The most striking feature of this Everest season is that the most notable climbing did not happen on Everest. Instead, many of the world’s top climbers quietly eschewed Qomolangma’s well-trodden routes for desperately hard first ascents on peaks far from the fray.
Case in point: the Kazakh ascent of 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, which is widely regarded as the finest achievement of the season. Denied access to the Tibetan side of the peak by the usual unfathomable Chinese politics, climber Denis Urubko attacked the difficult southeast face alpine-style, on a new direct route, with a single partner, Boris Dedeshko.
The pair was three-quarters of the way up when a violent storm swept over them, threatening to strand them in a death trap. For less skilled climbers, this predicament would have dictated an immediate retreat. Instead, Urubko and Dedeshko pushed higher into the prolonged storm. In his idiosyncratic English, Urubko recalls, “Was no possible to see sun and mountains around during five days, almost. We went up only by intuition sometimes. . . . It takes all our power and motivation for the aim. We were very afraid—not to come up, for way down. It was as ‘one-way ticket.’” After 11 grueling days, the Kazakhs made the round-trip unscathed. For Urubko, the summit marked the ascent of his 14th and final 8,000-meter peak. He called it the most dangerous climb in his long Himalayan career. His supporters called it a triumph of endurance and style, one perhaps rivaled only by the first ascent of Jobo Rinjang by Americans Joe Puryear and David Gottlieb.
Jobo Rinjang, which is not far from Everest, rises only 22,237 feet (small by Himalayan standards) but had never been attempted for the very good reason that all possible routes on it are fiendishly difficult. Puryear and Gottlieb raced up the 5,600-foot-high south face in two marathon days, on the second of which they were nearly wiped out by falling rock. As Puryear describes the ordeal, “Then out of nowhere . . . a rock the size of a microwave went zipping past us. . . . The rest of the climb, I kept my head back and eyes glued to the terrain above. Several more rocks careened past us, but we were lucky enough to be spared.”
The pair bivouacked on the summit the second night, before attempting a ridge traverse to a neighboring peak that promised a safer descent. When soft, sun-warmed snow on the corniced ridge proved too dangerous to negotiate, Puryear and Gottlieb faced a dilemma all too reminiscent of Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, when the climbers plunged headlong into tragedy while descending an unscouted route. Unlike Simpson and Simon Yates, however, Puryear and Gottlieb retreated, returned to the top of Jobo, bivouacked a second night, then descended the shooting gallery of their original route without mishap.
These days in big-range mountaineering, such an exposed and lightweight style says nearly as much about the achievement as the peak chosen. And that helps explain the controversy surrounding this spring’s most notable act on Everest: the completion of a new route up the Southwest Face by Korean climber Park Young-seok.