(MountEverest.net) Conrad Ankers Altitude Everest team, currently the only remaining expedition on the mountain, is preparing to launch a summit push on June 8. Filming a documentary on Mallory and Irvines ascent, the climbers arrived in BC late in the season, since they needed an empty mountain in order to recreate the 1924 ascent in every detail. Characterized as George Mallory, Anker will climb in early 20th century clothes and gear, while British Leo Houlding will play the young Sandy Irvine.
In addition to solitude and vintage equipment, the filming requires no fixed ropes and no ladders on the infamous Second Step the highest point where Mallory and Irvine were seen alive. Ankers expedition is planning to retrieve all safety gear from the rocky outcrop, and then free-climb it, as the British Pioneers are reported to have done.
Tough as it seems, Anker and Houlding wont be the first contemporary climbers to achieve the feat. In 1985, Spaniard Oscar Cadiach did it in full-monsoon conditions and w/o O2. He returned in 2000, wearing Mallory-style clothing. In 2001, a rather unknown Swiss climber, Theo Fritsche, also free-climbed the rocky outcrop, without O2.
Everest researcher Pete Poston has re-accounted Theo Fritsche's climb in this article for ExplorersWeb. In part two (linked below), Jochen Hemmleb adds details about Oscar Cadiach's climbs.
Little Known Free-Solo Ascent of the Second Step in 2001 by Theo Fritsche
By Pete Poston for MountEverest.net
A Patch of White
With the recent announcement that Conrad Anker has returned to Everest to recreate Mallory and Irvines famous attempt in 1924 as part of the filming of the documentary A Patch of White by Altitude Films, perhaps its time to publicize Austrian Theo Fritsches free-solo climb of the Second Step in 2001. Jochen Hemmleb wrote in the 2006 American Alpine Journal that Fritsche was able to scale the formidable headwall of the Second Step free-solo and on-sight. Fritsche told Hemmleb that he had it in mind to climb Everest as much as possible without artificial aids, which meant avoiding the ladder on the crux pitch and not using supplementary oxygen as well. He quietly succeeded in doing both, without fanfare or publicity.
A little Second Step history
The crux headwall pitch of the Second Step was first ascended by a party of three Chinese climbers in 1960, when they were able to overcome the overhanging last six meters using a shoulder stand, ropes, and pitons. Incredibly, the lead climber, Chu Yin-hua, resorted to taking his boots off and climbing in stockinged feet to overcome the last slippery few meters, subsequently losing many of his toes to frostbite as a result. Since then, everybody has climbed this last tricky section using a ladder, making it even easier to overcome this last major hurdle between the climber and the siren call of the summit.
Laybacking at 8600 meters
Fritsche wrote to Hemmleb that he scouted out the pitch from below, where it appeared to him that the prominent offwidth crack to the left of the Chinese ladder might be climbable by laybacking. So he tucked his ice ax into his pack, removed his overmitts, and worked his way up to the base of the ladder. Once there, he was able to successfully layback the offwidth until reaching a steep rise or overhanging block above. Here Fritsche bridged out left and was then able to mantle over the block, reporting that it was very strenuous but nevertheless rating it in the 4+ to 5- range (5.6-5.7).
Is 5.10 more like 5.7 if its only a few moves?
Fritsche made the somewhat confusing comments to Hemmleb that he doesnt disagree with Anker's 6+ rating of the pitch (5.10) because the overhanging block at the top of the crack "might as well be in the 5+/6- (5.8) range." Apparently what Fritsche means is, since only one or two hard moves were required to overcome it, he would lower the overall rating. Perhaps one of Ankers reasons for returning to Everest as part of this documentary project is to settle once and for all the true rating of this pitch.
No searching for Irvine in between takes?
Anker has stated in interviews that his expedition is not a search expedition for Irvine and the camera, but strictly a documentary of Mallory and Irvines pioneering ascent in 1924. Anker loves a mystery, whether in mountaineering or other forms of exploration like the ill-fated Franklin Northwest Passage Expedition to the Arctic in 1845, Robert Falcon Scotts fatal expedition to the South Pole in 1912, or the amazing crossing of South Georgia Island in 1916 by Ernest Shackleton and several of his shipwrecked crewmates. The difference here, Anker states, is that we know what happened to these adventurers, but we dont know for sure what happened to Mallory and Irvine. And in a world where we know everything, maybe its better we never know what happened to Mallory and Irvine.
June 8, 2007 will history repeat itself?
More importantly, will Anker - who will play Mallory in the documentary while ace climber Leo Houlding plays the part of Irvine - be able to free the route also? The pair will reportedly wait until the end of the climbing season - June 8 as a matter of fact - which is eighty-three years to the day after Mallory and Irvines disappearance. They will prepare their attempt by first cutting down the ladder, therefore guaranteeing that the climb will be in the same pristine state it was when Mallory and Irvine faced it. The pair will also dress in period clothing, first recreated by Professor Mary Rose at Lancaster University in the UK. Last year Graham Hoyland tested the clothing at Advanced Base Camp and commented positively on its warmth, wind resistance, and freedom of motion.
Move over Rover
A final question might be, if the Second Step can be climbed free, then should the ladder be moved so that mountaineers who want to attempt a pure ascent can do so? Apparently there is talk of moving the ladder permanently off to the side so that commercial expeditions can still operate, while leaving room on the mountain for purists who want to experience this part of the route as it really is. (Of course the rest of the standard Northeast Ridge route would still have the fixed ropes in place). What an outstanding gesture that would be to Mallorys restless spirit.
Part 2: Free-climbing Everests Second Step update: Before Fritsche was Oscar Cadiach the other Mallory
Jochen Hemmleb's interviews with Theo Fritsche were published in the 2006 American Alpine Journal, pp. 468f.
Thanks to Franc Pitula and Alex Abramov for permission to use their photos, and to Jamie McGuiness for helpful discussions.
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