The Adventure

Bugaboos inaugural High Flying Adventure program

Posted by Topher Donahue on Wed, Oct 31, 2012

Between the areas of CMH Summer Adventures, friendly competition is a healthy tradition.  From the beginning of Canadian Mountain Holiday’s summer program, in the 1970s, we realized that in many ways there was nobody else to compete with other than ourselves.

Nobody else was taking people hiking in the alpine zone using a helicopter for transportation.

Nobody else was providing a full spa, gourmet kitchen, and professional guides so deep in North America’s vast wilderness.

So when it the CMH Bobbie Burns guides built the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata, the most extensive via ferrata in North America, and combined it with the Conrad Glacier Adventure Hike for the Bobbie Burns High Flying Adventure, there was only one other place that stood a chance of stepping up to the Bobbie Burns' accessible adventure standard: CMH Bugaboos.

glacier view bugaboos

Two years ago the Bugaboos guides opened their Skyladder Via Ferrata, so the unique European flavor mountain adventure is now available in both areas.  But the Bugaboos team felt another adventure, also one that didn’t require the technical skill of rock climbing and mountaineering, was waiting amongst the lofty spires and friendly glaciers of the Bugaboos. 

Few places on earth allow for such mellow glacier travel as the Columbia Mountains, so it didn’t take long for the CMH Guides to realize that a day of non-technical glacier travel would be the perfect accompaniment to the via ferrata. 

The combination of the Skyladder Via Ferrata and the Bugaboos Glacier Trek was sampled by dozens of CMH guests this summer, and the result is unanimous: it rocks.  So starting in 2013, the Bugaboos High Flying adventure is game on.

via ferrata equipment

The technically easy nature of both the via ferrata and the Glacier Trek makes it accessible to anyone with the desire, and enough fitness to spend most of a day hiking.  On the via ferrata, harnesses are worn, and double leashes are attached to cables to provide redundant safety systems, but metal rungs are fastened to the rock so even the blankest sections are made easy. On the Glacier Trek, the glaciers are mellow enough that the rope is almost unnecessary, but is still worn as a safety precaution.  Crampons, short metal spikes, are worn on your boots and make walking on ice about as tricky as a walk in the park.  Ice axes are also used, but only as a glorified walking stick.  Some trekkers on the easiest routes use trekking poles instead of ice axes.

hiking on a glacier

All equipment is provided by CMH, and whatever you need to know will be explained by your guide as needed.  No training is required or needed.

Everyone who went out this summer had a fantastic time.  Somet groups scrambled onto viewpoints and summits near the glacier’s edge, and every group returned to the lodge for full indulgence in the kind of comfort that mountaineers can only dream of. 

luxury wilderness lodge

From experienced adventure travellers, to people who had never even wanted to climb a mountain, everyone who sampled the Bugaboos High Flying Adventure this summer was thoroughly blown away. 

Imagine getting to sail between tropical islands without having to learn to sail, or to play in an orchestra without having to learn an instrument - or experiencing the heart of the mountain environment without having to learn technical climbing skills. 

This is the magic of the most exciting and accessible new summer travel program on the planet.  But don’t take our word for it: give it a try.

Questions?  Give us a call at 1 (800) 661-0252.

Tags: Adventure Travel, Bobbie Burns Lodge, CMH Guides, Western Canada CMH Summer Adventures, Bugaboo Lodge, Via Ferrata, adventure

CMH Summer Adventures' guest satisfaction rating nears 100

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Oct 11, 2012

At the end of each summer, we look back and take careful note of how our guests tell us we’re doing.  In fact, that’s how we design our programs in the first place.

This year, if there is one emotion to describe how CMH Summer Adventures guests tell us they feel, it would have to be this: satisfaction

From the informal feedback we get while sitting around the dinner table with our guests after a gourmet meal, to our feedback cards where guest can rate their experience with us, to online forums like TripAdvisor where gusts review and rate their travel experiences of all kinds - the conclusion is obvious - our guests are satisfied. 

The Net Promoter Score (NPS), an industry-wide customer satisfaction benchmark, asks the simple question: How likely is it that you would recommend (the company) to a friend or colleague?

