Just Collecting 8,000m Peaks No Longer Has Any Real Climbing Value

Guided summit collectors who seek fame merely exploit the myth that the real climbing greats have created.

This article first appeared in the Hungarian publication, mozgasvilag.hu.


On 26 April 2023, China’s Dong Hong Juan reached the main summit of 8,027m Shishapangma. In doing so, she had climbed all 14 mountains in the world above 8,000m. Paradoxically, she became the first woman to do so. It was a feat that had supposedly been completed more than a decade ago. Who was first, then? And what mountaineering value does this great Himalayan challenge, the 14×8,000m, have today?

First of all, I would like to make it clear that this article looks at these achievements from the perspective of climbing history, not from what the average person considers difficult. Climbing 8,000m peaks is inherently difficult, but it only makes sense to compare 8,000m performances by looking at the style they are climbed with. And you don’t have to be an 8,000m climber to see the differences.

Research results of 8000ers.com

Eberhard Jurgalski, left, and Rodolphe Popier.

8000ers.com’s Eberhard Jurgalski, left, and Rodolphe Popier. Photo: Rodolphe Popie


For four decades, renowned German chronicler Eberhard Jurgalski has been collecting climbing data on the world’s 8,000’ers and has been publishing data on 8000ers.com since 2008. He is the validator of Guinness’s various records for 8,000m summits. He knows everything there is to know about the topography of the 8,000’ers, and hardly anyone on Earth has seen more summit photos than he has.

As a result, he can usually tell at a glance whether or not a picture was taken on a particular peak. One of those who might have seen more summit photos than Jurgalski is Rodolphe Popier, another contributor to 8000ers.com. Popier knows the morphology and rock formations of the various summit regions better than anybody in the world. He is also an analyst for The Himalayan Database.

More than 10 years ago, initiated by a questionable summit on Annapurna, Jurgalski started to check into other summit proofs. With the help of some international experts, he started to dig deeper into the analysis. The research eventually took 10 years, and he had a hard time figuring out how to handle the results.

They showed that most of the climbers who have completed the 14×8,000m list had not been to the highest point of all mountains, or could not/would not confirm it. In some cases, we are talking about climbs from 30-40 years ago, before the GPS era.

Sometimes, the shortfalls were unintentional

The differences are typically not large between the points reached and the summit, ranging from 30-40m to about 190m in distance, and up to 45m in altitude. Jurgalski does not assume the differences were intentional. Climbers may have thought they were at the highest point, or had zero visibility, or, after climbing a brutally difficult new route, turned back 60m from the summit before an impending storm. What does 60 metres matter, you might think? And that is the center of the whole controversy.

Sensing the historical weight of his findings, Jurgalski first put the issue up for social debate, for the community to define tolerance zones, i.e. to “accept” all previous climbs up to a certain point, still sufficiently close to the summit. He did not want to rewrite climbing history (nor does he want to do so today). However, there was little discussion about tolerance zones, let alone a consensus.

After about a year and a half of waiting and stressful deliberation, Jurgalski decided to publish the results of his research, this time revealing the names of the climbers involved. And this has shaken the climbing world to its core.

The case of Messner

Reinhold Messner was notably missing from the list of actual achievers. Only three of the 44 original names credited with completing the 14×8,000m list had verifiably reached the highest point of each peak at the time of the study’s publication. This was interpreted by the majority as “Jurgalski’s attempt to rewrite the history of mountaineering.”

The media has only put fuel to the fire. However, he did nothing more than publish a fact-based analysis in which he underlined that he did in no way want to question the merits of those climbers who might have made honest mistakes.

In the summaries of his detailed analyses he puts it this way:

“The partly sensational performances of Messner, Kukuczka, Loretan, and other pioneers are not in question. They will remain the heroes of 8,000’ers climbing forever, but we all are human and we all make mistakes and should correct them, if we can, or at least admit them.”

