Free-climbing Everests Second Step update: Before Fritsche was Oscar Cadiach the other Mallory

Posted: Jun 07, 2007 04:45 pm EDT

( Conrad Ankers expedition is launching a summit bid on Everest north side tomorrow. Filming a documentary on Mallory and Irvines ascent, the team plans to climb in 1924s gear and retrieve the ladders at the Second Step, in order to free-climb it, just like the British pioneers supposedly did. Earlier today, Pete Poston reminded how Theo Fritsche had free-climbed the Step back in 2001, without supplementary O2. Poston based the information on interviews by Austrian Jochen Hemmleb.

In an email to ExWeb today Jochen also mentions a previous free-climb of the infamous rocky outcrop, achieved in full-monsoon conditions and w/o O2 by Spaniard Oscar Cadiach.

Some time later, Oscar would return to Everestcharacterizing Mallory.

Hemmleb: Oscar was first

Contrary to what I stated in the mentioned AAJ article, Theo Fritsche did NOT make the first free ascent of the Second Step, Jochen writes. This was in fact done 16 years earlier, by well-known Catalan climber, Oscar Cadiach.

The climb was done under monsoon conditions, which might have shortened the crux pitch. Cadiach did the crux on belay, using a sling tied around one of the Chinese ladders rungs as a runner. He rated the crack that forms the crux V+ (5.7.-5.8) so we have two ratings in the same range (and three, if we include Conrad Ankers on the spot estimate in 1999, which was also 5.8).

Oscar himself described the climb in an article for the Spanish Geographic Society: Luces y sombras del Everest (Everests lights and shadows):

Before 8 a.m. we reach the base of the Second Step. I look at it and I swallow best I can with my dry mouth and throat, due to the lack of moisture and exhaustion. I cant stop panting. Since 1980, nobody has reached this point. I can see an almost vertical wall of about 40 m, if my sight and the lack of O2 dont play tricks on my perception.

Cadiach: Struggling in the thin air w/o O2

I look up and study two steps popping out of the snow, from an old Chinese aluminum ladder. I cant use them. The ladder stands at least one meter away from the place I think I must climb. Shombu is beside me. The rest is coming behind. I take the rope out of the backpack. I tie myself to one end and give the rest of the rope to the Sherpa so he can belay me. I place a piton universal-type, brand Faders. I hammer it in, and belay to it. From the place I am (some kind of shallow cave in the rock) I can hint at two possible ways to overcome the first section of the wall. I discard the chimney which starts right above me. At its right side I see something like a wall formed by blocks which seems easier to me. I go for it. Movements are sloppy and slow, compared to the altitude I usually climb at. I progress slowly, but safely, totally motivated to proceed upwards. Blocks give way to a snow ramp, steep as ever, and about 25m tall (sic). I make my way up the snow with my ice-axe. Breathing deeply, my lungs struggle to work in the thin air.

I reach the base of a crack. A wide crack in the rock, where I could stick in my entire arm and one leg. I am not well balanced. I feel tired. I am at almost 8700m. Then I recall the warmth of the songs and the music transmitted to us from our mates from C3. Their supporting words are having an effect after all.

Breathe and climb... breathe and climb...

I look at the crack. I stick my arm into it as if I knew how to solve the section but Ive never been here before. I also stick in a leg. I look up. I need to reach out. I pass a sling around the second rung of the ladder. I pass the rope though the carabiner. With an impulse, I drag myself up little by little, centimeter by centimeter. I am out of breath. I am sweating. The wall is vertical. At my feet, the north face of Everest spreads in all its depth. Up, up! I take off the mitten of the hand I have stuck in the crack. I need more dexterity. I find good holds for the feet. Lucky me. Uff... I breathe and climb... breathe and climb...

At the top of the crack I find a snow cornice hanging twisted on the top of the wall. I take off the ice-axe. My hand is still stuck in the crack so is one foot. The other foot is trying to keep the balance as best as possible. I dig, dig, hit, and slowly make the snow fall down the wall. Slowly, since everything is slowly up here, I carve some kind of gully, through which I see the navy-blue sky again. I dont know the degree of difficulty of all this; I find it extremely difficult and exhausting. I dig breathe dig breathe Ufff! I drag myself up very carefully. Concentration has to be like balance: absolute and precise. Then I stick the ice-axe on top of the snow, holding it by the head. With my other hand I lean on the snow. I take my feet up. All this, as fast as I can. Finally I stand up. I am puffing and panting like a steam engine; then I look down, then up again. In that instant it is clear as ever, that the summit is close. How difficult was that? V+? At 8650m, I honestly find it difficult to find a rating for it.

