The Austrian alpinist Christian Stangl has soloed Everest without oxygen in 17 hours, logged a 15-hour ascent of Cho Oyu, and climbed four 6,000-meter peaks in 24 hours. These extremely lightweight speed ascents were so revolutionary that they seemed to eclipse the term climbing and were christened skyrunning by the media. After his successful bid to skyrun the Seven Summits, Stangl turned his attention to the much more difficult task of becoming the first person to climb the Second Seven Summits (the second-highest peak on each continent) and on August 11, according to his own report, he ticked the most difficult one on the list, K2.
An uproar erupted almost immediately, however, with many strong parties on the mountain disputing Stangl’s claim. Bad conditions had plagued climbers and no one else managed to scale K2 this year. The day after the reputed ascent, another party headed up trackless snow to find fixed ropes still glazed with ice and Stangl’s tent and gear still cached. A few days later, porters discovered Stangl’s sleeping bag hidden in the rocks near Advanced Base Camp. Finally, the summit photo Stangl produced as evidence was determined to have been taken at Camp Three, over a thousand meters below the top.
On September 7, under intense pressure from journalists and climbers, Stangl issued a statement admitting the ruse. Fear of death is bad enough, he wrote. But fear of failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse. During the latest push, I entered a trance-like state in which I was really convinced that I had reached the highest point.
At the same time a similar story was being played out, centered on the Korean climber Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the first woman to summit all 14 8,000-meter peaks with her ascent of Annapurna on April 27. Elizabeth Hawley, administrator of the influential Himalayan Database [The One Who Counts, No. 188], marked Oh Eun-Sun’s earlier ascent of Kangchenjunga as disputed, based on doubts raised by Korean rivals who questioned the lack of a summit photo and cited conflicting testimony of sherpas who disagreed on whether the summit had been reached.
On August 27, the Korean Alpine Federation went a step further and declared that Oh Eun-Sun had probably failed to summit Kangchenjunga, prompting Hawley to reopen the investigation. If the Himalayan Database changes the designation to unrecognized, the Spanish climber Edurne Pasaban, who climbed her 14th 8,000-meter peak (Shisha Pangma) on May 17, will hold the prestigious title.
While it’s still unclear if Oh Eun-Sun (or one of her guides) straight up lied, or whether Stangl was actually in a trance, falsifying climbing achievements is nothing new. Most of us know about the big fibbers on big peaks – Frederick Cook on Denali, Cesare Maestri on Cerro Torre. Unfortunately, most of us also have encountered little pretenders who exaggerate their accomplishments on little rocks. It’s a problem as old as sport. More interesting is the question: Why lie?
Certainly the prestige and lucre that accompany major firsts in the greater ranges can prompt lapses in judgment and even override common decency. But, more broadly, people exaggerate their accomplishments because they are not satisfied with who they are right now. Like the hungry ghosts described in Buddhist mythology – beings with insatiable appetites and pin-sized necks – some climbers have a terrible emptiness and are desperately trying to fill it.
Stangl is not the first mountaineer to concoct a summit daydream, though his courage in coming clean should be noted as highly unusual. For him, and all of us, the hardest peak to conquer is the mountain of unquenchable desires.