The summit is the summit

Jurgalski believes that “the summit is the summit.” That is, the highest point of the mountain from which you can only go downwards. He is not the only one with this philosophy. Whether one has missed the highest point by accident or on purpose, by mistake, by poor visibility or by fatigue, for him the point is that one has not reached the highest point.

Elizabeth Hawley

Elizabeth Hawley interviews climbers in Kathmandu after their expedition. Photo: John Fera


He argued that even the founder of The Himalayan Database, the late Elizabeth Hawley, did not recognize a climb where the climber turned back 30m in distance before the summit of Mount Everest. There are many examples where the climber went back up a mountain, because, after reporting to Miss Hawley, she said, “Fine, fine, but you didn’t summit.”

The best known example is American Ed Viesturs, who was “sent back” to Sishapangma by Miss Hawley after he had climbed the Central Peak and not the main summit. Miss Hawley told him that he could only qualify for the 14×8,000 series if he climbed the main summit. The distance is 300m, the difference in altitude is 19m. Viesturs went back and climbed the main summit of the mountain.

Some of the climbers involved are no longer alive. Others are too old to have a chance to “correct,” and some consider the case pathetic and are furious about the “centimetrism.” The latter, including Messner, don’t care about such details. As Messner is quoted in a New York Times article:

“If they say maybe on Annapurna I got five meters below the summit, somewhere on this long ridge, I feel totally OK. I will not even defend myself. If somebody [wants to] come and say, this is all bulls**t what you did, [I say,] Think what you want.”

But Jurgalski is the first to acknowledge the legacy of Messner:


“No BS at all, with so many great climbing achievements and significant expeditions, he surely remains one of the best mountaineers ever. But as all humans can do, he obviously made a mistake. Yes, it was only five meters in altitude, but 65 meters in distance.”

However, Jurgalski also argues that if Miss Hawley did not approve the summit of an unknown climber who had turned back 30 meters away from the summit of Everest, why should Reinhold Messner be handled differently on another mountain? Because he is famous? Because he has otherwise laid down an inimitable legacy in climbing the world’s highest peaks? Where is the consistency here?

Herve Barmasse (left) and David Gottler

Herve Barmasse (left) and David Goettler on the south face of Shisha Pangma. Photo: David Goettler/Herve Barmasse


When David Goettler and Herve Barmasse blitzed up the southwest face of Shishapangma in 13 hours in alpine style, they turned back a few meters below and some distance away from the summit because of avalanche danger, so they didn’t summit. They were open about it. Does it lessen the merit of their climb? The answer is a clear no.

Jurgalski has come under very harsh attacks, especially by Messner in the German-speaking media. He has been labeled a “hair-splitter.” Many are attacking him because he himself hasn’t climbed any 8,000’ers. Which is nonsense, because on the one hand he has seen enough imagery to point out 99% of the way to any 8,000m summit.

On the other hand, interestingly enough, no one ever accused Elizabeth Hawley of never having climbed any mountain in her life. Yet if she said your summit picture was not the summit, the climber didn’t start to argue, but walked back and climbed it properly.

If you would like to know who has missed what and by how much, click on this link.

Annapurna summit ridge and high points.

Annapurna summit ridge and high points. Photo: Eberhard Jurgalski/8000ers.com


The notorious three mountains

There are three 8,000’ers that do not reveal their summits easily, including Annapurna (8,091m) and Dhaulagiri (8,167m). Both of these mountains have long summit ridges with several high points, of which there is one highest point that is often called the true summit.

These are not always easy to find, even in good weather, because of the similar-looking snow-ice couloirs leading up to the summit ridge. You may come out on the wrong section, a few meters below the summit, and then, tired as a corpse, you have to try to reach the right point — provided you know which one it is. After an exhausting climb, it’s totally reasonable to say, “I climbed this, say what you will.”

However, if you are after a record of some kind, it is your responsibility to do everything you can to keep it clean. It’s no coincidence that many climbers go back when they later realize that they have made a mistake.

