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Only 44 people have reached the summit of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks

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If you listen closely, you can hear heads exploding in all the climbing communities around the world:



Ed Viesturs believes he knows. He is one of the 44, the only American on the list. In 1993, climbing alone and without supplemental oxygen or ropes, Viesturs reached the “central summit” of Shishapangma, the world’s 14th-highest mountain. Most climbers turn around there, calling it good enough.

Before him was a narrow spine of about 100 meters, a knife-edge of corniced snow with drops to oblivion on both sides. At its end was the mountain’s true summit, a few meters higher in elevation than where he stood.

Too dangerous, Viesturs told himself. He retreated.

“You can let it go, or you can’t let it go,” Viesturs said. “And I was one of those guys where if the last nail in the deck hasn’t been hammered in, it’s not done.”

Eight years later, Viesturs climbed within reach of Shishapangma’s summit again. The ridge looked doable. With a leg on each side — “à cheval” in mountaineering, French for “on horseback” — he shimmied across it. He touched the highest point of Shishapangma and scooted back to relative safety.

There is a summit. And then there is everything below it.

Can close ever be good enough?

Revelations from a team of respected researchers have thrust that question into the open like never before, putting special attention on the world’s highest mountains and most acclaimed climbers.

By asking a simple-sounding question — What is the summit? — the researchers are raising doubts about past accomplishments and raising standards for future ones.

The Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges of Asia are home to all 14 of Earth’s 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) peaks — not only the highest mountains in the world, but with familiar names that evoke wonder: Everest, K2, Annapurna and Lhotse among them.

Thousands of miles away, in a small town in southwestern Germany, lives a 68-year-old man named Eberhard Jurgalski. He has a robust, white beard and pulls his hair into a ponytail.

He has spent 40 years chronicling the ascents of the 8,000-meter peaks. He has not climbed these mountains, but he is widely respected for compiling the records of those who have. He is among the cadre of behind-the-scenes researchers who give credence to the claims that make others famous.

He can tell you the names of various expeditions, the dates, the details of the routes and whether oxygen was used. He has studied photographs and videos and satellite coordinates and accounts from climbers and witnesses.

And now he has some jarring news: It is possible that no one has ever been on the true summit of all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks.

Some stopped on Shishapangma’s central summit, not daring to straddle the ridge the way Viesturs did. Some unwittingly went to the wrong spot on Annapurna’s broad top. Some stopped at a pole planted on Dhaulagiri that confused them into thinking it was the summit. Some turned around at a popular selfie-taking spot on Manaslu without scaling the precarious ridge hidden just beyond it.

Few if any of them tried to lie about their accomplishments. They just did not get to the top in every case, Jurgalski and others say. They stopped a few meters short, whether by accident or tradition.

The implications for mountaineering are massive. Or maybe they do not matter at all.

To keep itself honest, mountaineering relies on integrity and the power of a guilty conscience. For high-profile expeditions, it is the adventurer’s responsibility to prove what he or she claims to have done in some of the world’s remotest places. Evidence of important ascents generally comes from an inexact combination of photos and selfies, satellite coordinates and witnesses.

That leaves room for whispers of doubt.

For decades, Jurgalski worried that standards of a world-class summit were slipping. If he is a gatekeeper to historical records, doesn’t he have an obligation to double-check their accuracy?

Several years ago, he enlisted help from a few other volunteer researchers, including Rodolphe Popier and Tobias Pantel of the Himalayan Database and Damien Gildea, the Australian explorer.

Dissecting one claim at a time, they are studying all the key ascents, through photographs and written accounts, trying to place climbers in precise locations.


Claiming the Summit Without Reaching the Top
 
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