Manaslu: a tale of two mountaineers

It’s October 5, 2011, and the summit crown of Manaslu is at the top of a short snow couloir on the right of the summit slope. I can see my friend Ian Cartwright waiting at the top, and each time I look up he’s waving at me frantically. I get irritated. I’m climbing very slowly now, but there’s no way I’m going to go any quicker. On the other hand I’m clearly going to reach him eventually. We’ve had several attempts to climb 8000 metre peaks between us, but this is going to be our first summit. We’ve been waiting weeks for our summit window, and climbing for days to get here – I’m hardly going to try and sneak past him by another route now.

Me on Manaslu's summit, wearing the oxygen mask the distressed climber was demanding
Me on Manaslu’s summit, wearing the oxygen mask the distressed climber was demanding

When I get to the top of the snow couloir I see why Ian was signalling. He’s holding his oxygen mask to the face of a distressed climber, a bearded man in a red down suit whom I estimate to be about 50 or 60 years old, with a great many sponsors’ logos stitched to his chest. Although hundreds of climbers are sponsored these days, many of them have only written to outdoor clothing manufacturers and been sent free equipment in return. This man has so many logos that either he’s written a lot of letters or he’s a genuinely professional climber.

If he’s in trouble then I’m afraid I’m in no mood to help out right now. I flop down in the snow beside Ian and get my breath back. Chongba Sherpa appears behind me and taps me on the shoulder.

“Look, the summit!”

I’m sitting in an area no more than 100 metres in length which houses all of Manaslu’s highest summits. On my right there are two or three small snow domes, and at the far end of a narrow platform of snow is Manaslu’s final snake-like summit ridge, a jagged spine of snow weaving up to a crown of rock bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags. At sea level I could probably run up it in 60 seconds, but at this altitude, exhausted as I am, it will probably take us another 10 to 15 minutes to reach it. In any case, having waited patiently for many weeks then battled hard for five days to get here, it’s my only focus right now – I don’t need any distractions like rescues to carry out, at least not until after I’ve reached it.

After a short rest I stand up and continue, and behind me Chongba persuades Ian to leave the man where he is and come with us.

The bearded man is no longer there when we return from the summit, but we don’t have to descend far before we come across him again. He’s lying across the trail just a short rope length below the bottom of the snow couloir and has perhaps descended 100 metres since we left him. Chongba is leading now, and steps around him despite his protests. As my personal Sherpa Chongba’s responsibility is to get me down from the mountain safely, and he knows that we still have a very long way to go. But there are not many people behind us, and it’s clear we can’t leave the man here. We have to do something to try and establish contact with his team and get some help.

This proves to be a challenge. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and makes no effort to try and understand our questions. We don’t think he has a radio, but we’re unable to find out which team he belongs to. I have a medical kit on me of high altitude drugs, but I’m not sure which one to use. I pull out my radio to call base camp. As a member of the Altitude Junkies expedition team I have a very experienced high altitude expedition leader in Phil Crampton to call upon, who has led around 30 expeditions to 8000 metre peaks. He’s been involved in many rescues at extreme altitude, and is certain to know which drugs to use.

I put the radio to my face, and the man begins shouting at me: “Monica, Monica, Monica, Monica, Monica,” he cries.

I’m a bit maddened by this. I know that Monica is not the name of his wife, but of the only qualified doctor on Manaslu this year. She would certainly know what to do, but she happens to be at base camp, more than 3000 metres below us, and here we are just beneath the summit at 8163m. She’s also a member of a different expedition team, Himalayan Experience (Himex), and my first point of contact is always going to be Phil. I wish the man would shut up and let me think straight so that I can get him the help he needs.

In any case, there’s a bigger problem. We appear to be in a dead zone in terms of radio reception just beneath the summit, and I can hear nothing on my radio even if other people may be hearing me. I will have to guess which drug to administer. I look up to give him the tablet, but now he’s pointing frantically at my face and gesticulating wildly. I realise he wants my oxygen, and it’s not a stupid idea. I really want to use my oxygen myself, but on the few occasions I’ve taken my mask off to drink water and make radio calls, I haven’t had any difficulty breathing. Although it will make descending much harder, it’s clear this man needs it more than I do. The idea worries Chongba, who offers to carry the man’s pack instead, but again the man isn’t listening.

