This NY Times’ piece about reevaluating the world’s best mountain climbers is pretty interesting. It opens by noting that only 44 people are credited as having reached the summit of all 14 of the world’s highest mountains. But looking closely at their claims, it appears that many of them probably haven’t reached the true summit. The difference between the summit and the true summit could be a matter of a few meters but it could also be a matter of taking your life in your hands to gain those final few meters:
Ed Viesturs believes he knows. He is one of the 44, the only American on the list. In 1993, climbing alone and without supplemental oxygen or ropes, Viesturs reached the “central summit” of Shishapangma, the world’s 14th-highest mountain. Most climbers turn around there, calling it good enough.
Before him was a narrow spine of about 100 meters, a knife-edge of corniced snow with drops to oblivion on both sides. At its end was the mountain’s true summit, a few meters higher in elevation than where he stood.
Too dangerous, Viesturs told himself. He retreated…
Eight years later, Viesturs climbed within reach of Shishapangma’s summit again. The ridge looked doable. With a leg on each side — “à cheval” in mountaineering, French for “on horseback” — he shimmied across it. He touched the highest point of Shishapangma and scooted back to relative safety.
The photo above is Ed Viesturs’ photo of what reaching the true summit looked like and, wow, is that ever terrifying. You can see why many climbers would look at it and say, nah, I think that’s close enough. And it turns out this sort of thing is pretty common, even among top climbers. The question is how much should those final few meters matter in determining who has truly summitted the world’s highest peaks?
It does not always matter if the top is reached. As Viesturs pointed out, it is called climbing, not summiting. The point is often the process.
But the summit is a rare tangible accomplishment in climbing, the one yes-or-no proposition. It can turn humans into heroes. It can bestow fame and forge reputations.
More philosophically, it has meaning. It exists as the ultimate metaphor for achievement, a vertical finish line that says you have gone as far as possible. There is nowhere higher to go.
For those who decide to take a hard line on this issue the difference could be significant. The Times notes that according to a Himalayan database “175 people claimed to climb Manaslu.” Of those, 15 were said to have reached the summit. But according to the Times, “no one reached the true summit.” Instead they reached a point a couple meters shy of the true summit which, again, appears to be very dangerous to climb. Here’s a screengrab showing the spot usually considered the summit and the true summit is that peak just in the background:
The difference can’t be more than a couple meters and it’s not far away but look at the slope down on both sides. In the video posted by the Times, these slopes seem to drop away forever.
So of the 44 who have supposedly summited all 14 of the highest mountains in the world, you can quickly identify seven who were a few meters shy, leaving 37 contenders. But even among those 37, it’s possible that none of them have truly climbed the last possible meters of every peak. Maybe that race is still on to prove you’ve done the last meter of each one. In Ed Viesturs’ case, he went the extra distance on Shishapangma but when climbing Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak, he says he stopped a few feet shore of the true summit because locals had asked them not to step there out of respect for their gods.
Part of what’s interesting about the Times’ piece is that it acknowledges there are lots of ways to look at this. On the one hand not risking your life to climb the last 2 meters of an 8,000 meter climb doesn’t seem that significant. On the other hand, why are people doing this anyway? Mountain climbing isn’t really a competitive sport. It’s all essentially done for personal adventure and bragging rights and sometimes for a bit of fame among fellow climbers. Is this latest wrinkle just a way for newer climbers to upset the established ranking of top climbers? And if so should anyone not involved care?
Ultimately it seems like the kind of discussion that probably makes more sense if you’re already a devotee of mountain climbing or someone with a stake in the outcome. Why do people climb mountains? Because they are there. Why do they argue about climbing the last few meters? Maybe they do it just because it’s interesting to talk about.