10 Attempts At Mountain Ascents That Went Horribly Wrong

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Throughout history, expedition teams have raced to achieve the glory of being the first to stand on the summit of a mountain. Even now, when most mountains have already been climbed hundreds of times, there are still those willing to find new routes and take on new challenges in order to be the first to do so. But success rarely comes without risk, and climbing impressively high peaks is a dangerous risk to take.

10. The 1936 Eiger North Face Disaster

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Eiger is a peak of 3,970 meters in Switzerland, and was successfully climbed for the first time in 1858. However, it’s the north face of the mountain that’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous ascents.

In 1936, a team decided to attempt becoming the first to summit via the north face route. One man died during a training climb, and several others backed out due to dangerous weather. Despite the bad omens, German climber Andreas Hinterstoisser and his childhood friend, Toni Kurz, carried on with two remaining team members.

They ended up stranded on the mountain. While attempting to abseil to safety, an avalanche came down on the group, taking Hinterstoisser with it and also killing the two other men, leaving Kurz still attached to the same rope as his dead companions. A Swiss team made several desperate attempts to rescue him, and were able to touch the very tip of his crampons with an ice axe, but were unable to reach any further. After four days trapped on the mountain, his last words were “I can’t go on anymore” before he died of exposure.

9. The 1982 American Everest Expedition

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In 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to scale Mount Everest, and in 1982, Marty Hoey attempted to follow in her footsteps by becoming the first American woman to stand on the summit. On May 15th, Hoey and one of her fellow climbers, Jim Wickwire, were moving their equipment higher up the mountain, preparing to make their bid for the summit within the next few days. While waiting for further ropes to be secured above them by two other team members, Hoey moved aside to let Wickwire go ahead. Her movement caused a buckle on her harness to come undone, and she slipped. Wickwire, shouting for her to grab the rope, watched her fall to her death.

The rest of the team attempted to continue their journey, but the tragic death crushed their motivation, and they were unsuccessful. Hoey’s body has never been recovered.

8. The 1953 American Karakoram Expedition

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K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is one of the most dangerous peaks to climb. After four failed attempts to reach the top, American climber Charles Houston led another expedition in 1953. The team took note of previous failures and took extra precautions to avoid the same mistakes, but severe storms hindered their summit attempts and almost caused them to retreat.

Events took a turn for the worst when one of the climbers, Art Gilkey, collapsed outside his tent, suffering from fatal blood clots. The team attempted to rescue him on a makeshift stretcher, but suffered a mass fall as they were descending. It would have cost them their lives if it wasn’t for the quick actions of Peter Schoening, who managed to belay the men to safety.

When the group eventually made it to a camp they anchored Gilkey to an ice slope while setting up the tent, but when they returned there was no sign of him. All that was left was a groove in the snow, suggesting he’d been killed by an avalanche. Controversy has surrounded his death since, with some suggesting he untied himself to give his companions a better chance at survival.

7. The 1934 Nanga Parbat Expedition

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German mountaineer Willy Merkl first attempted to reach the top of Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat in 1932, but was unsuccessful due to poor planning and a lack of experience. Merkl led a second expedition in 1934, and this time the climb was funded by Nazi Germany. Although the team was better prepared, the unpredictable weather on the mountain became severely dangerous.

On July 6th, some of the members were in a position to get ahead in the climb, but Merkl wanted the entire team to continue towards the summit together. He decided to wait a further day, a decision that proved fatal. A brutal nine-day blizzard began as the team waited to move. By the time it finished, Merkl and two other climbers, along with six Sherpas, had died from exposure. Their frozen remains were discovered during an expedition in 1938, hidden in a cave they’d sought shelter in.

6. The 1905 Kanchenjunga Expedition

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Kanchenjunga is the third highest peak in the world, and there were several attempts at conquering it before the first successful climb in 1955. In 1905, British occultist Aleister Crowley led an expedition to try and break the current altitude record, and only agreed to participate if he was declared leader.

There were disagreements throughout the journey. Fellow climber Jules Jacot-Guillarmod was left disgusted by Crowley’s arrogant behavior and abuse towards porters. After arguments over his leadership, three of the team finally decided they’d had enough and began to retreat. While attempting to descend on a single rope, a fall caused an avalanche that killed one of the climbers and three porters. Despite pleas to help his fallen teammates, Crowley refused to leave his tent. Instead he proceeded to write a letter about what had happened, claiming he had “no sympathy” for such accidents.

