Without really trying, Australian polar explorer and mountaineer Damien Gildea has become the world’s foremost bearer of bad news for ambitious adventurers. Two years ago he blew the whistle on Colin O’Brady’s “Impossible First” crossing of the Antarctic land mass, piling context on top of history to galvanize a consensus among polar explorers that the expedition—and several that preceded it—had not lived up to its billing.
Now the Australian has lobbed a quiet bombshell into the highest echelons of the mountaineering world, penning a meticulously detailed piece in the American Alpine Journal late last year revealing that for decades, climbers have routinely stopped short of the summit on three of the world’s highest mountains.
The story draws on years of sleuthing by an international team of amateur investigators led by Eberhard Jurgalski of the website 8000ers.com. As such the allegations aren’t new, but Gildea’s story, titled “The 8000-er Mess,” places them in an esteemed climbing publication, in clear English, with illustrations and ample context.
Through painstaking analysis of summit photos, satellite imagery and other data, the researchers determined that only about half the climbers claiming a summit of Annapurna (8,091 meters) had actually reached the highest point, and almost all climbers on Manaslu (8,163 meters) had not continued to the summit. And whether by confusion or expediency, many have also missed the higher of the twin tops on Dhaulagiri (8,167 meters).
The peaks in question are among the world’s 14 tallest, a pantheon of Himalayan and Karakoram giants known collectively as the eight-thousanders because each rises above 8,000 meters (26,267 feet). Climbing all of them has been the foundation of some of mountaineering’s most illustrious careers.
Without naming names (more on that later), Gildea notes that the research “has led to the remarkable situation where it is possible that no one has stood on the true highest point of all the 8,000-meter peaks.” While the implications are clear to anyone with a passing knowledge of high-altitude climbing lore, Gildea is less interested in rewriting history than establishing a new baseline. He and his fellow researchers suggest as-yet undefined “tolerance zones” should apply to past climbs, but that going forward all mountaineers should be held to a simple standard: “The summit is the summit.”
AJ: You’ve lit the fuse on quite a bombshell. What has the reaction been in the climbing community?
Damien Gildea: It’s been fairly quiet so far, but I think that’s partly because of Covid. There hasn’t been a lot of climbing activity since the piece came out, so people haven’t had to deal with it.
I wouldn’t take the lack of publicity as a lack of interest, though. A lot of people don’t understand how professional and competitive the European mountaineering scene is. They take a lot of this shit really seriously, and there are some reputations to protect. At the moment they haven’t publicly reacted, but they’re certainly aware of it.
You and the other researchers made the decision not to call out anyone by name, but in the very first paragraph you say it’s quite possible that nobody has actually reached all 14 of the world’s highest summits.
We debated this long and hard, and Dougald MacDonald, the editor of the American Alpine Journal, took a lot of interest and was very helpful. The researchers—Rodolphe Popier, Tobias Pantel, and Eberhard Jurgalski—they’ve got all the names and the photos and the numbers. We included the names in the early drafts, and then we took them all out. We took every single name out.
How did you come to that decision?
We felt it was the only way we could be fair. You can muck around in the middle and name a few names and leave some people out, but that becomes unfair and inaccurate. So in the end it was just more elegant and more fair to take everybody out.
You write also that most of these missed summits were honest mistakes, and that the earlier climbers didn’t have access to the technology that’s available today. Should those folks get the benefit of the doubt?
Yes, that’s what the tolerance zones are for—just to say that in the past we didn’t have GPS and satellite imagery and photos taken from a helicopter. So you allow for that.
As a climber myself, I know that it’s really hard to tell some of these things when you’re up there. A caveat to all that is that on Manaslu, on the first ascent in 1956, they did go to the main top. They didn’t have any of this tech and they went to the main top.
If we set aside the professional climbers for a moment, the majority of the people that are claiming these false summits today, often unknowingly, are guided clients. Is there an argument not to press those folks to climb the last few meters and expose them to added risk?
I think that that may be practical, and certainly on Manaslu.
Is that because it’s a non-technical climb right up to 8000 meters, where you need to tackle a very sketchy snow ridge to get to the true summit?
Yeah, we don’t want to encourage dozens of people to crowd onto that little summit ridge to get to the top during a very narrow time window. But to me, the better answer is actually not to go to Manaslu at all. It’s not a good mountain for aspiring or training climbers to go to en masse. It was never a good mountain, because of the serac fall, the avalanche danger, getting lost on a big plateau, crevasses. It was only when the Chinese started to limit access to Cho Oyu that commercial groups needed an easy eight-thousander, and so they went to Manaslu.
So to your question, yeah. For Manaslu, put principles aside and just be practical. But if you want to go to the top, then you’ve got to go to the top.
In your research you learned that one of the climbers you most admire did not reach the true summit of Dhaulagiri, but you say it didn’t diminish your respect for him.
Yeah, that’s because of the way he climbed. He was an admirable climber, quite regardless of the last 20 meters on Dhaulagiri. They climbed the East Face of Dhaulagiri, pretty much in winter, and if you have any perspective, particularly if you’re a climber, then you understand that the way you do things matters.
That was a bit gutting because he’s a climber I really admired, and to have to include him because the facts are irrefutable that he didn’t go to the summit of Dhaulagiri was pretty hard to take. But to me, that doesn’t make him any less inspiring as a climber. It was an honest mistake.