An excellent example is the case of the Italian Nives Meroi and her husband Romano Benet. They reached the so-called “Metal Pole” on the summit ridge of Dhaulagiri, 140m in distance and 30m below the main summit. But it is not accepted as the highest point of the mountain, so they went back and climbed it properly.

The same mountain resulted in Nirmal Purja losing his six-month record (which he still claims) because he did not reach its main summit during 14 Peaks project. He only properly summited two years later.

Characteristic points along Dhaulagiri's summit ridge.

Characteristic points along Dhaulagiri’s summit ridge. Photo: Eberhard Jurgalski/8000ers.com


The troublesome Manaslu

The real troublemaker is the third peak, 8,163m Manaslu. It is often argued that the pointlessness of rewriting records is due to the lack of knowledge in those old days about what the highest point on the mountain was.

If there is one peak where this is most certainly not true, it is Manaslu. The first climbers were able to find the highest point of the mountain. In 1956, the Japanese Toshio Imanishi and Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa reached the main rocky peak of Manaslu. Then in 1974, the first female climbers of Manaslu, an all-female team, also reached the main summit, although one of their Sherpas thought the foresummit was the summit. But the Japanese women insisted because they had seen the photos from the first climbers and knew what they were looking for. They too had “found” the main summit. You can read their full story in the report they published in the Alpine Journal.

Sometime in the 2000s, it became fashionable to stop at the foresummit, or on some prominent point of the summit ridge. The nearest prominent point is 35-40m away and 8-12m below the main summit, and the last section is technically not easy. The argument, “What difference does 30 meters make?” is certainly not valid here. It’s whether you are able to climb the mountain or you are not.

Manaslu is advertised as an easy summit, an entry-level 8,000’er, but those last 35m are the mountain’s venomous fang.

Manaslu summit and foresummit.

Manaslu’s summit ridge. Photo: Jackson Groves


A convenient choice

In the last decade, the reason why commercial expeditions have stopped lower has simply been convenience. They’d anchor the ropes to a safe height, set up a selfie point with prayer flags, and head for home. Perhaps Australian climber, author, and polar explorer Damien Gildea summed up the reasons best in this excellent essay:

“The researchers are also aware of the socio-economic reality that underpins modern Himalayan climbing, in that there is significant financial pressure on the sherpas and other high-altitude guides and workers employed by so many aspirants to 8,000m peaks to have their clients feel they have been ‘successful.’ Depending on the company and client, this may mean a summit bonus, which can encourage sherpas to accept tops lower than the summit (especially if other groups are stopping there), or a bonus for simply getting their client over 8,000 meters, which may reduce motivation to continue to the highest point.

With a slow, tired client in a line of similar climbers all close to the top of the mountain, and with their own safety also in mind, there is tremendous pressure on sherpas to simply ‘call it good’ short of the summit, and a grateful but inexperienced client may not know any better or simply not care.

For a decade, the problem was well-known in the climbing community, but no one really wanted to address it. And because no one questioned its validity, it became the norm. Everybody knew that as soon as the problem got into the limelight, the achievements of all the previous climbers who only made it to some foresummit would have become questionable.

The photos that changed everything

Then in 2021, Jackson Groves took a drone shot of the summit climb that made the difference clear for even a layman. While one team is taking summit selfies on the foresummit, in the background the other team is climbing to the main summit.

Manaslu true summit and foresummit

Manaslu true summit and foresummit. Photo: Jackson Groves


This was the breaking point. The pictures went around the world, and the topic made waves outside the community. Some commercial expedition agencies immediately started to advertise expeditions to the “true summit.” There were huge slips in the interpretation. In many places, the phrase “the main summit of Manaslu has just been discovered” was used, which was obvious nonsense. Everybody knew it was there, it was just more convenient and safer for the agencies to stop at the end of the ridge.

From there, however, there was no turning back. The only question was what to do with past climbers who hadn’t been to the main summit. This would have been particularly painful for those who had completed the 14×8,000m challenge.

