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ExWeb's tribute to Inaki Ochoa: When good men die

Posted: Jun 02, 2008 04:26 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) We want wild adventure, but go on guided trips. We want a lake-side cottage; but buy a large house in suburbia. We dream of a husky-wolf, but get a lap-dog. We shovel our fist in our mouth; and go through life unheard.

That's why it is so difficult to lose a man like Inaki. <cutoff>

Everyone had met Iñaki Ocha de Olza once. Contrary to many of his breed, he mingled with everyone, across borders and language barriers. Those who went up for him did it not because he had climbed 12, 8000ers. They did it because he was Inaki.

A man who did what he wanted, and said what he pleased. Inaki's courage extended beyond mountains, and his heart exactly made him loved a bit more than others.

<b>The Matador</b>

Inaki threw out fame and money but he never gave up his pride. "I'm not a diplomat," he said. While it was true that Inaki had fallouts with almost everyone; he always provided facts and examples for his reasoning; and would spend much time thinking it over.

But he also knew the cost of failed honesty; he would have to eat shit and that was one thing Inaki just could not do.

We met on Everest in 1999. He was on our permit but that was that. Inaki was very much his own climber. He had been hired by the National Geographic to film an American Everest/K2 double header. Soon enough, we had a miserable NG team in our camp. Inaki was in a tent somewhere, they said, and refused to film. Being their best climber, this was a problem. As the "leaders" on the permit, could we try and talk to him?

<b>The tripod and the ladies</b>

We checked in with the Spaniard. Not that it was of our business, Inaki made clear with all his Pamplona body language, but since we asked; those a-holes had started to explain to him how a tripod works.

HOW A TRIPOD WORKS! As if he - Inaki - wouldn't know how a tripod works!! He might not speak perfect the English language, but he was not an idiot. They kept treating him as one, Inaki said, and so now the idiot was out and they could film their own stupid movie.

"It's probably not going to work," we told the producers back in our tent.

Another complication was the temperamental Heidi Hawkins. The American female climber and Inaki had hung out. All of a sudden, he showed up in camp with a very young American trekker who said little but never let go of Inaki with her big, blue eyes. They had met somewhere in Lukla and now she resided in Inaki's tent.

The ensuing division of joint climbing and camping property between Inaki and Heidi in BC became one of those epic Everest tales.


Eventually, Inaki carried tent and gear for Heidi and the NG filming crew to camp 2, but climb with them he would not. Next time we saw him was on the Lhotse face. A man sat in the snow, a bit away from the fixed line, looking pretty spent. Fellow climbers just passed him by, like zombies on a rope.

"You want some water?" we asked. "Yes please." Only then did we notice it was Inaki. What he was doing there we didn't know, but then you never did with this guy.

A week later, the answer arrived. Resting in a village after our acclimatization climbs; someone came running giving us the scoop. Inaki had climbed Lhotse, on his own. This was bad news. As leaders on the Everest permit, we were officially responsible for the climbers in our team to follow the routes we had paid for.

We hiked back to BC and met Inaki on the trail, blonde girl close behind. "I climbed Lhotse!" he exclaimed enthusiastically, expecting our praise. "Well that's great. For you." we said. "Except now we are in deep shit."

When Inaki realized the legal problem, he became worried. "I can explain to the ministry" he said, clearly unsure how.

Did anyone see you?" we asked. Turned out, some commercial chiefs had followed Inaki's climb in binoculars from C2, but spread word was he hadn't topped out (strong, independent climbers were bad for business). "Well then, the route is joint with Everest and you apparently didn't summit," we smiled. "So you didn't climb it. We'll deal with the ministry. Congratulations."

That Himalayan moment probably cemented our friendship. It was also the last time we saw each other. From now on we would fight a joint battle, but in cyberspace.

<b>Mountains, friends, and freedom</b>

We went on to exploration in the polar areas and on the oceans, moved to US and started ExplorersWeb. We wanted to change a few things in the world of adventure; and provide an alternative to the prevailing journalism covering famous names and braggy or snobbish individuals over true achievement.

The site came as a result of many debates in camps with our fellow adventurers - and climbers just like Inaki. We wanted to be seen for what we did; not for whom we knew or for playing cheap tricks for fools.

For Inaki Kangchenjunga, his first Himalayan giant, had set his priorities straight already back in 1990: "with love for life and freedom being on top, and money on the bottom," he said:

"Kangchenjunga was, to me, an awakening in the Zen sense of the word. I realized for the first time, and strongly, that there was a path ahead of me, and I only had to follow it, without setting up obstacles, without fear, without regrets. It was much easier than what people may think, and I never looked back."

In spite of several attempts, Inaki didn't summit Kang. In fact, after Annapurna, Kangchenjunga was to be his "last" peak, and he wanted to climb it with Nives and Romano.

