Himalayan Journal vol.44
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.44

Publication year:
1988

Editor:
Soli S. Mehta
Index
  1. EDITORIAL
  2. MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS OF THE HIMALAYA: THEN AND NOW
    (JACK GIBSON)
  3. MEMORIES
    (MAVIS HEATH)
  4. ZHANGZI - AUTUMN, 1987
    (JOSS LYNAM)
  5. BRITISH XIXABANGMA Expedition, 1987
    (LT COL M. W. H. DAY)
  6. MENLUNGTSE, 1987
    (CHRIS BONINGTON)
  7. KINGDOM OF THE THUNDER DRAGON
    (S. K. BERRY)
  8. RATHONG, 1987
    (MAJOR K. V. CHERIAN)
  9. PANDIM - DIARY OF A WAR-TIME ESCAPADE
    (LORD JOHN HUNT)
  10. MAKALU
    (GLENN PORZAK)
  11. CHO OYU, 1987
    (Dr MAURICIO A. PURTO)
  12. KUMAON SECRETS
    (GEOFF HORNBY)
  13. FIRST ASCENT OF CHIRBAS PARBAT, 1986
    (INDRANATH MUKHERJEE)
  14. KALANAG EAST FACE EXPEDITION, 1986
    (W. J. POWELL)
  15. CHURDHAR MORE OF THE LESSER
    (WILLIAM MCKAY AITKEN)
  16. A RETURN TO LINGTI, 1987
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  17. ASCENT OF KARCHA PARBAT, 1986
    (J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR)
  18. A TRYST WITH PHABRANG, 1987
    (ANIL KUMAR)
  19. BRITISH KISHTWAR EXPEDITION, 1986
    (BOB REID and EDWARD FARMER)
  20. CANADIAN KASHMIR HIMALAYAN
    (JOHN A. JACKSON)
  21. UNKNOWN SPITI: THE MIDDLE COUNTRY
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  22. PICNIC ON A GLACIER -A KARAKORAM JOURNEY
    (STEPHEN VENABLES)
  23. THE GOLDEN PILLAR
    (A. V. SAUNDERS)
  24. PROBLEMS OF ACCURACY IN REPORTING MOUNTAINEERING
    (ELIZABETH HAWLEY)
  25. HIMALAYA-OUR FRAGILE HERITAGE
    (N. D. JAYAL)
  26. THE CONTINUING STORY OF THE HIMALAYAN CLUB
    (M. H. CONTRACTOR)
  27. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  28. IN MEMORIAM
  29. BOOK REVIEWS
  30. CORRESPONDENCE
  31. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1987

PROBLEMS OF ACCURACY IN REPORTING MOUNTAINEERING

ELIZABETH HAWLEY

JOURNALISTS WHO REPORT the news of the 100 or so mountaineering teams who come climbing in Nepal each year prefer success stories to accounts of failure. Successes in battles to 'conquer* Himalayan mountains, especially successes in achieving first ascents or other firsts, are often the high drama that appeals to armchair climbers, the people who read or hear broadcasts of the journalists' reports. And one might think that such reporting is very simple since the Nepalese ministry of tourism obligingly gives daily briefings of the news it receives from its liaison officers with every expedition.

But it is actually not so simple as just recording what the ministry's mountaineering spokesman announces. The problem that plagues reporters in all fields can arise from time to time concerning mountaineering: what exactly did happen? What was the truth? Did an expedition reach its summit or did it not?

Sometimes no one knows. In the autumn of 1985, three Polish climbers never returned from their bid to reach the summit of Ganesh IV, a 7052 m peak north of Kathmandu, and a pair of Frenchmen disappeared while climbing alone on Kangchungtse (Makalu II), 7678 m high to the east of Everest. That the five men perished on their climbs became evident when they were never seen again, but before their deaths did they at least enjoy the satisfaction of having gained the summits they were striving to reach? Has Ganesh IV now been ascended by Poles and were these French alpinists successful on Kangchungtse, or not?

