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Home > News> Big Story > Conquistadors of the useless: The world of  climbing records

Conquistadors of the useless: The world of climbing records

The elite mountaineering world is defined by the select few who have climbed all 14 of the world's 8,000m peaks. A new list has thrown that into disarray

A capture from drone footage that shows climbers posing for summit photos at the false summit of Manaslu.
A capture from drone footage that shows climbers posing for summit photos at the false summit of Manaslu. (Photo courtesy: Jackson Groves)

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“If the word has any meaning at all, then I am a mountaineer.” Thus begins Conquistadors Of The Useless, the wonderful 1963 autobiography of one of the most remarkable alpinists of the 20th century, the Frenchman Lionel Terray. An occupation that is still considered “useless” by most people, has, these days, taken on many other meanings.

But at its heart, the world of mountaineering is a simple one. People climb mountains; sometimes they manage to reach the top, and sometimes they don’t. Some people are professional alpinists, with years of training and experience. Others are clients of commercial, guided expeditions. A tiny subset of these are people who hold records. These come in various forms, from the profound— e.g., the first solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen—to the banal: the youngest person to climb Everest. Among the record holders, especially in Himalayan mountaineering, there is an even smaller subset of people—those who have climbed each of the fourteen 8,000m peaks in the world. This is the elite of the elite, although, many of the newer names on this list are also client climbers.

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So far, so staid. However, since earlier this month, there has been a storm brewing, shaking up the list of the 8,000m summiteers. And the reason for this is the meticulousness of one man, 69-year-old Eberhard Jurgalski. The German statistician is obsessed with mountains, to the extent that his website, 8000ers.com, is second only to the venerable Himalayan Database as the most reliable record-keeper of Himalayan peaks and the people who climb them. 

On 8 July, Jurgalski released long-gestating research that has basically called into question most of the existing records of people who have climbed all 14 of the 8,000m peaks. The official head-count lists 44 people, of whom the legendary German mountaineer Reinhold Messner was the first, completing his record in 1986. According to the forensic examination of summit claims done by Jurgalski and other expert collaborators, the list has been drastically reduced from 44 to 3. And Messner is not one of them. 

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According to Jurgalski’s list, Messner fell short by one true summit (Annapurna I), and most of the others are similarly short by at least one summit. In Jurgalski’s list, the first person to summit all 14 is the American mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who climbed his 14th peak in 2005. The other two who make the cut are Viestur’s long-time climbing partner, the Finnish Veikka Gustafsson (14 peaks completed in 2009) and Nepalese Nirmal (Nims) Purja (14 peaks completed in 2021, according to Jurgalski, and not 2019 as Purja has claimed).

Messner isn’t the only climbing legend that’s missing from this new list. Polish mountaineers Jerzy Kukuczka and Krzysztof Wielicki—leading lights of a generation of brilliant Polish alpinists who pioneered climbing Himalayan peaks in winter in the 1980s—also miss out by one peak each. Kukuczka died in 1989 while attempting to climb a new route up the South Face of Lhotse. Among other notable names is Denis Urubko, a Russian-Polish mountaineer famous for summiting Cho Oyu up a new route in 2009, alongside Kazakh mountaineer Boris Dedesko. They had been awarded world mountaineering’s most prestigious award, the Piolet d’Or for the feat in 2010. Another notable miss is Swiss Erhard Loretan, considered by many to be the finest mountaineer ever. His 1984 winter ascent of Annapurna I by a new route on its East Ridge, alongside Norbert Joos, has never been repeated. 

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Even more shocking is Jurgalski’s list of women mountaineers who have climbed all 14. According to his list, there’s none. This takes away the two women who are on the canonical list, the Spanish alpinist Edurne Pasaban, and the acclaimed Austrian mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. They finished their 14 within a year of each other: Pasaban in 2010, and Kaltenbrunner in 2011. They have been both been judged to have missed the true summits of Dhaulagiri and Manaslu.

So how are these records usually maintained, and who keeps track? This is an un-exact art, and until the explosion in location technologies over the past few years, corroboration of climbs have been through interviews with claimants, photographs of the summit, and, wherever possible, corroboration from eyewitnesses. But, on the whole, the entire process has depended on taking mountaineers at their word. Before Jurgalski began 8,000ers.com, the only person checking on summit records was Elizabeth Hawley, who founded The Himalayan Database. An exacting interrogator and summit detective, Hawley was an American journalist who settled down permanently in Kathmandu in 1959, and from 1963 till her death in 2018 at the age of 93, forensically documented Himalayan climbs, especially in the Nepal Himalaya. Much like Jurgalski, Hawley never let the fact that she hasn’t climbed a Himalayan peak get in the way of her dedication to the task. Messner once said, “If I need information about climbing 8,000m peaks, I go to her.”

