The 5 Most Badass Things Done While Conquering a Mountain
Ernest Hemingway once said, "There are only three sports: Bull fighting, motor racing and mountaineering; the rest are merely games." The point being, Hemingway only thought it qualified as a sport if there was a good chance the sport would murder you at some point.
If so, then mountaineering stands above the rest, as the most famous peaks are also those littered with the most bodies. So why do people keep doing it? Because it affords opportunities for inhuman displays of badassery. Like ...
Hermann Buhl vs. Nanga Parbat
Nanga Parbat in Pakistan is five miles straight up -- 26,660 feet to be exact. It's also known as "Killer Mountain" because up until 1990, 77 percent of the climbers who attempted to climb Nanga Parbat died trying. Just to be clear, they didn't just fail to reach the top, the mountain punished them with murder for even attempting it.
"Please keep your hands and feet away from the mountain."
Hermann Buhl was born in Innsbruck, Austria, and had taken up climbing in the Alps as a teenager first as a hobby, then as an obsession. In winter, he'd walk around with snowballs in his hands in order to toughen them up for his next trip. He eventually became a mountaineering guide, and then in 1953, Buhl heard about the mountain that had already killed 31 climbers (with and no successful summits) and said, "Yep, that's the one. I'm climbing that."
"I'm not even going to get up."
And ... Fight!
The expedition's main problem was the fact that it was 1953. At that time, there had been very few attempts or successful climbs of mountains that high, so no one knew much about the lethal effects of the thin air at those altitudes. Climbers, for instance, didn't know that future generations would label everything 26,000 feet and higher "The Death Zone" because the human body literally can't survive for more than a couple of days.
After suffering through bad weather and organization, Hermann Buhl and the rest of the summit party got the green light to ascend to a camp at 22,600 feet. From there they would climb to the summit the next day. They woke at 1 a.m., but Buhl's partner wasn't feeling well, so Buhl decided that was fine, he would just go alone.
"Just going to expand mankind's horizons, get some coffee on the brew."
At the time, only two mountains above 26,000 feet had been climbed, and most expeditions were huge, with massive resources and hundreds of people working on getting two men to the summit. Aside from the usual threats of avalanches and getting crushed by falling ice blocks, there also was the danger of sheer exhaustion and oxygen deprivation; some climbers would just walk off cliffs in their oxygen-less confusion. Without supplementary oxygen at that altitude, which Buhl didn't have, climbers need to breathe 10 to 20 times before they have the energy to take a single step. And in all this, Buhl decided he was going to just walk up to the top alone, making it not only the first ascent of the mountain, but the first solo ascent.
Naturally, it was harder than he anticipated. He finally did reach the summit but not until 7 p.m. ... which means it was going to be dark on the way down. No, you can't climb down a mountain in the dark, unless you want to make the trip really, really fast, and wind up as a shattered, partially frozen bag of meat at the end. So Buhl was forced to spend the night at about 26,000 feet.
Standing on a narrow ledge, clinging to a single handhold.
All night. Knowing that if he fell asleep, he would tumble to his death.
"I wonder if I can pull it here."
And he was probably a little tired at that point, considering he had been climbing for 18 straight fucking hours. He had no food or water. He was so exhausted that he started hallucinating a partner was standing beside him on the ledge.
Still, he survived. He spent an entire night exposed in the Death Zone and lived. If you want to see how much a toll that night on Nanga Parbat took on Hermann Buhl, below is a photo taken the day after he had descended from the summit:
Hermann Buhl was 29-years old when that picture was taken.
Pete Schoening vs. K2
K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, and because it is steep on all sides and every route is as long as it is difficult, it's considered one of the hardest mountains in the world to climb. Before 1990, it killed 41 percent of the climbers who tried it. Pete Schoening's expedition arrived there the summer of 1953, so this was at a time when no one had ever reached the top.
Eh, what's up there really apart from the overwhelming sense of achievement?
Schoening was the youngest person on the expedition -- he had climbed long rock routes in the U.S. a bit but never abroad, so 26,000-foot peaks were completely foreign to him. To give it context, it was like Schoening had jogged for about a mile every day and now he was pulled in by the Olympic Marathon team. Although he might have seemed less than qualified, the leader of the expedition said he invited him along because, "He was always cheerful."
"You signed me up for what?"
Close to the top, the team was trapped by a storm -- something that you'll find is a recurring theme in this article. After four days, one of the members collapsed outside the high camp. The doctor of the expedition diagnosed him with a blood clot in his leg -- that meant if it traveled to his lungs, the guy would die. Waiting out the storm was no longer an option.
It would be almost impossible to get him down even with modern equipment and support. In 1953, they were left entirely on their own. But down the mountain they went, until they encountered an ice field.
Like this, only verticalier.
