[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]
ON JANUARY 16, 2021, ten Nepali climbers stood side by side and sang their country’s anthem on the summit of K2, having completed the first winter ascent of the mountain. Eight days later, they shared a video of that moment. Some Internet commenters–raised, perhaps, on a cyberdiet of instant summit Snapchats and imagining immediacy as the mark of authenticity–alleged that the climbers had used the intervening time to fake that video. Similarly unfounded doubts abounded online, often referencing how or when the story was told rather the undeniable facts of the story itself. One of the leaders of the successful climb, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa of Rolwaling, had to spend considerable time dispelling groundless accusations.
Less than a month later, a team of elite French military climbers livestreamed a new route on the west face of Les Drus, almost every move right there online to witness. A media first perhaps, but of what lasting value? Has the speed of many dispatches to social media distorted the public mind about what is genuine or significant? Have the faux-friendly but overwrought banalities of daily social media engagement come to mean more than a considered account told after some checking and humble reflection?
Alpinism is always about choices, and new technologies keep giving us more avenues to talk about our climbs. The choice of expedition media, how we use it, but also when we use it, can have lasting impacts. Deciding whether to tell your story at all is yet another choice, even if you choose to say nothing. Total silence, often as much of a pose as any TikTok hand dance, is fine so long as you can endure a future pretender who claims your untold treasure as their latest News Flash. But if you choose to tell, by waiting for a while after the summit, you might create a more meaningful and accurate narrative. Numbers can’t express experience, and there are truths beyond facts. The significance of what you’ve done will arise from what you realize in the aftermath. This process might require some time–or at least it’s best not done right after you’ve collapsed, still crusty and hypoxic in the tent while staring at the ceiling and vowing never again.
These days, editors of alpine journals and adventure websites increasingly correct not just typos but errors of basic fact. Some climbers and reporters don’t seem to know where exactly a team went, or who climbed there beforehand, when they rush to get their accounts online. By the time someone corrects the mistakes, the misinformation is already entrenched in readers’ minds. Climbers can do better. The ego hits from “Likes” are temporary, but an honest insight, gained after a period of reflection, might last indefinitely, or at least outlast you. Regular reading of social media comments shows how poorly the mainstream public understands the history and reality of alpinism. If their eyeballs provide the economic reward necessary to be an ambassathlete then just how much do we twist our experiences and ourselves before all that is good and special becomes lost? Social media is a powerful tool with reach and impact, and like your favorite ice tool, best aimed with thought, precision and care.
Today, the free online archives of international alpine journals, the Himalayan Index and the Himalayan Database are combined with the almost-cheating powers of Google Earth and the plethora of Web images. Diligent research can be a joy, not a chore. Bypassing this part of the art may leave you still craving some of the satisfaction and transformation you sought in the first place. Giving historical context and crediting your predecessors need not be seen as diminishing your personal achievement, but rather as a base on which you’ve been able to grow and become a part of a shared human experience. Making everything about yourself only isolates you and leaves you less, not more. Years from now you’ll remember your companions more than the climb. The inherent escapist tendencies of alpinism already threaten to take us away from the human relationships that will actually, with a little work, bring us the peace and fulfillment that we naively seek in those faraway high places.
The Nepali climbers from the winter K2 expedition took a little time to craft something memorable, documentary yet evocative. Their footage will stay in our minds long after the facts and figures. So take some time and use it well. Future readers or viewers will appreciate the honest thoughts of home after the boulder skimmed your helmet, but not the instantly forced profundities for faux Followers or conversely some sanitized official account massaged to publication. I won’t say there’s a middle path, that “it’s about balance.” This is alpinism, not golf. As we climb into the future, we are gaining increasingly powerful means to craft and communicate the stories of our ascents. I hope that with basic integrity–and with respect for those with us and before us–alpinists can fully express their experiences and leave an honest and inspiring legacy for those who will rise beyond us.
–Australian mountaineer and author Damien Gildea is a contributing editor to the American Alpine Journal and on its editorial advisory board.
[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]