“In the great sport of mountaineering there are, thank heaven, no rules, and only one absolutely general principle, that of ‘getting up’.” Wilfrid Noyce, Snowdon Biography
A bit of light relief this week (said the bishop to the actress). Climbing purists and those who consider themselves to be alpinists should look away now. This post is for those with a more laid back approach to getting up mountains.
I’ve just finished writing up my diary from my ascent of Elbrus last year, the highest mountain in Europe in the Russian Caucasus. It was an unusual ascent involving several methods of transport. In the Baksan valley on the south side of the mountain is the ski resort of Azau, from where it’s possible to get a cable car, followed by a chair lift up to the mountain huts of Barrels at 3800m. Not content with that I then took a snow-cat up the tedious snow slopes of Europe’s highest volcano, a tracked vehicle which I can only describe as a curious cross between a tractor and a tank. As we chugged up slopes under cover of the night, every so often our headlamps caught the sight of climbers jumping out the way, who presumably had about as much respect for our climbing methods as you might have for Noddy Holder’s dress sense. We jumped out at around 5100m, and I did actually walk the rest of the way up both of the mountain’s 5642m and 5621m twin summits and traversed across to the north side.
I expect a great many people would say I was cheating, but I didn’t really mind. I had climbed most of the way up to where we were dropped off on an acclimatisation hike a couple of days earlier, and I’ve never really been one for worrying about climbing in a particular style. I enjoyed the whole experience, and I can’t imagine I’ll be taking a tractor up many more summits.
Wilfrid Noyce wrote the quotation I introduced this post with in 1957. He was a serious climber, who did a lot of pioneering rock climbing routes in Snowdonia and very nearly made the first and only ascent of 6993m Machapuchare in Nepal, coming within 50m of the summit before the terrain became too difficult. Machapuchare, also known as the Fishtail, is a serious technical challenge on an epic scale which even to this day has never been climbed (though this is mainly because his expedition leader Jimmy Roberts persuaded the Nepalese people to declare it a holy mountain soon afterwards). Although Noyce was writing about Snowdon when he made this statement, a mountain in Wales with a railway line all the way to the summit, he wasn’t really referring to use of vehicles to reach a summit. He had supported Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay when they made the first ascent of Everest in 1953, by carrying equipment, including bottled oxygen to the South Col to ease the burden of the lead climbers. Use of oxygen has been a contentious issue in the world of mountaineering, ever since it was first used in the 1920s, and many people still see it as cheating (though my personal opinion is that these people should chill out a bit).
While my ascent of Elbrus last year was an extreme case of cheating, in fact there are many other mountains in the world where people have no qualms about using vehicles quite a large portion of the way. On Denali climbers fly onto the Kahiltna Glacier at 2150m, on Mont Blanc there’s a cable car to 3800m on the Aiguille du Midi, and on Everest no one thinks twice about flying to Lukla at 2800m instead of trekking in from sea level. On Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, you can even take a penal tractor up a dirt track to start your climb from Piedra Grande Hut, though I don’t recommend it unless you want to arrive with a headache, not from the altitude but from bashing your head against the sides and ceiling of the vehicle. Even in the 19th century people were cheating. Douglas Freshfield took horses to the snout of the glacier at roughly 3800m when he made an ascent of Elbrus’s East Peak from the Baksan Valley in 1868.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I typed up my diary, and I thought it might be interesting to compare some of the world’s high mountains to see how far you can actually get up them using mechanical transport.
And so boys and girls, I give you the Mountains for cheating infographic. You can hover over it, click on a few radio buttons and see which are the best peaks for lazy people. Then if you’re feeling a little more energetic, I suggest you go and climb them!
So there we have it. Elbrus is definitely the king of mountains for cheating – or is it? If you can think of any others do pray tell.
And if you’re at all interested in my diary Elbrus By Any Means and can spare 77p (or 99c if you prefer), it’s now available as an ebook on Amazon and other online retailers.