We are who we are on what we do, not on the words we say but on the actions we do. But we do what we do and how we do-it because we’re the the result of our mentors and partners who are at the same time linked on the same chain of influences from their mentors. Here are some articles, topos, conversations, essays, quotes or discusions about people who went to mountains:
Artificial Aid on Alpine Routes
No long philosophical meditations on Alpine questions will I bring here; no attacks that shall cause the cornerstones of a proud decades-old building to shake. Only ideas, ideas that always impose themselves upon me when I’m in the midst of the most active hustle and bustle of mountain climbing, shall be loosely united here. Yet I myself can’t say whether the portrait I’m sketching is entirely clear, but it seems to me that the individual ideas can be united quite well into a general portrait. One thing only do I know: that I stand just about alone in my opinions, and whenever I expressed something of them, the answer was always: “Quite an ideal point of view, but a crazy notion.
As alpinism and rock-climbing differ, so differ the aims and so differ the demands! The solution to a rock-climbing problem can be alpinistically worthless, this we all know, and this no more concerns alpinism than it does rock-climbing, for in the latter the same solution can possess the highest value. From the rock-climbing point of view, there exists no general difference between the Totenkirchl West Face and any other ascent on the second terrace of that famous mountain, only a qualitative one. From the alpinist’s point of view however most of these ascents are completely worthless; the route lines are anything but ideal, and the ideality of the line plays the same role certainly for alpinism as do the greater or lesser difficulties, only in the opposite sense. From both points of view the solution to any problem at all only has value if it is carried out independently, that is, without artificial aid. That seems to me to be the supreme principle in alpinism as well as in rock-climbing, and with that I come to the question of artificial aid.
For the ladders taken in olden times on mountain routes, for Winkler’s grappling hook and similar aids, people today only have a smile raised at corners of the mouth. But when a modern mountain climber casts the rope thirty-seven times around a block until it holds fast and then ascends it, people admire the daring, energy and perseverance of this. Wherein lies the difference? It is far from my intention to preach against fixed cable routes7: no thinking mountaineer underestimates their value for the bulk of the mountain- and nature-loving public. Something else is of concern to me, to put it briefly: I consider protection by means of driven-in pitons – in many cases even protection in general – as well as rappelling and all other rope-maneuvers which so often make the ascent of the mountain possible or at least are used for that purpose to be artificial aid and consequently from the point of view of the alpinist as well as that of the rock-climber as not free from objection, as not justified.
Rappelling! “If there is someplace you can’t go down, you should also not go up” – the alpine point of view tells me: “Overcome difficulties with your own strength, on the ascent and the descent alike.” That is the postulate of an honest, sporting conviction. An ascent made without being conscious that everything can go free on the descent as well is reckless and unalpinistic; a battle waged with unequal weapons, unchivalrous and unsporting. Certainly every alpinist and every climber – with this distinction however I don’t want to be understood as saying that a man can’t be both at the same time – must be able to rappel; it is a means of deliverance in times of distress, during sudden drops in temperature or nightfalls, after an accident or when straying off-route. But I don’t see the value of a traverse of the Campanile di Val Montanaia if this traverse is impossible without a rope; climbing directly over all six Vajolet Towers seems senseless to me if an eighty-meter air journey has to be undertaken to do it. Wherein lies the value of a descent via the South Wall of the Marmolada, from the Winkler or Delago Towers, via the Schmittkamin or over the Kopftörl Ridge if all the difficulties are only overcome by means of dangling on the rope? On the ascent, aid given from above by the rope is universally frowned upon; but what’s right for the ascent must also be proper for the descent! The virginity of a mountain has not been taken when, although you may have gone up free, you did not get down again free – on the contrary even! I would like to express myself quite clearly but without in doing so offending everyone who has ever rappelled (I myself also did it back in the day): Is the victim of the theft reprehensible or is it the thief?
The same goes, it seems to me, for pitons too! I don’t need to stress that using them as a foothold is unjustified; but what difference is there between downright fixed cable protection and installing triple ropes as protection by means of pitons driven in every five meters on difficult stellen?12 I don’t understand the value of the feelings nor do I understand the value of the achievement if you swindle your way up a face like this. I too once wanted to “conquer” a towering face loaded down with a metal-working shop and a small iron mongery in each pocket. Fortunately I was at that time rebuffed all the same, and today when I reflect on it well,
I become conscious of the complete unsporting dishonesty of my beginnings back then! (By way of example, a fact from a modern route report: “The way cannot be missed, since it leads in an almost ruler-straight direction and is marked by 22 pitons.”!!)