No one knows and perhaps no one ever will. Anything the climbers might have left at the tops of their mountains may well have been carried away by the snow and the wind. Indeed no one probably will ever know why they died. But there are other aspects to this problem of truth or accuracy. One is a matter of language, of semantics. When an expedition reports that the summit has been reached, it is assumed that what is meant is that members have climbed to the highest point on their mountain. But this assumption is not always correct: sometimes a summit rather than the summit has been gained. Many mountains naturally have several summits, and a climbing team may have decided while they are on their mountain that they will lower their goal to one of its lesser peaks. They may then succeed in reaching the summit they had aimed for but not the highest point on that mountain.

This problem can easily arise when reports are transmitted via a succession of people whose mother-tongues are different and whose common language may be foreign to all of them. A French or Japanese climber speaks to a Nepalese liaison officer who sends a brief report by a Nepalese radio operator whose message is transcribed by another Nepalese and released to foreign and Nepalese reporters in English by the Nepalese government. A summit can easily become the summit in this chain of reporting.

When the Nepalese government's mountaineering spokesman announced that a French expedition had gotten to 7855 m high summit of Everest's neighbour Nuptse by a previously unclimbed route in the autumn of 1984, or that Japanese mountaineers had made the first ascent of Ohmi Kangri, 6829 m high in the far northeast of Nepal, in the spring of 1982, no one may have been mis-reporting intentionally - certainly not the ministry of tourism - but neither Nuptse nor Ohmi Kangri had in fact been climbed to their highest points on either of these occasions. Subsidiary peaks had been gained, not the main summits, and in these cases the expeditions themselves later acknowledged this fact.

Another aspect of the accuracy problem can arise when climbers themselves do not know which summits they have conquered. Weather conditions, for example, can be so bad, the climbers in such thick fog (actually in the clouds) that they cannot see any higher point on their mountain and assume they have reached the very top. Or a climber can become so confused from the effects of lack of oxygen in the thin air he is breathing that he becomes disoriented as to where he actually is.

There is widespread doubt about the Everest summit claim by the Dutchman Bart Voss in October 1984. By his own account, his oxygen supply ran out when he was at the south summit of Everest, and sudden deprivation of oxygen can easily confuse an exhausted person.

On occasion the incentive to be able to say that one has reached the summit is so great that a climber or his team leader is tempted to claim a success he did not actually achieve. This may - or Indeed may not - have been true of Voss, and it may well have been true of the South Korean expedition who reported the first Korean woman's ascent of any of the 14 mountains in the world that tower more than 8000 m high, in the first Korean and the first winter conquest of Annapurna I, 8091 m high, in the winter of 11)84-85. A chronicler of this ascent realised there was a problem ibout accuracy when a French expedition who had been on the lame side of Annapurna I while the Koreans were there, expressed considerable doubt about the success of the Koreans' summit team, Mils Kim Young Ja and four Sherpas. The French had seen the lummit-attack party moving slowly towards the highest point on Annapurna J but at least two hours from the summit at the time that the Korean later said was only half an hour before their summit success.

With this doubt in mind, the chronicler subsequently met one of the summit Sherpas and asked him whether the point they had reached was the more distant west peak, which is the highest of Annapurna's three summits, or the middle summit (8051 m), which was closer to the climbers. The Sherpa readily replied that they had gone to the middle summit, and he added that he had understood from the expedition's leader that this was the mountain's highest point. The French then concurred that Miss Kim and the Sherpas could indeed have reached the middle peak.

The Koreans had moments of glory from the reports of Miss Kim's conquest of the tenth highest mountain in the world. But after a Japanese mountaineering magazine published doubts about her achievement, the Korean Alpine Federation refused to endorse Miss Kim's plans to return to Nepal in the following winter to climb another Himalayan mountain.

