August/September 2009
Everest Overshadowed
Headlines. TV shows. Controversy. The world’s highest mountain is a perpetual source of excitement. So why are the planet’s best climbers elsewhere?
Text by David Roberts

“Everest season.” The expression has become synonymous with the period between the brutal Himalayan winter and the soaking summer monsoon, the time when all eyes zero in on the highest mountain in the world to see what kind of records, hijinks, tragedies, and personal bests will ensue.

This spring, Everest saw its usual blitz of activity. Three hundred–plus summits—far short of the record. Five deaths—lamentable but no Into Thin Air. Apa Sherpa upped his own mark by topping out an astounding 19th time. A few days later, American climber Dave Hahn made his 11th ascent, the non-Sherpa record. Hahn’s teammate Ed Viesturs, on his own 11th Everest expedition, reached the summit for the seventh time—four years after finishing off all 14 of the planet’s 8,000ers—partly in service of an Eddie Bauer–sponsored expedition, but also to see if he still had what it took on the verge of his big 5-0 (he does).

The daily headlines sped stateside via a formidable array of video dispatches, podcasts, and blog posts. Two television crews covered the events, blow by blow, on the north and south sides of the mountain. And yet among the climbing cognoscenti the melee elicited little more than a shrug.

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.

No new route on Everest should ever be sniffed at, but critics contend that Mr. Park, as he is called in climbing circles, chose to make his ascent in a fashion more suited to 1975 than to 2009.

“From Base Camp, all we saw was a swarm of headlamps,” says Ed Viesturs. “The climb was massively supported by Sherpas. That’s the Korean style.”

Viesturs’s partner Dave Hahn was even more sardonic. “What I heard from the Sherpas,” he says, “is that they weren’t allowed to summit. They got the team in position, but only the Koreans could go for the top. They sent the Sherpas down.”

Whether the critiques are fair or not, Mr. Park’s hugely supported expedition stands in stark contrast to the season’s lightest and fastest ascent—the bold new route on 23,684-foot Annapurna South, soloed by the powerful Slovak climber Dodo Kopold. The man was truly out there, carrying only eight pitons, eight ice screws, ten quickdraws, a thin, 130-foot rope, a small stove, three energy bars, and some dried meat. Kopold completed the massive, 7,546-foot-high route on the southeast face in a nonstop 40-hour push.

If Kopold’s ascent represents the glory of unsupported climbing, the fate of three Boulder, Colorado–based climbers illustrates its tragic flip side. In late May, Jonny Copp and Micah Dash set out to tackle the rarely climbed 24,790-foot Mount Edgar in western China by a new route. When the pair, along with cinematographer Wade Johnson, failed to show up for an early June plane flight, Chinese and American climbers launched a search on Edgar’s southeast face. The bodies of Copp and Johnson were found crushed in a jumble of avalanche blocks; as of this writing, Dash’s body was still missing.

“They were hiking between base camp and advanced base camp in this tight gully,” says Nick Rosen, who worked with Johnson at Sender Films and traveled to China to help with the search and recovery. “A huge avalanche came down and just flushed the gully. Boulder is devastated. This is a community of pretty hard-core adventurers—so it’s not the first time they’ve faced a loss—but this blow is particularly intense.”

The tragedy served as a perennial reminder of just how dangerous mountaineering in the great ranges is—and, paradoxically, of how integral that danger is to the appeal of cutting-edge climbing. As Denis Urubko says, “The sharp of adventure is more and more spicy if you have very narrow bridge to come back.”