There have been rumours in the mountaineering world for a couple of years now that all the records about ascents of the world’s fourteen 8,000m peaks might need to be rewritten.
The rumours were started by a German statistician called Eberhard Jurgalski, who runs the website 8000ers.com, arguably the second best source of data about ascents of the 8,000m peaks behind the Himalayan Database, and the only one to cover stats about the five 8,000ers in Pakistan.
Eberhard was troubled by the fact that many of the people claiming ascents of some of the 8,000ers, for one reason or another (but mainly due to confusion about where it was), hadn’t actually reached the highest point.
Eberhard and his team of volunteer researchers have spent the last few years studying the summit topography of three mountains in particular – Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna – where uncertainty lingered over what was the highest point. They produced a series of documents, copiously illustrated with photographs and detailing the various summits, foresummits and bumps upon each summit ridge.
During the course of this research, which involved sifting through reports and summit photos of hundreds of summiteers, Eberhard and his team reached the alarming conclusion that most of the people claiming summits (and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I myself was one of them) hadn’t actually reached the true highest point. This wasn’t a problem in the case of jokers like me, who are happy enough to get as high as we did and have no hankering to go back. But what was a big problem, was that it appeared to include a large number of serious climbers whose fame was based around their ascents of the 8,000m peaks.
In short, it looked like most 8,000m peak records would need to be rewritten. Eberhard wasn’t even sure if anyone had reached the true summit of all the 8,000ers at all. It also meant that the person who left a metal pole on the summit ridge of Dhaulagiri, which many hardcore climbers had stopped at, believing it to be the summit, was going to need police protection.
Recoiling at the terrible responsibility Eberhard’s new-found knowledge had placed upon his shoulders, he initially proposed a set of ‘summit tolerance zones’. These zones were comprised of points on the mountains near enough to the true summit to be considered summits for all historical ascents when people weren’t sure which point the main summit was. Any new summit records, however, would need to involve the highest point because there could no longer be any excuse for not knowing where it was.
But this wasn’t enough for some of the purists (some of you might call them pedants). A summit is a summit, they said. Nobody, not even the great Reinhold Messner, could claim a summit unless they were standing atop the absolute highest metre.
Anyway, I’m conscious that I’ve been prattling on for 500 words and I still haven’t answered the question posed in the title of my post. I’ll get there, I promise, and it will be worth it.
Last Friday, 8 July 2022, Eberhard Jurgalski, respected statistician of the 8,000m peaks dropped a bombshell in the form of a blog post on his website and a revised list of climbers he now believes to have reached the true summit of all the 8,000ers.
The list contains just three names, and Reinhold Messner isn’t one of them.
Messner, it appears, did not reach the true summit of Annapurna, and he admitted as much in an interview with the New York Times last year.
‘If they say maybe on Annapurna I got five meters below the summit, somewhere on this long ridge, I feel totally OK… I will not even defend myself. If somebody would come and say, this is all bullshit what you did? Think what you want,’ Messner told reporter John Branch.
The summit ridge of Annapurna is a particularly complex place. 8000ers.com researcher Rodolphe Popier’s PDF describing it runs to an astonishing 48 pages that might just blow your mind. The main summit ridge is around 320m long. It contains 8 summits which differ by only 26m in altitude. The higher portion of the ridge contains 6 summits which differ by only 8m in altitude within a length of just 190m. The two highest summits, which stand 40m apart, are more or less the same height. According to Rodolphe’s PDF, either one of them can be considered the true summit. (Although the data he has used, which was provided by the German aerospace centre DLR and you can see in the annotated photo above, gives a 13cm difference between the two. I expect this will really upset some people.)
Sadly, Messner didn’t reach either of these two highest points. He stopped at the junction of Annapurna’s three main ridges, 5 vertical metres below the first of the summits and 65 horizontal metres away from it. Shucks.
But if Messner didn’t climb them all, who did?
You may be surprised to learn, given the controversy surrounding his Project Possible in 2019, that Nepali climber Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja did. During Project Possible, Nims stopped at the foresummits of both Manaslu and Dhaulagiri, but last year he corrected this and climbed to the true summits of both mountains.
But even Nims wasn’t the first. The only other two claims that Eberhard and his team have been able to verify are the American Ed Viesturs, who climbed his first in May 1989, three years after Messner was supposed to have finished, and completed his last in May 2005. Then there was Viesturs’s old climbing partner, the Finnish climber Veikka Gustafsson. Veikka climbed his first in May 1993, and I was actually present at base camp when he climbed his last, Gasherbrum I in July 2009.
Yet the plot thickens even more, into a really dense soup. Here is Ed Viesturs himself, describing his ascent of Kangchenjunga. This is a direct quote lifted from his book Himalayan Quest about his ascents of all the 8,000ers.