Another challenge to the chronicler who attempts to know the truth about climbs can be misreporting by other people who disliked or became jealous of the climbers claiming success, or who just couldn't believe the achievements that they themselves were incapable of. Doubt has been cast upon a Japanese claim in 1962 to have successfully scaled Chamlang, 7319 m high near Makalu, by others who believed that the ridge along which the Japanese said they had climbed was much too long and difficult. Swiss on Numbur (6957 m, southwest of the Everest region) in the spring of 1979 could not believe the account of a Japanese success 16 years earlier after the Swiss had seen the terrain over which the earlier team claimed success. Perhaps these were insurmountable obstacles for the critics but not for those Japanese expeditions. Or were the disbelievers correct?

A month after Reinhold Messner of Italy and Austrian Peter Habeler said they had together accomplished the first ascent of Everest without the use of any artificial oxygen in May 1978, six Sherpas who had scaled the vast mountain on previous climbs sent a letter to the Nepalese government declaring their disbelief in the European climbers' claim. Some of these doubters held a press conference to elaborate on their statement (and to give it wide publicity?), and it became evident from, their presentation that they were basing their views partly on incorrect information about the length of time that Messner and Habeler reported they had taken during their final ascent to the summit, and partly on animosity built up by complaints from fellow Sherpas on the 1978 expedition about Messner's alleged behaviour towards them (but not Habeler's behaviour). And was another factor perhaps their inability to believe that foreigners had been able to demonstrate such astonishing strength?

A liaison officer with a Polish-British expedition to Makalu, the world's fifth highest mountain, in the autumn of 1981 apparently took a strong disliking to the foreign climbers to whom he had been assigned. When one of the team, Jerzy Kukuczka, later asserted that he had scaled this giant 8463 m mountain entirely alone by a new route after his teammates had given up their attempt, the liaison officer rejected the Pole's claim. The Nepalese government felt obliged to share their liaison officer's disbelief, and Kukuczka's solo ascent of Makalu was not recognised by Nepal. But the chronicler may be forgiven for believing Kukuczka, for in the following spring a South Korean, Heo Young Ho, in his own ascent of Makalu, brought back from very near the summit the small wooden beetle that the Pole said he had left there.

Even international politics can cause skepticism about claims of success. The most memorable example of this was the undisguised doubt with which many European and North American mountaineering experts greeted the Chinese report of their ascent of Everest in May 1960 in the first success on the mountain from its northern side via the route on which half a dozen British expeditions had been defeated in earlier years. Part of the Westerners' disbelief arose from the details - or lack of them - provided by the Chinese: the last part of the ascent was done at night, hence no summit photos, and the Thought of Mao Tse-tung had elevated them, but no detailed description was given of the terrain near the summit, the final obstacles they had encountered or their physical condition. Articles and letters in Western alpine journals analysed in astonishing detail the angles of the shadows in photos the Chinese did release and debated whether the Chinese were making a mountaineering claim or only a political one?

Years later, when China became more open to Westerners and climbers from China and the West could meet and talk with each other, and furthermore when in May 1975 the Chinese proved they were capable of getting to the top of Everest by planting a tripod there, doubts about the 1960 ascent were no longer heard.

One wishes that there were some way by which all summiters could record their having been atop their mountains. The Chinese tripod atop Everest, placed there by the successful Chinese in May 1975, may have offended purists who do not like Nature's beauty to be marred by man-made objects, but then and for years thereafter there could be no doubt about Everest summit successors if the claimants brought back photos of themselves beside the tripod. The failure of two Britons, Brommy Stokes and Bronco Lane, to find this tripod in May 1976 in deteriorating weather caused some journalists to wonder about their actual summit success!

Kukuczka's brightly painted beetle, a matchbox left by two Japanese summiters on Manaslu in May 1956 with their names and summit date inscribed on it and found nearly 30 years later by other Japanese, a readily identifiable oxygen cylinder, a well-anchored tripod - these can attest to the truth and accuracy of summit claims. But such proofs are very seldom found. It can be a considerable challenge to the chronicler to discover who actually did achieve what.