The most outlandish “Kletterstellen” are “made” with the aid of ropes and pitons: people swing back and forth on smooth walls, entire mountains are ascended with rope maneuvers (– Torre del Diavolo, Guglia Edmondo de Amicis; though such “ascents” every now and then aren’t even taken by the participants as having full value! –), cords tied to pitons are used as handholds or as “maintainers of equilibrium.” Yet experience teaches that many of these stellen can be climbed free; and if not, they should rather immediately be left alone. The piton too is a makeshift; it must not be a means to conquer the mountain. I don’t want to put the case for the love of danger, which is absolutely present to a certain extent in us modern mountaineers. However it seems to me that the thought: “if you fall, you’ll hang three meters on the rope” is of lesser ethical worth than the feeling: “one fall, and you’re dead!” If you only want to do gymnastics on steep walls with absolute security, perhaps on triple ropes or above a spread out safety net, then you should rather stay at home and put your skillfulness to the test in the gymnastics club. If you cannot also climb a kletterstelle without a belay – from the alpinistic and sporting point of view – then you must not climb it at all. In my opinion as leader you are always only entitled to overcome such difficulties and dangers (naturally with the exception of objective dangers such as the danger of crevasses and the like) that you would with the same feelings also overcome solo.
It is far from my intention to reject entirely the use of a rope; I will not and can not bring into discredit this most important aid to the modern mountaineer; yet it seems to me that in recent times too much mischief has been perpetrated with it.
Quite apart from all those who are dragged up the mountain under the motto “as second on the rope” – how many risky maneuvers are often carried out even by leaders just because they are on a rope. – There are even, I believe, individual cases where, precisely in the moment of highest danger, keeping the solid link between two climbers by means of the rope is immoral and imprudent! Certainly with correct, methodical execution of a route such cases should not occur, but unfortunately we mountaineers know from our own experience that we aren’t proof against happenstance and that under exceptional circumstances even exceptional cases can occur. When the leader is in a precarious position and the second occupies a poor stance that is completely unsuitable for belaying, it is in keeping with my opinion for the latter to undo the solid link of the rope and hold the end of the rope in his hand as firmly as possible! This seems a commandment of humanity and reason. Apart from the fact that every life that can be preserved also must be preserved, apart from the fact that in the event of a fall it’s senseless and lawless to pull your friend into ruin with you based on the admittedly ideal grounds of true comradeship, this rule contributes at least a little to heightening the somewhat shaky security of such stellen! In each of us, however altruistic we may very well be, concern for our own life plays, at least in the subconscious, a definite role. With the feeling of not, in the event of your friend’s fall, having to fall along with him, the second can with much greater calm devote more strength and attention to the nevertheless possible arrest of the fall than he would with the definite thought of, due to his unfavorable stance in the event of a mishap by the leader, having to cling helplessly to the rock with a heavy burden around the body! How many double falls would surely have been avoided with the consistent application of this principle?! A significant role should fall to the roped belay, yet daring everything and carrying out everything trusting in roped belays and pitons is imprudent, unjustified and without style! Belaying the leader with a rope is permitted as and should be a relief-bringing means but not the one true means for making the execution of the route possible. He alone seems to me to have the right to call himself “independent” who can mountaineer on this basis! Not only “that” you get up the mountain and back down again should be of significance – but also “how”! If a horse gallops during harness trotting, it will be disqualified for having an impure gait. We compel the irrational animal into purity of style; should everything be permitted with thinking mountaineers? Let style in alpinism and style in rock-climbing be a demand on all alpinists and climbers; when that demand is fulfilled, all attacks should silence of themselves.
With these remarks it is far from my intention to make unfulfillable demands; a lot of bad habits have taken root so firmly that they won’t be uprooted in a single stroke. I only thought to offer a few suggestions thereby, suggestions which may with the coming generation fall on fertile ground.
I will be reproached with striving for a too extreme hypermodern climbing technique, one separated by a world of difference from the alpinism of past times. I would not like to concede this unconditionally. The manner of execution may well be different, but the basic idea seems to me to be the same; I believe myself to be carrying out a return to the declining alpinism of the purest style, to the alpinism on whose solid ground and soil I believe myself to be standing body and soul.
(Deutsche Alpenzeitung, XI/1, August, 1911; S. 242-244)
Paul Preu∫ (The Piton Dispute – read all reponses here: hhttps://www.academia.edu/36503188/Artificial_Aid_on_Alpine_Routes // https://issuu.com/randisi/docs/mauerhakenstreit_complete_illustrated
(English, name) /bəʊlt/A long pin with a head that screws into a nut, used to fasten things together /A long pin that is driven into a rock face so that a rope can be attached to it
“We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”–Albert Einstein
Mixed climbing has come a long way from its beginnings in mountaineering. The early mountaineer with his nailed boots “providing an equally good grip on rock and ice” (Heinrich Harrer, The White Spider, 1959) seems barely recognizable in the modern alpinist making rapid ascents of huge mixed walls from Alaska to the Himalaya. Certainly the pioneer seems to have little resemblance to the “M-climber” figure-fouring their way across an icy roof. In fact, aside from the fact that they both use some form of ice axes and crampons—and even this basic equipment is becoming increasingly specialized—do the alpine and M-climbers have anything in common? By recalling some milestone climbs, I will trace the evolution of mixed climbing into the multifaceted activity it has become.
The beginnings: Scots and NORTH WALLS
“It was half superb rock-technique, half a toe-dance on the ice—a toe-dance above a perpendicular drop. [Heckmair] got a hold on the rock, a hold on the ice, bent himself double, uncoiled himself, the front points of his crampons moving ever upwards, boring into the ice.”–Heinrich Harrer referring to the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger, in 1938, The White Spider.
