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Lost climber returns to Aspen

Kimberly Nicoletti
Aspen climber Fritz Stammberger is the subject of "Death Zone," showing Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House. (Courtesy Mike Marolt)
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In October 1973, an avalanche buried Fritz Stammberger in his tent at the Makalu base camp in eastern Nepal. A pocket of air in his sleeping bag gave him enough oxygen to survive, but his hope of ascending one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas on that trip died.

After Stammberger dug his way out of the 6 feet of wet snow a monsoon had dumped, he vowed to return and climb the southwest face of Makalu. The following year, he and a larger, better-prepared international team of mountaineers gathered to conquer the mountain.

The film “Death Zone,” showing Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House, tells the story of their expedition.

Makalu, at 27,765 feet, now is ranked the fifth-highest mountain in the world, but in 1974 it was considered the fourth-highest. Either way, its steep pitches, knife-edged ridges and exposure makes it one of the most difficult mountains to climb.

So it was the perfect mountain for Stammberger.

“Fritz was an extraordinary character,” said Aspen resident Bruce Gordon, who accompanied Stammberger on the 1974 ascent. “He was a great, inspiring presence in the mountains.”

Towering more than 6 feet, Stammberger regularly hiked up Aspen Mountain with no gloves and a huge backpack full of rocks to train for expeditions. He also was one of the first climbers to film his adventures at a time when teams didn’t use oxygen for high-elevation trips. In the late 1970s, he mysteriously disappeared; he left for a solo expedition in the mountains of Pakistan and no one heard from him again. Searchers never recovered his body.

Until his disappearance, he lived larger than life. Gordon remembers him for his strength and sense of humor, even in the most trying conditions on Makalu.

“I’ll never forget sitting in a huge storm with Fritz on this face, and the top of the tent started ripping apart,” Gordon said. “Fritz was typing a press release, and I was in the other corner of the tent trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there, and Fritz looks over at me and says, ‘Bruce, just another slice of life.’ He was an unflappable man.”

The team he assembled stuck together through news of a Dutch man on another team dying at a lower camp and through team members suffering such high-elevation maladies as a hemorrhaged eye and pulmonary edema. When word of the Dutch climber’s death reached the team members, it brought their own sense of mortality closer.

“It’s not just a game,” Gordon said. “It preys on your mind a little bit, but you’ve got to put it out of your mind.”

The team encountered other challenges: dangerous weather, a dwindling food supply and, of course, the effect of high elevation.

“On a good moment, the doors of perception open,” Gordon said. “On a bad moment, you’re not moving, and you are slowly dying. You lose your sense of immediacy. You’re in a dreamlike state.”

Gordon was one of the least experienced climbers on the expedition, having just moved to Aspen in 1970. Ironically, he was one of the few who didn’t get severely ill.

Since the 1974 trip, he has climbed the Himalayas three times. But the Makalu trip, in a remote and pristine region of the world, always will stand out in his mind. His group employed about 200 porters; in those days, entire villages signed on, bringing their kids, dogs and chickens, he said. They spent a couple of weeks trekking through poorly defined trails in the hot, rugged jungle, fighting leeches and the brutal sun, before reaching base camp.

“The hardest part was the unknown,” he said. “I didn’t have any experience on big mountains.”

But Stammberger solidly led the team. As the Wheeler Opera House’s advertisement for “Death Zone” says, “Fritz embodied the Aspen spirit through his ability to push for such goals, and he laid the groundwork for future generations of skiers and climbers to actually understand the phrase ‘because it is there.'”

Indeed, Stammberger acted as a role model for Aspenite Mike Marolt.

Marolt’s documentary “Natural Progression,” about a group of lifetime Aspen skiers who were the first Americans to make turns down Mount Everest, also plays at the Wheeler Thursday. The 28-minute film depicts their training for the expedition, from Highland Bowl to faces at the equator.

Marolt grew up with guys whose love of skiing naturally brought them to a point where it seemed like a no-brainer to brave Everest.

“We realized that, No. 1, just growing up here gave us a good background for doing those 8,000-meter peaks,” Marolt said. “Climbing and skiing those peaks is not about God-given talent … what allowed us to do that was the team cohesiveness and the desire ” and deciding we wanted to do it.”

While mountaineering teams must have some bond, Marolt’s crew grew up together. “This group of guys is blessed,” he said. “They’re my brothers, my cousins, my best friends.”

The other thing that makes the guys unique is that they look for the easiest way up a mountain so they can ski down ” as opposed to mountaineers who pick the toughest route to ascend.

“Some mountaineers look down at us, but most appreciate it,” he said.

Last year, weather prevented the group from reaching the summit at Mount Everest, but the skiers began descending the 40- to 45-degree pitch of wind-scoured snow around 25,000 feet, Marolt said.

“It was off-the-chart scary,” he said. “The ridge drops off on both sides, and it was whiteout conditions. But if it were a bluebird day and if we could have seen what we were doing, I’m not sure we would have done it.”

He said it wasn’t the prettiest skiing in the world; it was conservative, utilitarian skiing. But he’s one of the only people to capture the high-elevation turns on tape.

“It’s a new kind of skiing, altitude skiing,” he said. “It’s like powder skiing. It’s an absolute rush.”

The Wheeler’s evening of mountain films shows the contrast between two different eras of mountain climbing: one in an age when Gore-Tex and high-priced modern commercial expeditions didn’t exist, and another in a new millennium, where access and gear are a little easier to come by.

“It measures the distance that mountain sports have come in that time,” said Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler. “It’s really phenomenal.”

Kimberly Nicoletti’s e-mail address is knicoletti@aspentimes.com


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