Cooler Heads Begin to Prevail in ‘Stolen Gear’ Debate

The controversy over the first ascent Tengkampoche’s NE Pillar has evolved from an awkward episode between two climbing teams into a multifaceted debate spanning ethics and ambition, but also environmental responsibility and the role of media.

How it started

The scandal burst Wednesday after it emerged that Tom Livingstone and Matt Glenn climbed Tengkampoche’s NE Pillar using gear and supplies left by Quentin Roberts and Jesse Huey, who had previously attempted the route before and planned to try again next spring.

Livingstone did not mention this in the initial account of his achievement. But a miffed Roberts and Huey quickly contacted Andrew Bisharat of the Evening Sends blog. Bisharat reproduced the text messages that Livingstone had sent to the two other climbers after he had climbed the route. In them, Livingstone admitted that he and Glenn had used some of their rivals’ gear and food and climbed the route first. Livingstone himself described it as a bit of “a dick move”.

Roberts and Huey denounced Livingstone’s secrecy, suggesting that they had pirated a route largely thanks to gear that was stolen, or at best, used without permission.

Although there have been many previous examples of secrecy, rivalry, even “dick” behavior in mountaineering history, Livingstone and Glenn’s tactics were clearly far from elegant. In the supposedly purist environment of noncommercial professional climbing, it seemed to be a breach of unwritten rules of chivalry. But was it?

Livingstone’s defense

Just a few hours later, Tom Livingstone issued a statement on his website. He pointed out that Roberts knew that they might attempt the NE Pillar, that Roberts himself told him that he had left behind food that was going out of date. Livingstone also explained that the gear cache was not high on the wall but in a rather accessible place that had not saved them much effort.

In the end, they accused Roberts and Huey of “resentment”. Livingstone noted that other climbers had previously scooped some of his own personal projects and that he never became upset about it or enlisted the media to attack them.

Tom Livingstone and Matt Glenn in Namche Bazaar before tackling Tengkampoche. Photo: Tom Livingstone

 

Garbage or cache?

Livingstone also raised another controversial angle:

“The ethics and waste created by leaving equipment on mountains is already a major issue in the Himalaya,” he wrote. “I know many, many climbers who have left gear on the mountain, promising they’d go back but have never returned…There’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll come back to tidy up your kit. Around the world, it’s very common to remove or use equipment you find in the mountains.”

That is, indeed, a complex question: Is it okay to leave gear and supplies on a big Himalayan wall, intending to return the following season? The COVID pandemic has shown us all how quickly things can ‘gang aft agley’. What about leave no trace?

Moreover, now that the route has been climbed, likely quelling Roberts and Huey’s interest in it, who will remove all that gear? Nepal regulations state that climbing teams must retrieve all their stuff before heading home. But in this case, the gear didn’t belong to the successful climbers, but to another team. We pointed out this issue in our previous article about this controversy, but so far, none of the four climbers involved has addressed it.

An educated opinion: Colin Haley

As usual, the debate raged across social media, while most expert climbers diplomatically abstained from weighing in. Except one.

Colin Haley, who knows all the climbers involved personally, took a stand for Livingstone and Glenn in a long Facebook post. He admitted that he was reluctant to come forward because it might “bring undesired drama” upon him. But he believed that Livingstone and Glenn were being unfairly treated.

Haley pointed out that Roberts and Huey, while very skilled, are young and “have a fire inside to prove themselves,” and so do Livingstone and Glenn. Haley admits that he was the same kind of climber 10 years ago.

“I am simply trying to recognize it, not judge it negatively,” he said. Then he went on:

Colin Haley climbs some days ago near Chamonix. Photo: Colin Haley

 

“First of all…No one owns any projects in the mountains,” he said, citing several similar cases from Patagonia. “If I had gone to Nepal this fall to attempt the northeast pillar of Tengkampoche, and had succeeded, I would not have felt that I had done anything wrong, even though Quentin and Jesse are friends of mine, and even though I knew they had ambitions to try it again.”

Fair game

Next, he said, “the gear cache of Quentin and Jesse’s was left on the mountain, not in a lodge in the closest village…I think that most people experienced in climbing big mountains would agree that gear left on the mountain by a different party the previous season is considered fair game.”

Haley agrees that leaving a cache and using part of it invalidates the alpine-style designation from a route, for either team. He was cautious about weighing in on the ethics of leaving gear temporarily behind since he has done so himself in the past.

