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The Ascent To Greatness

Conquering mountains has come full circle—it is not only the foundation of all other types of climbing but the ultimate goal for many athletes

The Ascent To Greatness


Humans have certainly been climbing mountains since first starting to walk upright several million years ago. While the earliest ascents came out of necessity, for hunting food or moving nomadically through whatever terrain presented itself, the reason for modern mountaineering is best summed up in three words: “Because it’s there.” The famous quote came from British mountaineer George Mallory in 1923, when he was asked by a New York Times reporter why he wanted to climb Mount Everest.

After unsuccessful attempts on the world’s highest mountain in 1921 and 1922, Mallory returned for the third expedition in 1924, where he died with his partner, Andrew Irvine, trying to make a first ascent of the 8,848-meter (29,028-foot) peak. It is unknown whether Mallory and Irvine successfully summited since they died on the attempt. Almost 30 years later, Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent of Everest in May 1953.


The Ascent To Greatness

Mountaineering in the sports sense has existed for over 250 years now, but in recent years it has evolved from an activity to an Olympic sport. The contemporary culture behind this growing movement is explored in Cliffhanger. (Photo: Thomas Senf, Cliffhanger) 

Many consider the first ascent of Mont Blanc in the Alps to be the advent of mountaineering. In 1786, the achievement was claimed by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, who were both from Chamonix, a town that lies in the valley below the 4,809-meter (15,778-foot) peak. In the more than two centuries since this triumph, the gear, safety techniques, fitness, and information available to modern alpinists has evolved so drastically that most of the world’s major peaks, which were previously thought impossible to climb, have been summited. Today, climbing Mont Blanc is considered relatively easy by alpine standards, with a lot of physical fitness required but not a lot of technical climbing skills. About 20,000 mountaineers summit Mont Blanc every year.

The 19th-century saw many of the alpine peaks of Europe conquered. The Golden Age of Alpinism—about a decade of mountaineering where many of the Alps saw ascents, many of them firsts—occurred mid-century. From British climber Alfred Willis climbing the Wetterhorn in 1854 to fellow Brit Edward Whymper’s climb of the great Matterhorn in 1865, many of these expeditions had a scientific focus in addition to athletic achievement.

By the end of the 19th-century, with many of the European summits climbed, these accomplished mountaineers looked to other great mountain ranges: the Andes in South America, peaks in Alaska, and the Himalayas of central Asia. The next 50 years focused on the Himalayas, and by 1964, all 14 of the 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) peaks had been summited. Many of these expeditions were logistically complex and required supplemental oxygen for breathing at high altitudes, hundreds of porters to carry food and equipment, and massive basecamps set up for months at a time. For Messner, fitness, speed, and technical climbing skill were paramount. In 1970, Messner ticked the unclimbed and difficult Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat, Manaslu in 1972, and Gasherbrum I in 1975, all without oxygen.


The Ascent To Greatness

Perhaps one of the most well-known alpine routes in the world: Arête des Cosmiques in Chamonix, France. This particular place has a long, associated history with the early roots of mountaineering and alpinism, to this day it one of the most climbed routes in the world. (Photo: Julie Ellison, Cliffhanger) 

By 1986, Messner had completed all 8,000-meter peaks in this approach, including the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen with Peter Habeler (1978) and the first solo ascent of Everest (1980, also without oxygen and while establishing a new route on the North Face). Before Messner’s era, mountaineers focused on ascending snow and glaciers, more or less “walking up” to a summit. With the evolution of modern techniques in rock climbing, a new generation of alpinists was able to combine skills gained from aid climbing, free climbing, glacier travel, vertical ice climbing, and big wall climbing to ascend the most vertical and technically difficult faces of ice and rock. Some of the most impressive faces and summits in Alaska and Patagonia were now within the capabilities of experienced alpine climbers.

The goal was no longer just about getting to the tallest point of a mountain; the goal was now about finding a challenging and creative way to get there. In 1992, the French magazine Montagnes and the Groupe de Haute Montagne, a French mountaineering organization, created an annual award for feats in mountaineering called the Piolet d’Or (French for Golden Ice Axe).

As gear continued to progress, particularly cold-weather camping equipment and apparel, the boundaries of what was possible evolved in parallel. The objectives were deeper in the mountains, with longer routes, harder climbing, worse weather, and less information available. In 2004, Americans Kelly Cordes and Josh Wharton established a route on the southwest ridge of Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram range of Pakistan, calling it the Azeem Ridge. It required a 50-mile (80-kilometer) hike to get to the base and more than 2,220 vertical meters (7,283) of climbing done in 4.5 days. Four years later, Argentinian Rolando Garibotti and American Colin Haley traversed the entire Cerro Torre massif in Patagonia, establishing the Torre Traverse, with 2,200 meters (7,220 feet) of vertical gain spread out over four major summits. With differing strengths within climbing disciplines, Haley led the pitches of pure ice and rime (unstable, soft ice common to Patagonia) up to a difficulty of WI6, and Garibotti led the dry-rock pitches and rime covered rock pitches up to a difficulty of 5.11 free climbing and A1 aid climbing.


The Ascent To Greatness

Chamonix is often regarded as the birthplace of mountaineering and its peak continue to mesmerize climbers all over the world. Those ascending the mountain often travel in rope teams on the glaciated terrain of Cham.(Photo: Julie Ellison, Cliffhanger)

These ascents are just two of dozens that demonstrate the crossover of all climbing disciplines being applied in big mountains. Combining elements of aid, free, trad, ice, big wall, and mountaineering into massive multi-day efforts, these climbers often get their start by trad or sport climbing. Mountaineering is the foundation of all types of modern climbing: sport, trad, bouldering, and big walls. But now, those newer disciplines are the bricks with which modern alpinists build their foundation. Even gym climbing, which Balmat and Paccard could never have dreamed of a possibility, is a necessity for modern alpinism. Mountain climbing is the starting point and the end game.

The Seven Summits is a mountaineering objective that involves climbing the highest mountain on each continent. The technical skill required varies widely across the seven peaks, and some alpinists criticize the accomplishment, saying these peaks don’t require that much climbing skill compared to others. For example, K2, the second-highest mountain in Asia behind Everest, is far more technically challenging than Everest and has a high death-to-summit ratio at one to four.

Messner reached six of the Seven Summits by 1978, suggesting Puncak Jaya in Indonesia should be on the list because it requires an expedition and technical climbing. In 1983, Messner climbed Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, which is an easy walk-up, to satisfy the other geographic possibility of the list, but the first man to reach the Seven Summits was American Richard Bass (via Kosciuszko), climbing six peaks in 1983 and finishing with Everest in 1985.

Messner didn’t climb Mount Vinson until 1986. Junko Tabei, who was the first woman to climb Everest in 1975, summited Puncak Jaya in 1992, becoming the first woman to complete the feat. In October 2006, American skier and climber Kit DesLauriers became the first person to ski the Seven Summits (Kosciuszko). In January 2007, Swedish climbers Olof Sundström and Martin Letzter skied Puncak Jaya, now having skied the entirety of both lists.

This story was originally written by Julie Ellison and featured in Cliffhanger. The book is available in German and English