Alpine Club Commendation - the history

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 05/04/2009
Annapurna from the south. Lindsay Griffin

As reported in 'Alpinists honoured for Selflessness', the Alpine Club's first Spirit of Mountaineering Commendation will be presented to Simon Anthamatten, Alexey Bolotov, Don Bowie, Horia Colibasanu, Ueli Steck and Denis Urubko for their efforts last year to save the stricken Spanish climber, Iñaki Ochoa, from high on Annapurna.

The commendation is to acknowledge and thank persons who, 'in the true Spirit of Mountaineering, have shown unselfish devotion to help a fellow climber in the mountains, and in doing so have sacrificed their own objective or put their personal safety at risk'. This is a sentiment that most would agree should be the standard in the hills, and not, as seems a lot these days, more the exception.

In making these commendations the Alpine Club hopes to promote awareness of the importance of good behaviour in the mountains, and counterbalance widespread views expressed after, for instance, the 2006 Everest incident, when a national newspaper correspondent remarked: "Never again will I look upon Everest mountaineers as heroes, but as the antithesis of the Good Samaritan".

The concept of the commendation was first mooted by Norman Croucher and then announced in 2007 by Doug Scott at the Zermatt celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Club.

In May 2008 the well-known and well-liked Ochoa, who had already summited 12, 8,000m peaks, was making an attempt on the long and committing East Ridge of Annapurna I. With him were Colibasanu, and the remaining member of another (Russian), expedition, Alexey Bolotov.

Ochoa and the Romanian Colibasanu retreated from 7,850m and returned to their Camp 4 at 7,400m, where Ochoa contracted cerebral oedema.

Colibasanu remained with Ochoa, even though he himself was beginning to suffer from altitude sickness, and managed to use his satellite phone to contact Steck at base camp. The Swiss Anthamatten and Steck had just retreated from an attempt on a new route up the South Face, and were waiting for the weather to clear prior to a second try. Packing a good medical kit (which the Spanish-Romanian pair did not possess) to deal with the problem, they immediately started up the East Ridge, despite not having high altitude boots, which had been cached at their higher camp.

Meanwhile, Bolotov had reached the summit and descended, exhausted, to Camp 4, where he decided his best course of action was to break trail through fresh snow down the East Ridge until he met Steck, when he could swap boots.

Back in Kathmandu, the notoriously strong Kazakh, Urubko, was just about to fly home after completing another expedition, but cancelled his flight and boarded a helicopter, organized by Ochoa's brother in Spain, and his Nepalese agent. En route to base camp they stopped at Pokhara, where Canadian Don Bowie, who had been on Ochoa's expedition during the early stages of the climb, was enjoying a bit of relaxation. He joined Urubko, the pair hoping to carry an oxygen cylinder to the stranded climber.

Steck, with Bolotov's boots, met Colibasanu on the ridge, descending in an effort to open the track. The Romanian was now obviously suffering quite badly from AMS: Steck gave him medicine, and after Colibasanu appeared to recover, escorted him down the ridge until Steck was sure the Romanian could make it safely back to a waiting Anthamatten in Camp 3. He then turned around and climbed up to the tent.

Steck treated Ochoa, at one stage forced to give him CPR and artificial respiration when the Spaniard stopped breathing. But sadly Ochoa died, at about the time Urubko, carrying oxygen, reached 7,200m.

The Spirit of Mountaineering Commendation is a similar initiative to the American Alpine Club's, David Sowles Memorial Award, presented to 'one or more climbers who have put themselves at personal risk to help a fellow climber in distress, or given up their own summit ambitions to assist other mountaineers in trouble'. It was inaugurated in 1981 and conferred at various times since (lastly in 2003). Sowles was a young and talented mountaineer, killed in the Alps in 1963.


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