I pant, crouched by the effort I have just made. I stick two aluminum stakes deep in the soft ice. I tie the rope and cover it with snow. While Shombu climbs up the rope, I radio-contact C3, I tell them I am on top of the Second Step and, perhaps, in about two hours, we might reach the summit.

But did Mallory summit?

In a later interview with Desnivel, Cadiach voiced his opinion on the chances of Mallory having summitted:

I think Mallory was capable enough to reach the summit, although in these years the technical skills demanded to pass that section were not acquired (a V+ degree crack). That was a very dry year, and possibly Mallory climbed via another point, or took advantage of a ledge, since he was an excellent designer of routes it was him who figured out the first line via the north side. I am sure, had he overcome the Second Step, he would have summitted.

Contrary to Cadiachs statement - noted Hemmleb - about technical difficulties, modern-day repetitions of Mallorys climbs in Wales have placed most of them in the 4c/VS range (USA 5.7, UIAA V/V+), with one of them Eastern Gutter on Llechog even meriting a grade of 5a/HVS (USA 5.8/5.10a, UIAA VI-/VI+).(Crook, M., George Mallory Just how good a rock-climber was he, High, 205, December 1999 and Lee, D., George Mallory-Master Cragsman?, High, 243, February 2003)

Cadiach was in Mallorys shoes too

Cadiach had a further connection with the Mallory story, Jochen added. In 2000, he returned to the North Ridge in an attempt to climb Mallorys route in Mallory-style clothing (how much ths resembled the recently manufactured replicas still needs investigating, J.H.). In very cold conditions, Cadiach alias Mallory got as far as the First Step, while Irvine (Alberto Cerain) managed to reach the base of the Second Step.

Afterwards, Cadiach summarized his impressions:

Oscar: They probably died of cold up there

When I climbed with the clothes they wore, in the same conditions, I concluded that Mallory and Irivine probably died of cold on the North side. In my opinion, one could actually summit with that equipment on a good day we turned round due to bad weather."

Oscar Cadiach has taken part in 5 expeditions to Everest, reaching the summit twice (once from each side). Cadiach has also climbed Nanga Parbat, Shisha Pangma, Makalu and Lhotse. He opened the route 'Free Tibet' on Cho Oyu and did a new route on Broad Peak central.

Cadiach was also the leader of the "Tarragona Magic Line Expedition 2004." The Catalans were the most exciting expedition during summer of 2004. The team accomplished the first repetition of K2s Magic Line but there was much more to it than that. They were the only ones to try a rescue party when two climbers went missing on the Abruzzi Spur route while their own climbing mates hurried home.

At midnight local time, on August 17th 2004, Jordi Corominas reached the top of K2 through the Magic Line, accomplishing the first repetition after a Polish/Slovak team in 1986. Oscar Cadiach and Manel de la Matta turned around from their camp at 8100 m on the morning of August 16. Manel fell ill in C1 at 6400, and died hours later.

The climb was awarded the Best Expedition of 2004 by ExplorersWeb.

Last year, Cadiach opened a new route on Baltoro's Cathedral Towers and led a team on an attempt on GI.

In spring this year Oscar attempted Kangchenjunga bad weather conditions forced him back and Inigo de Pineda shortly before reaching the summit. Sadly, Inigo fell to his death on descent.


Theo Fritsche did NOT make the first free ascent of the Second Step, Jochen stated. This was in fact done 16 years earlier, by well-known Catalan climber, Oscar Cadiach [...] Cadiach had a further connection with the Mallory story: In 2000, he returned to the North Ridge in an attempt to climb Mallorys route in Mallory-style clothing Image of Cadiach (right) in Mallory's clothing and Alberto Cerain playing Irvine, courtesy of TVE.
Before 8 a.m. we reach the base of the Second Step. I look at it and I swallow best I can with my dry mouth and throat, due to the lack of moisture and exhaustion. I cant stop panting," recalled Oscar. Image of Oscar during a trekking trip in his homeland Tarragona by ExplorersWeb.