The average NPS score in the tourism industry is 74 out of a possible 100.  Last summer in the Bugaboos, our NPS was 97.  Of course numbers don’t tell the whole story, but we’re particularly proud of that one. 

satisfied couple

The direct feedback from some of our guests is perhaps the most telling:

“My favorite thing was that the entire experience exceeded all my expectations.  That may not sound like much but I had done loads of research, talked to lots of people, devoured the web-site, etc and I had very very high expectations for trip (in some ways, almost guaranteeing that I would be disappointed because I was so "psyched" about how cool this trip was going to be).  To my delight and astonishment, the trip exceeded all my expectations despite how huge my expectations were going in!  I remember walking into the lodge after our last hike on the last day, almost with tears in my eyes, and telling Nina that "I'd rather do this than spend a week in Paris" (my favorite place in the world).  The other favorite thing was that everybody was first class and professional, be it the incredible guides, the pilots, or the lodge staff.  I described it as ‘the Nordstrom’s of hiking’.”

“When I first decided to take a trip to Bugaboo Lodge I was warned that it leaves a permanent imprint, and I now understand what that means. It took a while for the experience to fully sink in, but I do know how glad I am that I went, and I want to let others know about this "hidden" treasure.   The memory I'll alway savour is sitting in the rooftop hot tub with friends after an exhilarating day of hiking, holding a cool drink, overlooking one of the most spectacular scenery I've ever experienced and watching a gorgeous sunset.  Life doesn't get much better.”

best hot tub view
“All the meals were outstanding.   I was blown away by the family atmosphere at the dinner table, and our guide made us feel so welcome.   Every morsel was spectacular, but if I had to choose a favourite meal, I'd point to the scallops -- they were sublime.”
“The unexpected thing was the value of the guides - not only for the obvious reason of knowing the trails and where to go but for completely putting everyone at ease.  For the first time in my life, I was able to hike without any cares - I didn't have to worry about weather, food, safety, time of day, animals, etc.  That was an incredible gift and made it so much easier to relax quickly and enjoy each day.  I think this was even more true for my wife who is more of a worrier, she had an incredible time and never had to worry about logistics or safety.”

And one of many rave reviews from the TripAdvisor website:

“We just returned from the best vacation experience ever! We do a lot of traveling but this was the best experience ever! From the booking process ( flawless ), accommodation (this was my idea of roughing it-soft bed,hot shower and private rooms!), food (5 star Boston restaurants are not as good as the food here!) , the people(outstanding) and the outrageously fun hiking via the via ferrata and the Conrad Glacier!”

To summarize the experience of CMH Summer Adventures is difficult, for the very reason that it is different for everyone.  We like to make everyone’s trip exactly what they want it to be.  If our report card from this summer is any indication, we’re doing just that, and our guests are going home having had their own, personal, perfect vacation.

We’re sad to see the summer slip into fall, as beautiful as every season is here in the mountains, but we’re thrilled to have been able to be a satisfying part of so many people’s favourite summer adventure.

Tags: heli-hiking, Western Canada CMH Summer Adventures, CMH Summer Adventures, Bugaboo Lodge, hiking, adventure

What kind of boat is like a helicopter?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Aug 09, 2012

Let’s say you want to explore the islands.  So you go on a cruise.  The ship is comfortable, but when you get to the islands, all you can do is look at them from the deck of the ship, or visit the port where a cruise ship can dock. For this reason, a cruise ship is more like a passenger jet, albeit a huge and luxurious one. 

To really experience the islands, you need something smaller, more maneuverable, that can take you into the secluded bays, near the natural wonders of the islands, safely navigate shallow water, and land you on the most pristine beaches.

dream beach

The best boat for exploring the islands is, without a doubt, the Zodiac.  The rigid inflatable boat allows for safe passage in rough water, easy maneuverability to reach the trickiest beaches, no hull hanging into the water to hit ground, and powerful enough to get back to the ship against the tide or swell. 

The helicopter is to the mountains what the Zodiac is to the seas.  It gets you right where you want to be, easier than any other machine. All it needs to land safely is a space the size of the helicopter.  

