Sports

‘The most beautiful kind of heroism’ that is no longer an Olympic event

The first gold medals for alpinism were awarded 90 years ago, but it is now considered too dangerous to be included

A 1922 climbing expedition, including George Mallory, far left, failed three times to top Mount Everest but was awarded a gold medal in 1924.

Bode Miller is famous for skiing down mountains. He has five Olympic medals, more than any other American ski racer in history. In a few days, he will try to add to that trove in Sochi, Russia.

But there was a time when ascending mountains was equally prized.

The International Olympic Committee awarded gold medals for extraordinary feats of alpinism, or mountaineering, on three occasions — the first was exactly 90 years ago, on Feb. 5, 1924, at the first Olympic Winter Games, in Chamonix, France.

The first honorees were members of the 1922 expedition that tried unsuccessfully to reach the summit of Mount Everest three times. Seven Sherpas died in an avalanche on the team’s final try.

Despite the losses, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, presented the medal at the closing ceremony in Chamonix, he said, “We salute the most beautiful kind of heroism, that which confronts scientifically calculated danger step by step without hesitation or sensationalism.”

Later that year, several members of the medal-winning team returned to Everest, vowing to fulfill the promise that they would make it to the top. The team included George Mallory of Great Britain, who died high on the mountain and remained missing for 75 years while debate swirled over whether he reached the summit. 

Norman Dyhrenfurth, son of Gunter and Hettie Dyhrenfurth, shows his parents' 1936 gold medals.
Norman Dyhrenfurth, son of Gunter and Hettie Dyhrenfurth, with his parents’ 1936 gold medals.
Manfred Siebinger

The Olympic alpinism gold medal was awarded twice more: at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games, for the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn, and at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to Gunter and Hettie Dyhrenfurth of Switzerland, for their 1934 Himalayan expedition, during which Hettie Dyhrenfurth set an altitude world record for women — 24,000 feet — that stood for 20 years. Gunter Dyhrenfurth flew to Berlin to accept the medal. 

A detail photo of the 1936 gold medals.
The Dyhrenfurths’ medals.
Manfred Siebinger

He “stood directly below Hitler, Goering and Goebbels without giving a (Nazi) salute,” said the Dyhrenfurths’ 95-year-old son, Norman, who led the first American team to reach the summit of Mount Everest, in 1963.

“My mother was half Jewish and my father one-fourth,” he said in an email from Salzburg, Austria, where he keeps his parents’ medals.

After World War II, the gold medal was no longer awarded for alpinism, but its future was tenuous even in 1936.

According to the official report of the Berlin Games, IOC members acknowledged, “presenting of prizes for mountain climbing encourages young people to undertake dangerous exploits,” and the committee decided that any subsequent medals would be awarded only for ascents supervised by national alpine clubs. 

‘Apples and oranges’

Danger is still a part of the games, however, even now.

In Sochi, halfpipe snowboarders will be rewarded for landing high-flying tricks that have killed or permanently injured even the most experienced athletes.

“I see why they awarded medals (in alpinism) but also why they didn’t last,” said Dave Hahn, a mountain guide and ski patroller whose 15 summits of Everest is a record among non-Sherpas.

“It’s hard to decide what’s a gold-medal achievement,” he said. “Back then, it wasn’t so hard. But now it would be ridiculously impossible to judge because so many people are exploring so many areas. You’d get into apples and oranges.”

Also, great climbers can be reluctant recipients.

In 1987, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch tried to give the prestigious Olympic Order in silver to the Italian climber Reinhold Messner, the first person to solo Everest without bottled oxygen and the first to climb all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters. But Messner refused it. 

Conrad Anker climbs some of the world’s most technically difficult terrain and in 1999 was the first to find Mallory’s body on Everest.

Anker said, “I’m not worthy,” and was unable to imagine himself on a Wheaties box like decathlete Bruce Jenner, the Olympic hero of his youth.

Hahn, who admired 1976 Olympic downhill champion Franz Klammer as a teenager in upstate New York, shared a similar sentiment.

“I wouldn’t get picked for gold in mountaineering,” he said. “When I go out, I’m very seldom going places that nobody’s gone before. When someone goes to push the limits of alpinism, they’re trying to avoid pre-existing footprints.”

Besides, if Hahn got a medal for 15 Everest summits, Anker said, “the core climbing community would be like, ‘Yeah, great, he’s done it. He’s guided it. It’s his job. He’s phenomenal. But there are Sherpas — Phurba Tashi is going for 22 this year, and he’ll make it for sure because he’s hella strong. It should go to a Sherpa.’”

Rewarding survival

Hahn agreed that a quadrennial alpinism medal could create tension in the climbing community.

“I think trying to settle over four years’ time what is the greatest achievement in alpinism is guaranteed to make people very angry with each other,” Hahn said. “But I think they could safely celebrate lifetime achievements and most people would be in agreement.”

That’s not likely to happen soon — at least not in the form of an Olympic medal. Instead, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation will be lobbying to have ice climbing added to the 2022 Winter Games. And sport climbing — governed by the International Federation of Sport Climbing — was seriously considered for the 2020 Tokyo Games but lost the IOC vote.

Unlike those two forms of climbing, however, alpinism isn’t a contest.

“A fundamental difficulty when mountaineering is reduced to a game,” Hahn said, is that “people try to chime in with rules. I get interviewed a couple times a year by people asking about (supplemental) oxygen and performance-enhancing drugs on Everest. But it’s not baseball.”

It’s survival.

“If the greatest accomplishment is staying alive? Then, darn! I deserve a gold medal,” Hahn said with a laugh. “But if somebody else did a better job staying alive, I’ll take silver.”

The real prize

Yet there have been organized competitions.

In 1993, Anker and Alex Lowe competed in the Khan Tengri International Speed Climbing competition in Kyrgyzstan, in which 18 competitors were given four days to see how fast they could climb solo, round trip, from base camp to the summit — a 9,500-foot elevation gain — on fixed ropes. As Anker was descending, a competitor slipped and was losing consciousness. Anker clipped him to a piece of gear and kept going. The man eventually made it down to safety.

Lowe won, and Anker placed second. The prize? Soviet climbing trinkets.  

“Classic,” Anker said.  

But what if a medal were on the line?

“There are so many reasons to lose track of what’s important on the mountain,” Hahn said. “But the idea of a competition to make sure you thoroughly lose track of what’s important scares the daylights out of me.”

Other pioneers, like Jim Whittaker, aren’t entirely opposed to Olympic recognition. But the first American to stand atop Mount Everest (on the 1963 Dyhrenfurth team), believes there is a better, simpler reward.

“The biggest credit they should have,” Whittaker said of his peers, “is getting children into nature, out into the beautiful magical world we live in. There should be no child left inside.”

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