"It will not be the same without him, the couple had said about Inaki who was injured and unable to join their Makalu winter attempt. When in turn Nives was hurt on Makalu, Inaki countered: "I feel like waiting till Nives recovers to share Kangchenjunga with them, because friendship is much more meaningful than mountains," he said.

<b>The (lack of) fame</b>

Inaki was a fast climber. He summited many of his 12, 8000ers in speed ascents; and Shisha alone via a new route variation, in conditions that made everyone else turn back. Still he got little attention. Asked why, Inaki said: "I think my name does not sound Slovenian enough!!... How about 'New route on Shisha Pangma, solo and in 13 hours, by ex-communist ugly powerhorse Iñakek Ochoovich'? :)"

Inaki was referring to prestigious climbing awards inclined to favor obscure climbs made by cool-looking individuals with exotic names, but his stunt in 2003 as professional/sponsored climber had already made him reject this kind of career in any case. "Most of the general media does not have the education or knowledge to understand what is worthy of attention or not," he said. "Most of the time they cover only fatal accidents or Everest summiteers."

<b>The best climbers</b>

While speed is a way to climb safely; on the 8000ers the only important thing is to stay alive, "the rest is secondary," Inaki said.

Still, he was awed when Jorge Egocheaga descended all the way from the summit of Manaslu to Base Camp in under four hours. His own speed climb on Dhaula (in a single, very windy 24 hour push "Kazakh style") was Inaki's tribute to Anatoli Boukreev, who made the fastest climb on the peak ever in 1995 (17 hours and 15 minutes).

Inaki had in fact been invited to the climber's fatal Annapurna winter climb. "He was <i>The Man</i>, and some of us learned a whole lot from him," Inaki said. "Now we can wink an eye and say, 'Toli, we are following your tracks'..."

Inaki climbed seven of his 8,000m-plus peaks in this light and fast style; with Shisha Pangma leaving him "as finished as my body and mind can be, and took me to a place inside myself that I had never been." (He sent the first video to ExWeb straight after.)

Once getting a taste of the swift climbing style, Inaki would not change it. While there was just one Anatoli, Inaki said, three of the fastest Himalaya mountaineers in the world today are Denis Urubko, Jorge Egocheaga and Joby Ogwyn.

He admired all mountaineers who were strong, honest and dedicated; and still trying to find their own limits: Simone, Nives, Romano, Denis, Stremfelj, Kozjec, Prezelj, the Russians, the Kazakhs, Hamor, Egocheaga, Morawski, Kopold, Gerlinde and Ralf, House, Iñurrategi, Kammerlander, Steck, the Pou brothers, Zabalza... "exactly the same life as Lafaille and Boukrev and some others (gone, but not forgotten) had," Inaki said.

He tolerated no criticism of his mates: "Talk is cheap at the bar," he snapped. There will always be people who prefer to just watch, and talk, rather than climb, and so...shut up already."

<b>The easy paths</b>

Like most free mountaineers, Iñaki thought that Himalaya should be climbed decently, with imagination and passion. New routes, winter climbs, speed climbs, solo climbs or a combination of all of them: "The best climbers still have a lot to do, and they will, for sure," he said.

An advocate of freedom; Inaki was reluctant to judge, but still watched with worry the increasing avalanche of bottled oxygen, Sherpas, and fixed ropes. All of a sudden, mountaineering was not about difficulty, but about making things easy:

"I don't understand why 90 percent of the climbers use oxygen on Cho Oyu from 7,000m, which is an altitude where you can live for a week without it. It is a mystery to me," Inaki said. He deemed Everest, the way it is climbed today, by far the easiest of the 8,000ers.

Still, this Resort Alpinism, (as Messner put it) pissed Inaki off only when local heroes came back down bragging that they had summited Everest or any another peak they had in fact raped by monstrous infrastructure. "We should learn from and improve historical climbs, or at least try to match them," Inaki figured.

<b>The commerce</b>

Inaki too had worked as a guide for commercial outfitters. After being on both sides of the battlefield, he said that guiding Everest is fine (as is guiding Denali or Mont Blanc). Yet to Inaki, guiding was a way to share his experiences and passion with others. "If I ever work as a high-altitude guide again, I would try to have my own clients, or at least stay away from bosses like Russell Brice. I would never work for that kind of guy, never," Inaki said about the commercial guide's military style displayed in a Discovery series as the norm in Everest climbing.

As for independent climbers complaining about crowding on Everest - they should choose other routes such as the east face, the southwest face and the north face, Inaki pointed out.

A realist, Inaki had little hope for the future of Mount Everest. "80 years from now Everest will be climbed by helicopters and cable cars," he said. "In the lift, you will hear somebody say, 'Hey, remember years ago all those dumb-asses getting themselves killed in avalanches and storms?' And people will agree, smiling and shaking their heads in disbelief. Fortunately Ill be gone."