During CMH Summer Adventures, we use a twin-engine Bell 212 helicopter, called the safest helicopter ever made, each morning to transport you and your friends and guide to your destination for the day, and to return you to the lodge at the end of a great hike, climb, glacier trek, photography session, nap, picnic, or whatever is your ideal day in the mountains. 

helicopter fun

The ride isn’t like a cruise ship, but neither is it like a jet ski.  Somewhere in between the two, the helicopter is designed to be the most versatile, maneuverable method of air transportation.

For many CMH guests, some of the highlights of the trip are the helicopter rides.  The helicopter flies slow enough to really see the terrain as you pass by, and low enough that you are often just below the summits of the highest peaks while still above the glaciers and valleys.  

This low-altitude perspective is truly a bird’s eye view.  In an airplane you gain so much altitude so quickly that even the most striking geography looks flat.  In a helicopter you fly along the valleys, looking up to see the summits, gazing into the forrest below where sometimes a moose or bear can be seen peering up at the strange mechanical bird.

helicopter view

The photographic perspective out the window is alone worth the price of admission and, surrounded by windows, every passenger in the helicopter gets a fantastic view.  Make sure when you take photos from the helicopter (or a plane for that matter) that you remember the following techniques:

  • Use a high shutter speed - ideally 1000 or faster - to compensate for the vibration of the machine.
  • Put the camera near the window to minimize glare off the plexiglass.
  • Don’t touch the window with the camera because the vibration is much greater when the camera is touching the machine.
  • Turn off the flash when shooting out the window to avoid the reflection of the flash.
  • Set up your camera before you get in the machine so you’ll be ready when the flight is underway.
  • Use the flash when shooting your family or friends inside the machine - the bright mountain sun outside will trick your camera even if it is not pointed out the window.helicopter photography

During a 3-day CMH Summer Adventure, thanks to the helicopter, most of our guests will see more mountain splendor than they have in the rest of their lives put together.

That’s why a helicopter is the the Zodiac of the skies.  Visit Hawaii and only use an airplane, and you’ll see Maui and some nice beaches.  Visit Hawaii and take a tour with a Zodiac and you’ll see some the most pristine island destinations on the planet.  

Visit Western Canada with a plane, bus or a car and you’ll see a few famous views.  Visit Western Canada with CMH Summer Adventures and you’ll get a world-class tour of a sublime alpine world very few people have ever laid eyes upon.

Photography by Topher Donahue.

Tags: Adventure Travel, heli-hiking, helicopters, adventure

5 Favourite Alpine Reflection Photos

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, May 22, 2012

What is it about reflections that never cease to intrigue us?  We know if we look across a smooth body of water, from a low perspective, that we will see a reflection. Yet, when a reflection unfolds before us, our minds are captivated by the vision, and if we're holding our cameras, we can't help but take a picture.

Here are my five favourite reflection images from the kaleidoscope of wilderness adventures that make up CMH Summer Adventures. 

This first one, a reflection of a rock being thrown into a glacial tarn, is one of those pictures that I left open on my desktop for a long time. A moment of natural chaos and perfection in the waters of the Columbia Mountains:

water reflection splash

Here, in a technique I learned from the late, great photographer, Galen Rowell, two hikers are invisible against a shadowy background while their reflections do the hiking:

ghost hikers

Just a few steps from the CMH Bugaboo Lodge, a small lake provides both cool swimming on hot afternoons, as well as a photographer’s dream on clear mornings:

bugaboo spires reflection

This one, of the CMH Bobbie Burns Lodge shows the main ingredients of CMH Summer Adventures.  An incredibly remote wilderness lodge and the twin engine Bell 212 helicopter - known as the safest helicopter ever made - a flavorful modern recipe for adventure:

bobbie burns lodge reflection
Finally, my favourite reflection photo ever, shows a group of hikers dwarfed by the splendor of Western Canada’s sublime wilderness:

colombia mountains reflection
Perhaps the thing that fascinates us most about reflections is the symbolism of our own experience - a sort of affirmation of our ability to reflect on our lives and a hope that we can reflect on some of our experiences with the clarity of nature. 