We're assuming that even if you know nothing about mountains or mountain climbing, that trying to go steeply downhill on something called an "ice field" is treacherous as shit. And, sure enough, one of the climbers slipped, sliding down, creating a horrific chain reaction that wound up pulling six climbers down the mountain, death waiting below for all of them ...
But something stopped their fall.
The combined weight of six grown men and their climbing equipment, more than 1,000 pounds, was stopped by Schoening -- the new guy.
You can't see his other hand, but he's holding up the whole comment box.
All Schoening could do was to hold on to a flimsy wooden ice axe wedged against a rock and hope his body wouldn't be torn in half by the rope or the 1,000 pounds of flailing team members. Surely not the easiest thing to do after climbing one of the world's toughest mountains without supplemental oxygen, and spending a few days at the aforementioned "Death Zone" altitude. Schoening's hands were freezing, and he couldn't see a thing because of the storm. Yet, he held on while the team gradually regained their positions.
What Schoening did was considered so miraculous that the climbing community simply named it "The Belay." For anyone unfamiliar with climbing, belaying is the act of securing someone with a rope, which is basically 50 percent of what climbing is all about. Mountaineers could have named that particular event "Pete Schoening's Belay" or "The K2 Belay," but it was such a remarkable moment of heroism that it will go down in history only as "The Belay." The ice axe he held on to is currently on display in a museum.
"Break the laws of physics to access axe."
Joe Simpson vs. Siula Grande
Back in 1986, the West Face of Siula Grande had seen several failed expeditions and was considered one of the most difficult climbs in South America. Joe Simpson wanted to give it a shot after a friend of his described it as a "challenging day out," partially because Brits are notorious for understating everything, and partially because mountaineers around the world are notorious for sandbagging the shit out of each other.
It's a walk in a park with no oxygen and frequent avalanches.
Simpson was 25 and had climbed since he was a teenager, doing several routes in the Alps. But nothing like Siula Grande. Despite his young age, or likely because of it, his thoughts before climbing a dangerous peak several people had failed trying was, "We'll just do it, we're better than them."
"And we're certainly more arrogant."
And ... Fight!
To his credit, Simpson did climb it with a friend (Simon Yates). But on the descent, Simpson fell. He landed with his leg outstretched and the impact sent his shin bone through his knee. His lower leg bone was now alongside his thigh bone and his knee was shattered.
They both knew that a broken leg on a mountain like Siula Grande was a death sentence; it's difficult enough to climb down it with two good legs. Still, Yates threw a rope around his injured friend and pushed him over the edge, lowering Simpson down the mountain. Simpson's broken leg slammed into rocks and ice as he slid down, and adding insult to injury, a (you guessed it) storm moved in, dropping the temperature to about 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind chill.
Exhausted and cold, Yates made what seemed like a fatal mistake: He accidentally lowered Simpson off a lip he couldn't see over, and the cliff ended up being longer than the rope. They were stuck. Below the dangling Simpson was a big drop onto the glacier at the base of the mountain, and Yates was too exhausted to pull him up. Yates was slowly getting pulled off the mountain by Simpson's bodyweight and they had no way to communicate because the storm drowned out all sound.
This went on for over an hour, and they were slowly freezing to death. Finally Yates, seeing no other alternative, cut the rope.
Finally, a way to use a pocket knife that doesn't involve sawing a limb off!
Simpson, leg already a shattered mess, plummeted 150 feet to the glacier below and into a massive crevasse. He miraculously survived the fall, catching on a ledge inside the crevasse. But with a broken leg, unimaginable pain and severe dehydration, he really only had two options left and neither one was pretty: he could lower himself deeper into a crack so big he couldn't see the bottom, or sit there and die.
Simpson opted for the not-waiting-to-dying choice and descended by way of crawling. In what might have been the only moment of luck on his entire trip, he found a way out and then managed to crawl down the glacier itself. Doing this took tremendous skill because glaciers can be giant death traps, hiding several cracks covered by snow bridges that can barely support the weight of falling snow, let alone a human body.
Neatly demonstrated here.
After conquering the glacier, Simpson still had five miles of rocks as big as cars to negotiate before he could reach camp. He had no alternative but to hop and crawl his way there, mangled leg and all.
The friend, Yates, was at the camp, grief-stricken and mourning his "dead" friend. Then said friend showed up at his tent, asking him what the hell happened on the ledge.
"You didn't need to cackle."
Simpson lost a third of his body-weight during the ordeal, and the route he and Yates climbed has never been climbed since. With his leg shattered, Simpson's doctors told him he would never climb again. But he did anyway, after two years of intense training because he can do whatever the fuck he wants now. There's a whole movie based on it here.
On the other end of the dramatic spectrum, there's a drinking game based on the experience.
Anatoli Boukreev vs. Mount Everest
The mountain. Everest.
Everest is known for having a "snow tail" blowing off the summit. That's because it's so high it actually punctures the jet stream, meaning most of the time the summit of Everest is blasted by winds of 100 mph. For the sake of perspective, 120 mph is the maximum velocity a human body can reach falling from a high distance, say, after being blown off the ridge of the highest point in the world, by God himself.
