This “whole system” extends well beyond Everest. Such tectonic shifts were visible by 2002, when six winter ascents still remained besides K2. Wielicki, the 68-year-old leader of the present K2 expedition, was already a climbing legend, with the first winter ascent of Everest on his record. He issued a “Winter Manifesto,” enticing young Polish climbers to complete the project. “We have done one-half of the job,” the manifesto declares. “Now it’s your turn to finish it: you, the young, angry, and ambitious.”
As fans of high-altitude mountaineering know, Polish climbers of Wielicki’s generation were some of the most accomplished climbers in history. Jerzy Kukuczka was the second man to ascend all 14 eight-thousanders, after Messner, but it took Kukuczka exactly half the time, and his speed record for all 14 peaks hasn’t been beaten yet. Wanda Rutkiewicz, still routinely considered the world’s greatest woman climber, was the first woman to summit K2. Wielicki himself was not only on the teams that had made first winter ascents of Everest, Kangchenjunga, and Lhotse; he had once “run” Broad Peak solo, and remains the only person to climb it from base to summit and back in 24 hours.
With the new generation, Wielicki complained, that hunger for adventure has been lost. “No one dreams of climbing the great walls of the Himalayas, of new routes, traverses,” he writes. Anyone can “climb Mt. Everest if you have cash.”
The Poles never did “finish it,” at least not as triumphantly as Wielicki had wished. Now, his bid for K2 takes place in a time when the failures of creativity and imagination that he feared are even more pervasive. Once a hero of solitary misfits, of the “angry and ambitious,” the high-altitude mountaineer has become an icon of corporate success and conventional life. Fit, focused, positive, well traveled, forever young, and, in much of advertising, literally climbing mountains, today’s successful person tends to be defined by upward mobility, both professional and personal, within the most predictable, unimaginative parameters. More and more climbing walls are popping up all over high schools and YMCAs, as if to prepare the person in progress for this form of self-realization, assumed to be inevitable.
As this winter-climbing season draws to a close, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation is in the process of applying for high-altitude mountaineering to be recognized as an element of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, with a proposal that boils mountaineering down to “the natural human spirit of searching for new achievements.” But is it self-evident that humans universally search for new achievements? The lone mountaineer on the summit has come to symbolize both professional and spiritual development so well that they appear to be the same thing.