For me, this metaphorical reflection is one of the main reasons I continue to go into the wilderness for adventures. While most of life is muddled with expectations, responsibilities, and complexities, my lifetime’s experiences in nature form a combined collection of memories that I can reflect upon with crystal clarity, every bit as crisp, colourful, and perfect as the lines in these images.

Photos by Topher Donahue.

Tags: Bobbie Burns Lodge, Western Canada CMH Summer Adventures, CMH Summer Adventures, Bugaboo Lodge, adventure, photos

Nikon D4 review - The Ultimate Adventure Travel Camera?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, May 10, 2012

This year, Nikon released the D4 at the top of their DSLR lineup, and as usual the web exploded with opinions and reviews.  I started shooting with the camera, but it seemed as though I was using a different camera than was being reviewed. 

First, there were the image tests.  Reviewers took test photos with the Nikon D4 side by side with the last top dog from Nikon, the D3s, and found there is no major improvement in image quality.  They tested the video and found it wasn’t as perfect as they had hoped.  Like the stock market, people’s expectations for new cameras seem to matter more than true value.

I went out and captured photos with the D4 that led me to an entirely different conclusion: for outdoor adventure, action, and nature photography, as well as indoor photography with difficult lighting, the D4 is probably the best camera ever made. 

Sure, images produced with the D3s are superb, but what I found with the D4 is that I am getting the results I want with much less effort than would have been necessary with the D3s in similar conditions, allowing me to pay attention to my own creativity rather than camera management. 

For example, the 3D focus tracking, which uses the colours surrounding the focus point to predict the next in-focus point, is so accurate and so fast that it allows me to pay attention to composition and timing rather than focus, and results in action sequences with 100% of the images in focus.

Sure, the pundits will argue that auto focus is a different category from image quality, and in the lab I’m sure it is, but in the real world I beg to differ.  For me, an adventure and lifestyle photographer, all the aspects of a camera are intertwined and image quality is the complicated sum of the camera’s various technologies and my own creative ability. 

Then there are the video reviews, which reported some of the D4 video settings aren’t as good as hoped. No surprise there. DSLR video is still new, and each generation is taking big steps.  The D4 has a 2.7x cropped sensor setting that delivers spectacular video results, while the other settings are not as good.  Perfect - I’ll use the spectacular setting. 

Nikon D4 photo sample

Then there is the discussion around the light meter.  The D3s was the first pro camera that I described as the ultimate point-and-shoot. And it was, but now the D4 nails perfect exposure and focus in difficult lighting situations more of the time with less effort.  Sure, I still mess with exposure and focus for different results, but when I pull the D4 out of the bag and fire away without paying attention to anything except the shutter button and composition, like for the above photo of my son running on a dike in northern Germany, the results are drastically better than the D3s.  

The D4 is the first camera that has an auto ISO that I’m willing to use - its parameters can be customized and automatically changes with the length of the lens attached to the camera. 

It is also the first professional camera that I would highly recommend to amateur photographers because it is so easy to use.  Let’s say you are going on the world’s most beautiful holiday and you love photography - then why not take the best camera that is also the easiest to use?

The D4 is a major game-changer for me.  Right now I’m in Europe, visiting the in-laws, traveling, and taking photos of whatever I please.  On similar trips in the past, I always took a smaller, lighter camera kit and saved my professional gear for professional assignments.  This time, I couldn’t leave home without the D4 for one simple reason: The Nikon D4 makes photography easier.

Finally there is the debate between the D800 and the D4.  In the real world, there is no debate.  If you’re a diverse professional or amateur who can afford both, you’ll buy both - they serve two entirely different purposes.  If you are a specialist, you should know which camera is best for you. 

From my favourite pocket camera, the Canon S95, to my professional Nikon kit, I do the same thing: learn the limitations of the camera and push my own limits within them. Every camera has limits, and next time I get the chance to go into the wilderness to document some of the word’s most photogenic adventures, I know I will be able to raise my own standards of photography by exploring the limits of the Nikon D4. 

Tags: Adventure Travel, Product Information, adventure, photos

Heli-hiking: The ultimate sight-doing trip for Baby Boomers

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, Apr 10, 2012

baby boomer generation hikingAs generations go, the Baby Boomers have had a good one.

