In mid-August, 44-year-old Austrian mountaineer Christian Stangl pulled off one of 2010's best feats of alpinism with a 70-hour solo climb of 28,253-foot (8,612-meter) K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Strangl's ascent turned out to be the only one on K2 during this year's post monsoon season, a deadly season that saw lots of bad weather, the death of Frederik Ericsson, and the failure of Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner to become the third woman and the first without supplemental oxygen to climb the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks.
Stangl, climbing the Abruzzi Spur, reached K2's summit on August 12, snapped a few photos, and began descending in deteriorating weather. He only stopped at midnight for a four-hour cat nap under a boulder. When he awoke he saw a large cat watching him, possibly a rare snow leopard. Stangl descended to Base Camp the next day, slept 12 hours, then packed up and left. What an amazing climb and feat of endurance! To solo K2, the most dangerous of the world's highest peaks, round-trip in four days. Only a true hardcore alpinist could pull it off.
Well, Christian Stangl didn't pull it off. Stangl's amazing adventure turned out to be a huge lie and a literal figment of his imagination.
There were, of course, naysayers from the very beginning who wondered about Stangl's ascent, his single summit photo, no GPS data, and no witnesses. Other climbers on the mountain never saw him on the upper snowfields, found his ice axes at Camp 3, and saw no evidence that he had stayed at Camp 3.
I was writing just last week on this blog about Oh Eun-Sun and the controversy over her disputed ascent of Kangchenjunga in 2009. I wrote that it reaches a point where we have to take the climber at their word that he or she made their ascent and reported it in a truthful and honest way. The honesty with which we report our ascents is at the root of climbing and mountaineering. If we as climbers begin fabricating our successful ascents for the sake of sponsors and money, then something seriously smells in our sport.
In a press conference a few days ago, Christian Stangl admitted that he did not summit K2. He also, however, "maintains that he did not deliberately deceive others when he said he made the summit." Stangl blames high-altitude hypoxia-induced hallucinations for his fabrication. Stangl says he imagined himself standing atop K2. His imagination was so vivid and real that he was convinced that he stood on K2's rarified summit. Stangl says he had slipped into a trance-like state and was unaware of where he was or what was happening around him, and that these images are "dangerous."
Stangl justified his lie, saying: "I suppose that I came to this from a mixture between fear of death and even greater fear of failure. Achievement and success were and are the determining factors in my sport. I think that I tried to suppress my personal failure after three summers and altogether seven attempts at this mountain. My sponsors did not pressure me into doing this. This pressure came from inside me. Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of the failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse."
At a press conference, Stangl said he decided to claim K2's summit to avoid disappointing his sponsors. Later, he said, he admitted the big fat lie to his girlfriend and she urged him to come clean. Over the past few days, the Austrian media has butchered Stangl's integrity and called his supposed ascent the "lie of the decade for the international climbing scene." Ouch.
Then Mammut, his major sponsor, was forced to write an editorial about Christian Stangl and his ascent on their website. Mammut said: "Mammut Sports Group deeply regrets the incorrect information in connection with Christian Stangl's K2 ascent. This kind of deception contradicts alpinist principles and Mammut dissociates itself from such actions in all forms." Mammut also noted, "Further co-operation with Mammut depends on his future plans and will be discussed in the next weeks."
On the Italian climbing website Planet Mountain, Vinicio Stefanello wrote, "What is certain though is that alpinism--above all (but not exclusively) Himalayan mountaineering--is experiencing a deep crisis. It is as if alpinism were stumbling through the clouds, unable to identify a clear aim apart from those 'delirious' summits, like that of Stangl. Perhaps...the solution lies elsewhere. Because if 'serious' and unsuspectable alpinists such as Christian Stangl exaggerate like this, then perhaps Himalayan mountaineering is far sicker than was originally believed."
Photograph above: Christian Stangl's summit photograph was actually taken 3,000 feet below K2's summit. Photograph courtesy Christian Stangl.