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The Austrian alpinist who claimed to have made this season’s only ascent of K2 has admitted that he lied about his summit.

IF CHRISTIAN STANGL’S story had been true, it would have made him a legend: In a season where no expedition has summited K2, a lone climber splits from his party and sprints to the top and back in a 70-hour push.

Instead, after having his account questioned by several teammates, Stangl admitted on Wednesday that he had lied about reaching the top of K2 and taken his “summit” photo at a point some thousand meters lower on the mountain. Speaking to Austrian state television, Stangl said he had decided to fake the summit “in a state of coma brought on by stress and the fear of failure.”

Stangl, a well-known speed alpinist and seven summiteer, originally claimed he had reached the summit on August 10. Two days later, a climbing team discovered Stangl’s gear, much of which would have been essential in surviving a push to the top, stashed near Advanced Base Camp.

Stangl came under even more pressure when examination revealed that the landscape in his summit photo was remarkably similar to the view from one of the lower camps.

The main theme that’s sprung up both in Stangl’s confession and the coverage thereof is the enormous pressure to succeed that alpinists face. In a statement on sponsor Mammut‘s blog, Stangl said that it was his own internal expectations that drove him to fake the summit.

“This pressure came from inside me,” said Stangl. “Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of the failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse.”

Mercy from the press

While Stangl has received heavy criticism from mountaineering sites and newspapers since his confession, some responses have been almost merciful. Vinicio Stefanello, of PlanetMountain.com, pointed out that Stangl is likely not the first climber to lie about a major success.

“There are plenty of other shining examples of probable mountaineering lies, but a full-on confession like that of the Austrian is something out of the ordinary. Simply unique,” Stefanello wrote. “And this, at least, one must acknowledge.”

It’s hard for me to argue with him. Anyone who thinks that climbing on K2 was ever simple or honest is romanticizing the past. Infighting among the team that made the very first ascent of the peak would eventually lead one climber, Walter Bonatti, to sue for libel almost half a century later.

More recently, Oh Eun-Sun, the first woman to climb all of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, had one of her ascents ruled invalid when the Korean Alpine Federation concluded that her claims of summiting Kachenjunga were not reliable.

Summiting any Himalayan peak is clearly a big deal, and we’ve come up with all sorts of contrived ways to substantiate summit claims, like GPS transceivers and satellite-tagged pictures. But none of these things have made mountaineering honest. If anything, Stangl’s fast, light, and fake ascent is the product of a climbing culture that prizes style and technical purity at the expense of all other kinds of ethics.

This scandal should be a reminder that, without a sense of honor or a purpose more meaningful than getting a write-up in the newspaper, it doesn’t matter how clean someone climbs or whether he or she uses bottled oxygen to get to the top.

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About The Author

Adam Roy

Chicago native Adam Roy is the former-Editor of Matador Sports and an aspiring renaissance man to boot. For more of Adam's writing, check out his blog at Ill-Advised Adventures.

  • http://expatheather.com Heather

    Excellent write up. I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken to admit he didn’t really make it to the top. So many climbers have pushed to K2′s summit under unfavorable conditions only to die on the descent, and I find it easy to understand why he bluffed it in the first place. That feeling of self-failure under those extreme conditions have driven others to less wise decisions.

  • http://evaholland.com Eva

    Man. I have all kinds of respect for mountaineers (from a safe distance – I have a pretty serious fear of heights) but every time I hear a story like this, or the insanity that goes on at Everest every year, I think: There is something broken in this sport’s culture. The obsession with the summit seems to take precedence over common sense, ethics, decency, what-have-you. The stories about dozens of guided climbers walking past a dying man on Everest a couple years back? Grotesque. There’s more to life than the summit, and it seems like that gets lost sometimes.

  • http://www.rorymoulton.com Rory Moulton

    Eva,
    While I agree with your keen assessment of mountaineering’s summit-lust and money-driven culture (broken to say the least!), I respectfully disagree with using the Everest story as proof.

    Extricating one incapacitated adult from a typical alpine-rescue scenario requires at least a dozen trained rescue professionals. Everest is anything but typical. There’s a significant amount of responsibility that comes with high-altitude mountaineering — including not endangering the lives of others for your own self-preservation. There was very little anyone on that mountain could have done without putting themselves and fellow team members at considerable, disproportionate risk to attempt a rescue with little chance of success. See “Touching the Void” for what can happen during a low-altitude rescue attempt lacking proper resources. Then factor in thin air that requires twelve breaths per step.

    There are many examples of mountaineering’s broken culture, but I don’t think the Everest story, portrayed as it was in the media, qualifies.

    Perhaps Stangl needs to re-evaluate his definition of failure as it relates to high-altitude mountaineering: Failure is not turning back from a summit. Failure is death.

    Personally, I subscribe to the “I’d rather be an old mountaineer than a great mountaineer” school of thought.

    • http://evaholland.com Eva

      I’ll admit to a total lack of technical knowledge here, but in the story I’m referring to, a man from Calgary did eventually stop and help, skipped his summit bid and saved his fellow climber’s life – I think just by sharing some oxygen. I’m afraid I’m sketchy on the details, but the take-away I got was that anyone could have made the choice to help. Media oversimplification, perhaps? I dunno.

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