The Himalayan Database, in “consultation with commercial expedition organizers” (which is a bit strange from an independent organization), took the diplomatic decision not to revise past climbs, but to accept only the main summit as a valid climb, starting from the 2022 season:

The Himalayan Database has decided that from 2022, it will only credit the summit to those who reach the highest point shown in the drone picture taken by Jackson Groves. Those who reach the tops shown as Shelf 2, C2, and C3 in the picture will be credited with the foresummit.

This change in summit accreditation is recommended and supported by foreign and Nepali operators whom we have consulted in Kathmandu. As we cannot change history, we will make a note in the database that from 1956 — when the summit was first reached by Toshio Imanishi, Gyaltsen Norbu Sherpa — to 2021, we accepted the three points mentioned above as the summit, due to a lack of in-depth knowledge.

various points along the Manaslu summit ridge

Manaslu summit ridge. While most guides and clients stop at Shelf 2, the group led by Mingma G Sherpa traverses below to the true summit. Photo: Jackson Groves


A registrar, not an arbitrator

The last sentence of the justification is not exactly true, as the problem was known to industry players long before, and Jurgalski’s first analysis of the mountain had already been published in 2019. In any case, The Himalayan Database has stepped back and is willing to act only as a registrar, not as an arbitrator. Understandably, as the reactions to Jurgalski’s later report show, too many interests would be harmed.

Many wondered what the point of all this was, the hairsplitting, the “questioning” of the achievements of the past. But those achievements have not changed. All that happened was that Jurgalski put into the public eye what really happened. He took nothing away from anyone, even if many still interpret it that way.

It is important to stress that independent, objective, and unbiased statisticians like Eberhard Jurgalski and The Himalayan Database are essential for the mountaineering community.

Without them, there would be no way to look up climbing records. The integrity of achievements would also be questionable, as only the ethical standards of climbers would dictate what they claim. And there have been untrue claims even with the presence of The HDB and Jurgalski’s 8000ers.com. The audience for 8,000m peaks is already grossly diluted. The fight for sponsorship and fame and the pressure of social media, the urge for acceptance and recognition is a huge temptation to overstate achievements. Without any sort of control, climbing’s history and integrity would be in danger. We all should be thankful for those bookkeepers who do this job voluntarily for the service of the climbing community.

The shooting range is open again

With the new information, the 14×8,000m lists have been updated, opening the way for those who wanted to replace those originally on the records lists but who had missed the highest point on even one of these summits. After all, they had not climbed those mountains “properly” and could therefore not be included in the statistical list.

Suddenly, the first woman to do the 14 8,000’ers, the first Hungarian on the “true summit” of Manaslu, and many similar national records, were once again up for grabs. And those who now have the financial means to achieve these goals can do so waaaay more easily than their predecessors, without any genuine climbing skills, and can gain media attention. And this brings us to the starting point of our article: how Dong Hong Juan suddenly went from fourth to first.

The first women on the 14 8,000’ers

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. Photo: Naturfreunde


The first women to have come closest to climbing all 14 of the 8,000’ers were Basque Edurne Pasaban, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, and Italian Nives Meroi. At the start of their careers, none of them set out to climb all 14. In an interview with Mozgasvilag, Pasaban revealed that she, for example, only decided after her seventh 8,000’er — six years after her first — that she would aim for all 14.

By 2010, it turned out that all three of them had reached 12 of the 14 peaks. The media started to pick up the story of who would be the first. They were trying to fend off the race, but Pasaban was clearly keen to be the first.

Then came the Korean Oh Eun-sun in the fast lane. Pasaban put it this way in her interview:

It was quite a strange situation. We were three girls close to climbing all 8,000’ers: Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Nives Meroi, and me. We were good friends: once one of us climbed a peak, once the other, so we progressed.

Then in 2007, this Korean girl came along who had no Himalayan experience whatsoever. It was obvious when I first saw her on Shishapangma. She was already saying then that she wanted to climb all the 8,000m peaks. I said, go for it. But she was progressing very fast because she had a huge infrastructure behind her.