By now Ian has taken over. He’s taken his mask off and is insisting that Chongba help him to give the man his oxygen. Relieved I no longer have to give my own oxygen away, I leave them to it and continue down the mountain. A few minutes later I hear Chongba’s footsteps behind me and we descend together.

Anne-Mari Hyryläinen on the summit crown, roughly in the position I first saw Ian with the bearded man
Anne-Mari Hyryläinen on the summit crown, roughly in the position I first saw Ian with the bearded man

The rest of the story I hear second-hand. A little while after we leave them, three more members of the Altitude Junkies team arrive on their way down from the summit: Anne-Mari Hyrylainen, Pasang Wongchu Sherpa, and Kami Neru Sherpa. Anne-Mari has been climbing without oxygen, but she is alert enough to realise the man needs a dexamethasone injection. She is not a doctor, and has never done this procedure before, but while Pasang Wongchu and Kami turn the man over, she clears the air bubbles from the syringe by tapping it on her leg and injects him in the buttock through his down suit. This combined with Ian’s oxygen is enough to get the man moving again. Further down they realise word about the rescue has somehow filtered down the mountain, and they meet a Sherpa from the man’s own team coming up to assist. Between them they are able to get him back to Camp 4, where he recovers further.

Dozing in my tent in Camp 2 that evening, something about the rescue bothers me. Although I’ve heard that High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) makes people belligerent, the man was not only rude and unhelpful, but seemed to regard our rescuing him as his right, despite the fact that Ian was endangering his own life by giving away his oxygen and descending the rest of the way without it. Could it be that this was simply an inexperienced climber with HACE losing patience with his rescuers, or is there something more to it?

Earlier in the expedition I blogged about what I called parasitic climbers. This had been in reference to two low-budget French climbers who had stolen our tent at Camp 1, but I had gone on to complain about how all of these climbers ultimately relied upon the big commercial expedition teams such as Altitude Junkies and Himex to bail them out when they got into danger, and how such teams are often criticised if they don’t do everything in their power. I hadn’t expected this statement to come true so quickly. Was this bearded man one of the parasites I described, or was he a different calibre of climber?

The following day I got down to base camp and they told me. The man was Juanito Oiarzabal, one of Spain’s most famous high altitude mountaineers. In 1999 he became the 6th man to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000 metre peaks, and only the 4th to climb them all without supplementary oxygen. Even today fewer than 30 people have achieved this feat. And there’s more: Manaslu was his 26th ascent of an 8000 metre peak, a world record for a non-Sherpa.

So what was a man whose record shows him to be one of the top (non-Sherpa) high altitude mountaineers doing at the summit of Manaslu, helpless as a new-born baby, and crying for oxygen like it’s a mother’s breast?

There’s another side to this story. In 2009, at the age of 53, this once-great mountaineer announced that he intended to become the first man to climb all 14 of the 8000 metre peaks twice. Since then he has climbed Annapurna, where he used a helicopter to descend, and Lhotse, where he also needed rescuing. And now Manaslu.

This had been a straighforward rescue, but in some ways it’s lucky it had fallen to members of Altitude Junkies to rescue Oiarzabal on Manaslu. Had the task fallen to Himex, whose team members were also on the summit that day, then their owner Russell Brice would have faced a dilemma. Earlier in the year he had helped coordinate an extraordinary rescue operation on Lhotse involving members of Oiarzabal’s team. Oiarzabal himself required the assistance of a stretcher to get him from the Khumbu Icefall to base camp. The rescue had involved considerable expense and danger to Brice and many other teams, and here was the same man in trouble again on an 8000 metre peak, just four months later.

After returning home and reading about Oiarzabal’s achievements, and above all the phenomenal rescue on Lhotse, I revise my opinion of him. He is no ordinary parasitic climber who steals peoples tents: he appears to be an extraordinary danger to all who put foot on a mountain with him. Friends, family, sponsors: if you speak English and are reading this, please get this man to stop! 26 summits is achievement enough.

The great Ian Cartwright at Camp 1 during the descent
The great Ian Cartwright at Camp 1 during the descent

But there are heroes and villains in every story. Between them Ian, Anne-Mari and our Sherpa team almost certainly saved Oiarzabal’s life last week. With his illustrious past behind him, he appears to have turned into a monstrous pantomime villain, unable to recreate what he once had, ticking off mountains like Louis Mazzini ticking off his D’Ascoyne murder victims, and bellowing at comparatively novice climbers to part with their life-saving oxygen. Somewhere in the middle are the majority of climbers like myself, whose focus is to reach the summit and then get down safely, putting our own safety firmly before that of any distressed climbers we pass on the way.

