An unmistakable vein of nostalgia ran through Saturday’s annual gathering of the American Alpine Club—nostalgia for alpinism as it once was, or seemed to be in a bygone pre-smartphone and social media golden age of discovery and adventure. Remember when climbers spent most of their time outside on actual rocks, not indoor climbing walls? When glaciers weren’t melting away under the relentless pressure of a changing climate? When Everest, once arguably the ne plus ultra of a climbing career, wasn’t clogged with conga lines of plodding luxury tourists and stuntmen aiming to jump off the top in wingsuits on live television?
At AAC-sponsored panels Saturday afternoon at the DoubleTree Hotel in Manhattan, and a gala dinner Saturday night in what was once a Christian Science church, older climbing luminaries like 92-year-old Fred Beckey, 80-year-old Chris Bonington, and 70-year-old Reinhold Messner mingled with many of the sport’s younger generation, including 30-year-old Kevin Jorgeson and 36-year-old Tommy Caldwell, who just completed their now globally-acclaimed first free climb of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, and Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck.
Beckey, the “climbing bum Bodhisattva” who probably has more first ascents than any climber in history, was awarded the AAC President’s Gold Medal. And Bonington, who scaled the Eiger in 1951 and led the pioneering first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in 1970, was on hand to introduce the evening’s guest of honor and featured speaker: Messner, whose solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1980 is considered the alpine equivalent of mankind first walking on the moon.
For all the reminiscing about past triumphs and tragedies—Messner lost his brother Gunther on a harrowing descent from the summit of Nanga Parbat in 1970—the man often called the greatest climber in history was looking forward, not back. This summer, he plans to complete more than a decade’s work building six museums to mountain culture in northern Italy.
“Then I will invent something new because I am hungry to look beyond the next horizon,” he said.
Messner was in the audience earlier that day during a panel discussion between Bonington and Steck, who soloed the Eiger in less than three hours but was already looking back to a golden age when he could climb at a standard his now 38-year-old body is no longer interested in. Steck drew a lot of laughs from the several hundred people in the properly-awed audience when he explained, “If you do the Eiger in three and half hours, it’s totally safe.”
On both their minds, as well as on the minds of the panel of guides and Sherpas that followed, were recent events on Everest where political and commercial pressures and environmental changes have come to a head.
“The game as we know it and try to play it is changing,” said panelist and longtime mountaineering guide Dave Hahn, who has climbed Everest 15 times, starting in 1994. “The down-wasting of the lower glaciers on the north and south side of Everest is staggering. You wouldn’t recognize the Hillary step today compared to the 1970s, eighties, and nineties. The Lhotse face is more dangerous.”
The environmental changes mirror a changing social environment as a younger, more worldly generation of Sherpas assert themselves, and Nepal-based companies get into the guiding business, often offering cheaper rates to climbers. The 2013 Everest climbing season was notable for the so-called “brawl” that ensued when Steck and his climbing companions Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith got into a confrontation with a Sherpa rope fixing team—a dispute attributed to crowded slopes, cultural differences, and male posturing. And the climbing season last year was effectively canceled by labor unrest and grief after 16 Nepali mountain workers were killed in the Khumbu ice fall ferrying loads for clients.
The tensions arising from crowds of climbers and the commercialization of the mountain “is an absolutely inevitable development,” Bonington told the gathering. “It’s been going on since the 19th century. One could argue that the numbers should be controlled, but I’m not sure how you do that. If you don’t like the crowds on Everest, there are so many mountains where there aren’t any people at all. You can climb on some obscure five-and-a-half-thousand-meter pimple at the end of a valley where no one has ever been and get huge satisfaction. I think the safest thing is a laissez-faire approach—let people make their own choices.”
Asked if there should be quotas on Everest, Greg Veronvage, the longtime Base Camp manager and Everest expedition leader for the commercial guiding company IMG, said, “Who would control it? The government of Nepal? They can’t even give their people electricity and clean water."
Vernovage said he found that many of the backpacks carried by the climbers killed in the Khumbu avalanche were twice as heavy as the prescribed weight limits—burdens which would have slowed them down on one of the most dangerous sections of the route. “I’m in favor of using helicopters to bypass the ice fall before April first,” he told me. “We’re taking in the ballpark of 70 loads—6,800 meters of rope, pickets, ice screws, tents, oxygen for Sherpas. We’re not talking about luxuries, we’re not bringing up espresso machines, rugs, and caviar."
The nostalgia for simpler times on Everest and elsewhere in the climbing world sometimes seemed tinged by a touch of wistfulness that one’s best days aren’t ahead. Wouldn’t it be fine to be on the brink of the adventures awaiting 22-year-old Sasha Digiulian, a junior at Columbia University who at the moment is the best female rock climber in the world and received the Robert Hicks Bates award for outstanding achievement by a young climber for extreme difficult ascents. Among her recent climbs was a line in the Dolomites, where she was prompted to go after Messner sketched out a route for her on the back of a wine menu in Salt Lake City. Or Jorgeson and Caldwell, who received honorary AAC memberships to a standing ovation two weeks after the Dawn Wall ascent, widely considered the hardest climb in the world. A golden age, already receding.