The Gipuzkoan Alberto Iñurrategi was for years the youngest climber to climb Everest without artificial oxygen, at the age of 23. If he had been born in the United States and not in Aretxabaleta, he would be a millionaire, an American businessman once assured him. Instead, he always considered that there was no merit in an ascension shared with his brother Félix de él and elevated to the altars in the Basque Country.
One of his most celebrated audiovisual talks bears a statement-making title: ‘In Praise of Failure’, a master class on what it really means to pursue the dream of climbing mountains. Neither Alberto Iñurrategi was a failure nor is Kilian Jornet now, who has just announced that his appointment with Everest has ended without a summit in a spring in which at least 500 people have climbed to the roof of the planet. Now back, the Catalan athlete has explained on his social networks his particular trip, his satisfaction at having been able to sink his teeth into a dream: to follow in the footsteps of the recently deceased Tom Hornbein and Willy Unsoeld on the west edge of Everest, the two first to venture into unknown terrain for humans in 1963.
It has also achieved something that almost everyone has already forgotten: Everest deserves respect, it is still a place where authentic adventures are possible and, strange as it may seem, they can coexist with the greatest of absurdities: queues to climb or go down the mountain. The west edge is an amazing balcony and a metaphor for the distance between the exciting and the banal. Kilian Jornet spent several minutes on this ridge observing the lines of climbers who, to his right, on the southern slope, were advancing towards the top.
He could see the same image to his left on the north or Tibetan side. And he, between two worlds, as isolated as if he were on the moon, as anxious and alert as the first to pass through there, Hornbein and Unsoeld, were in 1963. Despite everything, Jornet wonders if “perhaps (his ) expedition was a failure? and he answers like this: “I didn’t get to the top of the mountain I had in mind, but I did get everything else. For me the how is much more important than the what and, in this sense, this climb to Everest was perfect. It was like a great puzzle in which I was completing each and every one of the pieces except one, the summit”.
Unlike Jornet, neither Hornbein (a wiry, elf-like fellow) nor Unsoeld (tall and heavily built) were elite athletes. They both loved to climb and explore. Already in 1963 it seemed ridiculous to them to follow the normal route of the mountain when there were virgin, attractive and obvious objectives like the beautiful west ridge. They wanted to embrace an adventure. To convince his expedition leader, Horbein clung to a blurry photograph showing the top of the ridge, rocky terrain that might be impassable at that altitude, but cut vertically by a snow channel: if they managed to achieve it, their progression would be simple and therein would lie the key to their success. The channel was baptized as Horbein runnerand Kilian Jornet traveled through it after not a few difficulties.
“The route is beautiful. It was a pleasure following in his (Hornbein and Unsoeld’s) footsteps for a few hours. My ascent began with a steep corridor that took me to the west ridge. The conditions were horrible: blue ice under a top layer of deep snow. During 1,000 meters (of unevenness) I was doing two steps up and one down! ”, He lamented.
On the ridge, the strong wind forced him to take refuge for three hours under a cornice. “When the wind died down I continued along the west ridge and traversed mixed terrain to the foot of Horbein Corridor. I felt very comfortable there and the conditions were perfect”, he narrates. But it could all end in a nightmare when he broke a sheet of wind that triggered an avalanche that dragged him nearly 50 meters. With the fright in his body, he decided to turn around, his nose glued to his GPS screen, without visibility in the middle of a snowfall that had also erased his tracks. “In short, it was a great day on the mountain in which everything was more than perfect, except that I did not reach the top,” he settles.
Jornet’s journey may have occurred exactly on the day of the 60th anniversary of the rise of Hornbein and Unsoeld, although the Catalan has not specified the date of his attempt. Horbein lived to be 92 years old, but he was a couple of weeks away from celebrating the date they never forgot: May 22, 1963. Hornbein never understood the images of the traffic jams near the summit. This season, numerous windows of bad weather have prevented crowds at the top of Everest, but not metro-station traffic jams at Khumbu Falls, the twisting glacier that leads from base camp to the first altitude camp.
The video in which many mountaineers crowd together waiting their turn to climb a ladder and overcome an ice ledge, has hidden an alarming number of deaths: 11, to which several missing persons could be added. The failure, say the mountaineers of the race, is not trying. Others consider, instead, that to fail is not to return. Kilian Jornet definitely knows that his Everest has not been a failure.
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