Set alongside these people, Ian’s behaviour is all the more extraordinary: forgetting about the summit and administering oxygen to a climber in difficulty even while the summit rises a stone’s throw away, then not hesitating to donate all of the bottled oxygen he was relying on to descend. No sponsorship or summit fame for him. Softly spoken and generous to a fault, he will probably regret me putting his name in print before going quietly back to his job as an offshore surveyor and saving up for his next expedition.

Not only did he reach the summit of an 8000 metre peak last week, but he saved somebody’s life on the way down. Forget that old has-been Juanito Oiarzabal, he of the excessive chest logos who keeps having to be rescued. Ladies and gentlemen I give you Ian Cartwright: a true mountaineering hero.

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21 thoughts on “Manaslu: a tale of two mountaineers

  • October 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm
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    I hope you feel a great sense of acomplishment when you poorly try shining off of the name of Juanito Oiarzabal.
    Thank God most of us got the story straight and take your words with a grain of salt and a good laugh.

  • October 31, 2011 at 9:31 pm
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    Hi Francisco,

    I’m not familiar with the phrase “shining off”, but if you mean I’m trying to reflect some of Juanito’s glory onto myself that wasn’t my intention at all. I hope I’ve made it clear enough in the article that I was far from heroic that day, leaving others in my team to help him while I looked after myself and descended. Moreover, I’m not – and nor will I ever be – in anything like the same class of climber as him. I’m merely a walker who just about climbs well enough to get up one, maybe two 8000m peaks in his life by standard routes, and even then only with a fully supported commercial expedition.

    However, I was under no illusions that this post might not be controversial. I have no doubt there will be many people acquainted with Juanito’s illustrious past who will be reading it in disbelief. Likewise there may be some familiar with his recent climbing history more inclined to see the truth in it. And of course, there were many people in radio contact on Manaslu that day aware of what was happening close to the summit.

    While the second half of this post is opinion which you are welcome to disagree with, the first half is an honest account of what happened that day, as I recall it. Although I was tired, I believe that I was not so exhausted that I do not remember events clearly.

    I have no axe to grind with Juanito, and my intention is not to trash his reputation. I am ashamed to say I had not heard of him before this incident, but I do feel strongly that his behaviour that day in demanding oxygen of lesser climbers is not worthy of a great mountaineer. There will be other stories like mine emerging in time if he continues to behave in this way, and the pity for Juanito is that in the end they will overshadow the great achievements of his past.

    I am sorry that you found the post a good laugh, for I was making a serious point, and it’s one that is more important than Juanito Oiarzabal’s reputation. One day someone may lose their life trying to help him, or one day perhaps another climber seeking glory will get into trouble which leads to greater tragedy for others. If I have reduced the chances of that happening by even a very small amount, then this post will have been worth writing.

    Regards,
    Mark.

  • October 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm
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    First off, the way you are speaking of Oiarzabal, one of the greatest names in the history of the mountain lacks any type of respect and it is beyond rude and insulting. Not only it is disrespectful, but also one realises just by reading your post that you lack a vast amount of knowledge and information regarding who he is and what has happened in the earlier expeditions such the ones in Annapurna and Lhotse.
    I recommend you to get the facts straight; Juanito Oiarzabal had NOTHING to do with the rescue (that was lead manly by the argentinian Damian and Willie Benegas) of Manuel Gonzalez “Lolo”,Isabel Perez and Roberto.
    He was only helped out due to dehydration etc. by Edurne Pasaban’s Sherpas at mearly 30 min away from Base camp of mount Everest -sharing the base camp with Lhotse-. So he had nothing to do with the rescue before menctioned.

    You estated in your comment that your intention far from trashing his reputiation, but you were reffering to him as -and I quote- ” helpless as a new-born baby, and crying for oxygen like it’s a mother’s breast”, as an “old has-been” mountaineer and a “extraordinary danger to all who put foot on a mountain with him” . You couldnt put yourself more in evidence of a complete, ABSOLUTE lack of knowledge and respect.

    How could you write such statements dishonouring a man who has been involved in many, many true life or death rescues in the mountain. Someone who is notorious for doing the impossible to save a fellow climber’s life. A man whos record of achievements has no end and is considered one of the most important mountaineers in history.

