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Climbing

May 25, 2018

The Psychology of Summiting Everest

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from South Sudan, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So what’s left?

WRITTEN BY

Billi Bierling

For 14 years, Billi Bierling has been working for the Himalayan Database, alongside Elizabeth Hawley, talking to many mountaineers in the process. Billi is a hugely experienced Alpinist herself, and has reached five out of 14 of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest. Billi knows the Himalayas better than anyone, and is considered the authority on mountaineering in this region by The Outdoor Journal.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

These were my words when I was at Everest Base Camp, waiting to attempt the summit from the Nepal side in 2009. It was the same year the Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki, who sadly died on Everest this spring, embarked on the first of his eight attempts to reach the top of the world. I had just started getting into the world of high altitude climbing myself, but had already been working for Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database for four years.

It has now been 14 years that I have been in the Himalayan mountaineering business collecting data about the climbs, and I have spoken to many 8,000m-aspirants, who have different reason to scale the high Himalayan peaks. Even though my time here has been relatively short compared to Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s, who had been interviewing teams for 53 years, I have realized that most of the Everest climbers are certainly no alpinists. Their motivation to reach the top of the world is often no longer the challenge to do a technical route but to reach the highest point in the world – no matter what or how.

Billi Beirling

What drives people to expose their bodies to the cold, extreme altitude or the danger of getting frostbite? What makes them want to hit the crowds, wait for hours in a queue to reach 8,848m, leave their families for the best part of two months and even risk their marriages and careers?

Summiting Everest, and mountain climbing is arduous and does not necessarily cause an adrenaline-infused thrill. In fact, previous research has shown that mountaineers have engaged in extreme risks to help reign in their emotions. Studies have found that mountaineers tend to fall short in the relationship department, have difficulties describing their feelings, and often feel a lack of control in their lives.

The mountains seem to provide them with what they seek and give them something else, namely fame and adoration.

According to the Himalayan Database, 4,830 people had reached the summit of Mount Everest by the end of 2017, and it looks very likely that an additional 550 to 650 people will have topped out this spring.

It’s not only Everest people aspire to climb, though. What was reserved for real climbers up to about 10 years ago has become a pastime for punters, namely scaling all 14 8,000m peaks which are scattered around Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

The urge to achieve a record has increased significantly over the past decade, and simply climbing the highest mountain in the world no longer seems good enough for some of the aspirants. “Even 80-year-olds can make it,” one climber said to me referring to the Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura, who topped out at the proud age of 80 in 2013. Miura, however, was no novice to Everest as he was one of the first people to ski down its slopes in 1969 when he was a relative youngster of 36 years. His arch rival Min Bahadur Sherchan from Nepal tried to regain his former crown – at 76 he had become the oldest Everest summiteer in 2008 – by beating Mr Miura’s record several times. His last attempt to do so was in 2017, but the former British Gurkha died of a cardiac arrest when he arrived at base camp aged 85.

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from a country like South Sudan or the Yemen, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So, what’s left? Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, has already seen the first double amputee, the first blind person, the first handless person and the first diabetic. What about the first certified vet, the first vegan or the youngest person doing it in the fastest time? The list of potential firsts is long and it can be mind-boggling what people come up with.

Most expeditions usually descend on Mount Everest in spring, which is also the prime time for the media to scour the activities on its flanks, like hawks looking for their booty. The pressure on the punters rises to perform well and achieve what they said they would do. No matter whether it is to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen, a feat only 208 people have achieved so far, or to do a double whammy bagging Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain situated right next to Everest, within one or two days of reaching the top of the world.

Climbing an 8,000m peak used to be a huge feat back in the days of Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner or Chris Bonington. With commercial operators charging an average of about 60,000 to 70,000 USD, clients feel that they have bought the summit expecting 100 per cent success.

They forget, however, that it is still a colossal mountain bearing many dangers and challenges despite the incredible infrastructure and hard work the climbing Sherpas put in preparing the route for them. Having said that, the success rate for summiting Everest rose to about 65 per cent in 2017 compared with a mere 24 per cent in 2000, which is mainly due to the better infrastructure, the better equipment and the fact that there are now around 60 fully qualified international mountain guides among the Sherpas and other ethnic groups, which certainly makes climbing Everest safer.

Looking at the recent success rate, the likelihood of reaching the summit is high, but what happens if you don’t make it on your first shot? Austrian climber Wilfried Studer for example thinks that he spent an accumulated full year at Everest base camp since he started attempting the mountain from the North side in Tibet in 1997.

For a whole decade, Wilfried and his wife Sylvia came every single spring to attempt the climb without the use of supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, and every single spring they had to turn back due to the cold, strong winds, bad cough, exhaustion or the loss of equipment. They took a break in 2008 and 2009 but were back with a vengeance in 2010. Equipped with bottled oxygen, three Sherpas, a few friends and their daughter they reached the summit on 23 May 2010. Finally, they could put their minds to rest.