In 1957, there were 4.3 million people born in the USA - more than any year before or since.  They’ve been here for everything from the first ascent of Mt. Everest and the first steps on the Moon, to the digital revolution.  They've experienced a time of unprecedented global prosperity and their health has benefitted from modern medicine and the increased understanding of exercise as a part of a healthy lifestyle.

Now, to top it off, many Baby Boomers are getting to retire. 

I must admit, I’m a bit jealous. World-class adventure travel is diverse, comfortable, and well-established.  From deluxe motorcycle tours of Europe, to luxurious adventures in Western Canada, the Baby Boomers are getting to quit the nine-to-five and dig into their bucket list at a time when the planet’s recreation opportunities have never been more accessible.

They’re calling it sight-doing - the way people prefer to travel these days.  Just standing and taking a photo isn’t enough anymore - you can get the same view on Google in a single click.  More people want to have experiences, do things, not just tick the box. 

And the Boomers are getting to go sight-doing at the best time ever. 

While documenting CMH Summer Adventures, I’ve had a chance to photograph people ranging from a couple in their 90s, to a family with 4 generations traveling together, to kid-friendly alpine adventures, to a lot of happy Baby Boomers sight-doing to their hearts content. 

baby boomer ultimate mountain vacation

The camera gives me lots of chances to see the gleam in people’s eyes, and from what I can tell through the camera, the Baby Boomer generation is a happy lot.  There is something in their eyes that says they made it to the finish line; and that it’s an exciting time to be alive. 

baby boomer technology

Heli-hiking. Guided Via Ferrata climbs. Custom and comfortable adventures in a rugged wilderness followed by a relaxing massage and spa.  These kinds of days didn’t even exist when the Baby Boomers were kids.  No wonder they always look so thrilled in the photos.

Tags: Adventure Travel, heli-hiking, Family Travel, Western Canada CMH Summer Adventures, luxury, Via Ferrata, adventure

Via Ferrata update: The Skyladder is complete

Posted by Topher Donahue on Wed, Feb 15, 2012

One of the things that makes CMH Summer Adventures so exciting, is that for 35 years now, the program has been evolving and has become one of the most diverse choices in the adventure travel world.  In recent years, the biggest changes have been the development of the via ferrate in the Bobbie Burns and the Bugaboos.

For 2012, there are exciting new adventures afoot in both lodges, with the yet unnamed, and mostly unknown, adventure hike alongside the Conrad Glacier icefall in the Bobbie Burns, and in the Bugaboos, the Skyladder via ferrata is now much longer, reaching to the valley floor, which allows hikers to integrate the via ferrata climb into scenic hikes both below and above the via ferrata. 

skyladder via ferrata point of viewDave Cochrane, the energetic CMH Bugaboos manager, took time away from a spectacular ski season to share the new flavors of the Skyladder:

"The "lower half" which we built last year is full-on very steep rock climbing on a ferrata route.  (Now, with the already spectacular summit section of the Skyladder that has been in place for a couple of seasons, the complete Skyladder is comparable to the world’s other popular Via Ferrata routes.)

But there are a lot of ways to skin the cat on this adventure. The nearest place we can land to start the Skyladder viaferrata, is more than a few steps away from the base of the route. It is about a half hour walk uphill to the beginning of the technical part of the climb.
There are many options to approach the via ferrata, depending on what our guests are looking for that day.  We sometimes land at the bottom pickup for the Powder Pig ski run and then walk up to the base - that makes for one to two hours of hiking through beautiful Larch forests, across very green and lush ground cover.  Then the forest ends and the terrain steepens for the last section before the via ferrata.  This approach is all uphill, but covers dramatically different terrain and makes for a very enjoyable way to start the climb.

We can also start on Grizzly Ridge, and then hike down to the base of the Skyladder.  I have also started on the top of Sauce Alley, walked a very adventurous ridge line route to Leo's line, then down over quite challenging hiking terrain then back up through a big talus slope to the base - this approach can take as much as three hours.

There are some other ways to do this also, so depending on the group we can make this a very full, very challenging, and very interesting day, which culminates in the Skyladder, followed by a half hour hike off the top to more easy hiking terrain with world-class views of the Bugaboo Spires.  Or we can make it an easy half day outing for those wanting less challenge but still want to climb the Skyladder."

