Are These Two Men Going After the Holy Grail of Himalayan Climbing?
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Each year, as the circus that is the commercial Everest industry kicks into high gear, there are also a couple of cutting-edge expeditions to keep an eye on (barring 2020, when the pandemic brought Everest to a virtual standstill). Two years ago, in 2019, Cory Richards, of the U.S., and Esteban “Topo” Mena, of Ecuador, hoped to climb a new route. The year before, the Catalan ultrarunner Kilian Jornet climbed the mountain twice in a week at blistering speeds.
The most exciting expedition this year again involves Jornet, teaming up with German alpinist David Goettler. While they have not made their plans public, what with the pair’s formidable athleticism and talent, some are speculating that they will try to complete the first ever Everest-Lhotse Traverse. (Adding in Nuptse—which would be magnitudes more difficult still—would create a traverse of the whole mythical “horseshoe.”)
While Everest and Lhotse have been enchained before, a true integral traverse remains one of the biggest prizes in Himalayan climbing. While others have climbed Everest via one of its normal routes, descended partway and then tacked on Lhotse, a true traverse of the mountains would involve ascending and descending each peak by unique routes.
Asked via Facebook what his and Jornet’s plans are, Goettler wrote, “At the moment I go day by day. So talking about upcoming plans seems a silly thing to do for me right now.” He said that they would wait to “see what was possible.”
Jornet added more fuel to the fire of speculation with a Facebook post on April 29, writing, “A simple idea and a high possibility of [failure] summarizes perfectly what we’re searching during the next weeks in the Khumbu region.”
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The Everest-Lhotse Traverse has been eyed by a number of top climbers in the past decade. In 2013, the late Ueli Steck, along with Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith, aimed to give the Traverse a shot, but confrontations with rope-fixing Sherpa brought that expedition to a premature end. Steck returned in 2017 to mount another attempt with a different partner, Tenji Sherpa, but never got a chance to try: He died in a fall while acclimatizing on Nuptse.
Whether Jornet and Goettler attempt the full Traverse or not, it seems likely (though also unconfirmed) that the 1963 Hornbein Route will be their path up Everest. And this on its own would be a coup.
Of the Hornbein Route, Steck said in 2017, “There’s lots of history there. It’s never been repeated. To be honest, even if we climb just the Hornbein and we’re too tired to get to Lhotse, I’ll be happy.” The Hornbein Couloir—the most famous feature of the Hornbein Route-–has been climbed additional times beyond the first ascent, but the entire route has never been repeated.
That Goettler might try the Traverse makes sense: he too was a partner of Steck’s, and is known for moving fast in the mountains. Goettler has summitted a number 0f 8,000ers, including Shishapangma (8,024 meters), via the South Face, in under 13 hours.
Jornet is more frequently associated with ultra- and sky-running than alpinism, but has plenty of experience with the latter. At one time or another, he has held the fastest known times on Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Denali, and Aconcagua. He also climbed Everest from Advanced Base Camp at a near-record pace in 2017, but finished some 20 minutes too slow.
The Jornet-Goettler team could be perfect for the nature of the challenge posed by the Everest-Lhotse Traverse. Though a technical climb by any measure, it is just as much—perhaps more—a challenge of speed and fitness. Everest via the unrepeated Hornbein Route would be “like running a marathon,” Steck said in 2017. Adding in Lhotse? That would be like “trying an ultramarathon.”