Only this spring season, Nobukazu Kuriki from Japan, who was on his eighth attempt to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, lost his life after taking a fall from the West face at around 7,500m. In 2012, he had already lost all but one finger trying to reach the summit via the technically difficult West Ridge. Kuriki was not one looking for the easy way.

He usually chose a different and more interesting route, organised his expeditions in the autumn as opposed to spring, and chose to climb without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support. Had he joined a commercial expedition and followed the fixed ropes using bottled oxygen, he would have probably summited eight times, still in the possession of his fingers and – in the end – his life. But Kuriki was a loner, he was quiet and he liked doing his own thing. Sadly, this time the aspiration to do something amazing got the better of him.

For further information about Billi, please refer to her website at www.billibierling.com

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Travel

Aug 13, 2019

Carnets de Trail: Montalin Ridge – Hochwang

Episode 3: Sébastien de Sainte Marie's "Carnets de Trail" series continues, this time near his new home in Graubünde.

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Sébastien de Sainte Marie is a steep-skier, runner, climber, The Outdoor Journal ambassador, but above all a lover of wide-open spaces. Sébastien has carried out first ski descents in the Alps, Chablais and Aiguilles Rouges. He made the first ski descent of “Brenvitudes” on the Brenva side of Mont Blanc, as well as off the English Route on the south face of Shishapangma (Tibet) from an altitude of 7,400m. In this series entitled “Carnets de Trail” (Trail Notebook), Sébastien shares all his favourite trails, with all the information you need to experience the same trips yourself.

Since my recent move to Graubünden, Switzerland, I have not stopped looking at this impressive mountain facing my new home, Montalin. Eventually, I found the time to check out the view from the top.

A shot of Luisa having left the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf.

The Key Information

Time: For walkers 9h. For runners between 4 to 5h. There are some sections, specifically on the ridge, where you cannot run.
Distance: 22km for 2100m uphill, and then 1400m downhill.
Location: Start from Chur and end in St Peter (where you will find a bus and train station).
Difficulty: The entire area between Montalin (2266m) and Hochwang (2532m) is located between T2 and T3 with a T4 passage just before Hochwang.
Gear: Trail running shoes are important, in addition to a light bag that you can use for water. Sticks might be helpful at the start.
Good for: The ridge is not very difficult, with good stable terrain and the views are amazing. The first long uphill looks tough, but it’s a soft incline. This route really is something for everybody.

Descending just before the Hochwang

Route

This little adventure starts from the Church of Saint Luzius in Chur (621m), heading up to reach the atypical little Chapel of Saint Luzi nestled in the rocks. The path then continues along Mittenberg (1114m), the chalets of Bargs (1600m) and leads to Fürhörnli (1887m). Curiosity leads us down a short detour to reach the summit of Fürhörnli and its summit so that we can enjoy a few seconds of breathtaking views of the river Rhein.

From there, the path becomes steeper and narrower up to the summit of Montalin (2265m). It is classified as an “alpine” path. From the top of Montalin we follow an excellent path towards Obersass to reach a pass located at about 2180m. We then leave the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf (2260m). The start is steep but then the ridge is flat and wide and only stiffens before the Ful Berg (2394m). Seen from afar, the raidillon before the Ful Berg looks scabrous, but once it has passed its test it is easy. The ridge then takes on the appearance of a dolomite with beautiful delineated rock towers just before the ascent to Schafläger (2429m) and then to Tüfelsch Chopf. A short roller coaster ride and here we are at the top of the Hochwang (2532m) to close this magnificent ridge. From the summit head towards Ratoser Stein (2473m) but quickly turn right to descend towards Triemel (1850m). The view is magnificent but a good half of the concrete path reminds us of the kilometres and the difference in altitude already covered. The path, road at times, then leads us back to St Peter’s which will be the end of our itinerary.

It is possible to do many variations of this itinerary, including a departure from Maladers (1025m) to reduce the positive altitude difference or on the contrary to extend the ridge to infinity on the Ratoser Stein then Cunggel (2412) and this until Mattjisch Horn (2460m) for the most daring.

The dolomite just before the Tüfelsch Chopf

Tips

– This is a route for dry and stable weather.
– Plan for sufficient water supply throughout the whole adventure, because apart from a small torrent at Walpagära (2338m) we were short on options.

The little extras

– It is possible to sleep 300 metres just below the ridge and just above St Peter at the Skihaus Hochwang
– There’s nothing like a good ice cream after an adventure in the mountains and if you’re in the mood for hot chocolate or walnut pie, then you can enjoy the great bakery and confectionery coffee.

Another shot, just before the Hochwang

Useful links:
Trains and postal buses
– The Chur Tourist Office located in the station will answer all your questions
The site to plan your trip with an online topographic map at 25:000.

Sebastien de Sainte Marie would like to thank Luisa for featuring in the photos and his partners Scott and Outdoor Research.

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