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Lessons from K2: Fredrik Strang and "the other Swedes"

Posted: Aug 22, 2008 12:59 am EDT

(K2Climb.net/story edited Aug 22, 6.04 pm) Crevasses, rock-hard snow, thin air, terrifying voids: climbing and skiing down 8000ers is not for everyone. There are less than two dozen active sky skiers alive in the world - some of them are Swedish.

In 2003 Swedish climber Tomas Olsson climbed and skied from the summit of Muztagh Ata (7546m) and Kuksay Peak (7186m). The following year he skied down his first 8000er; Cho Oyu.

In 2006, Tomas made a remarkable attempt: He climbed Everest in an unguided expedition, carrying his skis all the way to the summit. Trying a bold ski-descent down the steep and exposed Great Couloir; a rope snapped and Tomas fell to his death. <cutoff>

That same year another Swede, Martin Letzter, became the youngest Swedish climber to summit Mount Everest. Martin climbed unguided, together with Olof Sundström. Both climbers skied down parts of the normal route, in their project to telemark down the Seven Summits.

Two years earlier in 2004, the same year that Tomas Olsson skied down Cho Oyu, Swedish Fredrik Ericsson skied down from the central summit of Shisha Pangma. In 2005, Ericsson skied down Gasherbrum 2 (8035 meters) in Pakistan and last year, Fredrik skied down from 7900 meters on Dhaulagiri. All his expeditions were unguided.

<b>Born to run</b>

Much as Calif and Hawaii kids grow up surfing; Swedes and Norwegians are raised in skiing country and often very good at the sport. No wonder that legendary US ski-resorts such as A-Basin in Colorado were pioneered by Norwegian settlers: following Tomas Olsson's accident, his Norwegian team mate Tormod Granhein skied down Everest Great Couloir to camp 2.

Even ExWeb's own expat; Swedish Thomas Sjogren is former competitive downhill skier and still pretty mean on Colorado's slopes. Sjogren climbed Everest in 1999, in an unguided expedition. A few years later, he skied to both geographical poles from the coast, back to back and without support.

The arctic climate of northern Scandinavia has bred a number of hard core high altitude mountaineers, fast skiers, and skilled technical climbers cutting their teeth on frigid ice falls and tall Norwegian walls. The Swedish climbing and adventure community sports several achievements of world class. And then they have Fredrik Strang.

<b>The fame game</b>

Strang summited Everest in 2006, on oxygen, in a guided expedition. There were Shisha and Cho Oyu attempts and a Dhaulagiri climb in 2003. But Fred's biggest pride is the Seven Summits, in guided tours.

Over the years, Fred's fellow climbers and adventurers have made few waves. They made sure that their accomplishments were easy to verify should media be interested; but that was that. Humble and honest, when Fredrik Ericsson (not Strang) aborted his climb close to Dhaulagiri summit, and fellow climbers figured that they "might have made it" Fredrik was crystal clear. "This is not the summit," he declared, before getting into his bindings and vanishing down the slope.

Fredrik Strang's claims on the other hand, are a spreadsheet of ifs and buts. There's a non-existing world record. Summit pics are missing. A fore summit is claimed as a true top. Everest is claimed twice. One thing is stated on his website; another in prospects to sponsors. Wild stories of rescues abound. And for safe measure; Fred has declared himself "The best alpine climber in Sweden."

In spite of his accomplishments equaled by thousands of others; today, Fredrik Strang has become by far the most famous adventurer in his home country while only the initiated know about the rest.

<b>A media field day on K2</b>

Last month, while climbers on K2 were busy with rescue efforts, Fredrik was hard at work on his sat phone in BC.

Fredrik's PR agent Joachim von Stedingk told Swedish "Dagens Media that he contacted media already Saturday morning August 2, at 6.30 am - or only a few hours after the last avalanche. "After that three phones rang non-stop to 11pm," the PR agent said, adding "the next morning at 7 am it started to ring again."

The guys had a field day: "I think it's fun and that is why I stay with this job," Joachim told GP, another news source. The PR agent said that Fredrik called him three times already during descent, and that he had never before experienced such a media hausse. The news source added that Joachim had talked to many foreign media, including BBC and CNN.

