Getting There First
Published: April 2009
By Jeff Wise
Some travel for fun, some to feed the soul. Others are in it for the immortality.
Unclimbed mountains are an endangered species. Before 1950, none of the world’s 15 highest mountains had been climbed. That year, French alpinists Louis Lachenal and Maurice Herzog scaled the 10th highest, Nepal’s Annapurna I, and within the next 10 years most of the remaining 14 highest had been checked off the list. Today, the highest peak left is No. 36, the 24,836foot Gangkhar Puensum—which has yet to be climbed only because it’s in Bhutan, a country that has banned climbing of mountains higher than 19,685 feet.
Another vanishing breed: unrun rivers. In the past four decades, many of the world’s great rivers have been rafted or kayaked in their entirety for the first time, including the Ganges, the Zambezi, the Amazon, the Mekong, and the Nile.
Accomplished climbers say that their Firsts represent a high point in their lives. Legendary climber and adventure writer David Roberts, who has logged an estimated 40 first ascents, was only 20 years old when he pioneered a challenging new route up Denali. "I said, ’My God, nobody’s ever been here before," Roberts writes. "I’m the first person ever to put a crampon on that snowfield.’ You can’t sell that kind of excitement." Which is to say, of course you can. In an age when exotic travel is increasingly commodified, when remote adventure has become a brand of luxury experience, it’s only natural that the prospect of achieving a First be marketed as a way for the wellheeled to set themselves apart. The result: commercial first ascents of mountains and descents of rivers—trips on which a professional guide can help a customer be part of the first group up or down an asyetunconquered piece of geography. And with an everexpanding market for a fixed number of untrodden areas, anyone hoping to lay claim to a First had better move fast.
People have been taking note of first ascents for centuries. When Jacques Balmat and MichelGabriel Paccard climbed Mont Blanc, which straddles France, Italy, and Switzerland, in 1786, it caused a sensation throughout Europe; it is widely regarded as the founding moment of modern alpinism.
First river descents, on the other hand, are a more recent spinoff. Only after World War II, with the widespread availability of reliable rubber boats, was the sport of whitewater rafting able to develop as an adventurous pastime. Though the first big rivers were conquered in the 70’s, the sport’s heyday of conquests continues. Tibet’s Upper Tsangpo Gorge, a churning cauldron of white water dubbed "the Everest of Rivers," was only checked off the list in 2002.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Alpine Ascents International, the Seattlebased climbing company that has maneuvered more clients to the top of Everest than anyone else, began helping clients up unconquered peaks. (Though people can submit their first ascents to the American Alpine Journal, there is no formal accounting of such climbs.) The company performs most of its first ascents in eastern Greenland, where countless unnamed peaks loom over glaciers. Crucially, the peaks are not all that difficult to climb, just hard to get to. In fact, the company has mastered the art of turning typeA corporate characters into semicompetent mountaineers at its crashcourse school in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. For around $1,000, a moderately fit client can "do a sixday school and fly out the next week," says Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents’ Director of Programs.
Of course, cresting a virgin mountain is never a walk in the park. "It’s very easy to romanticize mountaineering, as compared with actually doing it. Sleeping out at minustwenty day after day, going to bed cold, and waking up in the cold loses its romance," says the company’s founder, Todd Burleson. For the price tag, he says, "there are a lot of people in the world who would rather buy a new car."
Or maybe float down an unrun stretch of river. Mountain Travel Sobek has conducted about three dozen first descents. Unlike ascents of mountains, many river trips require no prior training. If passengers are particularly incompetent, they can be carried along as, essentially, animate cargo. Just this past March, the company made the first commercial descent of the Upper Mekong river in China, a 15day trip that wound past remote villages and through several Class Four rapids. Harold (Hal) Newman Jr., who was on the Upper Mekong trip, says it wasn’t that hard. "This was not a wilderness trip," he says. "The river goes down through a lightly inhabited narrow canyon valley, with a village about every three to five miles. Nothing on the water was that challenging."
