Climbing in Himalaya: Does the style matter?

This week Briançon has reunited some of the world best alpinists in the Piolets d’or awards. A celebration of alpinism, where the most significant ascents of last year were rewarded. Even if none of the climbers were looking at being rewarded or recognised, highlighting their ascents and its commitment is important for the influence that cutting edge alpinism has to every mountain sports practitioner.

Most of those climbs didn’t come with ease. Many took several attempts and the engagement, determination and skills needed to achieve those ascents are out of reach for most of the climbers. But in a way it shows to all of us what humans can accomplish in those summits and in a more general way, the basics of alpinism. Unfortunately, those climbs will probably pass unnoticed by most of the people, even climbers.

Mountaineering has a long and storied history, characterized by various motivations that have evolved over time. From scientific exploration to nationalistic achievements, from contemplation to individualistic pursuits, mountaineering has been shaped by the dominant ideologies of each era. The prevailing motives of the climbing community have influenced the style of climbing and the impact it leaves on the environment.

As climbers we are probably more “prisoners of our time” than pioneers of trends. We are now immersed in the transition from a “romantic mountaineering” era, where the journey and process of climbing held the highest value, to a “capitalist mountaineering” era, where success and external rewards take precedence, and has changed the ethos of the sport. The emphasis on success and monetization has given rise to a himalayan climbing style, which is characterized by extensive use of external aids, fixed ropes, supplemental oxygen, and large supportive teams, which can leave a significant ecological footprint, and as significantly, also kill the more ethically ‘pure’ style, and limit exploration for future generations.

This past spring, I was myself in the Khumbu region of Nepal, filled with excitement and anticipation as I embarked on my attempt to summit Everest. Alongside 500 other foreigners, and with the guides and altitude porters included, the number of people attempting the summit exceeded 1500. This is a staggering total of more than 2000 individuals who lived in the base camp for a couple of months. As I reflect on my experience, I cannot deny that I share some responsibility for the impact of our presence in the region.

The consequences of such a massive gathering of climbers became evident when I witnessed the accumulation of waste and human waste in the moraine around the base camp. This pollution not only affects the immediate surroundings but also seeps into the rivers, ultimately impacting the valleys that are fed by the glacier.

The problem of waste was not limited to the base camp alone; it extended to all the altitude camps as well. Images of torn tents and discarded gear at almost 8000 meters, in the south col, struck a chord with me. The law dictates that everything brought up should be carried down, but some expeditions use emergency situations as a pretext to leave gear behind, citing cost concerns and opting to buy new equipment for their next ventures.

Sadly, this year witnessed a significant rise in fatalities on the mountain, with 17 people losing their lives while attempting to reach the summit or supporting others in fulfilling their dreams. Natural hazards like avalanches, as well as the dangers of high-altitude climbing, contributed to these tragedies. However, a considerable portion of these fatalities can be attributed to poor decision-making and a misconception of the dangers, fueled by the prevalence of high success rates and a false sense of security. Every year more people are trying to climb these mountains with a very short -if any- previous mountaineering experience, relying entirely on the guides and assistance for their success but most important their safety. In those high mountains that means that if something goes wrong, many don’t have the capacities – technical, physical and knowledge – to stay safe and go down, nor to assist others in case of problems.  

During my interactions with fellow climbers in the base camp and on the mountain, one disheartening observation stood out: a low level of respect for the mountains and a lack of knowledge about the risks and consequences of such an endeavor. I was surprised to learn that many climbers with no prior climbing experience were driven solely by the desire to get visibility and notoriety by setting a “record” on the mountain (first from a country to climb that summit, fast father and son to link those summits, etc.) relying entirely not on their capacities but the ones from their guides and the amount of assistance they could afford. But even if there were hundreds of people with an exciting record to achieve, the place for creativity was nonexistent, since the vast majority, to not say the integrity of all climbers were on the same route, the same days, the same style. These climbers often left all responsibility for the climb and their performance in the hands of expedition leaders, guides, and altitude porters, who faced immense pressure due to the large amounts paid by the clients.

As I pondered these issues, I realized that the responsibility for this situation cannot be pinned on any single individual or group. Rather, it is indicative of the changing values in today’s modern society, where success and consumerism dominate the landscape. Perhaps mountaineering, like all other human activities, has fallen prey to the prevailing values of the current era, overshadowing the traditional values of the mountaineering community.

The question that arises now is: What can be done about this? even,  should something be done about this?  If society is heading towards maximizing success and embracing a consumeristic economic model, why should climbing mountains be any different? 

