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Veteran Climber Mike Bearzi Said to Have Perished in Tibet

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 15, 2002
 
Veteran climber Mike Bearzi reportedly fell to his death sometime last week, during an attempt on the unclimbed northeast face of Tibet's remote Gyachung Kang.

"The information we have so far is a bit sketchy," said James Balog, a close friend and frequent climbing partner who traveled with Bearzi last year to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for National Geographic Adventure (Expedition to ANWR," November/December 2001). "It's based on a single call from Bruce, who reached a mutual friend in Colorado on Sunday night"

Bearzi and climbing partner Bruce Miller were in Tibet to make the first attempt at climbing the remote, northeast face of Gyachung Kang. The towering peak is difficult by any route and is rarely visited. At approximately 26,000 feet (7,952 meters), it's thought to be the 15th highest mountain in the world.


Although details are sketchy, the accident occurred while the two climbers were descending a ridge during an acclimatization climb near their base camp. Coming down on relatively easy ground, Bearzi apparently slipped on some snow or ice, and took a very long fall off the ridge.

Because of the area's challenging terrain, it took Miller a day and a half to reach a position where he could even view the body with binoculars and confirm that Bearzi had died. Miller then hiked four days to reach Everest Base Camp, the nearest location with a telephone.

Climbing Alpine Style

"Mike had seen Gyachung Kang during an acclimatization hike for one of his Everest climbs," Balog said. "He became really excited about climbing this giant, deep in the more remote reaches of the Himalayan wilderness."

The climb, said Balog, epitomized much of what drew Bearzi to mountaineering. "Light, small, focused, and very bold—that's what Mike really enjoyed. He had become disenchanted with large, expedition-style alpinism, and felt it was becoming too commercialized by media and sponsorships. He cherished the aesthetic purity of guys just getting out there and doing climbs."

Bearzi and Miller planned to climb the massive 6,000-foot (1,800-meter) rock-and-ice northeast face of the mountain "alpine style," without a support team, fixed camps, or oxygen.

The attempt had a scientific component. Mountains hitting the 8,000-meter mark are especially coveted by climbers, and there has been speculation that Gyachung Kang might be a "lost" 8,000-meter peak. Bearzi and Miller carried a handheld GPS unit, in the hope of reaching the summit and pinpointing the Himalayan giant's true height.

The ambitious project attracted much attention in the alpine community, and was supported by the American Alpine Club's Lyman Spitzer grant, a Mugs Stump Grant, and a Polartec Challenge Grant.

Part of the reason the climb drew so much support is that it "represented a level of adventurous spirit beyond what most other U.S. expeditions have had in quite some time," said Balog.

Mixed Climb Pioneer

Bearzi was an accomplished alpinist whose distinguished resume included the first alpine-style free ascent of Patagonia's Cerro Torre, and an attempt on the North Ridge of K2, which was featured on National Geographic Explorer. He had been on Everest three times, including two alpine-style attempts on its treacherous North Face.

In the 1980s and early '90s, he helped pioneer mixed climbing, and claimed many first ascents of mixed winter routes in Rocky Mountain National Park. He was instrumental in the invention of the "M system," which has become a widely used standard for ranking the difficulty of mixed climbs.

The 49-year-old Bearzi lived in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife Reneé St. Aubin. During off-climbing times, he worked as a carpenter to finance his passion for the mountains.

He will be remembered most of all as a man whose love for the outdoors was a driving passion.

"Most of the guys I've encountered who are performing at a high level aren't out there for the pure love of the space," said Balog. "They're out there for the technical exercise, and other reasons, but sometimes they're lacking an aesthetic and spiritual love of the place. Mike just loved being out there, enjoying the wild. He could have just as much fun doing a casual climb on the Flatirons near Boulder, on a summer morning, as he could pushing toward the summit of an 8,000-meter peak. That really strikes at the essence of what kind of person he was."
 

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