The discerning reader will note that relatively little information on 8000-meter peaks is recorded in the 1999 volume. This is not indicative of a fall-off in the amount of activity on the world’s highest mountains; as with other disciplines of climbing, the numbers of people on the 8000ers have gone up in the last few years, apparently increased, of all things, by the 1996 Everest tragedy and the ensuing media attention on mountaineering at the highest altitudes. Rather, the majority of ascents on 8000-meter peaks in 1998 were via normal routes, and they were largely comprised of commercial expeditions. There were exceptions, of course: witness Masafumi Todaka’s solitary adventures on Everest’s north face in the post-monsoon and the Russian attempt on the Lhotse massif’s middle summit, the world’s highest unclimbed point. But it seems clear that activity on the big peaks is shifting. Strong Himalayan climbers are trying to climb all 14 8000ers or are availing themselves of the opportunity to guide. The testpieces of a generation ago are becoming today’s normal routes as more and more “regular” climbers venture to the high Himalaya for 8000-meter experiences of their own. For now, at least, the focus on exploratory climbing up high seems to have ebbed.
Other areas, meanwhile, are receiving more attention. This is part of climbing’s evolution: there are always ebbs and flows as different aspects of climbing develop at different times. The 1950s and ’60s saw the first ascents of the 8000-meter peaks, the Golden Age of Yosemite developed free and aid climbing techniques that were then exported to rock climbs in remote corners of the world, and in the ’70s and ’80s the aesthetic, bold “magic lines” were ticked on the highest mountains. Now, climbing’s edge is being pushed on the lower peaks by pioneers fully aware of where such climbing might lead them—and later, the rest of us— in the years to come.
Alex and Thomas Huber were at the forefront again in 1998, heightening the free climbing buzz in Yosemite with their 30-pitch, 5.13c El Niño, a route established four months after Alex topped out on the 8201-meter Cho Oyu. Steve House continued his alpine tour de force in Alaska and Canada with ascents on Mt. Bradley, King Peak, and in the Canadian Rockies, and as we go to press he travels with a predominantly American team to try a new route on Gasherbrum IV. Kennan Harvey, Steph Davis and Seth Shaw took their talents to Shipton Spire, where their brilliant vision of onsighting a new free route resulted in the 36-pitch Inshallah—only ten feet of which was aid. Yasushi Yamanoi’s futuristic climbing was again on display with his solo ascent of the east face of Kasum Kanguru, a trekking peak in Nepal. In Pakistan’s Hushe region, no less than six teams were active on granite spires that literally lay at the feet of mountains coveted by past generations. Climbers from Rampikino Maspes to Marko Prezelj are calling such climbing today’s modern alpinism: with no objectives, no permits, no information at all, you just go, see, and climb—to which we might add, at quite high standards.
Climbing’s insatiable curiosity obviously has not abated. From Kyrgyzstan to Africa, new areas continue to be “discovered” as climbers wander farther afield in search of untouched ground. Most of the new terrain consists primarily of rock climbing objectives (Andringitra National Park in Madagascar, the Mt. Trinidad area near Cochamo, Chile, Mexico’s El Gigante). This will continue to be the case in the years to come, as it is simply more likely to discover rock walls than it is to find high but overlooked mountains. That being said, politiin countries such as Tadjikistan and Afghanistan are saving fine new peaks for future generations. China continues to yield treasures, mainly to Japanese expeditions but also to veteran explorers like Chris Bonington. That other British lion, Doug Scott, gave proof that more remain waiting when he plucked the first ascent of Drohmo, a gem at the base of Kangchenjunga. Fred Beckey was in Canada, Alaska, and China in the last few years, ever searching, ever discovering. Will the passion of climbing’s elders never abate?
We hope so. It is precisely this passion that served us in 1998, as access to our climbing areas came under heavier attack than at any time in our history. Who led the defense? “Lifers,” long-term climbers who have climbed year after year and are now giving back to climbing in its time of need, that’s who. They included people like Alison Osius and Michael Kennedy, who brought their experience and love of climbing to our political arms as they became the presidents of The American Alpine Club and The Access Fund respectively. Tom Frost continued his amazing fight to save Camp 4. Nick Clinch, Jim McCarthy and Lou Reichardt were all deeply involved in the battles that seemed to come at us without relent. Just as climbing evolves in its different arenas at different times, so, too, do many climbers evolve within the boundaries of their love for climbing, adapting to changing bodies and outlooks to stay involved. It was impressive, and inspirational, and with many of our older climbers leading the way, the American climbing community galvanized as never before. While access issues were the most pressing development in American climbing in 1998, climbers working effectively together to address these issues was arguably the most interesting.
What are the new challenges teaching us as a community? Wherever you go in the American climbing scene today, you are almost certain to hear sentiments indicative of a growing self-consciousness as a user group, and one that understands its obligations at that. Our ever-greater numbers bring growing opportunities to turn one’s love of climbing into a viable livelihood, be it guiding the Himalayan giants, writing and photographing for the periodicals, or making a livelihood from climbing businesses. Concomitant with the new opportunities are responsibilities to the welfare of climbing itself. There is a certain danger of undermining climbing’s long-term well-being in exchange for individual gain, but the best among us—climbers like this volume’s contributors Chris McNamara, Greg Mortenson, and Geoff Tabin—are showing that we can give something back to the land, the crags, and the people we influence. This gives hope that our future will be one of a strong stewardship of our wild places, balanced as we are and as we need to be between an appreciation of the deepest returns from their use and a wise and reasonable approach to how they should be administered. And if we can continue to impart that to the generations to come, our future will be one that honors the deepest and best motives for our climbing.
For all the attention given the matter over the years, very little consensus has been achieved on what exactly the point of climbing is beyond the enjoyment we derive from it as individuals. So we might do well here to borrow a line from the 1999 British Mountaineering Council’s Winter Climbing Meet: have fun, but try not to mess up the place.