The Marathon, the Triathlon, and Now, the Climbathon

The Marathon was popularized in the first Olympics in 1896. The Triathlon originated in France in the 1920’s, (Les Trois Sports).

Now there is the Climbathon, ascending known routes, by any means possible, in the fastest way possible.

khumbu icefall everest
In the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, with support Sherpa, lots of ladders, fixed rope and loads of oxygen headed for the heights. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Like Marathons and Triathlons, the Climbathon is focused on speed, on setting new records along known routes, of repeating what’s been done before, just faster.

Yet unlike other sports, a Climbathon’s rules are not defined. The free-form, unrestricted nature of climbing has never leant itself to rules. The mountains tend to dictate their own rules and their own weather, one of its great appeals.

Yet the way a climb is done, the style, has always defined it – being first, climbing in winter, not using oxygen, doing a new route.

With the advent of Climbathon’s, there is now this new, and very popular style.

Don’t be late! Climbing out of Camp 3 on Everest, headed for the South Col, climbers back up over the steep section of the Yellow Band. Higher levels of Sherpa support every year, more oxygen started at lower elevations, fixed ropes on any slope over 10 degrees – rest days down valley compliments of the local helicopter service – the modern day Climbathon in motion. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

What defines a Climbathon?

  1. You choose to climb the ‘normal’ established route, which is usually the easiest way to the summit.
  2. You follow a common trail and use fixed ropes wherever possible, often put in place by others.
  3. You use oxygen, lots of oxygen.
  4. You have support teams putting in ropes, placing camps, carrying your gear (cooking dinner, fluffing your sleeping bag) and getting you moving in the morning.
  5. Your access is by the fastest means possible – preferably a helicopter.

On a Climbathon, the goal is not just to summit, but to summit as fast as possible, using any style you can.

You will also most likely be trailing a rather large carbon foot print, a host of staff, a raft of sponsor logos and a plethora of instagram posts behind you.

Then you know you are on a real Climbathon. And everyone else does too.

Traditional climbers have long derided this style, Messner defining it simply as climbing on the ‘piste’ the groomed ski run, of alpinism, in an interview with Jim Clash for Forbes.

But with new climbers attracted to the heights, with new and lighter equipment, better high volume oxygen and well known routes in place, simply getting up is no longer enough.

So the mountains have become a race.

Speed has always been important, particularly in the big mountains, where spending less time in dangerous areas makes it safer. If you don’t need to carry as much, you move more quickly. And for many, a rapid ascent can be more enjoyable, more satisfying, moving quickly and efficiently in the stunning surroundings.

The two highest profile Climbathons have been Nims Purja’s ascent of the 14 – 8000 metre peaks, and Kristin Harila’s attempt to break his record.

Kristin Harila with her support team, Sherpas Dawa Ongju and Pasdawa. Instagram

For the most part they have ascended the normal routes, with support teams, used fixed ropes, oxygen and then helicoptered both into the mountains, and then from one to the next.

In the higher mountains of the world, Climbathon’s will get you up, down and out, a lot of adventure in a very short time frame. You get to do a lot of climbing (how rewarding that climbing is, is open to question for many), in spectacular locations.

Reinhold Messner and Nirmal Purja. “We talked and within 2 min of talking he said – Nims you will do it. Only those who believe in making the impossible can see this kind of vision – I guess ? It was an honour meeting the living legend of 8000ers and the man who believed in his vision from his heart.” Instagram

Though compared to the Marathon or Triathlon, there is a whole other level of danger in a Climbathon. Competitive sport participants are rarely hit by avalanches, fall from the heights or face the jet stream, to name but a few of the mountain hazards. Though they still may be stymied by having to wait in line.

Very old school, climbing at 8,300 metres above Everest South Col after completing our new Kangshung Face route. No pack, no rope, no support, no oxygen and no people on the way to the South Summit of Everest. Photo: Ed Webster