You’ve fallen into this position as a truth-teller in the world of high-altitude mountaineering and polar travel, and yet you don’t seem to be as concerned personally with that sort of objective scorekeeping as you are with the more basic questions of how it was done—how good the line, how imaginative the route, how creative the climb.
That’s essentially what I say in the article. What is climbing? What are you doing it for, and what is best? The goal of climbing all the eight-thousanders is good and interesting and worthy. But we’re now up to like 30-something people claiming all 14 eight-thousanders, and they’re doing them by the normal routes with Sherpa help. So what? There’s no quality in that.
It’s very subjective. I mean, people recognize that Børge Ousland’s crossing of Antarctica was good because it was 25 years ago, he was alone, no one had done anything like it and it was incredibly bold. So it has style and quality and an element of grace and all these other good things beyond just being first.
I get the sense you felt this story, and also your critique of Colin O’Brady’s 2018 Antarctic crossing, was important to write, but that you didn’t particularly relish the task.
I do think it’s important. With both this and the Antarctic piece, these stories built up over years. The Antarctic crossing one, that knowledge and perspective built up over nearly 20 years since I first skied to the South Pole in 2000-2001, and I’ve been climbing for nearly 30 years. I’m the only one of the research group that’s actually been on an eight-thousander, having attempted Gasherbrum I in 2007.
I wasn’t going to write anything on Colin O’Brady and Antarctica, and it probably seems like I’m some really worked up crank who had a thing against O’Brady and a burning desire to expose that stuff. But actually I had no intention of writing that thing. It was only other people’s prompting, and then him using the road was just a step too far. [Ed note: For about a third of his crossing, O’Brady travelled on the South Pole Overland Traverse, a flagged and graded route used by snow tractors that supply McMurdo station at the South Pole.]
I’d taken so little interest in those guys—Lou Rudd and Colin O’Brady—because I thought that whole thing had become so compromised and so boring that I couldn’t give a shit. And so I didn’t actually pay that much attention. I knew the road was there obviously, but I’d taken so little interest that I didn’t put it together that they were skiing on the road. Then I saw it written, whether it was Peter Winsor’s article or somewhere else, and I just said, ‘Oh fuck, this has [become] ridiculous.’
You didn’t waste much time. Your piece deconstructing O’Brady’s crossing ran to about 4,000 words and was published just a couple of weeks after he finished the trip.
All that information was in my head because I spent 10 years pretty much going to Antarctica every summer, mostly climbing, but also twice to the South Pole. So it was easy for me to corral all that information and put it out there.
You chose not to name the climbers, but you did call out O’Brady and quite a few others in your Antarctica piece, including Lou Rudd who travelled the same route as O’Brady that season. Is that a double standard?
I don’t want people to think that because I did something on Colin O’Brady and I’ve done something on the eight-thousanders that I’ve put them in the same category. They’re poles apart.
But to be fair to Colin O’Brady, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s not his fault, but shorter crossings were accepted by so many other people for so long that he was kind of led to believe that it was okay. That doesn’t mean it was okay. It was never okay. But when I said it wasn’t okay five years earlier, no one cared. I’ve been banging on about this stuff for years and no one paid any attention.
I think one of the reasons it got traction and a lot of people supported it was that they don’t like Colin. All these people are saying what an asshole he is, but I’ve never said anything like that, not in public or private, because I don’t care. I’ve never met the guy, and it’s nothing to me personally. I’m about the information and getting the history as straight as you can.
You mention O’Brady’s use of the SPOT road. He’s said he used it because his logistics company, ALE [Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions] would only support that route.
Is that the essence of exploration? To do what you’re told?
I probably wasn’t cognizant of the degree to which they advise and recommend people like that, but I can tell you that if Børge Ousland or Mike Horn went down, ALE would not be telling them where to go. No one’s going to tell Børge Ousland what route to ski because he knows better than anyone.
I have this conversation with people, usually about climbing—the idea that even if you’re a big time professional adventurer it’s sensible to do what your guide says. That seems to be okay now. This idea that guided adventures are the peak of achievement has become accepted by the people who just seem to have less agency to organize and do this stuff themselves.
Let’s come back to that, because the majority of climbers on these peaks, particularly Manaslu, are paying clients who rely on their guides not just to fix ropes and carry gear, but also to tell them when they’ve reached the summit. That raises the question: how hard is it to know when you’re actually on top of these mountains?
The thing that alerted me to the problem on Annapurna was the Sherpa companies, because the Sherpas don’t care about most of this stuff, they get people up high, say ‘this is the summit,’ and everyone’s happy—get the summit bonus, take selfies, come again next year.
There’s a well-known saying, I think it was Carlos Carsolio who said, ‘The summit is the highest point and there’s only one.’ And we all sort of go along with that, but actually Annapurna is so close, these two tops, that it can be really hard to pick visually which is the highest. So I’m pretty sympathetic to that.
On Dhaulagiri there are two rocky points that are very close in height, just a couple of meters vertically. The difference is very, very small and you get people saying ‘I didn’t walk the extra 10 meters because it didn’t look higher.’ So I’m not too worried about that.
But in the case of Manaslu, people are not going to the summit because it’s too hard. And for climbers, that’s not a good excuse.
Top Image: Manaslu at dawn