Apples and Oranges: The 8000'ers Speed Record
I’ve pondered the virtue of writing this piece for a while. I’m not a climber and I certainly couldn’t do it myself, but I do have a particular interest in adventure records and their value. One such record which has caught my attention and caused chins to wag in the climbing community is the fastest time to climb all fourteen of the world’s highest mountains, collectively known as the 8000’ers.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months you’ll know that ex-special forces soldier Nirmal Purja (or Nims) has blitzed through eleven of the 8000’ers in just 94 days. It’s an unprecedented display of mental and physical performance, and at the same time, Purja has also led or assisted with four rescue operations. He aims to complete the remaining three peaks this autumn, thus completing his seven-month sprint of the 8000’ers.
If he does it Purja will knock off a little over seven years from the current record time of 7 years, 10 months and six days held by the late South Korean climber Kim Chang-Ho. Chang-Ho bettered - by a little over a month - the great Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka, who laid down the gauntlet back in 1988.
Purja will quite likely finish off Manaslu, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma in the next few months (providing China grant a permit for Shishapangma) and therefore set a new fastest known time.
The big question, however, and perhaps the elephant in the room, is can all of these climbs be compared to allow a speed record to be created?
Kukuczka, for example, climbed all but Everest without oxygen, and the majority of his climbs were new routes up the 8000’ers (nine first ascents, four winter ascents and one normal route not in winter). Also, I don’t think the “Polish Route” on K2 has ever received a second ascent since it was first put up by Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski in 1986.
Chang-Ho climbed all fourteen without oxygen, and from my research, I don’t think any of these were new routes. Interestingly in 2013 for his final 8000’er, Everest, he kayaked and cycled over 1,000km from sea level near Kolkata to Everest Base Camp.
By comparison Purja has used oxygen (which seems fair given the risks involved in his hectic schedule), has been helicoptered between peaks, and has predominantly climbed by the normal routes, and made no first ascents (although it is no doubt harder to find new lines when the easier ones have already been picked off).
My points are in no way a criticism of Purja’s remarkable progress (he’s a nice guy and a physical and mental phenom), but more flagging up the differences in style between Kukuczka, Chang-Ho and Purja.
I’ve only given a brief overview of the variation by which these three climbers have approached ticking off the 8000’ers, there’s much more that could be discussed*. And while the public won’t care I think it’s a debate that many in the adventure community may think is worthwhile.
It seems to me that the 8000’ers speed record is a case of apples and oranges - how can you really compare?
*See comment below from climber Damien Gildea.