In his own interviews with Swedish media such as Aftonbladet, Fredrik flat out declared missing people dead; said they were inexperienced, and offered heroic rescue stories about himself.

<b>Polar community unimpressed</b>

Behind the media screens, Fredrik and his PR team were not the only ones abuzz. Following Fredrik's bombastic tales from K2, international explorers started mailing ExplorersWeb. One was Irish Kevin Dempsey. Apparently, one of Fredrik's earlier big stories was another rescue - on Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Kevin Dempsey had been Fredrik's team mate on the expedition, and wrote:

"Fredrik didnt play any bigger part in our survival than any other member of our team. In fact it was Ian Barkers clear, calm assessment of the situation & his decision making that made the difference along with the fantastic efforts made to reach us by Martin & Olof, two incredibly strong world class athletes & very humble to go along with that."

ExWeb's polar editor South African Correne Coetzer was in Punta Arenas to ski to the South Pole at the time: "At one stage Fredrik and I were walking out of the hotel together," she said. "He asked me in which Vinson team I was. I said, no I am skiing to the SP. He said, 'O the last degree'. I said no I have done that, this time it's All the Way."

"Then he said to me, 'You don't look like somebody who can do it'."

"I just laughed at him. Then the Vinson storm happened. We received news about that on 5 December 2006, I remember that very well, because it was my birthday and I knew the guys."

"Those other two Swedes Olof and Martin were in front of the rescue team. I also got confirmation that Fredrick wasn't first and not in a record time [for the Seven Summits]. After the SP, when I walked into the Condor, my first thoughts were, 'I wish I had Fredrik's email address to tell him that I did it. It was tough, but the best thing I have ever done and sorry about the record.' :-)"

<b>The true heroes of Vinson</b>

Yet another wrote to ExplorersWeb, "just so you know, Fredrik wasn't really involved IN the rescue in Antarctica in 2006 - he was actually on Ian Barker's expedition team that had to be rescued...[I was there on another expedition.]"

Fredrik's expedition leader Ian Barker's debrief on the Vinson rescue seemed to confirm the testimonials.

His team's situation pretty desperate in a raging storm on Vinson, Ian Barker wrote that Fredrik was first to fall into a crevasse, saved by a belaying fellow mate - Irish Kevin Dempsey. Later, another climber fell in another crevasse and was brought out with help of others - including Fredrik. The team's radio calls for help were finally picked up by Olof Sundstrom and Martin Letzter, who set off from BC on skis moving quickly, followed by 4 other climbers.

The two Swedes arrived the following evening; upon which Olof tied in the team members with Ian's help, while Martin supported the worst affected client who was taken to the Swedes' tent at the base of the headwall and then quickly whisked off to Camp 1.

<b>The missing voice file</b>

Explorers are often involved in rescues, but don't like to brag about it. Olof Sundstrom and Martin Letzter haven't said much but their sponsor is flying mad.

Last week, Patrick Gardner wrote to ExWeb that he is one of those people who have been trying to alert the Swedish press, "who have been naively portraying Fredrik as a hero, to what a character he is."

"The reason I am so annoyed with Fredrik Strang now has a lot to do with the role he played on the Vinson expedition, which I followed closely at the time," Patrick wrote, pointing out that while Olof and Martin were unguided, Strang went with a tour group of inexperienced climbers, "exactly the type of people he was insinuating were on K2."

Patrick said that Martin and Olof had summited Vinson fast, and spent the spare time skiing and climbing in the area. In the meantime, "Fredrik's group was plodding its way to the top," Patrick wrote, "taking forever, and I remember at the time that he was constantly posting heroic voice messages to his site, in which he played up his trials and tribulations."

Patrick confirms that Martin and Olof rushed to help when the commercial group ran into trouble. But then Patrick got a nice surprise: "I heard the voice message Fredrik left on his site immediately after the rescue. Probably the only genuine message he's ever recorded. He was obviously really, really thankful to these two big 'Viking gods' who came up there in bad weather to save his ass."

"It was actually a really nice message," Patrick wrote. "Two days later I went back to the site to play the message someone else - and do you know what? It was gone! He had pulled it. Instead began Fredrik's attempt to rewrite the whole story into one in which he was doing the rescuing."

Patrick added that Martin & Olof were the Swedes (not Fredrik) who first completed the 7 summits ("for whatever that's worth.")

