At the highest levels of alpinism, altitude continues to be less and less of a factor in the style climbers choose to make an ascent. This is not a new trend, but it was illustrated with an exclamation point in 1997 as climbs on Latok II, Thalay Sagar, Shipton Spire and Changabang were all put up at altitude in good style. The ascents, established by climbers who routinely climb hard at the crags as well, underscored what to expect as the frenetic evolution of mixed climbing and ever-more-difficult free and aid routes are extrapolated to the mountains in the years to come.
Not all of the year’s fine routes employed superalpinism’s lightweight, self-sufficient style. A Russian ascent of Makalu’s west face exemplified an older style of mountaineering: fixed camps, fixed ropes, and rotating teams worked for two months to overcome one of the highest technical walls in the world. Gasherbrum IV’s west face was climbed as well, by a Korean team consciously attempting to push Korean climbing to world-class standards. Like the Russians, the Koreans worked through a magnificent and much-coveted feature with fixed ropes and camps, accomplishing a first ascent that is the pinnacle of that country’s short climbing history.
But of all the climbing done in 1997, one ascent stands out both for its boldness and for the recurring motif of tragedy in the story of one country’s climbing. While a teammate in base camp coordinated their navigation with binoculars and radio, Slovenians Tomaž Humar and Janez Jeglic took five days to make a stunning unroped ascent of the west face of Nuptse (7925m). They had reached the west summit when a gust of wind blew Jeglic to his death, leaving Humar to descend their route in a 36-hour ordeal that nearly killed him as well. Their ascent, as their countrymen’s before them, ensured the prominence of Slovenia at the edge of world alpinism, but again came at drastic price.
This serious aspect of climbing is played out over and over in the pages of this volume as friends and climbing partners recount their losses. In the spring, Russia lost one of its storied climbers when Vladimir Bashkirov, a team member of Anatoli Boukreev’s during the heyday of Soviet alpinism, succumbed on Lhotse’s west face to a combination of exertion at altitude and an illness contracted in Kathmandu. When approached with condolences in the fall, Boukreev replied simply: “Alpinism is alpinism.” This, too, is part of climbing, as Boukreev, who died on Christmas Day while attempting a new route on Annapurna I, knew well. The deaths are hard to bear, but as they help us appreciate our own mortality they sharpen our lives and heighten our friendships. The spirit of the climbing community, intense and rich as a result, is captured by Allan Bard, who died last year while climbing the Grand Teton. “I am a wealthy man who just happens to be broke most of the time,” he wrote, “but I’m in good company.”
The events of May 1996 on Everest continue to ripple through climbing in myriad ways. Outside the community, the success of Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, and the popular large-format IMAX film, Everest, have brought climbing to a mainstream prominence it has not known before. Though it is a limelight cast on a single facet of the sport, it has repercussions for all of us. A higher profile means higher scrutiny. Those watching climbing today include not only armchair mountaineers but regulatory agencies as well. In the world of high- altitude mountaineering, two safety valves that might lessen the chances of future regulation (and future disasters) on the high peaks came from within the climbing community itself. In its “Recommended Code of Practice for High Altitude Guided Commercial Expeditions,” the UIAA drew up guidelines for climbing and guiding the world’s highest peaks. The recommendations were echoed by the ISO 8000, a consortium of 8000-meter guiding companies. Both are good efforts on the parts of climbers to undertake responsibilities themselves before outside intervention appears, and both are to be applauded.
Similar action will be necessary on other fronts as well. As we go to press, Yosemite Valley is embroiled in lawsuit as the American climbing community fights both the National Park Service and developmental interests for containment of proposed damage to the Valley’s wilderness. Yosemite remains singular in world climbing, the jumping-off point for great leaps in standards and the origins of American wilderness philosophy. Its defense is an important one, for it represents a larger fight all climbers must invest in. Any loss in Yosemite will influence battles in our other parks and wilderness areas as well. In this volume we offer up a celebration of Yosemite’s place in American climbing with pieces by Chris MacNamara, John Middendorf and Tom and Ryan Frost, all of whom are actively engaged in preserving our ability to participate safely in climbing. They serve as role models for the rest of us as the need for a new paradigm—that of the activist climber—emerges.
We introduce two new sections in this volume that broaden our coverage of climbing. Mountain Medicine, by Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, gives a summary of eye conditions related to high-altitude mountaineering and offers practical guidelines to the corrective medical procedures currently available. The Mountain Environment section, authored by Chris Naumann and Brent Bishop, covers efforts to reclaim and sustain mountain areas. At the same time, it underscores what is becoming central to all climbing. As Bishop notes, no longer is a summit and the survival of all team members the yardstick of success; it must, for the sake of climbing areas and our continued enjoyment of them, include every attempt to minimize our impact on the land. America, one of the developed countries with the greatest wilderness to learn from, must continue to push for an appreciation of wilderness as a finite resource in need of conservation, and climbers must continue to be the strongest proponents of sustainable wilderness practices.
Today, as national parks impose climbing-specific regulations and the National Forest Service bans the use of fixed anchors in the wilderness, the future of climbing in America is imperiled. All of us involved with climbing, from publications such as this journal to climbing companies earning money from the sport to the individuals at the end of a rope, must invest in its future. Pick your fight, but whether it be working to preserve a local crag or helping to influence national legislation, we all must take a role in safeguarding our common welfare.
And it begins, as all things do, with the individual. For inspiration, look to the mountains, and to our heritage, rich with men and women who have fought for their preservation. We are in good company. In their lessons we will find the ways to enter the next chapter in our history, one that evolves wisely in the face of our greater numbers while continuing to embrace the places we love to climb.
Christian Beckwith, Editor