OUTSIDE WITH TIM
KeEPING STANDARDS HIGH
Words & Image: Tim Macartney-Snape
Image caption: The southern ramparts of Annapurna II climbed once and only by Australians in preparation for their successful attempt on the north face of Everest the following year. Their base camp was in the jungle at 2700m, the summit is 7937m high. Note the parrots flying through the foreground – most probably the Slaty-Headed Parakeett.
(This story originally featured in Wild #187, Autumn 2023)
In the post-monsoon season of 2021, three Ukranian climbers (Mikhail Fomin, Nikita Balabanov and Viacheslav Polezhaiko) embarked on an attempt of one of the most sought-after big lines in the Himalaya: the complex 3000m southeast ridge of Annapurna III. Leaving their remote base camp, they headed up the mountain with twelve days’ food and fuel, carried in packs weighing up to 24kg. After a tenacious struggle over eighteen days, they amazingly succeeded in getting up and down intact and with no injuries.
It was undoubtedly one of the greatest alpine-style climbs ever done, one that I hold in the highest regard. Yet despite being short-listed for the annual Piolet d’Or—mountaineering’s equivalent of an Olympic gold medal—the award was not given to them. In essence, the reason was because the trio had used a helicopter to get into and out from the mountain. I understood their reasons for skipping the problematic walk in, but lamented the compromise with them at the time, and I agree with the Piolet D’Or decision.
Though the approach to that southern side of Annapurna III is one of the most difficult in the Himalaya, it isn’t impossible. When we climbed the nearby south ridge of Annapurna II in 1983 (see Wild Issue #12), the approach was probably just as hazardous and problematic. But had helicopters been an option back then, I wouldn’t have taken it. To me, the attraction of the climb lay in its challenges to be overcome, and in the curiosity, uncertainty, and excitement of confronting a physical unknown, and the difficulty of the approach was as much a part of that as the vertical upper part of the ascent.
“Lowering any standard axiomatically leads to mediocrity. Mediocrity is the anathema of adventure.”
Interestingly, looking back on that experience, the approach and climb below the snowline was just as memorable, if not more so, as the eventful ascent above it. Struggling through the monsoon-drenched temperate rainforest infested with leeches and stinging nettles, and weaving an intricate route through the vertical botanical garden that clung to the hillsides, it felt like we were in a lost world—a feeling that’s increasingly rare today, and one that would be instantly shattered by the presence of a helicopter. Of course, we could not and would not have done it without the stoic help of the villagers from lower down. Getting to know them gave us a rich, added level of connection to that amazing part of the world that I would hate to have missed out on.
Recently, Norwegian Kristin Harila was awarded the 2022 European Adventurer of the Year Award for her fully guided climbs of all but two of the 8000m peaks in record time, which made use of helicopter access, fixed ropes and supplementary oxygen—a style Reinhold Messner famously said was alpine tourism, not alpinism. There’s no doubt it was an incredible physical and logistical achievement, and something to be personally proud of, but was it worthy of being thus hailed, especially since a previous recipient, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, climbed all fourteen 8000-ers without oxygen on unguided expeditions?
It seems that compromising purism in style might be creeping into acceptance, and I worry that the long-term consequences of this tendency in adventures can only be negative. Taking out any major obstacle in the complex succession of problems that comprise an expedition worth undertaking increases the chance of success, but it also diminishes the challenge.
In the times we live in, most adventures are somewhat contrived and are just a game, but games have rules or conventions to keep them interesting and challenging. Take out the challenges, and they become boring to the point where those participating end up, in effect, short-changing themselves.
Of course, if their activities are not negatively impacting others or the environment, everyone is entitled to the freedom of setting their own rules in adventure. But when it comes to setting a standard, as award programs inherently do, I think it’s very important to uphold the highest standards, especially now that professionalism and sponsorship are so prevalent and tied up with achievement. Lowering any standard axiomatically leads to mediocrity. Mediocrity is the anathema of adventure; if there isn’t a challenging element to an undertaking, then it isn’t adventure. After all, aren’t the greatest dreams the ones that strive for the seemingly impossible?