So as soon as she climbed one peak, she was taken by helicopter from one base camp to the other. By the time she arrived, a team of sherpas had already fixed and packed down the route for her up the mountain. This way, she could “collect” up to three 8,000m peaks in a year.

I never felt any competition from Gerlinde or Nives. I know how much effort it took for all three of us to get to the possibility of being the first. At different levels, though, as Gerlinde was much more technical, but I know how hard she had to work to save up the money for her expeditions. We had to give up a lot of things, such as a relationship or everyday life. And then when we finally get to the finish line, Gerlinde, Nives and I, along comes this Korean girl with all this money. Of course, our egos came into play. We had worked hard to get there.


Kangchenjunga, viewed from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling. Photo: DC Assam


Oh Eun-sun and Kangchenjunga

In the end, Oh Eun-sun finished the series earlier than all three, but doubts soon appeared about her Kangchenjunga ascent. At the end of a long wrangle, the Korean woman admitted that she stopped way short of the summit, so Pasaban took the record. Kaltenbrunner was the first to complete the series without supplemental oxygen, and Meroi was third, also without bottled oxygen.

After Jurgalski’s report, however, it became clear that Meroi had not reached the main summit of Manaslu, while Pasaban and Kaltenbrunner had not reached the main summits of Dhaulagiri and Manaslu. This freed up the title as the “first woman to climb all 14 8,000m peaks.”

Dong Hong Juan on an 8,000m summit

File image of Dong Hong Juan on an 8,000m summit (not Shishapangma). Photo: Imagine Nepal


A new race soon emerged, this time by summit collectors with full commercial expedition assistance. Norway’s Kristin Harila, Britain’s Adriana Brownlee (who meanwhile decided to take a break), Franco-Swiss Sophie Lavaud, Mexico’s Viridiana Alvarez, Taiwan’s Grace Tseng, and China’s Dong Hong Juan, who now holds the title.

Dong was the first to finish the series, followed just a few days later by Harila, who completed all 14 in one year and five days. It is a speed record but not comparable to historical firsts. The latest table can be found by clicking on this link.

The real value of guided mountain celebrities

Kristin Harila is a sympathetic Norwegian endurance athlete with no previous climbing background. By this, we mean a lack of technical knowledge and skills and independent climbing achievements in her background. She switched from cross-country skiing to trail running, then climbed Kilimanjaro in 2015. She added the entry-level 6,000’er Lobuche East, then the 7,000’er Putha Hiunchuli in 2019, and Aconcagua in 2020.

Then she felt ready for Everest.  She climbed it, guided by three sherpas, including record Everest summiter Kami Rita Sherpa. She immediately set a Guinness world record, climbing Everest and Lhotse within 11 hours and 59 minutes with oxygen.

Seeing Nirmal Purja’s (now proven false) six-month record of climbing all 14 8,000m peaks, she then set out to do the same. Because of the assistance available, and Purja’s example, she clearly saw that it could be done. The biggest uncertainties in this project are whether the helicopter can fly, whether the client can stay healthy and whether permission will be given to climb in Tibet.

Kristin Harila

Kristin Harila. Photo: Kristin Harila


Honesty doesn’t make a decent climb great

Harila claims that she is open about her style, which is partly true. Of course, climbing claims should be honest. That is and should always have been, paramount. Unfortunately, that rule hasn’t always been followed.

But being honest doesn’t raise the level of achievement, just like being honest about doping in sport doesn’t validate a doper’s success. Also, it doesn’t make achievements comparable. But when you are aiming for records, you are comparing your achievements to previous ones. If you break a record, the message is that you have been doing something better than your predecessors. And here is my point:

The problem is not the climbing style itself but how you want to market your achievement. Summit collectors are going for absolute records in mountaineering history, but they leave the most important factor out of the equation: assistance.

Records can only be measured on the same terms. Otherwise, they are not comparable.