The highest point of the summit is to the left and just out of the photo. We chose not to take the final steps to the actual summit, which is considered sacred to the people of the surrounding valleys. We could have walked up to it in a minute, but the locals asked us not to disturb that area and we respected their wishes.
So we have it from the horse’s mouth. Ed Viesturs didn’t stand on the true summit of Kangchenjunga. Ergo, he wasn’t the first person to reach the true summit of all the 8,000ers. He chose to follow the tradition started by Joe Brown and George Band, whose first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 has never been in question, even though they also chose to stop just below the summit.
Yet the purists will tell you that a summit’s a summit. There can be all sorts of reasons a climber doesn’t go to the absolute highest point. Climbers are exhausted, a summit cornice might be dangerous to stand on without falling through it, visibility can be poor, and winds can threaten to throw you over the edge. When Messner approached the multitude of summits on Annapurna in 1985, there was no definitive answer to which one was the highest; the super refined altitude data we now have simply didn’t exist back then. If we’re going to be picky about it, why should stopping below the summit because of a local superstition about mountain gods be judged any differently?
More to the point, does any of this matter? Eberhard himself has questioned the need for his research. ‘I wanted to run away and forget all my work, this made me very sad, but if Miss Hawley had known this back then, she would also not have accepted it and now we have to correct it as independent and reliable chroniclers,’ he said in Friday’s post.
If you ask me, regardless of whether you believe everyone should follow a clear set of rules or not, the answer is simple.
The current problem is that mountaineering has no set rules. We are all welcome to climb in any way we prefer and claim whatever we like.
But if we want to define a clear set of rules, we can’t apply them retrospectively. Let’s provide an example from the sport of cricket (with apologies to my American readers, for whom the rules of cricket might just as well be written in Sanskrit for all the sense you can make of them).
When Gilbert Jessop scored a 76-ball century in 1902, the fastest ever international century by an Englishman, he had to hit the ball right out of the ground in order to score a 6. When Jonny Bairstow scored a 77-ball century last month, he only had to clear the boundary ropes to get 6, a shot that would have scored Jessop just 4 in 1902. Do we need to go back in history, reviewing all of Jessop’s 4s in 1902 to see if any of them should now be upgraded to 6s? No, of course not. That might change the outcome of the match. The rules were what they were in 1902 and they are different now. Both achievements should be judged by the rules that were in place at the time.
Now let’s apply this principle to mountaineering. When Messner reached the summit of Annapurna in 1985, nobody knew where the true summit was and even fewer gave a toss. The rules were different then. His record should remain, as should those of other climbers who reached the summits of all the 8,000ers before the new rules applied.
And if you don’t think everyone should follow the same set of rules, the answer is even simpler.
Messner’s achievement on the 8,000m peaks is not just a record but an epic story. We remember his very first 8,000er, Nanga Parbat, when he tragically lost his brother in an avalanche. We remember those pioneering ascents when he climbed alone, his first ascent of Everest without supplementary oxygen with Peter Habeler in 1978, and his solo ascent of a new route across Everest’s north face during the monsoon season in 1980, an achievement that is still without parallel. And we remember his final race with Jerzy Kukuczka to finish them all.
On the other side of the coin, we don’t particularly remember Messner’s part in the race to complete the Seven Summits. Messner proposed that the list of Seven Summits should include Puncak Jaya, or Carstensz Pyramid, on the island of New Guinea instead of the more straightforward Kosciuszko on the continent of Australia, muddying the race between himself, Dick Bass and Pat Morrow to be the first person to climb them all. One of the reasons people forget that Messner featured in this race is because there is nothing particularly exciting about the world’s leading high-altitude mountaineer completing a set of peaks that include easy walk-ups like Kilimanjaro.
Pat Morrow eventually won the race to complete the Messner version of the Seven Summits, but for most people, the first person to climb the Seven Summits will always be Dick Bass, even though he climbed Kosciuszko instead of Puncak Jaya. Bass was an enthusiastic amateur with neither skills nor experience, who had to be guided up the mountains. But he turned out to be physically strong, and he had the determination to turn a novel idea into a great physical achievement. As the first person to be guided up Everest in 1985, he was breaking new ground like a true pioneer. It was an amazing story, just like Messner’s ascents of the 8,000ers.
If you’re interested in Eberhard’s new list, you can download it here. As well as listing the three climbers (which should really just be two) he believes have climbed all fourteen, he lists the disputed peaks of all the other 8,000m completists. It’s been a monumental piece of research, and I hope he drinks, because he deserves a gigantic bottle of champagne.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. It reminds me of the arguments about which one of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary stepped onto the summit of Everest first. Unless you’re Veikka Gustafsson and you’re reading this. In which case, nice to see you again and congratulations.