A Game of Smoke and Mirrors

Ascending an unclimbed peak has an undeniable attraction to any climber. In the world of mountaineering where difficulty is relative, conditions change and skill hard to measure, it’s a simple way to signal one’s proficiency as well as determination. To be the first at anything is unquestionably enticing and, unlike new, difficult routes, an accolade that is easily understood outside the field. Maybe it rekindles some of the romantic notions from the golden age of mountaineering. Or maybe it just speaks to our vanity. I could delve into the psychological background of the importance of being the first at something, but I think most of us have an intuitive understanding. And of course, there are economic incentives. First ascents can be easily shaped into adventure stories for a larger audience. It helps to attract sponsors and funding for future endeavors as well as status among fellow climbers and the public. But wherever there are benefits, there is an incentive to ‘bend’ the rules.

But let’s take a step back. In a thinly disguised effort to woo the UIAA and UAAA, the NMA has named two peaks in their honor.

Mark Horrell has some insight on the backgrounds. While sometimes new peaks come into existence simply because minor outcrops on ridges hadn’t been named before, those two have some history. But as usual, there is plenty of confusion when it comes to the names of Himalayan peaks. The ‘new’ UIAA peak is the North-eastern summit of pair of pyramidal twin peaks of a mountain often referred to as Abi. They are also known as Kangchung Shar (UIAA peak) and Kangchung Nup which is sometimes called Cholo. And this is not to be confused with the Kangshung basin and the Kangshung face on Everest, sometimes also spelled Kangchung. All clear?

They stated height also varies but is usually lies close to 6100m for both. On the 2013 map of the Working Group for Comparative High Mountain Research they are marked as 6103m (Kangchung Shar) and 6089m (Kangchung Nup). In 2014, UIAA peak has been put on a list of peaks newly opened for mountaineering. However, the latest information from my contact in Nepal is that the permit for Abi peak has been 9and still is) covering both summits (as Abi generally refers to both summit pyramids). In that context, it should be regarded a formality. But have they been climbed before?

The case is open and shut for the eastern peak Kangchung Nup – there have been various ascents even though there seem to be indications of the climb getting progressively harder due to changes in climate and resulting problems with loose rock. It certainly qualifies as rarely climbed compared to many other popular destinations in the Khumbu region. The history of Kanchung Shar is slightly more nebulous. The Alpine Club’s Himalayan Index lists the peak as climbed but refers to a report in the AAJ that describes an ascent on Kangchung Nup and not Shar. John Gupta and Will Harris were lead to believe the peak being unclimbed as recently as 2015. They made an unsuccessful attempt only to find out later about several attempts and ascents (probably without permit).

Can it be that such a prominent peak in very accessible location has eluded the mountaineers over the decades? In turns out, the climbing history of those peaks reaches much further – all the way back to the first ascent of Mount Everest. Kangchung Nup was an acclimatization climb for John Hunt’s Everest expedition in 1953.

“[…] they had made no less than two first ascents, one of their peaks being an elegant mountain which proved to be a welcome test of their skill and experience of ice work. Known locally as KangCho, its height is over 20,000 feet.” [John Hunt: The Ascent of Everest]

One year later in 1954, three Sherpas together with Charles Evans repeated this route and made the first ascent of Kangchung Shar, a climb described in Evan’s book ‘On Climbing’.

It thus came as a surprise to read Masha Gordon’s plan to climb UIAA peak which “has never been climbed before”. Surely just a sloppy phrasing for a first ascent of the mountain under the new name?! But then came the twitter update:

Is it possible that neither the Sherpas nor Charles Evans and some other climbers were human? We could assume that this is all benign and the climbers in 2016 weren’t aware of the old name and thus the history of Kangchung Shar. The hashtag #khangchungshar shows, they were very much aware. Did they get caught in the web of confusion? In the best case, we can trace this to very sloppy research but a quick AAJ search reveals the full history of Kangchung Shar. Is it conceivable that an experienced adventurer misses various entries in the AAJ? Or is this related to the Grit&Rock First Ascent Award which is a laudable way of encouraging more women to take on challenging mountaineering projects. The launch of this award was announced only a month later. Wouldn’t an easy first ascent be a great promotion for this project?

Whatever the circumstances and intent, there are hard ‘facts’. Whether a summit has been ascended before belong to this world of clear cut binary true or false outcomes. Everything else just belongs to the world of ‘alternative facts’. If this standard is watered down, either knowingly or by conveniently overlooking established facts, the whole concept becomes meaningless. Too high a price for a little self-adulation.

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