Tags: Adventure Travel, Bugaboos, High Flying Adventure, Skyladder, hiking, Via Ferrata, adventure

Best of 2011: 5 Top Blog Posts on The Adventure

Posted by Jason Semenek on Thu, Dec 29, 2011

With only a few days left in 2011, we thought we would take a look at the Top Blog Posts of 2011 from The Adventure. Drum-roll, please...

bestof2011 resized 600

1. Adventure seekers were obviously delighted by this article of hikes for only the most daring. Through videos and photos, Topher Donahue reviews The World's 5 Most Dangerous "Hikes".

2. Via Ferrata, or 'iron roads' have become the hottest thing since sliced bread for anyone looking for a amazing adventure vacation. Simply put, it makes ordinary people into mountaineers. With the popularity of the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata at the Bobbie Burns Lodge, there were lots of requests for shorter trips, focused on the Via Ferrata. We listened! Find out how in "But I just want to do the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata?"

3.  Just last week Topher Donahue caused a stir in the industry when musing about the possibility of using a helicopter to access remote bouldering areas. Read more in "Anyone want to be the first to go heli-bouldering in Canada?"

4. Are you considered bringing the family on a CMH Summer Adventure Family Vacation? Sue Arlidge, one of the Family Adventure Leaders, shares a few memories and gives you the inside scoop in "What REALLY Happens on a CMH Family Adventure?"

5. Adventure Rules! This year, the guides at the Bobbie Burns Lodge have established a new adventure that defies categorization and promises to rock the adventure travel world. In this invterview with Bruce Howatt, Area Manager at the Bobbie Burns Lodge, you can learn all about "The Wildest New Adventure in North America"

What was your favourite blog post of 2011? Is there something you'd like to learn more about? Suggestions for future blog posts? Let us know in the comments below.

All the best for 2012!

Tags: hiking, adventure, Best of

4 Tips for Photographing Kids on Family Adventures

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Oct 27, 2011

With four year old twins, an insatiable appetite for outdoor adventure, and a camera in my pocket most of the time, I’ve discovered a few key aspects of photographing kids to avoid burning them out on either outdoor adventure or having a photographer for a father - as well as getting better photos. 

photgraphing kids outdoors

One: Keep it with you!  This is the hardest one of all.  If you don’t have a camera, you’ll never get a good photo.  I get asked all the time, “Which camera should I buy?” and the answer I always give is, “The one you’ll carry with you.” 

These days point and shoot cameras are so good that I often leave my D-SLR at home when I’m just playing with the family.  Instead I stick a Canon S95 in my pocket.  The little camera is insanely good, and even has a ring on the lens that feels like an old-school aperture ring that appeals to my pro photographer tendencies, but can be customized for different purposes - or ignored in the auto setting if you don’t want to deal with it.  Even the newest iPhone sports an 8mp camera.  My stock agency, Aurora Photos, recently started accepting camera phone photos.  Sure, D-SLRs take better photos, but point and shoot photos are better than no photos at all. 

Two: Get down and turn on your flash.  Kids have big heads and are really short.  If you stand up to shoot, they end up looking like popsicles.  I take many shots of my kids without my even looking at the camera.  Instead holding the camera low while playing with them and shoot blind.  Sure, I get lots of poorly framed photos, but the ones that work are unposed, the kids are playing hard rather than making ridiculous faces at the camera, and they often don’t realize I’m even taking their photo.  The flash will add light to the shadowy areas and make the difference between an ok photo and a great photo.

family friendly hiking adventures

Three: Get outside.  Every chance you get.  This is the most important one of all.  Get out for both little local adventures as well as family-friendly adventure travel.  Not only will your kids suffer less of the nature deficit disorder that Richard Louv writes about, but you’ll have more chances to get photos with nice light, spectacular settings and happy kids.  My kids have graced the cover of the Patagonia catalog, but the vast majority of my kid photos have something wrong with them: boogers on the cheek, fashion chosen by a grumpy four year old, bed-head hairdos.  But it doesn’t matter.  These photos are for me and my family, not a photo editor or the fashion police. 