    You also, by your own words, seem to have a lack of experience on probably the most important and the very essence of mountaineering; which are morals and ethic’s with your fellow mountaineers.
    The way you describe yourself your contact with “the bearded man” shows that the one who was out of place up there wasnt Oiarzabal, precissely.

    I understand that this is your personal blog with your personal opinion, but please, have a little respect and inform yourself very well before putting Juanito’s name -or anybodys, for that matter- in such manner on the net.

  • November 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm
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    Thanks for this, Francisco. You are right that I am lacking in knowledge of Juanito’s background, and I agree that this single incident needs to be balanced against the many other things he has done in his career, so thank you for providing this. The above account is written from the perspective of people who didn’t know him from Adam and were acting as we would had we encountered any climber in difficulties. Your point about respect is well made, and I am basing this only on my own experience in this instance.

    My understanding of the Lhotse rescue is that all 17 climbers on that expedition team got into difficulties and needed help from other teams, but I will leave any commenting on this to others who may have been there.

    As for my own morals and ethics, you will see from the above that I did in fact try to help, but I drew the line at giving away my oxygen. I had not been to 8000m before, had little idea what the effect would be had I stopped taking oxygen at that altitude, and considered it my first duty to get myself down safely.

    I know that Juanito will be a hero to many people and they will be upset by this post, but I feel strongly it is a story that needs to be told, not only because of him but the many other climbers who get themselves into problems on 8000m peaks and endanger the lives of others as a consequence.

  • November 29, 2011 at 12:44 am
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    To judge a person on their reputation, however good or bad, is a matter of personal opinion, but to judge them on one’s personal experience is a completely different matter. A matter of fact.

    Whilst I have never met Mark Horrell, he appears to be a man of some calibre, who has written about his mountaineering experiences in an honest and informative manner. His motivation appears to come purely from his love of the mountains and a desire to share his experiences with others, rather than simply to promote his own personal interests.

    Climbing an 8000m peak is a great achievement and climbing all 14 is an incredible one, but if our lives aren’t fulfilling without these achievements, they will never be fulfilled by them. Maybe that’s while some feel the need to do them twice? Personally I would choose to share a rope with someone who shares my passion for the mountains; the spectacular scenery, the pristine environment, the different cultures you are immersed in and the comaradery of those with the fortitude join us, rather than those who are only interested in ‘getting to the top’.

  • November 29, 2011 at 3:58 am
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    “To judge a person on their reputation, however good or bad, is a matter of personal opinion, but to judge them on one’s personal experience is a completely different matter. A matter of fact”.

    Funny. I thought it was the other way around.

  • November 29, 2011 at 6:17 am
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    The beauty of opinions is that they are as many as colors…But NOT equaly valid.

    Heres Eduardo Martinez de Pison’s ( Eminent doctor on Geography and extremely knowledgeable mountaineer ) opinion about Juanito Oiarzabal. Someone who knows him extremely well.

  • November 29, 2011 at 11:17 am
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    “Funny. I thought it was the other way around.”

    …I guess that explains where you are going wrong, my friend 🙂

  • November 29, 2011 at 7:44 pm
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    Thanks guys for the comments. In fact, I think there are elements of both. Matt’s right that there’s no substitute for your own experience. Whatever your achievements or reputation, you should always be prepared to act with gratitude and humility if you need to ask someone for help, and the fact that both were lacking in this instance left me with a bad impression of him as an individual (that he was once a great mountaineer I don’t doubt). Perhaps he assumed I was aware of his reputation, but because I wasn’t, it therefore counted for nothing.

    But Francisco’s also right that reputation is important, particularly if it’s the opinion of someone you respect. Your own experience is only a small sliver of the whole story, after all. Francisco, if you have any other links like this in English then please do post them – I think part of the problem maybe there doesn’t seem to be much about him in English, and so his reputation doesn’t extend far beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

    (On a separate note, I’m in complete agreement with Matt that the whole experience of being in the mountains is far more enriching than just reaching the summit).

  • January 10, 2012 at 5:32 pm
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    He, Juanito, in his summit press release letter, neither mentioned any requested help in Manaslu, nor thanked any of those who gave him a hand to save his life, just told about his summit success… that says all about him as a person.

