I took this photo about an hour after digging out of an avalanche that nearly killed me and two friends as we were descending the world’s 13th tallest mountain. It was February 4, 2011, and we’d just completed the first winter ascent of Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II. Since then, this image has run on the cover of National Geographic, appeared on posters and billboards, and circulated on the Internet. In a way, it’s become my “brand” and has led to many lucrative assignments. But over the years, the story that the picture suggests—of a heroic mountaineer who has just cheated death—has bothered me deeply.
I’ve always found it difficult to think of climbing as heroic, though I understand how some might view it this way. Stand at the foot of a Himalayan peak, and you quickly understand that getting to the top is going to require exceptional strength, stamina, concentration, and courage. But I’ve always thought that an act of heroism requires some sort of higher purpose than just risking your life to see if you can make it to the top. Sure, I can make the case that mountaineering supports developing local economies in many places, including Pakistan, and that climbing remote peaks taps into something vital in the human psyche. But let’s not kid ourselves: A lot of it comes down to expensive, dangerous recreation and a certain amount of self-indulgence.
It wasn’t my idea to climb Gasherbrum II. I was invited by two veteran climbers, Simone Moro and Denis Urubko, to join their expedition. I was a young climber who’d progressed from peaks in North America and the Alps and finally made it to the ultimate proving ground, the Himalaya. Simone and Denis were icons in the climbing world who’d pioneered new routes on some of the world’s tallest, most dangerous mountains.