The past generations of climbers they are competing with were all self-reliant mountaineers who only dared to venture into the Himalaya after decades of experience. They then made ascents that pushed the boundaries and became all-time greats of the sport.

Fitness is just the base

Meanwhile, without guides and oxygen, these new record seekers wouldn’t be in the position even to try serial climbing 8,000’ers. This is a huge difference. Surely Harila is an exceptional athlete, but that is just the base to become a good climber.

Nirmal Purja broke a practically non-existent record because the time he “beat” (7 years 10 months and 6 days by Kim Chang-ho) was initially not intended to be a particularly fast time. Also, Kim did not use the same assistance.

Admittedly, we can’t overlook the fact that even Reinhold Messner sped up his climbs at the end of his series, switching to normal routes, to become the first to summit all 14 8,000’ers. But a speed record was not his focus. He just wanted to be the first.

Jerzy Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok during 1980 spring expedition to Mount Everest.

Jerzy Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok during their 1980 spring expedition to Everest. Photo: Andrzej Heinrich


During their careers, Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka aimed for the hardest routes, many times solo or in winter, mostly on new routes, without oxygen, and in alpine style. (Kukuczka only used oxygen once, during his first ascent of the South Pillar of Everest in 1980.) These pioneers were not using oxygen because it is the lack of oxygen that makes 8,000’ers so special and so hard.


Since Messner and Habeler, mountaineers know that it is possible to climb all of them without oxygen, so that has become the elite choice. If Kukuczka or Messner wanted to do the 8,000m series as fast as possible, they might have done it within two years, had they been willing to use oxygen and take the easiest routes. With today’s logistics, they all could do it in three months. It just never was their goal. Yet Nirmal Purja talks about “shattering the previous record.”

You don’t shatter a marathon record by pedaling the distance on a bicycle.

The good side of Harila’s quest is that last year, she already proved that it is not superhuman to climb all 14 within 6 months. This year, she is close to finishing them within three months. It puts Nirmal Purja’s self-exaggerated achievement into perspective.

A strong athlete with enough money and the right logistics can do it with a lot of oxygen, guiding assistance, and helicopters. But let’s be honest: If you use oxygen, you are climbing 14 7,000’ers. Which is bloody hard, too, but again, the marketing campaign is about breaking absolute records on 8,000m peaks. It is not about setting records within a new category of maximally assisted guided clients.

The need for perspective

Of course, everybody has the right to choose the style they want to climb in. Every style has its own right on the mountain. But if you really want to be honest, then you should make every effort to put your achievement into perspective in the media. None of these record seekers have ever mentioned that Kukuczka or the others were never going for a speed record, never needed a guide or oxygen, and opened routes that have never been repeated.

As a sort of defense of her style, Harila mentions that there is also a great difference among oxygen users in terms of how much oxygen they use or how many guides they need. Sure, good point. And there are those no-O climbers who outright lie about not using oxygen, and those who really don’t use it but have sherpa support with a bottle on standby, just in case. Or they use other people’s cached gear and food, then say that they went light and fast, without assistance.

The pressure of “sending”, of being exceptional, worthy of media attention, of getting sponsors creates these different categories where everybody can be the best and think that if they are honest and open, the differences in difficulty between now and then do not count. But they do. The problem is, these claimants will all be regarded on the same record lists by the general public, but it is only possible because the general public and the mainstream media do not understand the nuances. So anything could be sold if packaged rightly.

She moves mountains

Labeling her project “She moves mountains” while climbing guided by up to six male sherpas is outright disrespectful, both to Harila’s guides and to climbing history. In fact, her sherpa guides move the mountains for her. The controversy of changing her sherpa team, or the alleged helicopter assistance to load gear and sherpas to higher camps to prepare the route for her more quickly, raise further questions about the standard of her project.

Sometimes she acknowledges that it is a team effort, but in fact, she does not contribute to teamwork in any way. She is just making use of the work of the sherpas. Yet it is her name that makes the headlines, as if only her outstanding capabilities allowed her to achieve this record. There are many outstanding endurance athletes out there who could do this with the same assistance.