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Jurgalski says that if Hawley had been alive, she would have agreed with him. And that he doesn’t necessarily need to talk to the claimants personally, since their summit evidence, by way of things like photographs, are out there. But this begs the question, what about the people who didn’t take photos, or didn’t have cameras on them, say 30 years ago? And while Hawley herself had disputed many climbs—she famously made Ed Viesturs repeat his ascent of Shishapangma because he had gone to the wrong summit— they were current climbs, and not a retrospective exercise. 

Jurgalski’s work is certainly admirable, but, especially when it comes to the women’s list, there are some troubling questions. And that has much to do with the nature of modern mountaineering, especially when it climbing the highest Himalayan peaks. While serious alpinists are focusing their skills on smaller, but technically more difficult mountains, the 14 big ones are now the site for unabashed commercial competition between client climbers who are chasing speed records. 

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This past month, in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Karakoram, there has been a sea of client climbers aiming to bag three 8,000ers: K2, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak. This group has three women who are now in a position to become the first in Jurgalski’s list. The Norwegian Kristin Harila is trying to beat Nims Purja’s record of climbing all 14 in six months, the Taiwanese Grace Tseng is aiming for something similar, while the English Adriana Brownlee is attempting to become the youngest person to climb all 14. They are well-funded "adventurers" and social media stars in the process of efficiently “bagging” peaks, and all the hard work is done by their crack Sherpa teams.

The formula is fairly simple. Get a bunch of super-talented, trained and efficient Sherpa climbers together and form an adventure company. Highly driven and wealthy individuals then get in touch with the company and formulate a selling proposition, which is mostly about chasing a speed record. Then you attack the peaks, with the Sherpas guiding you every step of the way, breaking trail, and attaching fixed ropes to the summit. It’s an unimaginative, robotic and highly cynical way of collecting summits, where the only thing the client climber brings to the table is money. And if such climbers are persistent enough, and well-funded enough, they will claim all the "missing" records, like on Jurgalski’s list. With the technology now available, not to mention experienced and talented guides, there will not be any doubts about whether the clients reached the true summits or not. 

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Jurgalski’s fact-finding, then, upends the very notion of mountaineering as a sport, but also the style in which people climb. The main worry, for me, is this: Who do we intend to reward? And why? Would the records and glory of the likes of Harila and Tseng and the others would have been possible without the grunt work of their Sherpas? What does unlimited bottled oxygen supplies for K2 summit teams, for e.g., means for the health of the environment? What is the point of any sporting activity in the absence of ethics? Should the genuine alpinist achievements of the likes of Pasaban and Kaltenbrunner be airbrushed out of history because they didn’t have a location tracker and a curated Instagram feed, and missed a “true” summit by a few metres? How can you tell in retrospect?

Jurgalski and his collaborators’ bid to fully map the summit regions of every 8,000m peak is an admirable effort of mountain nerdism.  But in its single-minded focus on what constitutes the absolute tip of a mountain, it ends up ignoring the quality of the journey required to get there. To be sure, the new paradigm set by 8000ers.com should guide every new ascent of these peaks: The level of technology and lavishly funded access demands this. But it shouldn’t be used to rewrite history. 

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Billi Bierling of The Himalayan Database, in a statement to mountaineering publication Explorersweb.com, praised the efforts of Jurgalski, as well as his dedication, but also had this to say: “It will be very difficult to get 100% evidence for past ascents, as we don’t have photographic evidence for some of the climbs, or some of the climbers are no longer amongst us. But even though I don’t think we can rewrite history; we may be able to make some adjustments to the future.” This seems to be the only sane way forward.

There is probably no better way to end this than by quoting the great French climber, Lionel Terray's friend Maurice Herzog. Herzog's ascent of Annapurna I, alongside compatriot Louis Lachenal, in 1950, was the first time anyone had set foot on top of an 8,000m peak. In his classic book, Annapurna (1952), Herzog writes of his emotions on finally reaching the top: “Our mission was accomplished…I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt happiness like this—so intense and so pure. That brown rock, the highest of them all, that ridge of ice—were these the goals of a lifetime? Or were they, rather, the limits of man’s pride?”

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