Stangl Faked K2 Ascent: What Are We Climbing For?
News just came out this morning that Austrian speed climber Christian Stangl faked his 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?