“There really is nothing big going on here,” he concluded. “A couple of guys left a gear cache on a mountain, hoping to eventually retrieve it, and a couple of other guys took stuff from it the next season.”

As for the lack of elegance in asking for beta and not revealing plans to climb the Pillar, Haley thinks it is a question of civility, not ethics. “[There is a] distinction between being a good friend and being an ethical climber,” he said.

Roberts moves to bury the hatchet

Haley also noted the heated argument between “pro-Quentin”  and “pro-Tom” supporters. As usual, opinions ranged from the technical to the emotional, and from conciliatory approaches to suggestions for close-to-death punishments.

Jesse Huey and Quentin Roberts in front of Tengkampoche’s NE Pillar last year. Photo: Quentin Roberts

 

It’s not surprising that Quentin Roberts waded again into the fray, via his Instagram page, trying to broker peace.

“The debacle has gone rogue,” he wrote. “They did take from my cache without permission, but they also had gear at camp and could have climbed the route without that stuff. I do think that the beta I put online and shared with Tom was more important to their success than the gear.”

At the same time, he admitted that his anger over Livingstone’s first Instagram admission was overblown.

“Tom, Matt, and I have spoken, and realized that so much of this came down to poor communication between us,” Roberts said. “We were obviously not clear enough, and that created two [sides to] the same story.”

Kiss and make up, but shoot the messenger?

Ultimately, Tom Livingstone offered some mild apologies to Roberts and Huey but spared no ire against the writer who reported the story.

“I find it a bit upsetting that Andrew Bisharat is now calling against a ‘whipped up social media mob’ when he knows full well this is exactly what he’s started,” Livingstone wrote. “To write a false and sensationalist article on your website and then tell people to calm down…strikes me as being a little late. To say our ascent was ‘poaching’ is ridiculous.”

Indeed, like the other principals, Bisharat has tried to dial back the temperature since that first article. He wrote a long, follow-up piece on Evening Sends called “Broken Discourse”. In it, he justified his actions and responded to those points in his original piece that Livingstone had considered inaccurate or false.

But Bisharat was not the one who started the controversy. It was one of the climbing teams who used the others’ gear and food without permission, and it was the other team that sent the private texts that passed between the two groups to a writer.

This relevant postscript to a significant climb is a subject of potential interest. From this point, each writer or media outlet decides whether it is worth reporting on, and how. As Bisharat notes, not reporting on controversial issues in order to avoid nasty debates or waking up the trolls is not sensitivity, it’s self-censorship.

In the end, something positive may come from this relatively unimportant quarrel between two climbing teams. We now know a little more about how things go in the world of exploratory mountaineering. We’ve begun to think about the ethics and responsibility of leaving stuff behind on a mountain. We may even understand a little better the nuances of human behavior in the face of adventure, ambition, and pride.

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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Dave @ Accidental FIRE
8 months ago

As a longtime climber this is a fascinating discussion and incident to break down, but in the end we have to step back and realize how absurd it all is. I can only imagine an average “joe-q-public” who knows noting about alpinism reading the vitriol and hate on social media about this and wondering what planet these people come from. That’s a lot of anger and hate to have about something that objectively amounts to nothing and contributes little to nothing to society at large.

G Roberts
G Roberts
7 months ago

All’s well that ends well. No one’s at fault, no reason to invoke ethics, social media was the problem all along.

Yosemite Stan
Yosemite Stan
7 months ago

And now, another episode of “As The Mountain Turns”

Don Paul
Don Paul
7 months ago

I always listen to the Runout Podcast that takes on all this kind of climbing drama. A recent episode was about a sport climbing dilemma: what is the etiquete when another group is already working your route? And plans to hang out on it all day. Should they let you take turns doing laps or should you just pick another proj? Trivial yes, but a situation that comes up constantly and leading to many disagreements, with no clear rule. Andrew has mentioned on the show that he sometimes gets into trouble for weighing in on all these debates. Colin Haley… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by Don Paul
Craig Quigley
Craig Quigley
7 months ago

Angela is a great journalist, and I appreciate and enjoy her stories. However, the reactionary churning of gossip for the previous story was not only naive, but also pathetic. The subsequent ‘pile on’ in the comment’s section after her story pretty much sums up the average mentality of an interenet user these days. Also the admin on here should hang their heads in shame; how “a duck move by a pair of English tossers” hasn’t been deleted is beyond me.