Stangl Faked K2 Ascent: What Are We Climbing For?

News just came out this morning that Austrian speed climber Christian Stangl faked  image from explorersweb.comhis August 12 summit of K2. His was the only supposed summit of the season on K2, and the initial report was one of amazing speed and tenacity. According to his report, Stangl blasted from ABC to Camp 3 on K2, and then proceeded from Camp 3 all the way to the summit. 

His account, however, was called into question by numerous other climbers almost immediately, as is well-documented by ExplorersWeb. Despite defending his story numerous times, Stangl this morning – in the face of mounting evidence against him – admitted he did not in fact reach the summit of K2. (His primary sponsor, Mammut, has an update on their website.)

I don't know Christian, and don't care to comment on him personally. But, something in his written remarks struck a chord with me, especially having written extensively about ethics in climbing here on The MountainWorld Blog, and having just given a presentation on Everest Ethics last week in Aspen, Colorado.

According to the Mammut website, Stangl wrote of his actions on K2:

I suppose that I came to this from a mixture between fear of death and even greater fear of failure. Achievement and success were and are the determining factors in my sport. I think that I tried to suppress my personal failure after three summers and altogether seven attempts at this mountain. My sponsors did not pressure me into doing this. This pressure came from inside me. Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of the failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse.

Fear of failure…What is failure? This, I think, is at the heart of many of the ethical dilemmas we see not only in the high mountains, but in our world as a whole. As I said in my presentation in Aspen:

The problem here is one of short-sighted simplification. We have come, in climbing and in our society, to simplify objectives, to make success and failure black-and-white, rather than see them as the transient shades of grey they are. Our society tends to tell us that the summit is success, and anywhere else is failure. The journey means nothing, the pursuit worthless without planting one's flag on the top…While perhaps simple, this reading of success and failure leads ultimately to shallow, and potentially dangerous, decision-making, both on and off the hill. When all that matters is the summit, what will we be willing to sacrifice to get there?

I ended my program in Aspen the other night – as I always do with my Everest Ethics talk – by invoking the words of Charlie Houston. And, since Stangl's controversy took place on K2, where Charlie was writing about in this passage, it's fitting to share them again here. Simple, eloquent, and profound, Houston's words are no less relevant today than they were when he penned them in 1953, and speak volumes about the true nature of success, failure, and why we climb:

Why climb mountains? The answer cannot be simple. It is compounded of such elements as the great beauty of clear, cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience. The pleasure of physical fitness, the pride of conquering a steep and difficult rock, the thrill of danger controlled by skill…How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all? It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off non-essentials, to come down to the core of life itself. On great mountains, all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand. Yet the summit is but a token of success. And the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for these reasons that we climb. And in climbing, we find something greater than accomplishment.

This is an important topic, so please discuss it below if you want. What do you think about Stangl's actions, and his defense? What about the concepts of success and failure in general?

(See a great interview, below, with Charlie Houston on Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS.)


Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

  1. Sean Arbabi
    Sean ArbabiSeptember 7,10

    Well said Jake- that’s why I love Ed Viesturs attitude on it all- safety and caution first over summits, then years of hard work and luck to make it happen.

  2. Nathaniel Pulsifer
    Nathaniel PulsiferSeptember 7,10

    Great points Jake- Few value the journey in the face of pressures to succeed. it’s hard in life, business, or climbing to jut be ok with the process. Perhaps business people are lucky, especially in the US, where failure as an entrepreneur is almost a prerequisite of later success- How often do you read of people who ‘ made, lost, and made a fortune again” ?… Pretty often. Not many climbers have that luxury.

  3. Jake Norton
    Jake NortonSeptember 7,10

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, Ed has a good perspective on it. We both cut our teeth at Rainier Mountaineering, and I’m glad that place and those people provided a lot of the foundation of my climbing and my climbing ethics. As you well know, years of hard work eventually pay off…just like in the photo business, right?!

    Hope all’s well,


  4. Jake Norton
    Jake NortonSeptember 7,10

    Interesting points, as always, Than. I hadn’t thought of that before…you’re right, one DOES hear often of “made, lost, made a fortune again”, but rarely is that story told in the mountains. And, of equal interest, in our society, one is generally not considered “successful” if they started off trying to gather wealth, and instead pursued a different life focusing on other things…or simply “failed” to attain the wealth they initially focused on. Instead of valuing the journey that person went through, they are considered a failure.

    Why is that, I wonder? I can’t help but think much of it comes down to our often short-term outlook on life. Perhaps we need to shift our paradigm to a more long-term focus where the fleeting moment on the summit is not what we’re after, but rather the long-term pursuit of that summit and the joy that journey brings us.

    Good thoughts…

  5. Sujoy Das
    Sujoy DasSeptember 7,10

    If leading mountaineers start faking ascents for what ever reasons then what is left of climbing ethics?

  6. Alice Norton
    Alice NortonSeptember 16,10

    A terrific perspective on what ethics, the mountains and what is truly important. I love the great tie-in with Charlie Houston. So sorry to miss the Aspen talk – I’m sure it was great. Alice

  7. David Lim
    David LimSeptember 26,10

    sorry to see this arise again – it reminds me of an even greater climbing scandal – when in 1991 Tomo Cesen claimed to have climbed solo – the south Face of Lhotse – one of the ‘last’ Great Himalayan Problems. He was awarded the Piolet D’Or. Then one of his summit pictures was actually taken by another climber from another expedition, and doubts began to surface. Messner took back the award , and Cesen never regained a state of grace in the climbing world. I think we should still take people’s claims on their word – unless there is reason to believe otherwise.

    And the lure of $$ is not exclusive to developed mountaineering communities, nor the issue of poor ethics. Even in tiny SIngapore, we have had people claiming to have climbed a well-reported 6000mpeak when they only reached the summit ridge, or people who have claimed big peak ascents alpine style when sherpas were used, as well as well-trodden paths of other teams..

  8. Himalayan Trekking Nepal
    Himalayan Trekking NepalMarch 9,12

    This article helped me understand why people climb mountains. I mean, it’s an obvious questions that arises in one’s mind when he/she seems people climbing high peaks. One can only imagine the happiness one gets out of it.

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