Is Speed the New Summit?

Racing up Denali on snowshoes – not often considered the fastest means of conveyance?

Yet as the Denali Season wound down, Karl Egloff set a new record for the fastest up (7 hours, 40 minutes) – by a long ways, and with an overall round-trip time of 11 hours, 44 minutes. The latest record was held by the erstwhile Killian Jornet – and he skied much of the route on descent, while Egloff used snowshoes, climbing boots and running shoes – though fully armored up with crampons attached.

Denali, skiing, Kahiltna Glacier
Descending the Glacier in 2019. A well worn track suited to downhill skiers – just watch our for your sled overtaking you.

 

Egloff now holds the fastest times for Denali, Acononcagua, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro – with sights set on Carstenz and Everest over the next two years.

As the 7 summits have evolved, with trodden paths, wanded routes, ropes and protection often all in place, the summits for some are now more a race course than a traditional climb. Even back in 2010, I returned from the top of Everest and realized that my ice axe had been little more than a photographic prop for the photos, not once having been removed from the back of my pack.

Following ropes and a trail up a well known route is obviously a far different experience from blazing your own track or ascending any other route beyond the well traveled “Pistes” (ski runs) as Messner now refers to them. As a fellow climber commented, even Everest without oxygen, if done up the trail and on the ropes, is far less daunting than it used to be – more akin to an Iron Man for climbers. It should only be so long before the solar powered, electrical ascender is invented to speed us up the ropes.

Happily, that is not the case on Denali yet, and a real ice axe (and the longer the better) is still very useful.  Though the well-picketed West Buttress route, slings poking out at convenient 10 meter intervals, on anything steeper than 10 degrees, did lend a certain pedestrian air to our recent ascent this spring.

Denali, West Buttress
Early morning on the West Buttress, up the ridge from 14.2 to High Camp at 17.2 – some of the finest climbing on the route.

Doing the 7 Summits has always been an accomplishment about setting a defined goal, and then about breaking records. Though for many, doing the summits in a slower fashion, savouring the cultures, the food, and meeting the people is as much, if not more of the experience, than climbing the peaks themselves. You’ll just have to dig deeply to find the data on the slowest ascents or the longest time took, though certainly the experience may be far richer.

The breaking of 7 Summits records started almost as soon as Dick Bass first completed them in 1985. More recently, people from Richard Parks and Vanessa O’Brien have also added a quick ski of the last degree to the North and South Poles, completing the so humbly named, Explorers Grand Slam, in less than a year. If you want one of these records, best to balance a heap of training, with a bucket of funding and a lot of prayers for good weather. Though even in a year filled with Everest climbers waiting in lines and 11 deaths, some like Roxanne Vogel, managed a remarkable round trip from California to the top of the world and back in 2 weeks time.

And while it seems there is a new breed of athlete emerging, comfortable with climbing,  with speed and with facing the added risks of going unroped and non-stop through dangerous terrain, it is also interesting to see some records, like Hans Kammerlanders’ 1996 record time on the North Side of Everest still standing at 16 hours, 45 minutes.

 

Makalu, Everest, Cho Oyu
Makalu, left, Everest, center with plume, Cho Oyu, right. From the Pang La, Tibet. 16 hours, 45 minutes, the North Ridge speed record still standing today from Hans Kammerlander’s ascent in 1996.

 

 

 

 

 

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