"They not only climbed them, they skied down them, which is much cooler," Patrick ended, "and they did their expeditions themselves - not on tour-guided extravaganzas."

Patrick's story brings to mind another event: Everest 2006. After Tomas Olsson fell, Tormod Granheim mentioned that Martin and Olof were very helpful in the rescue and recovery attempts. Not a word on Fredrik, also on the mountain at the time.


Researching this article ExWeb stumbled on another rescue report involving Fredrik Strang. In a February 16, 2005 article mentioning Dhaulagiri, Fredrik is quoted by Aftonbladet as stating, "we had to rescue a German in the middle of the night. There was no visibility, the oxygen ran out, and I was without water for three days." The article states that thanks to oxygen in high camp, Fredrik regained enough power to make it down.

Yet a hefty expedition report posted on the web at the time, sent to ExWeb by expedition leader Martin Emanuelsson last week, seems to describe a different picture.

According to the log, team mates dropped out one after the other on summit push until only Strang and Kami Sherpa remained. After summit, May 20th, at 3.10 pm, Strang arrived C3 by 4 am, hypothermic and exhausted. The report mentions that Strang and Kami were involved for four hours on descent in a fall suffered by another climber. Martin, who wrote the summit debrief, however pointed out in his email to ExWeb that he wasn't with Fredrik and Kami on this section of the climb.

Upon Kami's and Fredrik's arrival in high camp, expedition team mates covered Fredrik with their bodies to keep him warm through the night. Come morning, Fred could no longer climb and his team mates began to lower him on the fixed ropes until Sherpas finally brought Fredrik to camp 2 by 9 pm.

Putting together a makeshift sled out of sleeping bags and mats, two Sherpas next hauled Fredrik down to 6280meter where he was revived with supplementary oxygen brought up by Martin.

Meanwhile, Fredrik's team mates packed up high camps, and then helped hauling him over a crevasse field to BC in a 10 hour effort. The next day, while choppers airlifted other injured climbers from the peak, Fredrik felt much better. "Our cook Pasang baked a celebration cake for Fredrik," wrote Martin. "He's still exhausted, but he can eat, drink, joke and speak."

<b>K2: who said what and not</b>

Following K2, Swedish climbers reported to ExWeb that Fred's message board was closed down, because - according to the webmaster - "it has turned into a playground."

Wrote one Swede to ExWeb, "My favorite part: the PR agent has been fielding most of the calls so Fredrik 'could work uninterrupted with the rescue efforts on K2'. But Fredrik did manage to take a little extra time out from his rescuing duties to do a mere 25 press interviews in one go yesterday."

ExplorersWeb's own research showed that Fredrik's PR agent talked to almost every single large Swedish daily paper as well as Swedish National Radio during the time. In each of the reports the PR agent stated that Fredrik told him that he had carried climbers on his back.

Fredrik has since denounced this statement, and his PR agent claims he was misquoted. "I carried nobody," Fredrik told Swedish Arbetarbladet on Wednesday (Aug 20), "anyone who knows even a little about mountaineering would understand that", he told the news source.

In fact Fredrik backs off from just about everything at this point. He wanted to carry the dead body down at the Serbs' request. He didn't mean that Rolf was inexperienced. Neither Wilco. The latest is that that only the Pakistan porters were unskilled, and exploited by the other climbers. And he figured climbers were dead for they had stopped moving.

Yet Fredrik's statements contradict what he according to several news sources said at the time of the accident.

On August 2nd, Swedish News agency TT (Swedish equivalent to Reuters or AP) stated they had talked to Fredrik personally who said, "I have carried down both living and dead people from the mountain. I panicked when a Pakistani high-altitude carrier fell straight onto my back with his entire weight".

This statement was picked up by at least 500 international news agencies including CNN, BBC, The Times and Independent.

August 3, Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reported that they talked with Fredrik direct, who was in BC at the time. The journalist stated, "Fredrik and his friends now have to initiate a second spectacular rescue where he has to carry even more dead people on his back."

In another August 3 interview, Swedish paper Aftonbladet quoted Fredrik's dad Hans Strang; "he [Fredrik] explained that there were far too many amateurs on the mountain."

