By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq
September 1977 saw the release of The Stranglers lament, “No more heroes”. When Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell wrote it, at the height of punk, they bemoaned the lack of inspirational figures in public life. Their parents’ generation had plentiful heroes of course, having lived through the Second World War.
The celebrities that the era produced must have seemed to Cornwell and Burnel shallow and lacking the determination and resolve of the previous generation, finding notoriety easily and living up to Warhol’s prediction that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
With a hit single and album of the same name, The Stranglers voiced their disillusionment. But at that point, it seems certain that they had not met the then 11-year-old Goran Kropp.
Small town boy
Born in a small city in Southern Sweden, bounded by the River Eskilstunaån and two sizable lakes, lowland Eskilstuna is an unlikely place to find someone who can genuinely be labelled a hero. For a small city with a total population of only just over the capacity of Wembley Stadium, Eskilstuna has raised some residents of note. Arsenal and Birmingham City’s Sebastian Larsson hails from there, as does Abba’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Famous, but not heroic.
Heroic is often taken to be synonymous with courage, and while at various times Goran Kropp demonstrated physical courage, it’s the qualities of outstanding achievement and noble qualities part of the dictionary definition where he can be judged heroic; for his actions around his vocation and the way he went about it.
From the outset of his career as a climber, Kropp made the challenges above and beyond the simple, but exacting, challenge of ascending a mountain his hallmark. The first major peak he topped out, the Lenin Peak on the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan border was completed in a record time. Two years later, he finished what was only the fourth ever ascent of a technically rigorous 7,000 metre peak in the Himalayas.
Every climber has a high degree of determination and single-mindedness necessary to overcome the gruelling conditions and dangers, and Kropp was no different. His self-confidence could manifest itself as arrogance, while his competitive nature occasionally a difficult character with whom to get along.
In 1993, just six years after his first major ascent, Kropp was to be part of a wholly Swedish expedition to climb K2. Before the Swedish expedition could begin, Kropp had jumped ship to ally himself with a Slovenian expedition also planning to conquer K2. The difference in the time between the ascents would mean that, if successful, Kropp would be both the first Swede and Scandinavian to reach K2’s peak.
Unfortunately, climbers have similar motivations and make up; the Slovenians had already decided that they would do the same to Kropp as he had to his fellow Swedes and set off on the ascent having quietly dropped him. Undeterred, Kropp hooked up with a British climber, David Sharman who was hoping to be not the first Briton to reach the summit of K2, but the first to survive the ascent and descent.
The Slovenian party were marginally ahead of Sharman and Kropp when, at altitude, a violent storm of the kind only seen in big mountains developed trapping the party. Kropp’s humanity overcame his ambition and he, with Sharman, abandoned their attempt to aid the survivors among the Slovenian group.
A week later Sharman and Kropp tried again, this attempt being marked by Sharman having a fall and sustaining a fractured leg. Sharman made his way back to camp alone; Kropp pressed on. Despite being without bottled oxygen and being hit by the ferocious storms that the Slovenian group had suffered, Kropp made the peak and descended safely. News of the climb reached beyond the specialist press and Kropp was propelled to becoming a minor celebrity. At that point in his life, he established both an adventure company in his own name and his hallmark – ascents without bottled oxygen.
His actions in trying to save members of the Slovenian party were undoubtedly heroic; at the beginning of May 1996 he was again to exhibit the courage, humanity and heroism for which he is rightly remembered.
His attention and ambition had turned to Everest. Although feted among the climbing community, being a minor media celebrity and owning his own adventure company, funding for expeditions was hard to come by and freighting climbing equipment from Sweden to Nepal was extremely expensive. Kropp came up with a heroic solution.
Journey to Everest
Between October 1995 and April 1996, Kropp cycled from Stockholm to Nepal, a journey of 8,000 miles. During the cycle, he had numerous incidents, including being offered a villager’s daughter for marriage, outlined in the book he wrote about the expedition and his life as a climber, Ultimate High.
Upon arrival at base camp, his fellow climbers recognised the enormity of what Kropp had done to get there and agreed that of all the parties, he should be accorded the honour of summiting first. At a point over 28,500 feet above sea level – a mere 300 feet from the summit, Kropp abandoned to descend in the relative safety of daytime. In doing so, he had forfeited the chance to summit first given to him by his fellow climbers. They eagerly began their own ascents.
The 1996 Everest Disaster
With others on the hill, and Kropp at a lower camp, the 1996 Everest Disaster struck. This blizzard was the single most deadly event on Everest until this year’s avalanche, which prompted an unprecidented strike of sherpas. In all, the 1996 season claimed 15 lives, eight of these being in this single incident. Half of these were from a group containing journalist John Krakauer, who went on to write a bestseller about the disaster, Into Thin Air.
As soon as word of the events unfolding reached him, Kropp began to ferry medicines up to the injured. The climbing world, not unfamiliar with tragic deaths among its number, was shaken by the incident. Whatever feelings he had of the tragedy, he put them to the back of his mind and successfully topped the mountain without oxygen. And then began the long cycle home.
Extraordinary conditions make extraordinary – and heroic – exploits possible. What marks Kropp out as heroic for many was his humanity. Aside from rescuing and helping fellow climbers when they were in need, Goran Kropp’s humanity extended to sponsoring a school in Nepal, the Goran Kropp Bishwa Darshan Primary School, where 8 teachers educate 165 pupils. Among the achievements of a remarkable man – he raced in Formula Three, just two steps from Formula 1 for a while – this perhaps describes Kropp the best.
Tragically, Goran Kropp died on 30 September 2002, after a 60 foot fall rock climbing in Vantage, Washington. I guess the only comfort from that; is he died doing what he loved.