Get some lava into the mix and we'll be throwing sinister golden rings at it.
Anatoli Boukreev was part of an elite climbing community in Soviet Russia during the '80s, but they were so insulated from the rest of the world that he only ever climbed within the borders of his country. When the Soviet Union unraveled he left to take stabs at peaks in the Himalayas instead. Then, in May of 1996, he became a guide for one of the most famous and deadly Everest climbs in history.
Where presumably he sang tales about how many ways you can die up there.
And ... Fight!
To be clear, these days, climbing Everest is a popular pastime -- it's practically a tourist activity. Don't get us wrong -- it still kills the shit out of many, many climbers. But if climbing it was all Boukreev had done, he wouldn't be on the list.
On this particular expedition, a small window of time had opened between storms, so several groups were headed to the summit at the same time. Because of the traffic jam, they all had to walk in line along the thin Southeast Ridge. While Boukreev's team summitted in the afternoon, other groups didn't get up until the early evening.
We've told you what a bad deal darkness is on a mountain, and how murderous the storms are. These groups got trapped by both.
These are either mountaineers, or people have figured out how to walk on clouds.
The winds reached 70 mph -- that's hard enough to pick a person up off their feet -- and the wind chill dropped to -96 degrees Fahrenheit. Some climbers who were caught in the storm froze their eyes shut if they didn't keep blinking. Exposed skin would freeze instantly. One climber who managed to survive after several hours in the storm had lost his gloves, and he returned with his hands frozen through, like they had been carved from ice.
Boukreev, of course, was already down at his tent, but when he realized groups had gotten pinned up higher in the storm, he left the security of his tent to blindly search for lost climbers in complete darkness, twice. After just having climbed Mount fucking Everest without oxygen.
"LET'S DO THIS. Very slowly."
Still, he struck out into the freezing darkness and howling wind. Eventually, somehow, he found three climbers who could barely walk, and dragged them to safety in the camp. How he was able to find the camp again, or even the three climbers, has been a mystery ever since.
To give you an idea of the storm, this was what Camp III, located just below Boukreev's camp, looked like afterward:
Either a tent, or a buried ice giant wearing an anorak.
And if you think we're playing up the danger or conditions for dramatic effect, let's put it like this: Eight fucking climbers died on Everest that night.
Boukreev ensured that it wasn't 11.
He died the next year. This memorial at basecamp is dedicated to him.
Reinhold Messner vs. Nanga Parbat
Nanga Parbat again -- the same mountain as Hermann Buhl climbed back at No. 5, only this expedition would go by a different route. This one headed for the Rupal Face, the highest vertical mountain wall in the world at 15,000 feet. That's more than 10 times the height of the Empire State Building.
Making this avalanche bigger than the tallest building in the world.
By the time he was 26, Reinhold Messner was already well known for climbing some of the hardest rock routes in the world, often solo. Still, the expedition to the Rupal Face in 1970 was his first outside of Europe.
Before conquering the mountain, you must conquer your body hair.
And ... Fight!
With his brother Gunther on the team, Reinhold summitted the Rupal Face after days of climbing. But they didn't reach the summit until late afternoon and, as you know from earlier entries, that means they were in danger of getting caught in the dark.
Gunther was also in pretty bad shape after doing one of the hardest, longest climbs in the world and could barely move from exhaustion. Making a desperate decision, Reinhold figured the only way he could get his brother off the mountain alive was to spend the night near the top and then drop down the easier-looking Diamir Face on the opposite side of the mountain. Just to be clear, Reinhold thought the Diamir face might be easier -- in reality it had never been climbed or even explored.
Apart from this cow apparently.
Also, it's worth noting that moving to the Diamir Face would be the first ever traverse of a mountain above 26,000 feet. Traversing a mountain that size and height would take years of preparation, lots of equipment and training. Reinhold and his brother were going to just do it on the fly. They would pay for it. Near the base of the mountain, Nanga Parbat dropped an avalanche on Gunther, killing him.
(Note: Here's a good illustration of what conditions are like there -- numerous expeditions would be attempted to find Gunther's body. And someone did ... 35 years later.)
Just to stay alive, Reinhold crawled off the mountain and down the valley below it for miles until he reached a village. It took him six days. He had to amputate his toes and fingertips when he got home.
This usually means the end of climbing and mountaineering. But Reinhold Messner became the most badass climber to have ever live, climbing every mountain over 26,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, establishing new, dangerous and difficult routes where ever he went. And just as a personal "fuck you" to the mountain that killed his brother, in 1978, Reinhold returned to Nanga Parbat, and climbed the Diamir Face solo.
Essentially just flipping off God.
For more unexpected badassery, check out 5 Authors More Badass Than The Badass Character They Created and The 5 Most Badass Presidents of All-Time.