Of course, there were already differences in climbing style between Pasaban, Kaltenbrunner, and Meroi, but all three could hold their own ground as individual climbers. Pasaban climbed in the traditional expedition style, not with a guide but with the help of experienced companions and high-altitude porters. She used supplemental oxygen only on one peak, Everest.

Nives Meroi and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner climbed all 14 summits without supplemental oxygen. Meroi and Kaltenbrunner have climbed without high-altitude porters, but Meroi stuck to normal routes and mostly used ropes fixed by other expeditions. Meanwhile, Kaltenbrunner often climbed alpine style and on much more difficult routes than the normal ones. Climbing the Northwest Ridge of K2, or traversing Shishapangma from the south to the normal route would be a remarkable feat even for a male climber.

‘Being first of no value’

When asked about the importance of being first, Kaltenbrunner replied:

“If records were the only thing that mattered to me, I would have taken the easiest route everywhere. For me, being first is of no value.”

The only thing missing for Meroi after the 8,000ers.com revision is Manaslu’s main summit. She is still active and could go back, but the crowds make her reluctant. Instead, she and her husband (who has been her partner on all the climbs) teamed up with Slovakian Peter Hamor and Slovenian Bojan Jan and successfully climbed the previously unclimbed west face of 7,394m Kabru, next to Kangchenjunga. This gives you an idea of what she considers a more challenging climb.

And this brings us to the main point of this article.

Overvalued 8,000’ers

The real problem isn’t the “centimetrism” as some call it, or the business opportunity to set new records because of mistakes that were discovered decades after. The problem is that most people wrongly associate the 8,000’ers with climbing value and climbing performance. It is as if the 8,000’ers were the measure of the climber.

But the value of a climber is not determined by how many 8,000’ers they have reached, or whether they have climbed Everest, but solely by how they got up the mountain.

Reinhold Messner is the world’s most famous mountaineer, and the first thing that is typically highlighted about him is that he was the first to climb all those 14 peaks above 8,000m. This effectively cemented the impression that a climber who does that is an extraordinary mountaineer.

But in Messner’s unprecedented career, his 14×8,000m success is only a statistical curiosity. It is not what makes him one of the greatest alpinists who ever lived. He was already considered one of the world’s best climbers before he set foot in the Himalaya. It’s the “how” of his performances on the 8,000’ers that makes him one of the greatest.

Messner was constantly pushing the limits of what was possible. Not in the way that Nirmal Purja pushes the limits of mere logistical possibilities, but the limits of physical and mental capabilities and technical climbing prowess.

Reinhold Messner during the first ascent of the NW Face of Annapurna.

Reinhold Messner during the first ascent of the NW Face of Annapurna. Photo: Reinhold Messner


A truly astonishing list

In his climbing projects, sometimes even survival was not guaranteed. He was willing to take the greatest risks for his vision, and almost all his ventures were explorations, with many unknowns and countless first ascents. The first crossing of Nanga Parbat, where his brother died on the way down, and he himself barely survived. The first ascent of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen with Peter Habeler. Perhaps even harder, the first solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen, with no one else on the mountain. First solo of Nanga Parbat. The first alpine-style traverse of Gasherbrum I-Gasherbrum II with Hans Kammerlander, which fundamentally changed the style of climbing on the 8,000’ers. North Face of the Kangchenjunga. Any of these climbs have more climbing value than collecting all 14 8,000’ers with a guide.

Messner may have been 65m away from the summit of Annapurna, but that doesn’t change anything in his legacy or the value of his mountaineering resumé. It does change whether he can claim to have climbed all 14, though. But the point is, it doesn’t matter.

Jurgalski’s analysis, with the emergence of new firsts, merely changes the statistics but does not change the history of mountaineering.

Already in the golden era, it wasn’t the “how many” but the “how” that gave value to a climbing achievement. But today, the sporting value of collecting 8,000’ers has been completely devalued because of the guided record seekers.

