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If A Helicopter Drops You on the Top of a Mountain, Did you Climb It?

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Nearly three weeks ago, on April 16, 67 people reached the summit of Annapurna, at 8,091 meters (26,545 feet) tall the 10th highest mountain in the world. With a death rate of roughly 3.84%, according to the Himalayan Database, it is also the deadliest of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks. The summitters were mostly paying clients—the same type that pay upwards of $50,000 for a crack at Everest—of the expedition companies Seven Summit Treks, Pioneer Adventures, and Imagine Nepal. It was the single biggest summit day in the history of climbing on the mountain—but that wasn’t the only thing that set it apart. 

The night prior, the would-be summitters—short on vital gear, including ropes that the Sherpa guides would need to continue opening the route to the summit; supplemental oxygen; food; and fuel—were resupplied by helicopter drops at Camp IV, around 7,000 meters. The expedition leaders and guides had turned all their clients around at 7,400 meters earlier that day when they realized their predicament.

This type of operation, using helicopters to transport critical supplies to a spot so near the summit, is unprecedented.  

Mingma G Sherpa—one of the co-leaders of the Nepali team that completed the first winter ascent of K2 in January—runs Imagine Nepal and was one of the leaders of the rope-fixing effort on Annapurna. He told me in an email interview, “Climbing was done practically, we only transferred the 800m rope load by heli. Ropes and other fixing equipment are airlifted from base camp to camp 2 on Everest, too. We just took that example and decided to airlift the rope to camp 4 and it was only 800m rope. We carried and fixed 6000m rope [from base camp] ourselves.”

At first blush, it might not seem all that exceptional: In the modern age of commercial mountaineering, in which we’ve become accustomed to seeing movie-theater-length queues on Everest and daring rescues above 7,000 meters, helicopter resupplies on the tenth highest mountain appear pedestrian. But what makes the resupply so notable is the precedent it sets—or rather the precedent it extends—of “aviation-assisted climbs.” 

The dilemma of how to think about an ascent in which a “climber” or gear is flown partway up or down a mountain was first grappled with by the late Miss Elizabeth Hawley, founder and face of the Himalayan Database and the foremost record-keeper of Himalayan ascents until her death in 2018. In 2013 and 2014, there were several distinct cases of commercial climbers using helicopters to leapfrog harder portions of the routes on Everest and Lhotse (8,516 meters/27,940 feet). The German/Swiss journalist Stefan Nestler investigated another possible example that occurred on Manaslu (8,163 meters/26,759 feet) in 2020.

The question is whether an ascent should be recognized, considered valid even, if one gets helicoptered partway up or down the mountain. Take this at-present impossible hypothetical: You could get flown to the summit of Everest, step out, get your picture taken on the snowy dome, and then quickly step back into the chopper and fly away. You stood on the summit, but did you climb the mountain? Clearly not. 

Miss Hawley had thoughts about this new-age possibility on the world’s highest peaks, writing to Nestler, “We at the Database think we need to add a new category of caveats perhaps called aviation-assisted climbs.” 

 By most yardsticks, mountain climbing is a fairly meaningless, selfish pursuit. There is no hard-and-fast set of rules like baseball or road cycling. The playing field is amorphous and fluid. Therefore, by its very nature, there are no rules to be broken. One can play the game how he or she wants—or pay to have it fixed as such. 

Among dedicated climbers of all stripes—whether they be big-mountain climbers, big-wall climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, or wrestlers of comparative pebbles like Daniel Woods or the soon-to-be Olympian Brooke Raboutou—there’s a preoccupation with “style.” Any climber who has ventured outside knows this: It’s not reaching the top that counts, but how you get there. Did you dab? Did you pull on draws?  In the same way that Lance Armstrong’s doping cast a shadow over his bicycling achievements, using tools that make a summit magnitudes easier to attain are scorned among mountain climbers as poor style.

In a 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, decrying a proposal to install a permanent ladder on Everest’s Hillary Step (which crumbled during the 2015 Nepal earthquake), Ed Viesturs, who has climbed all of the 8,000ers without supplemental oxygen, wrote,  “The glory of mountain climbing lies in the fact that success is never guaranteed.”

Helicopter-assisted climbs—whether that’s the paying climbers getting flown part way up or down the route, or supplies being dropped off for them—exemplifies this trend toward a reality that Viesturs dreaded, one of the poorest style. Instead of meeting the mountain on its own level, we are bringing it down to ours.

Of course, it’s a slippery slope: If helicopter-assisted climbs were to be roundly rejected, where would we draw the line on the already accepted methods of maximizing chances for success in commercial mountaineering? As it is, if you’re climbing Everest with supplemental oxygen flowing into your lungs at four liters per minute, at the 29,032-foot summit the “perceived altitude drops to 19,000 feet—10,000 feet less than the actual elevation,” writes professional climber Mark Synnott in his new book The Third Pole. But things like supplemental oxygen and Sherpa guides and fixed ropes are at this point part-and-parcel of the Everest ecosystem, for better or worse. Helicopter-assisted climbs are a newer phenomenon.

Compromises in style are made all the time even among the vanguard of Himalayan climbers. For the first winter ascent of K2, aside from Nirmal “Nims” Purjal, every climber on the team did use supplemental oxygen. But in response to naysayers, Nims told me, “If you think you can do better—don’t talk from your house. Come do it and show us a better way. My 5-year-old nephew can talk shit. It doesn’t matter.” And his point speaks to the general thrust of Himalayan climbing: style is improved upon. The point is to keep improving.

And what about safety? After all, death in road racing isn’t 3.84%. If seven cyclists were killed each year in the Tour de France, perhaps Armstrong would have been forgiven his transgressions to go faster. In the mountains, too, speed is safety, and mitigating dangers is not something at which to scoff. But the idea that safety is why helicopters are being used on a mountain like Annapurna is a dishonest argument—in fact it speaks to the opposite of safety. One need only look at the paltry climbing experience and qualifications of most paying customers on 8,000-meter expeditions to understand that profit is the driving force. And more summits equal more profit. (And this is a criticism of all operators—not just the ones involved in the Annapurna heli-drop.) If safety were the problem, when the expedition leaders found themselves short of supplies, the expeditions would have started descending to base camp.

The scenario that unfolded on Annapurna in the wake of the resupply and record day epitomizes the dangers in trying to stack the summit deck in one’s favor, beyond any conversation of ethics and style. In the days following the summits, there were conflicting reports of which climbers and teams had made it back down the mountain safely, and whether large groups of climbers were potentially stranded high on the slopes in dire situations. The reality was somewhere in between: while the summit push and descent came off without any fatalities, there were multiple instances of severe frostbite and at least one longline helicopter rescue took place to whisk three Russian climbers to safety.

None of this is to say individuals can’t do any of this. (And to be sure, there were momentous firsts during the summit frenzy: Six Nepalis, including two climbing without supplemental oxygen—Dawa Yangzum Sherpa and Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita—became the first women from their country to summit Annapurna.) But the conundrum is whether or not they should.

Recently, the American boulderer Daniel Woods climbed what might be the hardest ever bouldering route in the world. He could have used a ladder to reach top of the boulder—but that wouldn’t have been in the proper spirit (or rock climbing at all). This is obvious to all of us. When he finally climbed the boulder, he wrote simply on social media: “It’s all just a game people… and I play the game.” 

Mountain climbing is a bigger game, for sure. There are frequently life-and-death implications. But it’s still just a game: It’s how one plays it that matters most.

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