5. Ober Gabelhorn, 1865

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Lord Francis Douglas, Peter Taugwalder and Joseph Vianin had been unsuccessful in previous attempts at climbing Ober Gabelhorn in the Pennine Alps, but on July 7th 1865, the trio finally made it to the top. Instead of heading straight back down to tell the world of their success, they decided to sit down for lunch on the summit. Their respite may have cost them their lives, as they soon found themselves caught up in an avalanche.

Douglas and Taugwalder were almost swept away by the snow, but were saved by Vianin, who managed to hold their rope and help them to safety. However, their brush with death was all for nothing. The mountain had actually been conquered by another team via a route on the east face the day before.

4. Makalu, 2005

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In the 21st century it’s difficult to find a feat that hasn’t already been achieved, but French mountaineer Jean-Christophe Lafaille was always looking for dangerous challenges. In 2005, he set out to make the first winter ascent of Makalu, the only remaining Himalayan mountain over 8000 meters not to have been climbed during the winter.

A man who reveled in the danger of mountains, Lafaille was trying to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000 meter peaks, and he wanted to climb each of them in a unique way. He therefore made the bold decision to attempt his ascent alone. He spent weeks carrying equipment up the mountain, struggling against strong winds. On January 27th 2006, the father of two told his wife via a satellite phone that he was going to try for the summit, and was never heard from again. Attempts to rescue him were impossible due to insufficient acclimatization of other climbers during winter, and a helicopter search failed to find any trace of him.

3. Cerro Torre, 1959

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In 1959, climbers Cesare Maestri, Toni Egger, and Cesarino Fava set out to complete the first ascent of Cerro Torre, a technically difficult peak in South America. After Fava decided to retreat, Maestri and Egger carried on towards the summit. Six days later, Maestri was discovered lying in the snow by Fava.

Upon returning to base camp, Maestri caused a lasting controversy by claiming that he and Egger had reached the summit. He said an avalanche had killed Egger during their descent and swept his body away. Coincidentally, Egger had been the one carrying the pair’s only camera, which supposedly held photographic evidence of their successful climb.

Immediately there were doubts. For years, images of the mountain were scrutinized to try and prove whether or not the claims were true. The first confirmed ascent was in 1974, but there’s still fierce debate over Maestri’s claims.

2. Edward Whymper and the Matterhorn

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Although he was successful in completing the first ascent of the Matterhorn 150 years ago, Edward Whymper’s expedition was not without its failures. He and his team of men reached the summit on July 14th 1865. They spent an hour on top, reveling in their success, but their triumph was about to become bittersweet. During their descent, novice mountaineer Douglas Hadow suffered a fall. He collided with the climber in front of him, and the rope pulled down another two men before it broke. The four of them hurtled to their deaths. One of them was Lord Francis Douglas, the young mountaineer who had been beaten to the summit of Ober Gabelhorn just a week earlier.

Whymper’s successful ascent was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the descent. One of the climbers who survived the ordeal, Peter Taugwalder, was even accused of cutting the rope between himself and Douglas to save his own life. The debate became so intense that Queen Victoria considered banning British citizens from climbing.

1. The 1924 Everest Expedition

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Despite two previous expeditions that had been unsuccessful, British mountaineer George Mallory remained determined to reach the top of the world’s highest peak. He returned to Everest in 1924 for one final attempt. Feeling optimistic about the weather, he and his climbing partner, Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, set off on the morning of June 8th. They never returned.

With Mallory being one of the most notable climbers of the time, their disappearance sparked one of mountaineering’s biggest debates: had the pair managed to make it to the summit 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing’s successful ascent in 1953? Climbers and historians alike have spent decades trying to figure out what went wrong, and whether it would have been possible for the men to climb the peak with the limited equipment available to them at the time. Even though Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, there’s still no definitive proof of a successful ascent. Irvine, who remains lost on the mountain, was thought to have been carrying a camera which could hold answers.

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1 Comment

  1. “In 2005, he set out to make the first winter ascent of Makalu, the only remaining Himalayan mountain over 8000 meters not to have been climbed during the winter.”
    K2 and Nanga Parbat have never been climbed in winter.

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