Extreme Mountaineering: An Outcast's Quest for Records and Redemption

By Walter Mayr

Photo Gallery: Chasing Records in the Sky Photos
DPA

After lying about a summit he didn't actually make, Austrian "skyrunner" Christian Stangl now wants to be the first person to scale the three highest mountains on each continent. But even if he sets the record, will he ever be able to clear his own?

A man cycles along a highway southeast of Sofia, headed for the Black Sea coast. It's a sunny spring day in Bulgaria as he struggles along, his bike loaded down with saddlebags and skis.

Christian Stangl's journey began in the Austrian state of Styria and is taking him to the high peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. By June, the 46-year-old plans to have completed 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) of his expedition by bike and thousands of vertical meters on foot.

The Austrian practices an extreme form of mountain climbing called skyrunning, and he's a glutton for punishment. He has set world time records for scaling the highest peaks on all continents. He once climbed four 6,000-meter mountains in the Andes in a single day. In 2011, he cycled from the Indian Ocean to Nepal to climb Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain -- an experience he later described in simple figures: "From zero to 8,586 meters in 76 days."

Stangl now wants to write climbing history with his current expedition, even if it means that "99.8 percent of the world's population" won't immediately understand what exactly he is doing -- as he says over a beer and some yoghurt soup in the central Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

For years, Stangl has mainly been climbing the three tallest peaks on all seven continents. Of course, on each of these 21 peaks, others have been before him. But Stangl may soon be the first one to have been on all of them -- because no one else has tried to.

The project, called "Triple Seven Summits," is his idea. Stangl calls it his "mission," and his goal is to be the first person to stand atop all 21 of these mountains -- as well as to provide proof that they are truly the tallest peaks. This leads him to consult NASA data and Google Earth bearings, to use high-tech equipment to check how high rock formations lie above sea level, and to study tables in which undisputed and disputed ascents are meticulously recorded.

For laypeople, the whole thing is decidedly less sexy than, for example, his fellow Austrian Felix Baumgartner's free fall from the stratosphere. For Stangl, it's also disadvantageous in terms of marketing. "But I'm not just doing it for my bank account," he says.

Now that he's on his way, Stangl is hard to stop, especially with only one summit left on his list: Shkhara, in northern Georgia along the main axis of the Caucasus, 5,193 meters above sea level. He plans to climb the peak by the end of April, the last in his collection of rarities.

The Race for Records

For anyone who hopes to make a living in mountain climbing today, says Stangl, "all that counts are superlatives." Indeed, the race for attention among the world's top alpinists has become downright exotic. If it goes on like this, one alpinists' magazine quipped, the next contest could very well be the "Seven Seventieth Summits" coupled with a time limit of 70 hours.

Whether it's skyrunning or speed climbing, bouldering on cliffs or buildering on skyscraper walls, just climbing mountains is no longer enough. Sponsors and extreme sports marketers are interested in feats that have never been achieved before. That's why the battle for new records -- and a small piece of the pie -- is increasingly becoming a niche market.

From a mountain climber's perspective, the big peaks have all been done. In 1953, Edmund Hillary scaled Mount Everest. In 1985, Dick Bass was the first to master the highest summits on all seven continents, known since then as the Seven Summits. A year later, Reinhold Messner climbed the last of his 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen.

There has been no climbing any higher since then because, as Stangl puts it, geography is "unfortunately limited." The only option left to climbers is to do it faster and farther. Or in more remote places. And so it comes that men who have already experienced it all on the eight-thousanders are now fighting to set records in the Indonesian jungle, in the icy expanses of Antarctica and on rock faces in Patagonia.

Fierce Competition at the Top

In his quest, Stangl has also encountered some of the biggest names in the business, such as Hans Kammerlander, who was a climbing companion of Messner for years. The mountaineer from Ahrntal in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol is one of the highest paid active climbers today. In books and lectures alike, he reports on his adventures "in the death zone" and talks about camaraderie among "grim north-wall faces." With a face roughened by frost and tanned by high-altitude sunshine, he has an impressively wild look about him. His opinions are respected among fellow climbers.