Collecting summits with guides has nothing to do with mountaineering history.

High-altitude tourism ruined the myth of 8,000’ers

At first, the purely numerical approach of climbing 8,000’ers correlated with climbing value, since until the second half of the 1980s, only the best climbers attempted these peaks, often on new and difficult routes, sometimes in alpine style or even solo, then in winter.

However, with the emergence of commercial expeditions — guided, extreme high-mountain tourism — the statistical achievement has clearly separated from the climbing value. Nowadays, almost anyone can climb a series of 8,000m peaks if they have the financial means, above-average physical fitness, and enough free time. You don’t need to be an independent climber in the classic sense.

The current female serial climbers will never come close to the great female climbing figures, such as Allison Hargreaves, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Lynn Hill, Catherine Destivelle, or Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. Just as the lifetime achievements of Messner, Kukuczka, Wielicki, Stremfelj, Bonington, Urubko, or other climbers of their caliber are not affected in the slightest by the modern era of guided peakbaggers like Shehroze Kashif.

The same applies to the Seven Summits or the Explorer’s Grand Slam series. If you ski the last degree (111km) to the North and South Pole in a guided group, it is nowhere near the feat of skiing the full distance of almost 1,000km, unsupported and without guides. Not to speak about the meaning of the word, “exploration.” What do you explore on a route already walked by hundreds or even thousands of people, except your own limits?

Why the huge media attention then?

The word 8,000’er has a mythical aura around it, mainly because of the many casualties and heroic stories of the past. It only gets in the news because people still think climbing 8,000’ers requires the same commitment and climbing craft as it did 40 years ago. But it is only true if you forego oxygen and sherpa assistance.

The arena once reserved for only the very best mountaineers has been swallowed by the adventure tourism industry and has become an extreme high-altitude theme park, producing fake heroes who buy other’s work and skills and sell the result as their own success.

We know that commerce has never been about quality. In times when Eddie Bauer fires its climbing ambassadors to make room for influencers in order to reach a broader market, we should not have high expectations about which direction the industry is heading.

Unfortunately, even specialized media are obsessed with 8,000m successes and most do not shed light on the style difference and how these summits were achieved. They give too much limelight to many climbers who are nowhere near the capabilities of their predecessors whose records they “break.” And those who try to stick to original values, climbing without oxygen and support, have a hard time making people understand the difference.

Empty content

The Czech alpinist and two-time Piolet d’Or winner Marek Holecek, summed this up perfectly in a social media post:

I do not think that the wider climbing community or the public is changing. The 14×8,000’ers as performed by Nirmal Purja, or the Nepali winter ascent of K2, still attracts the media like a magnet. And it is the media who form the views of most readers.

To illustrate: In February 2022, National Geographic magazine published an article on the winter ascent of K2 under the headline ‘A Climb for History.’ Also, the major documentary Beyond Possible is running on Netflix, where Nirmal presents his ascents. According to the great interest, the media and the public obviously do not care where these stories stand in the real history of climbing, whether they respect the code and correspond to development. In my view, big words, but empty content.

It is questionable whether specialist media should even cover guided 8,000m climbers, just like we don’t report about guided Mont Blanc climbs. Easy-to-use PR statements lure publications to get clicks without too much effort put into it. But if the economic pressure of clicks remains, at least cover these climbs in the right context and explain what a record really means and how it was achieved. When people like Grace Tseng make headlines in international climbing media, it is embarrassing to mountaineering.

There surely are many compelling, inspirational, and touching storylines behind guided climbers. It’s a fantastic thing that many people can achieve their dreams with the help of guided assistance. They can surely inspire other people to step out of their comfort zone. But those who need a guide to climb a mountain should in no way claim any absolute mountaineering record.

Laszlo Pinter

Born and raised in Hungary, Laszlo is a senior sports journalist, specializing in adventure sports and mountaineering. He is currently the communications manager of the Hungarian Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Federation.