Alpinism has a long history fraught with controversy and competition. The world's great mountains are also among its greatest stages on which heroes and villains enact compelling dramas that hold us earthbound mortals, with our lower tolerances for suffering, rapt. When the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, bestowed the gold medal in alpinism on the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition, he applauded their "absolute heroism on behalf of all of the nations of the world." Though Olympic medals are no longer awarded, elite alpinists remain our ambassadors to the high places.
Watching from below, we weep when tragedy hits, applaud when new peaks are climbed, and relish when old-fashioned rivalries develop. We celebrate them because they push our human race to its limits, and, in doing so, redefine them time and again. Here are our six favorites.
The Georges on Everest
Trading record heights.
When the British onslaught of Everest began in the 1920s, George Finch and George Mallory topped the Royal Geographical Society's list as their best ice men. Mallory was known for climbing rock, but Finch was generally regarded as the better climber on ice. Yet Finch was inexplicably left behind on the 1921 reconnaissance expedition with shadowy reports from doctors claiming "no alternative on medical grounds." They found no cause to hold him back the following year, though, and Finch joined Mallory and Edward Norton for a second assault.
Finch was a staunch and lonely supporter of using supplemental oxygen to tackle the summit, a pragmatic approach his English expedition teammates thought unsporting and unfair. Norton, his intended climbing partner, disapproved and instead paired with Mallory for the summit charge. Finch wasn't backing off, though, and recruited a new partner named Geoffrey Bruce, a transport officer of the expedition with zero mountaineering experience, along with a Nepalese military escort named Tejbir, who had also never climbed. Meanwhile, Mallory, Norton, and their team fought to a record height of 8,200 meters before exhaustion forced them back. Finch and his men then made their own assault with the oxygen sets. A bitter storm forced them to abide a night out at 7,770 meters with no food, but the oxygen kept them warm. Tejbir collapsed the next day and descended, exhausted, while Finch and Bruce ploughed upward to a new record height of 8,360 meters. Finch was certain they could have made the summit with better weather.
When Mallory saw them return unscathed, he took to supplemental oxygen with enthusiasm and led a team on a third summit bid that ended in disaster on the North Col when an avalanche swept seven Tibetan porters into a deep crevasse. The expedition report indicated that Finch's unrivaled expertise on snow and ice may have steered the climbers away from the dangerous conditions had he been present.
But Finch was not invited on the next expedition in 1924, led by Norton, who had refused to climb with him. Finch was Australian, and the English wanted one of their own on the summit. Mallory trusted Finch and initially refused to attempt Everest without his erstwhile climbing partner, but the committee appealed to his national pride and convinced him to join. Had Finch participated, some speculate, Everest may have been irrefutably climbed 30 years sooner, shielding Finch from his longtime obscurity and Mallory and Andrew Irvine from death.
Grand Teton North Face
Paul Petzoldt steals Fritz Wiessner's first ascent.
On August 10, 1936, a mercurial German mountaineer named Fritz Wiessner was poised to scale the then-unclimbed north face of 13,777-foot Grand Teton in Wyoming. Two weeks earlier, he'd claimed the first ascent of Canada's 13,260-foot Mount Waddington, once considered unclimbable, and he was eager to grow his reputation even further. Wiessner prodded Teton guide Paul Petzoldt for information before limning his route and setting up camp for the next morning's assault. Petzoldt realized what Wiessner was up to and hurried to wake his brother Eldon and climbing partner Jack Durrance to begin an ascent that night and beat Wiessner to the prized summit. An hour later they sneaked past Wiessner sleeping in his tent and, working through the night, reached the peak by midday, relegating Wiessner's climb to a dissatisfying second.
Insulted and angry by the stolen summit, Wiessner later lobbied vehemently against Petzoldt's inclusion in the American Alpine Club. In 1939, when Fritz led the American expedition to K2 to attempt the first ascent, he refused to allow the experienced Petzoldt on the weak team roster, arguably leading to American Dudley Wolfe's death, the first K2 fatality.
First Ascent of K2
Backstabbing in the Italian expedition.
Mountaineering was an endeavor of blatant, military-fueled nationalism following the second World War in the 1950s. The Italians, disturbed by their defeat in war, sought rekindled glory with a K2 first ascent and chose their expedition leader accordingly: professor Ardito Desio, a decorated mountaineer and geologist who had fought in World War I.
Twenty-four-year-old Walter Bonatti was the expedition's youngest member and perhaps its strongest climber. But Desio played favorites and chose his protégé, Achille Compagnoni, to attempt the summit. Bonatti was relegated to the support team with the treacherous task of carrying oxygen cylinders to Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli at Camp IX, hacked into the mountain at 25,900 feet. But Compagnoni had inexplicably moved Camp IX 600 feet higher, where Bonatti and Hunza climber Mahdi, who had counted on sharing their tent, couldn't find them in the falling night. The pair called out to their teammates, who eventually shone a light and shouted from the darkness to leave the cylinders and descend immediately, then disappeared. Bonatti and Mahdi had no headlamp for the descent and were forced to survive an unheard-of open bivouac above 26,000 feet. It's likely, as the climbers maintained, that they didn't hear Bonatti's and Mahdi's shouts after the exchange because of loud winds. But Bonatti believed Compagnoni and Lacedelli hid behind rocks 600 feet higher than Camp IX's intended site to prevent him from sharing their tent and the glory of the summit. "I was supposed to die," Bonatti has said.