Dignity was everything to Inaki. In summits, achievements, and life itself - nothing was worth accomplishing without it.

Like most elite mountaineers and adventurers, Inaki didn't use charity work to fund or justify his climbing life. He kept his humanitarian projects to himself, doing them simply because he felt that he owed a lot to the people of the Himalayas.

He strongly objected to the increasing attempts at summit cheating, "Jesus! It's really not all that difficult: the summit is where everything goes down in any and every other direction..." he said.

He also didn't look forward to finish his 14, 8000ers tick list: "That would mean that my life right now is hell, that I hate my passion, and that I want to climb these mountains only to scratch their names off a list. And nothing is further from my way of relating with the Himalayas, with life itself. I jump in the plane to Nepal with the same smile on my face and knot in my stomach as 17 years ago, when I did it for the first time."

"I have a lot of respect for a guy like Hans Kammerlander, who did not climb the last of them, Manaslu, because his friends were killed there," Inaki said. "No money can buy such personal greatness."

<b>Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Judgment</b>

Freedom was everything to Inaki, and that included his freedom to speak his mind. "Personally I'll boycott the Beijing Olympics this summer," he said shortly before getting his climbing permit this year.

Inaki didn't just throw opinions around; his views were always based on educated facts: "The family of the executed pays for the bullet, while the state sells the organs. The Tibetan genocide is still unpunished, after 1 million Tibetans were exterminated between 1950 and 1970, and another million are living in exile. And the IOC awards China with the Games?"

And he feared not to criticize the very awards aimed at making people like himself famous: Prizes are like hemorrhoids," he quoted Tomaz Humar, "sooner or later you will have one in your ass.

"In the end they just want to sell; their products, their people, their ideas, their vision, their records, their grades..." Inaki said.

"Right from the start when I took up climbing, I liked the absence of written rules, officials and judges. I'm very happy that bureaucrats belonging to mafias like the IOC keep their sharp claws away from our activity, and I hope no one comes to substitute them. Especially if they belong to an elite group or a private, commercial company."

<b>Being ready</b>

"I always loved the Games. In 1988 we watched Seoul in the Yosemite cafeteria. During Barcelona 1992, we were walking towards Everest. Atlanta 1996 we were coming down from the Gasherbrums, and in the 2000 Sydney games we were walking towards Ama Dablam. In Athens 2004 we were coming down from K2, but this year will be different," Inaki told us less then two months ago.

How different it would be, none of us could have imagined. Now, Inaki was lying alone high up in a freezing tent on Annapurna's south face, and we were frantic.

Not that he wasn't ready: "Bob Dylan says that 'behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain'," Inaki said shortly before the climb. "Himalayas are beautiful, Himalayan climbing is painful. If you are not ready to pay a certain price (cash not accepted), then it would probably be wiser to stay home."

True...only not yet, not now, we pleaded to the heavens above.

<b>No suicide climber</b>

"I'm worried about Inaki," I told Tom already that Sunday. "I'm not, not yet, he's good at turning around," Tom replied.

This was true. Inaki was no suicide-climber; he had climbed on many more 8000ers than his summit score showed. "When I was climbing an overhanging serac on the north side last year, surrounded by avalanche prone slopes, time came for me to be brutally honest with myself. The risk was just too high," he had said about Annapurna itself.

He was the same way in the Pamplona bull runs: "My dad has run for nearly 50 years without missing a single day, more than 300 times... always closer and holding his run longer than I ever did. I am a very bad and cowardly runner, I must say, but I enjoy it a lot."

Yes Inaki was careful, but he was no coward. "Comfort, security and money are the three modern Gods of our western civilized society," he said. "Everything is ergonomic, insured, and aimed to take least possible physical effort. The value of whether a thing is good or bad is determined by how much money you can make out of it."

"Himalayan climbing is regarded useless and stupid, because you have to sweat to make your dreams come true and because you might die - as if you would live forever were you not a climber."

<b>To live forever</b>

We refused to accept the end. As soon as it became known that Inaki was in trouble, a tremendous rescue attempt took off. Folks all over the world joined hands in the efforts; kept on edge night and day while climbers in Nepal threw themselves onto Annapurna's south wall as if it were a hiking peak. The urgency, and the wish for Inaki to live made heroes out of ordinary men; in turn presenting a beautiful example to the rest of the world.

Back at the computers, no one could sleep. Emails jetted between South America, Europe, and US with information about the weather, the logistics, and latest from the climbers on the peak. "Is nobody sleeping in this world?" we wrote in our last email to the massive thread of names. "We are in Colorado, it's past midnight and we don't sleep either," came the last reply - from Don Bowie's folks.