But like first ascents, first descents inherently carry a degree of uncertainty and risk. When Sobek organized the first descent of the Boh River in Indonesia in the late eighties, the journey was so fraught with peril that one of the passengers, Tracy Johnston, wrote a book, Shooting the Boh, which recounts food shortages, raft flippings, irritating insects, and backbreaking portages. She wrote that after the trip one of her fellow passengers said that "his lawyer friends had all called him a fool for not suing Sobek."
Mountain Travel Sobek’s cofounder, Richard Bangs, acknowledges that the excursion had its problems, but says hardship is part of the game. "Usually there are a lot of unknowns, and anxiety and tension" on a first descent, he says. "It’s all about celebrating chaos."
Through dozens of books and innumerable multimedia ventures, Bangs has done more than anyone else to promote the idea of first river descents. He points out that, in an age in which our notions of foreign places are thoroughly influenced by all the TV shows and movies and magazine articles from those who have gone before us, a First allows us to experience an asyetunmediated part of the earth. "The greatest joy of a first descent is when you are overwhelmed," he says. "It’s your own private experience. There are so few of those around."
So few—and ever fewer. They’re not making any new rivers or mountains. Competition to pioneer new climbing routes has become so intense, says David Roberts, that it’s ruined the spirit of camaraderie that once infused the sport. "The natural challenges are gone," he says. "It’s all about fighting over what’s left." Some climbing guidebooks don’t even list first ascents anymore.
And yet, so long as untrodden routes remain, there will be souls who yearn to prove themselves there.
The same impulse to demonstrate our uniqueness has spread beyond simple peaks and rivers. Luxury adventuretour operators report that more and more clients are looking for achievements that they can call their own. "They want to do things that no one has ever done," says Bill Bryan, cofounder of Off the Beaten Path, an adventure operator specializing in custom travel in the American West and Patagonia. One, a 58yearold New Yorker, asked Bryan to put together a 700-mile horse trek across the length of Montana. The trip took a year to organize and two months to complete. "He’d done trips all over the world, and he wanted to do something special," Bryan says.
Being a First doesn’t have to be about trumping the competition. It doesn’t even have to be about putting your footprint on untrodden ground. At its best, it’s simply a state of mind.
"Maybe there are places that other people have been to a thousand times, a million times—a dilapidated mosque, say, in the middle of India," says Gordon Janow. "But it’s early in the morning, and you’re the first one there, and as you walk in, you have that feeling of ’Wow!’ It’s the same as when you climb a mountain that hasn’t been climbed before. When you’re a traveler, there’s something thrilling about recreating that virgin experience, of being the first one there. Even if it’s only being the first one there that morning."
Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor
The launch of Mountain Travel. The company’s first trip is a trek through the Everest and Annapurna regions of Nepal.
Richard Bangs founds Sobek Expeditions, which begins with a first descent down the Awash River in Ethiopia.
Todd Burleson founds Alpine Ascents International, which becomes well known for Himalayan trips.
Mountain Travel and Sobek Expeditions merge. Today the company offers over 150 trips to all seven continents.
Alpine Ascents offers its pioneer "first climb" trip to unnamed peaks, in Greenland’s Gunnbjørn Fjeld region.
The three highest unclimbed mountains are believed to be Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan, Saser Kangri II East in Kashmir, and Labuche Kang III East in Tibet.
These outfitters offer upcoming First trips.
Alpine Ascents International
Trips to northeast India and Greenland. 121 Mercer St., Seattle; 2063781927; alpineascents.com; trips from $6,000.
Bio bio expeditions
A first descent of the Drangme Chhu river in Bhutan. P.O. Box 2028, Truckee, Calif.; 800/ 2467238; bbxrafting.com; trips from $4,000.
Horsetrekking expedition to the source of the Mekong River in Tibet. 1865 Solano Ave., Berkeley, Calif.; 510/5598099; explorerscorner.com; trips from $4,090.
Mountain Travel Sobek
Expeditions to the Kham region of Tibet and a wildlife expedition in Gabon. 1266 66th St., Emeryville, Calif.; 888/6876235; mtsobek.com; trips from $5,695.
Southwest Adventure Guides
First ascents in Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. 1205 Camino del Rio, Durango, Colo.; 800/6425389; swaguides.com; trips from $3,750.