In my opinion, the answer lies in preserving the essence of mountaineering, promoting sustainable practices, and fostering a culture of respect for the mountains and the natural world. We, as climbers, have a collective responsibility to protect the environment, make informed decisions, and ensure that the future generations of climbers can experience the joy of exploration without compromising the sanctity of the mountains. To not become even more prisoners of our time but to have the necessary knowledge for deciding our future. 

A bit of history:

I believe that freedom to create, to evolve, comes from mastering one activity, that is the availability to have the knowledge without being attached to the technique  bringing the possibility to break the rules with harmony. The context is always more important than the content. So before discussing if the style has some implications besides the singular act of a climb it’s important we see where we are coming from.

Let me share a bit of history that I find fascinating and relevant to the current state of mountaineering. Back in July 1985, Wojciech Kurtyka and Robert Schauer embarked on a daring climb up the virgin west face of Gasherbrum IV, a summit just 75 meters shy of the illustrious 8000-meter mark. Although they didn’t reach the actual summit, their remarkable feat on what they named the “Shining Wall” remains one of the most impressive alpine acts of all time.

They acclimatized on a different route, executed the climb in a single push over ten days, carrying all their necessary gear throughout and leaving nothing behind. They even opened a new route in unexplored terrain and descended via another face of the mountain. Their ascent represented a milestone in the context of global mountaineering and alpinism, inspiring future generations with its style and commitment.

Interestingly, some of the most awe-inspiring Himalayan climbs have often remained within the core alpine circles, and this lack of publicity might partly be attributed to the alpinists themselves, who tend to be parsimonious in their words. This is another striking difference to today’s world/trend.

Alpinism, as a culture, thrives on unwritten rules, passed down from older climbers to younger generations, safeguarding the balance between the athletic aspect and the adventurous spirit. The evolution of alpinism has historically revolved around technical, physical and mental (sporting) difficulty, and the engagement of activities involving climbing with fewer means and exploring more. Michael Thomson, in a flash of genius, summed it up in one sentence: “Mountaineering is doing more with less.”

Every human activity, including mountaineering, needs to be understood within a specific context, shaped by the ethics and rules prevalent during that time. This culture of the sport evolves from the ethical codes and values of previous generations while being influenced by current social and cultural movements.

In our present society, we find ourselves amidst a capitalist landscape where image and external impressions are highly valued, and success often takes precedence over creativity. This shift has redefined the motivation to climb mountains, moving towards a monetization of the activity and the emphasis on imagery. The perceived value lies in the success rate and the narrative created through imagery, signaling a transition from being focused on the experience and creative journey, to a “capitalist mountaineering,” where the emphasis lies on the external rewards and outcomes.

This evolution in values within mountaineering has occurred before in history. In the early days of mountaineering, climbs on Mont Aiguille, Popocatepetl or Mont Blanc were pursued not out of interest but as assignments for kings or scientific exploration. However, in the latter half of the 1800s, style began to take precedence over the outcome, marking a pivotal change in the mountaineering ethos.

Alpinism started to become a common activity from the middle of the 1800’s, when the Alpine Club in England was founded. This period is also considered the beginning of modern sports, and alpinism shares its values based on fair play and respect of the other players or competitors. In mountaineering the notion of competition with an adversary is not often used, but that fair play was introduced as leaving a chance to the mountain to “win”, not giving oneself too much means to succeed. 

The notion of style boundaries gained significance with the first women ascent of Mont Blanc in 1809 when Marie Paradis set foot on the Alps’ roof. Her ascent, however, involved considerable assistance from Chamonix guides who carried and lifted her til the summit. Henriette d’Angeville’s ascent, nearly 30 years later, showcased her true strength and ability, prompting Marie Paradis herself to recognize it as the true first female ascent. This ethical concern highlights the value of an ascent where the end doesn’t justify the means, emphasizing the importance of climbing ethics in framing the “confrontation” between the climber and the mountain. That’s what the anglo-saxons called “by fair-means” 

This expression comes from Frederic Mummery, who described it well with a sentence “ the very essence of alpine sport is, not in the ascent of a peak, but in the struggle to overcome difficulties”  In accordance with this idea, Alfred Mummery would be the first to transfer his philosophy to the Himalayas, when he faced Nanga Parbat in 1895 in a light style even on today’s standards. Unfortunately he would disappear on this mountain with his two Gurkha companions. 

Around the same time, Austrian alpinist Paul Peuss highlighted the significance of human achievement, measuring oneself against the mountains rather than relying on technological aids. He expressed concern that artificial climbing aids transformed mountains into mere mechanical playthings, destined to be discarded once worn out.