Four: Back them up.  Store your photos on duplicate hard drives, with an online photo service, or both.  If you’re leaving your family photos on your computer, or even on a single hard drive, you’re inviting disaster.  Hard drives are so cheap these days that there is no excuse for having only a single copy of your images.  I store a hard drive outside of my house so even if my house burns down I will still have my photos.

The ultimate trip for family adventure photography is a family adventure in Canada with CMH Summer Adventures.  Just imagine painless access to some of North Americas most beautiful and remote mountains with professionals taking care of the details...

Tags: heli-hiking, Family Travel, CMH Summer Adventures, adventure, families

Who First Climbed Everest? Better Left a Mystery

Posted by Topher Donahue on Mon, Oct 03, 2011

A BBC article today titled, “Mallory and Irvine: Should we solve Everest’s mystery?” by Jon Kelly takes a new angle on the old story of who first climbed the world’s highest peak.

The story reveals that the question may not be whether or not Mallory and Irvine summited Everest almost 30 years before Norgay and Hillary's first recorded ascent, but rather whether or not we should even try to solve the mystery.  There is a lot of validity to Kelly's new twist on the old story. 

everest namche bazar khumbu


In 1999 Conrad Anker, the mountaineer who found Mallory’s body in 1999, climbed the last difficult section to Mallory's route, a rock band called The Second Step, and thought it would have been too difficult for Mallory and Irvine.  Anker then went back in 2007 and climbed the Second Step via a slightly different passage.  He found it much easier than the way he went in 1999, inspiring Anker to write this in his journal, “What I have learned is that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed it, and that is worth thinking about.”

As a climber myself, I tend to agree with Kelly in that I like the mystery, and Anker’s conclusion that Mallory and Irvine could have done it is great news.  Graham Hoyland, a filmmaker who was part of the expedition with Anker, is quoted here on NOVA with certainty that Mallory and Irvine did make the summit, has written a forthcoming book that he claims will settle the mystery for good.  I for one hope it falls short of finding the absolute truth.

Sure, it would be great for Mallory and irvine to get credit for the big prize, but in my opinion, in the world of modern mountaineering the summit is not the ultimate achievement anyway, but rather the ultimate achievement is transforming the impossible into the possible.

The climb that best exemplifies this in modern times is the North Ridge of Latok I.  In 1978 Jeff Lowe, George Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini climbed to just short of the summit.  In the 33 years that have passed since their effort, 20 expeditions including some of the world’s best climbers have tried the climb and nobody has yet made it to the 1978 high point.

The 1978 Latok expedition is viewed by the greater mountaineering community as one of the best efforts in mountain sport and yet they failed to reach the summit.  If they had all perished on the descent, would it have lessened their achievement?  Only in the sense that they failed at mountaineering’s most basic goal: to get home alive.  The success of their expedition is still motivating world-class mountaineers today.  Not only did they nearly make it to the top, but they also did something that decades of technological innovations and athletic understanding have not made any easier.

Here’s my point: when somebody finally does climb the North Ridge of Latok I in its entirety, will it lessen the achievement of the 1978 team?  Not one bit. 

By defining achievement in the mountains as pushing back the impossible, what Mallory and Irvine did, regardless if they stood on top or not, was of at least as much significance as any other Mt. Everest climb - including the first ascent and the other revolutionary Everest ascents including Reinhold Messner’s solo ascent in 1980, and blind mountaineer Erik Weinhenmayer’s 2003 ascent.

My guess is that we’ll never know with absolute certainty if Mallory and Irvine made it to the top, but what we do know is that in 1924 Mallory and Irvine demonstrated that it was possible to climb to the top of the world’s highest peak.

If one day it is proven that they either did or did not make the summit, it will rob mountaineering of one of its most inspiring mysteries.  I hope the mystery stays alive because it reminds our goal-oriented society to honor and learn from the visionaries who may have fallen short of their ultimate goals. 

What do you think?  Do you want to know with absolute certainty who first climbed Everest?

Photo of Mt Everest (center peak with cloud plume) and the village of Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region of Nepal by Topher Donahue.

Tags: adventure, CMH Experts