We had just got word that Inaki's state was worsening, and now even folks in Pakistan joined in trying the impossible mission of getting "the fearless four" choppers to Nepal.

We stepped out into the night for a bit of fresh air. The sky was lit by a full moon. "Wonder if Inaki can see it too," I sulked to Tom. "Whatever happens, this rescue attempt is his legacy. Besides, Annapurna south face is a worthy place to go," I added.

Still, we were hopeful - a bit elated even - things were moving fast now, and climbers were closing in on Inaki's little tent.

Back inside the house, Tom glanced at the latest Skype message on the computer. "Oh no," he said. A cold drift swept through the room. The flickering note was from Lena at RussianClimb:

"I'm sorry, guys. Just spoke to Sergey. We were too late. Inaki didn't make it."

It took over a week before I could write my story. Going over all his interviews with us, I had my last chat with Inaki. Here are two lines that I think he would have liked to leave us with:

"Finish or not, walking my path in the Himalayas has been fulfilling, teaching, humbling and very much worth it. Lets just keep on doing it; lets climb!!"

[This story was written by ExplorersWeb founder Tina Sjogren.]

<i>Iñaki Ochoa de Olza had only Kangchenjunga and Annapurna left for the complete list of 14, 8000ers. In addition to his 12 summits, Iñaki also had summited Cho Oyu twice more, plus Shisha central and the fore summit of Broad peak.

In 2006, Inaki summited Manaslu and then Shisha Pangma main in less than 15 hours. Climbing alone in conditions that had turned away all other mountaineers, he followed a new variation from C3. For that climb he was awarded among ExplorersWeb's Best of 2006.

Ochoa was born in Pamplona, Spain on May 29, 1967. He had his first experience on an 8000+ meter peak, Kangchenjunga, at age 22. He had since taken part in over 30 Himalayan expeditions and also worked as high altitude cameraman and guide.

Ochoa always climbed with long time friends who shared his criteria: ascending without O2 or Sherpas and minimizing the use of fixed ropes.

Inaki liked writing, music (Manu Chao, punk rock as well as the classis - Van Morrison, Credence, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan) and literature - Inaki had more than 500 climbing books at home. His all time favorite movie was Monty Python's Life of Brian and his favorite book was A confederacy of dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Inaki leaves behind a set of parents he loved, and two younger brothers he admired.</i>

#Mountaineering #feature

"A summit is where everything goes down in each and every direction" thundered Inaki Ochoa, brave and outspoken on the mountains as well as off them.
"There are some people who inspire and leave a mark in the heart of everyone they cross; Anatoli was one of those people," Inaki said. "As a climber he was way ahead of the pack, and as a man he was much better one than the snakes who tried to bite him for obscure reasons." Image of Bukreev (left) and Inaki (click to enlarge).
Inaki (left) and Kazakh Denis Urubko who was almost there upon learning that Inaki could hold on no longer (click to enlarge).
But it was the amazing rescue attempt on Annapurna in 2008 that made all the difference. Romanian Horia Colibasanu (top left) stayed with Inaki until the arrival of Swiss Ueli Steck (second left) on May 22nd. Swiss Simon Anthamatten (third left) meanwhile held in C3; where Russian Alexey Bolotov (top middle) later arrived. Lena Laletina from RussianClimb was already organizing a back-up rescue led by Russian Serguey Bogomolov (top right). This second team included Kazakh Denis Urubko (second r..
"Kangchenjunga was, to me, an awakening in the Zen sense of the word. I realized for the first time, and strongly, that there was a path ahead of me, and I only had to follow it, without setting up obstacles, without fear, without regrets. It was much easier than what people may think, and I never looked back."
Much like most free mountaineers, Inaki (on K2 summit in image) thought that Himalaya should be climbed decently, with imagination and passion. New routes, winter climbs, speed climbs, solo climbs or a combination of all of them: "The best climbers still have a lot to do, and they will, for sure," he said.
Like most elite mountaineers and adventurers, Inaki didn't use charity work to fund or justify his climbing life. He kept his humanitarian projects to himself, doing them simply because he felt that he owed a lot to the people of the Himalayas.
"I'm very sorry I will not see the Ethiopian long distance runners Bekele and Gebresselasie that I admire so much, but it will be easier to sleep if I dont cooperate as a spectator of that circus," Inaki said about the Chinese Olympic Games. Image of Ochoa and Bekele before a bull run in Pamplona (click to enlarge).
"I would sell all my possessions (except my dog!) to go back to K2, Kangchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Makalu or Dhaulagiri, which are, in my opinion, the most attractive of the 8000ers." Image of Inaki and his 7-year old dog Ulises (click to enlarge).
Inaki's lonely footsteps on the top of Shisha Pangma. All images courtesy of Inaki Ochoa and his website.