In a radio interview, Joachim von Stedingk told journalist Staffan Mälstam that Fredrik was mad about people being poorly prepared. "Fredrik himself is very well trained; his climbing party are all in top shape. Unfortunately not everyone else is; trusting that they will be rescued by others," Joachim said.

As for ExplorersWeb, we are still awaiting a long overdue reply from Fredrik Strang about his Seven Summits World Record claim.

<b>The New Brave World: instant gratification, with no effort</b>

It's alright for people to fight for happiness, including money and fame. It's a different story when the quest steals credit from others.

There are other Fredriks around the world, and the blame is only partly theirs - for they wouldn't be possible without willing media. Hopefully stories such as this along with explorers fighting to get the truth out will help journalists highlight true achievement - in Sweden and elsewhere.

We need a better understanding for the explorer's soul, we need fairness and examples that are true and inspiring for next generations. Like gold, such are not always easy to spot and we must dig for them. Here finally a reader's message, rounding off:

"The Press of today is a result of The McDonalds/Ikea/Coke/Nike-society we live in (instant gratification, with no effort), and no matter what you say they will speculate and ejaculate a history to suite their readers limited interest and limited attention span. When there is no bread, Let them eat cake, or when they are bored - throw someone to the lions. A Brave Heart would look at what happened in the coolness of time, with the facts in hand and learn from them."

(Story edited Aug 22, 6.04 pm: Tomas Olsson climbed Everest with supplementary oxygen.)

<i>Brief history of modern Swedish climbers:

<b>Daniel Bidner, Lars Cronlund, Thomas Weber, Mats Holmgren, Rafael Jensen</b>

Daniel Bidner had a central role in Swedish climbing and many consider him the best Swedish all-round climber ever. Among his many achievements are a winter Eiger Nordwant climb with Mats Holmgren in 1993, and Denali Cassin ridge (2nd repetition) with Holmgren, Thomas Weber and Niklas Bjornerstedt in 1990. Bidner climbed 4 of the 5 ex-Soviet 7000ers (Snow Leopard peaks), and did difficult routes in Patagonia, including Fitzroy. Daniel was member of the Swedish Everest 1987 North Ridge expedition as well as the Everest Super Couloir expedition in 1991. Daniel summited K2 with Rafael Jensen in 1993, but tragically died on descent.

In 1980, Lars Cronlund and Sten-Goran Lindbladh made a world class Annapurna high altitude traverse over Glacier Dome and Roc Noir, stopping just short of the summit of Annapurna 1. Lars summited Everest through the extremely difficult Super Couloir in 1991 in an expedition led by Jack Berg. Thomas Weber, who was preparing in last camp for his own summit push, aborted his attempt to help Lars down.

Mats Holmgren was another member of the Everest Super Couloir expedition. He later attempted Broad Peak with Andrew Lock and Goran Kropp. Only Kropp reportedly topped out the true summit. Lars Cronlund attempted the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat, and Rafael Jensen made a winter attempt on Nanga Parbat with Victor Saunders.

<b>Micke Reutersward, Johan Lange, Oskar Kihlborg</b>

Micke, Johan and Oscar did not follow the established Swedish climbing route. Instead, they went from the Alps straight to high altitude climbing.

The trio made the Denali Pioneer ridge in alpine style. They first tried Everest in 1989 (after Oscar bicycled there). In 1990 Micke and Oscar finally topped out Everest as the first Swedish Everest summiteers. In 1995, they summited Lhotse in an expedition with Carlos Carsolio, Rob Hall, Ed Viesturs and Todd Burleson. They also attempted several 8000ers in Pakistan including K2.

<b>Goran Kropp</b>

Kropp became Sweden's internationally most famous climber after bicycling from Stockholm to Kathmandu and then climbing Everest.

Kropp had 2 Everest summits (one w/o oxygen), Cho Oyu, Broad Peak and K2 on his CV. Initially he often climbed with groups around Bidner, and the two were supposed to climb K2 together, along with Rafael Jensen. After a year of preparations, Kropp however left the group for another team with an earlier departure and claimed a Swedish first on K2. Jensen and Bidner climbed the peak soon after, but Bidner perished on descent.

Later, Kropp claimed a solo climb of Everest in spite of climbing the normal route with Angrita Sherpa who held the world record of Everest summits at the time. Like Strang, Goran was somewhat of a media darling in Sweden but following a number of controversies, Kropp grew less popular. He moved to Seattle, where he died in a rock climbing accident.


