American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

To the Very Summit

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

To the Very Summit

Silvia Metzeltin Buscaini, Club Alpino Italiano

AS MOUNTAIN CLIMBING develops, more and more ethical questions arise nowadays in the mountaineering world. Having become a mass sport, climbing has shoved aside or changed earlier standards. Some were perhaps false, such as nationalistic pride. Others have a definite ethical basis, such as mutual assistance among climbers. Adams Carter and Charles Houston have discussed some of these points courageously and emphatically in the American Alpine Journal of 1987.

From a purely sports point of view, there is a trend today which we must contemplate. Although climbing represents first of all free spirit, it is essential to heed self-discipline and certain unwritten rules if such freedom does not lose all its meaning and attractiveness. Despite accommodation to the present-day developments of technique and to modem society, climbing can keep its basic values only if … if …

A climber must remain true and honest to himself and to others, including non-climbers and sponsors. In this sense one should think through whether the present tendency to consider the summit as incidental is correct or not.

Naturally each region has its own particularities. The problems of the Yosemite are very different from those of the Himalaya. We must consider each in perspective.

Recently I have been compiling a history of climbing in Patagonia. The following cases arose more and more often: 1. the climb ends before the summit is reached on an established route; 2. a new route is not completed to the summit; 3. the climb stops where a new route joins an already established route. There is a tendency to consider the climb successful and completed if the greatest technical difficulties have been overcome, even though one has not got to the summit.

It is necessary to point out that in Patagonia the greatest difficulties do not always lie in the technical problems but more often in the hostile climate that surrounds the peaks. Until now, very few climbers have decided to bridge over the technical difficulty without placing bolts. (Alan Kearney and Bobby Knight are praiseworthy exceptions.) Therefore, in my opinion, the last meters in Patagonia, even if they are the easiest, are part of the whole. There, luck with the weather is part of the game and whoever doesn’t like it should go somewhere else.

Certainly one’s inner experience even without the summit can be very deep. I have in several attempts had to rappel a total of 6000 meters off Fitz Roy without having reached the summit. But three Supercanaletas are still not a single ascent of Fitz Roy.

On certain mountains there is a peculiar problem. On some summits the ice mushroom sometimes is absent, sometimes is easy and sometimes simply cannot be stood upon. But that is a special case. You can at least reach the summit mushroom in order to claim a successful ascent. And then you must state it clearly as, for example, Shipton did on Murallón and Rouse on Volonquí.

I really have to read some reports with great care to find out whether the summit was actually reached or not. In some cases the accounts in different mountaineering journals do not agree. I must state that the most reliable descriptions of all are given in the American Alpine Journal. But not even there! Who can check on everything when you can no longer count on the sporting fairness and honesty of the climber? Granted that one cannot always rely on assertions of how long the climb took or how much gear was used. But at least the mountain historian should be able to rely on the most essential fact: whether the summit was reached or not.

It concerns not only the individual—he can do in the mountains what he wants—but rather the whole climbing community. I wish to state here that most of the doubtful cases occur when the climber has been sponsored. On these occasions I find the lie, or the fib if you limit yourself to call it that, particularly serious. It points out the weak position of the climber in his relation to the sponsor. The same weakness can lead to an ethical collapse in which the climber puts his sponsor’s interests ahead of his mutual interdependence with his fellow climbers.

I wish to recommend that one should think searchingly about such simple but also basic, though unwritten rules. In climbing one must be honest to one’s self and to others. What sense is there to avoid touching pitons on practice cliffs when in the great mountains you give up honesty about summits?

To simplify the difficult task of mountain historians, I make a drastic suggestion: all climbs in which the actual summit is not reached are simply attempts, regardless of how difficult it may have been technically.

Many readers may be interested in getting HIMAVANTA, India’s only mountaineering monthly, for the latest information on the Himalaya. Annual subscription is from May and costs $11 air mail. Send to HIMAVANTA, 63E Mohanirban Road, Calcutta 700 029, India.

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