    Thanks Mark for your detailed account of what happened, facts are not to be covered up just because he is a renounced mountaineer, in fact you will not find much about him out of Spain because there are not many people out of there who appreciate him, he has a history of abandoned to death people (colleagues and sherpas above all) and rescues, next to his career as a media circus mountaineer.

  • January 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm
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    Interesting. Thank you, Bermeo, for this alternative viewpoint.

  • January 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm
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    Bermeo:
    Juanito clearly stated in many ocations that he DID requested help from Everest Base Camp Sherpas AND DID THANK for their help. Get the facts straight:

    To the second part of your comment, Junaito a ¨nobody¨ outside of Spain? Im sorry but that shows the vast amount of knowledge you lack about mountaineering.
    Thats is pretty much as to say that Reinhold Messner is a nobody outside of Switzerland.

    As I stated before, opinions are as many as colors, but please have respect,show some interest and inform yourself better prior posting wrong information on the Internet.

  • January 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm
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    The term ¨Chovinism¨ comes to mind when reading certain opinions.

  • February 20, 2012 at 1:22 am
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    Francisco,

    I believe Mark’s account of the events on Manaslu that day are accurate. It is a fact that Juanito Oiarzabal had major physical difficulties on his descent of Manaslu. See the link to this news article (third paragraph) for corroboration:
    http://www.eitb.com/en/sports/detail/750565/oiarzabal-reaches-summit-manaslu/

    While I believe Mark could have made his point more tactfully (no offense Mark), his point is well taken. Don’t ever push it to the point where you put others in danger. I think Juanito should carefully reflect before he climbs to 8,000 meters again. No one, no matter how great a climber, can continue to do this forever. Congratulations on your Manaslu summit, Mark.

  • February 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm
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    No offence taken, Ken. The article was written a few days after we summited and I was still highly emotional about the whole thing. I’ve had time to reflect now and you’re right that I could have been more tactful. I understand Juanito was quite ill afterwards and I hope he’s getting better.

    Thanks for the feedback and link!

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  • March 23, 2013 at 6:55 pm
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    What a splendid piece of writing Mark.It explained the “ups and downs ” of mountaineering brilliantly. Over the years anyone who has closely followed past expeditions will recognised the characters in this scenario well. There will always be amazing Oiarzabals of this world together with the quiet unassuming Cartwrights.Oiarzbal has obviously had an amazing career as a mountaineer but that doesn’t mean he has bought a first class ticket to rescue nor does the mountain owe him anything.A brilliant mountaineer should be one of the first to realise that his body is weakening and perhaps it’s time to call it a day. When climbing one of the big ones it is all in “the here and now” that counts nothing that has gone before matters.You can gain respect but just as easily loose it when things aren’t going your way and expect preferential treatment.We can all think after the event I wish I had expressed myself a little more courteously but what the heck we are talking life and death here and the Oiarzhals need to be pulled up sharply for them to step back and consider what went on.There’s a time to go and a time to stop and I believe on reading the above piece we know,if the facts are correct,what the choice should be. Cheers Kate

  • March 24, 2013 at 10:22 am
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    Thanks, Kate. That was definitely my feeling when I wrote the post.

  • May 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm
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    im not a mountaineer, but whether its olympic wrestling or anything else of this caliber, in the end, i dont think there is a need for putting someone down. i think you made your point in the writing, but then kept on going at it, using more insulting terms than necessary – and its got nothing to do whether the guy was a well known “hero” or not. the crying baby reference and all that, what does that achieve – it reflects your disgust and sincere loathing, sure.

    the whole thing would fit in one chapter; how you found this guy who came off as rude which is perplexing in his situation, was not communicating well (i think in HACE condition – which ive read about – people may start acting strange though, i wouldnt know since i havent experienced it) and you were dumbfounded by this. and later you found out he is a hero who has needed help of some sort before, and you think he should quit (i agree) and this puts the events in even stranger light – that a mountaineering star would behave in such a manner. that’s all. but there is something called freedom of expression and you certainly used it.

    someone also commented that after the ordeal he did not thank the people who helped him out, which is in line with how you perceived him, so my criticism really isnt about whether the guy lacks manners and/or respect, but just about your literal expression going further than necessary.

  • May 29, 2013 at 6:53 pm
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    Hi Jenni,

    You’re right. The post was written barely a week after the events described, when I was still mentally exhausted from the climb and the emotions were raw. I don’t feel as strongly about it now as I did then, and would express myself differently.

    Regards,
    Mark.

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