Compagnoni and Lacedelli made the peak the next day but ran out of oxygen while still shy of the summit. Climbing journalist Nino Giglio later claimed that Bonatti had tried to steal the summit from them by siphoning off oxygen from the cylinders. The bilious Compagnoni had fueled that story, but 50 years later Lacedelli told writer David Roberts that Bonatti didn't have the masks and regulators and couldn't have sabotaged them. They ran out because they didn't know how to regulate the cylinders and used the oxygen too quickly. Bonatti never again climbed with expeditions, trusting only himself to make several daring solo ascents that eventually gave him due fame.
Cesare Maestri and the Compressor Route.
Climbers once considered Patagonia's iconic 10,262-foot Cerro Torre the world's toughest mountain. It's rime-covered granite spire foiled climbers for decades until Italian Casimiro Ferrari and three others first officially climbed it in 1974. But another Italian, Cesare Maestri, gained infamy in his earlier attempts to cheat the mountain—along with the scores of climbers who aspired to summit it—of a first ascent and, in doing so, literally changed the face of climbing on Cerro Torre. Maestri first claimed to have made an ascent with Austrian Toni Egger and Italian Cesarino Fava in 1959 but returned with no hard evidence—an avalanche had swept Egger down the mountain, along with his camera. Other teams called his bluff (no lines or hardware were found high on the mountain) even as he taunted them, and climber Rolando Garibotti eventually published an investigative essay in 2004—the 30th anniversary of the official first ascent—called "A Mountain Unveiled," in which he laid bare the damning evidence against Maestri's claims.
But at the time, Maestri wasn't content with simply maintaining his fable. Eleven years later, in 1970, he sought to quiet skeptics for good with a fresh onslaught against Cerro Torre's dignity in a new summit attempt. This time he lugged a 200-pound gas-powered air compressor up the granite wall and pumped 400 permanent bolts into the face of the Southeast Ridge, which he used to inch his way to within 150 feet of the summit. The crusty rime bested him, though, and he never summited. The bolts and the compressor left dangling on the wall sparked a debate among climbers, many of whom were outraged by the blatant disrespect for the now-tainted peak. Others came to consider it a classic route that gave more climbers a chance at the summit. Reinhold Messner responded with a passionate essay aimed at Maestri entitled "The Murder of the Impossible," in which he bemoaned the pollution of pure mountaineering. Decades of debate ensued. Then in January of this year, 40 years later, climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk chopped 120 bolts from the Compressor Route to make it useless, perhaps the most effective castigation of Maestri's tactics.
Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka
Race for the Crown of the Himalaya.
In 1983, having conquered nine peaks above 8,000 meters with recent ascents of Kangchenjunga and Gasherbrum II, legendary alpinist Reinhold Messner declared his intention to capture all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter summits. Pole Jerzy "Jurek" Kukuczka accepted the implied challenge with gusto. He'd already topped three peaks, including Everest and a solo ascent of Makalu, and answered with three more summits plus an aggressive double hat trick in 1985 and 1986 that brought his total to 12.
But Messner hadn't been idle. He'd even strung together rapid-fire ascents of Gasherbrums I and II without heading back to base camp between the two summits, which he'd already had marked on the scorecard. Kukuczka was below Manaslu with two peaks left when he heard the news that Messner had completed successful bids on Makalu and Lhotse and claimed victory in 1986. Kukuczka wired a congratulatory message to Messner for the feat, and then knocked off the last two climbs, 26,545-foot Annapurna and 26,289-foot Shisha Pangma, the following year. He was the second to climb the Crown of the Himalaya, but he'd done it in eight years to Messner's 16, using handmade equipment and secondhand clothes. Nine of Kukuczka's ascents were pioneered routes, four in winter. Messner, meanwhile, made a couple of solo ascents, including a lone foray up Everest, without oxygen (as usual), which Kukuczka required for that mountain.
Together, their feats in the race to the top of the world rank among the greatest in mountaineering history, and they were later awarded silver medals for the accomplishment at the 1988 Calgary games, the last Olympic nod to alpinism.
Edurne Pasaban and Oh Eun-Sun
Battle for the Queen of the 8,000-meter peaks.
Initial reports named Korean Oh Eun-Sun the first woman to summit all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks when she topped out on Nepal's 26,545-foot Annapurna in April 2010. She and veteran Basque mountaineer Edurne Pasaban had been vying for that crown in a fierce decade-long race that included a third climber, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who fell behind when Pasaban claimed her 14th summit atop Everest in May 2010, just three weeks after Oh's supposed victory.
But controversy boiled up around Oh's May 2009 summit photos from India's highest mountain, 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga. Pasaban and several other climbers on the peak at the same time insisted the photos were taken some 500 feet below the peak, where they show Oh standing on bare rock—not the snow-carapaced summit other climbers topped. At least one of the Korean's Sherpas said Oh failed her bid. When pressed, Oh admitted she may have stopped a few meters shy due to turbulent weather, but she persisted in her claim. There was no clear marker at the peak. Ultimately, Elizabeth Hawley, who manages the Himalayan Database, climbing's bible of ascents, marked the Kanchenjunga ascent as "Disputed," unofficially deferring the crown to Pasaban.