Many other ascents have been done by Swedish climbers. Johan Akerstrom and Magnus Ryden topped out Hidden Peak, and there is a number highly skilled technical rock climbers in the country. David Falt was part of two Himalayan expeditions; adding to his 40 winter accents in the Alps up to ED3, David Falt was part of a Swedish team establishing a new route (ED-) on the previously unclimbed Hunza Peak 6270 in alpine style. David also tried Shani 5885 m twice, both times in alpine style.

Here is a list of Swedish 8000ers - not counting attempts on difficult routes (source Outsideonline.se):

<b>Mount Everest (8848m)</b>
Mikael Reutersvärd, Oscar Kihlborg(1990), Lars Cronlund (1991), Göran Kropp (1996, 1999), Renata Chlumska, Tina Sjögren, Thomas Sjögren (1999), Magnus Flock, Mattias Karlsson (2005), Johan Frankelius, Fredrik Sträng, Martin Letzter, Olof Sundström, Tomas Olsson (2006), Johan Ernst Nilson (2007)

<b>K2 (8611m)</b>
Göran Kropp, Rafael Jensen, Daniel Bidner (1993)

<b>Lhotse (8516m)</b>
Mikael Reutersvärd, Oscar Kihlborg (1994)

<b>Cho Oyo (8201m)</b>
Göran Kropp (1992), Niklas Hallström (2003), Tomas Olsson (2004), Johan Frankelius (2005)

<b>Dhaulagiri (8167m)</b>
Fredrik Sträng (2003)

<b>Nanga Parbat (8125m)</b>
Michael Lundell (2004)

<b>Hidden Peak, Gasherbrum 1 (8068m)</b>
Johan Åkerström, Magnus Rydén (1997)

<b>Broad Peak (8047 m)</b>
Goran Kropp

<b>Gasherbrum II (8035m)</b>
Tommy Sandberg, P-O Bergström, Peter Weng (1985), Fredrik Ericsson (2005)

<b>Not summited by Swedes:</b>
Shisha Pangma</i>

#Mountaineering #feature

In 2006 Swedish climber Tomas Olsson climbed Everest in an unguided expedition, carrying his skis all the way up. Trying a bold ski-descent down the steep and exposed Great Couloir; a rope snapped and Tomas fell to his death.
Fredrik Ericsson aborted his climb close to Dhaulagiri summit. When fellow climbers figured that they "might have made it" Fredrik was crystal clear. "This is not the summit," he declared, before getting into his bindings and vanishing down the slope.
Image of Olof Sundstrom. "Those other two Swedes Olaf and Martin were in front of the rescue team," wrote Correne.
Image of Martin Letzter, whose sponsor is upset. "I heard the voice message Fredrik left on his site immediately after the rescue...two days later it was gone! He had pulled it. Instead began Fredrik&#039;s attempt to rewrite the whole story into one in which he was doing the rescuing," wrote Patrick Gardner.
Swedish pioneers: Oscar Kihlborg (left) and Mikael Reutersv&auml;rd became the first Swedish Everest summiteers. In their first attempt, Oscar bicycled to Everest. (Click to enlarge).
Many of the Swedish climbers are so shy, it&#039;s hard to find images of them. Sweden&#039;s only K2 summiteers; Rafael Jensen top right (we think), climbed K2 with the very popular Daniel Bidner (below). Initially the ascent was supposed to include Goran Kropp (left), who however shortly before the expedition joined a team with an earlier departure and thus reportedly became the first Swede to ascend the peak. Kropp became internationally famous after bicycling from Stockholm to Kath..
David Falt was part of two Himalayan expeditions; adding to his 40 winter accents in the Alps up to ED3, David Falt was part of a Swedish team establishing a new route (ED-) on the previously unclimbed Hunza Peak 6270 in alpine style. David also tried Shani 5885 m twice, both times in alpine style.
Fredrik Ericsson ripping up Dhaulagiri (click to enlarge).
Another Fredrik - Swedish Fredrik Strang on his website.
Image by Lars Kronlund of Daniel Bidner opening the first rope pitch on Everest north face in 1991. Bidner later died on K2 (click to enlarge).