You could argue that if you’ve made it anywhere near the top of the world’s highest mountains, you’re an impressive human, worthy of accolades.
Damien Gildea would probably agree. But the Australian climber and writer also argues that near enough is not always good enough.
Especially when you’re not honest about it.
Gildea has begun asking an uncomfortable question of the 44 people who claim to have climbed to the summit of all 14 of the world’s highest peaks.
It’s a question causing ruptures in the mountaineering community.
Did those climbers really get there?
Gildea says there’s evidence that casts serious doubts over most of the claims and he wants to see more accuracy and honesty among the world’s climbers.
“No-one’s trying to take away the fact that they’ve gone a long way up a big mountain,” Gildea tells ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.
“I know how hard it can be. And we all make mistakes, particularly when you’re cold and tired and you’re up at high altitude.
“But these people are basing their reputations … on a claim, and that’s a claim to have gone to the top of the mountain.”
For the record books and for the integrity of the sport, “you’ve got to draw some lines”, he says.
Has anyone actually summitted the famous 14?
In the world of high-altitude mountain climbing, conquering the world’s 8,000-metre high mountains is a feat for the record books.
Not just reputations but also online followings, careers and incomes have been built on the achievement.
Gildea has been volunteering with a team of researchers who, since 2007, have been noting discrepancies between climbers’ claims and photos or reports from their adventures.
He says the rise of social media and phone cameras over the past decade has provided a surge of evidence undermining many – indeed, most – of the existing claims.
“It became a lot easier to tell exactly where people have gone, regardless of what they said,” he says.
Gildea says some have reached the wrong peak or their expeditions have been misreported.
“One of the lead researchers in this team [German researcher Eberhard Jurgalski] just happened to see that on Manaslu – the eighth highest mountain in the world in central Nepal – people were stopping at this point,” he says.
“There was a bit of terrain rising above them in their photos and this didn’t match the photos of the old first ascent in 1956. And so he looked into it and it built up over the last 10 or 12 years.”
Since then, the small team has been poring through climbers’ photos and accounts, investigating claims to have reached the summit of the 14 mountains.
The research team believes it’s possible none of the claims are accurate, but says it’s more likely only a very small handful are.
What they do know, they say, is that claiming 44 climbers have reached all 14 summits is simply wrong.
Research ‘met with a lot of silence’
Brigitte Muir OAM – the first Australian to climb the highest mountains on each continent and the first Australian woman to climb Mount Everest – says it can be tricky to determine when you’re actually at a mountain’s highest point.
“People make genuine mistakes. Some mountains may have summits that all look pretty much the same,” she says.
“There’s other times where it’s very obvious that you’re not on the summit of the mountain.
“You might say, you know, gosh, there’s another five meters and it’s dangerous. And so I’m not going to climb to the top,” says Muir, who today runs Beyond the Smile, supporting Nepalese women living near Mount Everest.
She offers the example of her 1994 climb at Shishapangma, one of the 8,000-metre peaks, in Tibet.
The highest point of Shishapangma is along a horizontal ridge. “It’s very knife-edge and it can be very dangerous,” Muir says.
She was climbing without oxygen or ropes.
“When we got to the west summit, we looked across and we thought, no, we’re not doing that, it looks too dangerous. And so we didn’t go to the main summit,” she says.
“[I] got to the summit ridge, which is horizontal, but didn’t get to the highest point. What do you do then?
“You just be honest about it. And that’s it,” she says.
At Manaslu, the real summit is also along a very narrow ridge, which is quite level, making it hard to see the highest point.
A climber nearing the peak is likely to be exhausted, in significant danger and very, very cold.
“So people are stopping, basically, at what looks like the highest point – but isn’t,” Gildea says.
He says this information has “been put out there a few times over the last few years” but has been “met with a lot of silence”.
“It’s not really in a lot of people’s interest to deal with it or counter it publicly, because it’s not necessarily flattering to them and they’d rather not draw attention to it,” he says.
The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) is, however, looking into the issue.
And at least one of the 44 climbers, German Ralf Dujmovits, has corrected the record and admitted he didn’t quite make all 14 peaks.
Gildea says public reaction to that has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s been really good because he’s been really honest … He’s come out and said, look, you know, I really did try and get to the summit of Manaslu and I made a mistake.
“And everyone is like, yeah, OK, no problem,” he says.
Why honesty matters – even in a ‘personal’ pursuit
In climbing, says Muir, where there mightn’t be anyone standing behind you to validate your claims, integrity is essential.
“Telling lies for gain is a big no-no … it’s terrible,” she says.
Muir argues that commercial imperatives like travel businesses delivering on promises or sponsors being satisfied have muddied things.
“It’s a recipe for disaster and for telling lies,” she says.
“In the past, people were climbing with integrity and without the huge amount of help that is available today.
“So the standards have changed,” she says.
But Muir is reluctant to generalise about all climbers.
“There are as many different situations as there are people and mountains,” she says.
“It’s all a question about being honest about what you do.”
For Gildea, climbing is a personal process, not a “necessary” one.
“Climbing generally is useless and that’s fine. It’s a desire for people who’ve got the time and the money,” he says.
“And when you reach a peak, rather than revel in the joy, you move on to a different desire.
“The process is the thing,” he says.
Gildea wants to preserve a respect for that process and for climbers’ actual achievements.
“I guess a lot of it’s motivated by a sense of fairness,” he says.
“People went right to the top, back in the old days in 1956, without GPS or digital cameras or satellite imagery or anything like that.
“So if you say you’ve climbed the mountain, you should go to the top. And that’s pretty much what it comes down to.”
He says he obviously doesn’t want to see anyone die trying to prove a point or reach “those last few meters”.
“People can say it was too dangerous to get to the top … that’s fine.
“But just don’t say that you’ve been to the summit when you haven’t been to the summit.”
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