pilots are exposed to at this high altitude. On the other hand, it finally says goodbye to the idea of climbing a mountain by physical means alone.
Don’t get me wrong! It is a great achievement to have brave helicopter pilots rescue climbers from emergencies even on the highest mountains in the world. But in this case, it was a matter of resupplying equipment high up on the mountain, ensuring summit success, and avoiding the obvious solution, descent.
The next logical step in heli-doping is the one that has already been practiced in a few cases on the eight-thousanders Manaslu and Mount Everest: Mountaineers save themselves tiresome or dangerous stages by having a helicopter drop them off higher up – or take them off the mountain after they have reached the summit. This is not acceptable in my eyes. And I find it absolutely reprehensible when even medical emergencies are feigned for this purpose.
If we take heli-doping a step further, it is possible that one day in the not too distant future there will also be “last-step expeditions” to the highest mountains in the world – analogous to the last-degree expeditions to the North and South Pole: from the South Col to the summit of Mount Everest, from the summit plateau of Manaslu or Cho Oyu to the highest point in each case.
The Himalayas and the Karakoram would then follow the path that we already know from other mountain regions of the world, such as the thoroughly commercialized European Alps (even if chairlifts and cable cars rather than helicopters are used there): More and more infrastructure is displacing adventure.
Lack of humility, bent truth
I do not condemn commercial mountaineering at all. I can see the positive aspects, for example that mountain people in the poorest countries of the world are brought into wages and bread. And I don’t begrudge all the expedition members their successes and experiences.
I myself have taken part in several commercial expeditions and experienced adventures that would probably have remained closed to me on my own. Nevertheless, I still had the feeling that as a mountaineer I still bore a good part of personal responsibility. My failure was a perfectly realistic option – and it did happen at times. In the meantime, it seems to me that the only thing that counts is summit success, whatever the cost. Everything is permitted. Whatever is technically feasible is used. Humility before the mountain is being lost more and more.
And the truth is being bent: If bottled oxygen was used, this is easily concealed in the success stories afterwards. Climbers talk about “solos”, even if they were climbing on the normal route secured with fixed ropes. We will also probably not read anything about the material supply by helicopter during the summit attempt on Annapurna afterwards. And in the end only the headline remains in the general consciousness: the first …
You can call me a mountain romantic who has fallen out of time. But I just can’t turn it off: My mountain stomach is growling. And I fear it won’t get any better when nearly 400 foreign climbers (as of 20 April: 371 permits) will try their hand at Mount Everest again this spring.