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The cry came as we reached the Grand Teton’s Lower Saddle. It might have
been the wind, or a climber’s call to his partner… but it wasn’t. It
was a cry for help.

We peered up, trying to locate its source. Five hundred feet above us a
figure stood on a ledge, halfway up the Lower Exum Ridge. His voice came
to us with surprising clarity.

“My partner has fallen. She has a broken arm, maybe a broken hip. She
can’t descend on her own.”

It was Alex, our production manager. A strong athlete, he had been
climbing all summer, and I knew he had been planning to try the Exum
Direct with his friend, Leah, that morning. One month before, Alex’s
girlfriend had died in his arms, the victim of another climbing
accident. My chest felt tight with the news.

Of all the places to fall and break your arm, Leah had found the perfect
spot, and the rescue was underway within minutes, the helicopter soaring
up the valley. Still, I knew too much backstory: I knew what Alex had
gone through a month earlier, had seen him come to work late with
circles under his twenty-four-year-old eyes that no one that young
should have. I knew the helicopter pilot, Lawrence, from evenings in the
bar; his outrageous sense of humor made the back of my head hurt from
laughing. A mutual friend had introduced me to the Jenny Lake Climbing
Ranger, Marty, calm and genial and now swinging in a controlled parabola
at the end of the bright orange line.

Lawrence gently lowered Marty to the ledge. The helicopter floated, for
one minute, then two, its rotors twenty feet from the black and orange
stone. A gust came over the Saddle, late summer wind with a bite of
autumn. The helicopter wobbled toward the rock. My imagination veered
with it: the rotors might hit the wall; Leah might die; the burden of
another accident might be too great for Alex.

When the rope went slack, the helicopter fell away from the wall and
banked back toward the Saddle. It hovered above us, silhouetted against
the mushrooming clouds as though the world had been reversed and it
floated on the surface of an ocean. A filament of improbable brightness
extended down to the Saddle. The next ranger, Jack, clipped in, and in a
moment he too was airborne, adrift in a sea of sky. Only when we heard
from another ranger that Leah was stable and Alex was making his descent
did we begin to relax.

Not all rescues
are as straightforward. On August 10, 2005, Tomaz
Humar was rescued off Nanga Parbat’s 4100-meter Rupal Face from a
bivouac at ca. 5700 meters. What we witnessed on the Grand was an
ordinary, if unfortunate, moment in climbing; what happened on Nanga
Parbat was something else.

Humar is a masterful performer. His 1999 expedition on the south face of
Dhaulagiri–with its live coverage, dramatic events (such as his
much-publicized extraction with a pocketknife of a troublesome tooth
partway through the climb) and helicopter evacuation from 5700 meters
during the descent–set a new standard for solo climbing, but also for
media coverage of an alpine climb. The 2005 Nanga Parbat expedition
picked up where Dhaulagiri had left off.

Humar’s more than twenty sponsors on Nanga included the
telecommunications company Mobitel, Radio Slovenija, the Slovenian
national newspaper Delo, POP TV, the supermarket Mercator and the road
construction company SCT. His expedition was covered in real time by
live feeds coordinated from both Slovenia and base camp. During
preparations for his climb, his Web site reported that “climbing
conditions [on the face were] the worst in the last three years” (July
26); that “the whole of the northeast part of Pakistan has found itself
in a monsoon” (July 27); and that avalanches were prevalent on or near
his intended route in the days immediately preceding his attempt (August
2). Despite his own reports of poor conditions and a limited, three-day
weather window forecast, Humar began climbing on August 2. Three days
later, pinned to the face by the conditions he had predicted, he called
for help.

Andrej Stremfelj wrote in the 2001 American Alpine Journal about Humar’s climb
on Dhaulagiri, “To what extent does risk in the form of exposure to
greater and greater objective danger seemingly increase the difficulty
of ascent–and in this way also increase its market value?” After
Humar’s 2005 rescue, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president,
feted him in Islamabad. Hourly updates on the national news and a
reception complete with a band and a crowd of admirers accompanied
Humar’s return to Slovenia. His media sponsors maintained a steady
stream of reports, one that was quickly picked up around the world,
including by mainstream magazines in the US such as Outside and National
Geographic Adventure
. Only a month later, when Steve House and Vince
Anderson climbed the Rupal Face in a six-day push, did the “market
value” of Humar’s attempt go down.

We are relieved that Humar emerged from the rescue unharmed and that
none of his rescuers were injured in their work. We might note, however,
the loss of adventure his rescue represents. As Jean-Christophe Lafaille
writes in this issue, going into remote areas where no helicopters can
save you is one of the allures of high-altitude climbing, because it
reduces you “to your most basic–and essential–self.” Humar made much
of this appeal on his Web site: “Rescue from the middle part of the
Rupal [F]ace is impossible,” read August 5’s report. “[T]hat is what
makes mountaineering special…. If it would be so easy to get rescued
someone would try to climb this route before. All mountaineers [who]
decide to do such a feat know there might be no way back. They know
[the] only one [who] can help them are themselves and ‘Him’.” Later that
day, he asked for the rescue.

The differences between the Grand rescue and the one on Nanga Parbat
couldn’t have been more pronounced. Two friends climbing the Exum Direct
with no motives other than to have fun and push their personal limits
embodies the spirit of alpinism perfectly. Packaged for an audience like
a reality television show, Humar’s Nanga Parbat attempt was not
alpinism, it was business. And while Alex and Leah were just unlucky,
Humar’s decision to climb in conditions he himself had declared
unreasonably dangerous was a rash one that ultimately jeopardized the
lives of his rescuers. That he was then portrayed as a hero is
insulting, both to his rescuers and to all climbers who venture into the
mountains conscious of the risks involved.

We climbers just go climbing; when bad things happen, we are sometimes
fortunate enough that pilots, rangers and fellow climbers are able to
help us. We should never depend on them to be there, even if we always
hope they will be. The heroes in Humar’s story are the pilots and the
soldiers who saved him, just as the heroes that day on the Grand were
Lawrence and the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. To present the events any
other way is to degrade the spirit of climbing. And that, in the end,
hurts us all.

–Christian Beckwith