Kammerlander was in Antarctica with Stangl in 2012. Both men had Mount Tyree, the second-highest mountain at the Antarctic Circle, on their agenda. For Kammerlander, it was part of his "Seven Second Summits" project, while Stangl was collecting peaks for his Triple Seven Summits expedition. If he had known what he was getting into, says Kammerlander today, he would never have set out with Stangl. "He's someone who tries to one-up other climbers," Kammerlander says.

And then the otherwise soft-spoken Kammerlander suddenly starts spewing invective like some poisonous brew spilling out of a cracked cauldron. Who does he think he is, says Kammerlander, that Stangl with his "ridiculous alpine claptrap," that "mediocre climber who is playing around with a couple of mountains you could easily climb in rubber boots while driving a sheep ahead of you."

Alpine claptrap?

Stangl is also outspokenly critical of Kammerlander, who he says climbed the wrong peak -- that is, not the second-highest mountain in Oceania in Indonesia in 2011 -- and was once kilometers away from his intended target in North America. These things are all known and documented, says Stangl, implying that Kammerlander, one of the world's top alpinists, is deliberately deceiving people by turning his "Second Seven Summits" into cash in the form of a book and lectures he calls his "highlight show" ("The First to Climb the Second Seven Summits").

At this point, things get serious between the fellow mountaineers -- because now it's about money. Kammerlander gives up to 60 lectures a year, each with fees of between €3,000 and €5,000. Before and after the events, and in the intermission, he stays busy selling and signing: his "Seven Second Summits" books for €23, T-shirts for €20 and caps for €15.

The louder Stangl proclaims in public that Kammerlander wasn't even on the "true Seven Second Summits," the more his self-marketing and his very reputation are in jeopardy. For Kammerlander, lucrative deals such as sponsorship agreements with Telecom Italia and the Province of South Tyrol are at stake.

Sin and Redemption

In light of this quarrel over a few meters of altitude here and there, says Kammerlander, he is almost ashamed "to be an alpinist." For the record, he makes it abundantly clear that he isn't about to let himself be lectured on mountain climbing by Stangl, a "serial liar."

Stangl knows what Kammerlander is referring to with his accusation: his weak point, a story involving K2. On Aug. 12, 2010, after years of unsuccessful attempts to scale the most precarious peak in the Himalayas, Stangl informed the world, via satellite telephone, that he had finally climbed the mountain. The announcement was followed by a photo he had snapped of himself standing at the summit. He was congratulated -- but it wasn't long before the whispering began.

Four weeks passed before Stangl confessed that, in a supposedly "trance-like state of consciousness," he had merely imagined reaching the summit. The confession garnered headlines worldwide. There was talk of the "most embarrassing mountaineer's lie of the 21st century." And when a book called "Vater Morgana" ("Father Morgana") was found among the things he had left at the base camp, the perfect punch line was born, and Stangl became the butt of jokes.

Kammerlander, the dogged summit collector, had already been hounding him in the rat race for the limelight back then, says Stangl today, which is probably why he was so determined to scale K2. And in doing so, he adds, he probably overestimated his abilities. "Those eight-thousanders aren't exactly child's play," he says.

The lie and the confession were followed by ostracism, as fellow mountaineers condemned Stangl. Sponsors canceled their contributions. The demand for lectures at management seminars and symposiums disappeared. For someone who invests €120,000 in four Antarctic expeditions alone, such a sharp decline can pose a threat to his very livelihood.

But Stangl has pulled himself together. He even climbed K2 after all, last July, this time making sure that the ascent was carefully documented and uncontested. At the same time, he notes how little someone like Kammerlander cares about whether he truly climbed the right Second Summits. Of course, says Stangl, this raises a question: "Should I simply have kept on lying?"

He still suffers from the taint of the K2 lie. He has to acknowledge that the mighty Reinhold Messner doesn't even want to give him credit for "a footnote in Alpine history" and also opposes him in the ongoing dispute. According to Messner, Kammerlander is beyond reproach and doesn't deserve "these jealousy discussions."

But Stangl, filled with both anger and zeal, isn't capitulating. K2 was his road-to-Damascus experience. Since then, he has campaigned as an apostle of fairness and clean competition in extreme mountain climbing, a sport whose participants are both players and referees at the same time.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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