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The Cost of Courage

Words by
KT Browne

Photography by
Golli

The astonishing discovery of two fallen mountaineers.

Thirty years ago, in the violent wintry swells of the Himalayas, Kristinn Rúnarsson and Þorsteinn Guðjónsson fell into a crevasse while ascending Nepal’s Pumori mountain and lost their lives – or so it was presumed. That their bodies were never found, despite an extensive multiweek search, became the only confirmation that they had indeed perished some 6,600 metres (21,650 feet) above sea level on October 18, 1988. At the time, Kristinn Rúnarsson’s girlfriend had been five months pregnant with their son – a boy who would go on to live a life without his father. As the months passed, the news of the lost climbers made its way through Iceland’s small community of mountaineers, who were so thoroughly shaken that they put a temporary halt to their expeditions. It became less and less likely that Kristinn and Þorsteinn were ever going to be found.

In November of 2018, an American mountaineer ascending Pumori discovered the remains of two climbers who were later identified as Kristinn and Þorsteinn. Word spread quickly; 30 years of agonising uncertainty dissipated with a few phone calls and digital photographs sent across the earth in a minute. Coincidentally, the founder of Iceland’s largest mountaineering organisation, Icelandic Mountain Guides, and avid climber Leifur Örn Svavarsson happened to be in Nepal at the time leading groups to base camp.

“It’s a modern-day adventure,” Leifur admits. “It’s an experience that you can both create and participate in. It’s all-consuming. Once you go into the mountains, you can’t turn back.”

“I was contacted soon after the remains were found,” Leifur explains. “Since I was already acclimatised to the altitude, I decided to go and retrieve them, bring them back to Kathmandu and then eventually home to Iceland. It just made sense. I understood so clearly that this was the closure their families desperately needed.”

Kristinn and Þorsteinn were not alone on their expedition in 1988; accompanying them were two other mountaineers – Steve Aisthorpe from Scotland and Iceland’s Jón Geirsson – both of whom fell ill during the journey and returned to base camp while the other two ascended to their fate. Jón, now living in France, remembers the sequence of events with unrelenting clarity.

“This is something that’s been haunting me for the last thirty years. Those guys were my best friends and amazing people. I’ve lost a number of friends in the mountains since then, but those two guys […] for all of us in Iceland, that was something really hard to grapple with,” he admits.

The relentless drive to experience life in its utmost intensity is enough to keep him going; it makes everything worthwhile.

For the small but passionate climbing community in Iceland, news of Kristinn and Þorsteinn’s discovery was deemed beyond incredible, for it had seemed impossible. “It was something we never expected would happen. And when it happened, it was such a great relief. So many people are now able to close this story.”

That Kristinn and Þorsteinn were among the first Icelanders courageous enough to venture far abroad and tackle massive mountain ranges only added to the importance of their final quest. “No one else was doing anything like that at the time. Their trips into the Himalayas were way ahead of what was happening in the Icelandic climbing community, and they were living for that, setting an intrepid example for others. Their loss was felt by everyone.”

"Back in the 80s, one of the boldest ways to face the unknown was to, conquer a mountain," Ingvar claims. "Now the unknown is all about conquering yourself on that mountain."

For some, a mountain is something to marvel at from afar, or perhaps to be explored only cautiously; for others, a mountain is something to conquer, a symbol of the known and the unknown, urging to be uncovered in all its tumultuousness – if not by nature itself then by those who she deems bold enough to try. Mountaineers, not to be confounded with casual hikers, live for the rush granted by ascending the world’s highest peaks. “It’s a modern-day adventure,” Leifur admits. “It’s an experience that you can both create and participate in. It’s all-consuming. Once you go into the mountains, you can’t turn back.”

Documentary filmmaker and longtime mountaineering enthusiast Ingvar Ágúst Þórisson has been interested in the story of Kristinn and Þorsteinn for many years. No stranger to the mysterious allure of mountain ranges, his 2009 film Ama Dablam: Beyond the Void follows the journey of an American climber on a harrowing expedition. For Ingvar, the idea to make a film about the late Icelandic climbers was always on his radar.

“I remember when they went missing and immediately felt like I wanted to make film about their story. This feeling persisted for many years, but I just never had the opportunity to do it. Two years ago, I met with Kristinn’s father about potentially moving forward with the project, but he didn’t want this. He didn’t want to go through the trauma of the experience again,” Ingvar explains.

why would a man in the prime of his life, with a baby on the way, so willingly put his future on the line?

As an artist who has worked closely with mountaineers before, Ingvar remains removed from the immediacy of their commitment to the mountain while simultaneously witnessing its irresistibility. His craft has given him unique perspective into the minds of these individuals, in which he sees, “Total fearlessness. It seems that they feel compelled toward some quest for the unknown.”

It is not difficult to imagine the thrill of climbing a mountain or the rush of the sensory extremes that come along with it; likewise, it is not a stretch to understand that what lies at the root of the activity – exploration – is imprinted within us all, elemental, tied irrecoverably to our nature as human beings. Regardless of whether or not we feel compelled to climb a mountain, one would be hard-pressed to ignore the relationship that we each have with a sense of exploration, and ultimately with the unknown.

“Back in the 80s, one of the boldest ways to face the unknown was by conquering a mountain,” Ingvar claims. “Now the unknown is all about conquering yourself on that mountain. You can become addicted to it in a way, being up there. It’s a kind of meditation – you’re alone in the world and want only to continue seeking out and conquering these remote, magical places.”

Jón echoes this sentiment and admits that, “When you have spent time at such high altitudes along uncharted terrain, you experience certain sensations and your memories of those moments become perpetual.”

Likening mountain climbing to an addiction is one way of understanding the urge that Ingvar and Jón describe, though I prefer to look past such a deflecting simplification and to ask why such risks are taken in the face of all logic; why would a man in the prime of his life, with a baby on the way, so willingly put his future on the line? Does this not signify brute disregard for the realities at hand or merely a need, one as necessary breath itself, to venture to the outer reaches of the unknown and do something that matters, something to be remembered by?

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.