Taking a broader view of mountaineering history, we find that the Himalayas followed a similar path. In the early expeditions – with notable exceptions like Hermann Buhl’s Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak and Chogolisa attempts – the primary focus was on reaching the summit by any means necessary, with the use of drugs, oxygen, fixed ropes, and large teams being the norm. However, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s climb of Hidden Peak in 1975 marked a shift towards alpine style, becoming the focus in high altitude climbs for the next decades.

Until the late ’80s Nepal was issuing only one permit per season/route in 8000ers, limiting the number of expeditions in every mountain and somehow fostering creativity, since when they received a permit, most of the expeditions wanted to explore new terrain. With the early ’90s came the first commercial expedition to Everest, leading to a steady growth in guided expeditions over the years. This first became popular on Everest, but it became commonplace on all the other 8000 m peaks soon after.

The commercialization of mountains, however, is not recent and nor limited to the Himalayas alone, but on the contrary we have witnessed before this trends in the Alps in the past, with the presence of lifts, mountain huts, and fixed ropes in mountains like Cervino or Dent du Geant.

Recent discussions around climbing styles in overcrowded peaks in the Alps, such as Mont Blanc, highlight the ongoing relevance of this issue. Climbers like Christophe Profit have challenged the use of fixed equipment in mountains, questioning whether we should opt for a more aseptic mountaineering experience or one that demands greater human exposure and engagement. 

Today that argument of fair play in mountaineering has been transitioning from the sport values towards ecological preservation, keeping the same values but for a different purpose.  

In conclusion, the rich history of mountaineering provides us with valuable insights into the evolution of climbing styles and the ethical debates that have shaped the sport. As climbers, we must continue to consider the impact of our actions on the environment, future generations of climbers, and the values we choose to uphold in this ever-changing world of mountaineering.

The degrees of freedom:

As there are no formal rules in alpinism; climbers must decide for themselves what values and principles they wish to uphold. A collective sense of responsibility and respect for the mountains should guide these decisions: as we have discussed, there are a series of best practices, or best ethics. The climbing community, including guides, commercial expedition leaders, rule makers, independent climbers, and local communities, must engage in an open dialogue to address the challenges posed by climbing in the Himalayas. 

Regulations in sports serve two fundamental purposes: preserving the essence of the sport and ensuring fair play among participants. Preserving the essence of a sport means maintaining its historical significance and preventing it from straying too far from its original purpose. This doesn’t imply that a sport cannot evolve or diversify into new disciplines; rather, it means avoiding changes that contradict the core values and meaning of the activity.

Fair play encompasses establishing boundaries to ensure that all practitioners have equal opportunities to excel. This includes limitations on technologies, performance-enhancing substances, and cheating. Consider cycling as an example: although electric bikes and performance-enhancing drugs exist, competitions impose restrictions to maintain a level playing field. Cyclists must adhere to technology limitations, undergo drug tests, and face disqualification for violating rules, such as using a car to draft them during a race.

However, mountaineering, whether at the elite or amateur level, typically lacks formal rules, and this can be seen as a positive aspect. Mountaineering is often regarded as a realm of freedom and artistry, however, the boundaries of that freedom have been contained on ethical principles based on each individual’s commitment, such as leaving no lasting trace behind, and assuming the duty to provide assistance among practitioners.

I have always considered mountaineering not a sport but an art. I see it as a canvas in front of me and I can do an act of art with my activity, which involves some sport (physical and technical capacities) and some adventure (engagement and exploration). In the end, the rules are an internal pact, which I, or any alpinist, make with themselves, a sort of self-restriction to feel aligned with one’s values. This has a big advantage because it allows freedom of the activity, but also runs the risk of a non-regulated or restricted practice, which may limit the freedom of others and degrade that canvas for future climbers, the people living there, and the natural environment..

Over time, mountaineering has evolved and diversified, giving rise to various activities with distinct cultures. One such example is sport climbing, which emerged as a response to the desire to experience the joy of climbing without the inherent risks of mountaineering. This transformation facilitated the creation of artificial climbing structures and was aided by technological innovations in safety equipment.

Despite this evolution, sport climbing established its own non-written, but also written rules, such as climbing “redpoint,” “onsight,” or “free,” to ensure its continued growth and development for future generations.

The Significance of Climbing Style: A Legacy for Future Generations

As we have seen, mountaineering is a unique sport, where the absence of formal rules creates a space of freedom and self-imposed guidelines, known as ‘style.’ In this domain, the climber becomes the ruler, the player, and the judge. Therefore, we could think that, since the choice of style is an individual decision that doesn’t affect the freedom of other climbers to climb in another style, imposing or criticizing a style different to the one the climber feels more aligned with, could be an act of arrogance or a way to limit others’ freedom of choice. But the importance of climbing style extends beyond the individual climber; it resonates with the legacy and future possibilities for generations to come, and most importantly, with the future of our planet, the ecosystems and land we inherit, and must pass to our children.

Moreover, climbing style holds broader implications for the future of climbing. It sets a precedent for how upcoming generations will approach the mountains and influences the values of the climbing culture. If climbers prioritize personal achievement without considering environmental impact, they risk diminishing the quality of the terrain for future generations – but also the very access to these mountain ranges if the land and ecosystems degradation continues. 

Renowned climbers have long emphasized the importance of style in climbing, for example Reinhold Messner’s 1971 article, “The Murder of the Impossible,” and Raphael Slawinski’s 2002 essay, “Degrees of Freedom.” These sparked positive discussions on the impact of modern technology on climbing.

In 2002, the UIAA published the Declaration of Tyrol, underscoring the values and principles for responsible mountain sports and activities. Article 8 emphasizes that the quality of the experience and problem-solving approach surpass mere success, and climbers must strive to leave no trace. Article 9 outlines the responsibility of climbers during first ascents, urging them to maintain the highest style possible and consider the needs of the local climbing community and future generations.

An Open Discussion:

Climbing style holds profound significance in the Himalayas, extending beyond personal preferences. As climbers, we are more than just athletes; we are stewards of these majestic mountains and paving the way for future generations. Every decision we make while climbing has consequences for the environment and others, shaping the future of climbing itself.

The choice between styles is not merely a matter of personal preference; it is a vote for environmental protection. And by making thoughtful choices and considering the impact of our actions, we can show respect for these incredible regions and its delicate ecosystems. Some questions come to my mind when thinking on what will be sustainable mountaineering in the future. What are those boundaries? Some more technical: The use of helicopters for transportation outside of the case of rescue? Leaving anything on the mountain such as fixed equipment or waste? Over frequentation in sensitive ecosystems? Should the use of supplementary oxygen for mountain tourism be regulated, for example to be only used for rescue operations, or above a determined altitude or flow ratio?  And some are more philosophical: What are the motivations of climbers and mountain tourists? Is the current practice a trend or a change in the general mountaineering values? Is the enjoyment of the activity losing place to the external motivations?

For now, we should all ensure the environmental rules already in place in those national parks and conservation areas are fully respected. 

Beyond the impact on the environment, climbers also face pressing ethical questions which have no easy answers. One such question revolves around guiding clients. Should guides prioritize teaching clients self-reliance and the necessary skills to climb independently, even if it means adjusting the client’s goals? Or should they prioritize fulfilling the client’s ambitions, even if the client lacks the capacities for the desired climb and the risk taking is above reason or putting on risk other people ? Striking the right balance between empowerment and safety is a continuous challenge that demands thoughtful consideration.The mountains are open for all to enjoy them, but it is imperative that proper experience and instruction is gained before venturing far and high.

When it comes to the representation of mountain activities, even if today personal social media accounts outreach traditional media, there’s also a misrepresentation of alpinism, often excused as the need of inform of what is big on social media, but at the end giving more visibility and influencing new climbers to follow the current trends where the talk is becoming more important than the act.

This debate touches on the essence of each activity and how it aligns with the broader mountaineering culture.Again, we return to the question of style and ethics. 

In my opinion we’re living in a period of fast change, and as we have evolved as a society and as climbers, we should not accept some ways to do things that were common in the past. In the 80’s it was current that cutting edge alpinists were filmed with helicopters during their climbs, something that today would be very disagreed with in the alpine community. We can see also how the climb of an iconic mountain like the Cerro Torre has been shown the evolution of climbing mountains: From a first ascent with the use of a compressor to put bolts on the rock making the ascensionists able to reach the summit despite the negative opinion of the climbing community, until today where those bolts have been removed and climbers putting new routes or repeating old ones do it with the most leave no trace principles.

I sincerely don’t know if it’s already a lost battle, depending on the day I think, just to keep this ethics as an internal compromise with myself or to fight for what I believe is important for the next generations possibilities and the environments where we climb. Today was one of the second ones. 

Even if I can have my opinions on these questions, there are no mine to state, but I believe an open and honest conversation would be beneficial for all parts of the mountaineering culture, including guides, federations, alpine clubs, mountaineering media, alpinists’ etc, for the preservation of the the mountain environments and the opportunities for future generations of alpinists. 

(c) Bertrand Delapierre


Risque et Alpinisme, Alain Ghersen,

L’esprit de l’alpinisme, Delphine Moraldo, 

The Piton Dispute, Paul Preuss

The murder of the impossible, Reinhold Messner

Degrees of Freedom, Raphael Slawinski,  and the responses to the article

El árbol de la ética, Jesus Galvez 

Style Matters, Tom Livingstone

Style matters, Mark Twight

UIAA ethics declaration.