Mixed climbing as an activity practiced for its own sake originated in the early 1900s in Scotland. Seeking added challenge, Scottish mountaineers attempted summer rock routes in winter, a startlingly modern concept. Around the same time, the development of crampons (initially not adopted by the nailed-boot-shod Scots), helped inaugurate the golden north wall era in the Alps. On large alpine routes, mixed climbing was—and often still is—a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Nonetheless alpine climbs of the 1930s, such as the north faces of the Eiger and of the Matterhorn, defined the state of the art in mixed climbing for decades to come due to their unprecedented length, sustained difficulty, and fearsome commitment. Not until the 1960s were mixed climbing standards raised again, on routes such as the Orion Direct on Ben Nevis and the Bonatti-Zappelli on the Grand Pilier d’Angle of Mont Blanc. By the end of that decade existing equipment and technique had likely been pushed as far as was possible. For an advance to occur, both would have to be reinvented.
The interlude: Waterfall ice
“Apart from the loomingly obvious Cascade Icefall […], nothing was done until the full potential of modern ice climbing equipment was realized…” –Bugs McKeith, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1975.
The breakthrough came in the late 1960s with the introduction of the curved pick by Yvon Chouinard and the Terrordactyl’s radically drooped pick, by Hamish Maclnnes. The new technology revolutionized ice climbing and paved the way for free-climbing on vertical ice. The revolution in ice climbing eventually would also alter mixed climbing beyond recognition. But ironically, the explosion of interest in waterfall ice initially distracted climbers from mixed climbing. By the early 1980s ice climbing, from being merely one of the techniques in the alpinist’s arsenal, had evolved into a full-blown technical art. The skills gained on waterfalls also gave rise to a whole new generation of alpine climbs. Slipstream in the Canadian Rockies blurred the distinction between waterfall ice and alpine climbing; the Moonflower Buttress in the Alaska Range applied the highest levels of ice climbing skill to a major alpine first ascent; and the list goes on. Waterfall ice climbing, though initially pursued for its own sake, ended up revolutionizing alpine climbing.
Ahead of their time: Mixed climbing in the 1970s
“Without the Terrordactyl, we’d still all be swinging.”–Duncan Ferguson
For most winter climbers of the 1970s and 80s, vertical ice was the end of the rainbow. The one place where mixed climbing continued to advance was Scotland. Duncan Ferguson recently commented to me that, “even though credit for much of the impetus for modern ice climbing has gone to Chouinard and his curved tools, I strongly feel that it is the Scots and Maclnnes in particular and [his Terrordactyls] that ushered in the birth of modern mixed climbing.” Indeed modern mixed climbing in the Alps was not a native development, but arrived only when Rab Carrington and Al Rouse exported Scottish attitudes to establish their now classic route on the north face of the Aiguille des Pelerins in the winter of 1975. In North America Ferguson, who was years ahead of his time in his pursuit of mixed climbing, was likewise influenced by Scottish climbing: “I started ice climbing in about 1971.… After [a] short-lived fascination with steep and thick ice, I got frustrated with the clumsy and brutal nature of ice climbing.…” But it was only after reading about Scottish climbing, “that I sorted out what I wanted to do with my ice climbing—forget the ‘thick ice’ part of it and see how far I could go with a pair of Terrors and a new attitude and vision. A redefinition of what ‘ice climbing’ was.… Spent the entire rest of the season wandering around by myself and bouldering and traversing and soloing short mixed climbs. Rock climbs really, with a set of Terrors and crampons. Thin ice, snowed up rock, rock moves between patches of ice and pure rock.…” It would be over a decade before Ferguson’s redefinition of ice climbing would gain widespread acceptance.
Hard and fast: Alpine mixed climbing into the 1980s
“The wall was the ambition. The style became the obsession.”–Alex MacIntyre, Shisha Pangma: The alpine-style first ascent of the South-West Face, 1984.
“Winter alpinism is hard enough without the added dilemma of free-climbing ethics.”–Barry Blanchard, Climbing #117, 1989.
Perhaps because most alpine routes require some mixed climbing, the development of waterfall ice climbing had a more immediate impact on the sort of mixed ground being climbed in the mountains. It was only later that climbers began to seek out hard mixed ground at the crags. Thus in 1974 in the Canadian Rockies Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis applied the lessons learned on waterfall ice climbs such as the first ascent of Colorado’s Bridalveil Falls to set a new standard of mixed climbing difficulty on the Grand Central Couloir of Mt. Kitchener. On the crux pitch, “with only knifeblades between frozen blocks for protection, the climbing was extremely nerve-wracking. Seldom would the tools penetrate more than half an inch before meeting rock” (Jeff Lowe, Ice World, 1996). The bar was raised again in 1978, when Jim Logan and Mugs Stump made the first ascent of the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson. Typical of alpine climbing with its overriding emphasis on getting up, they had no qualms about resorting to aid, yet the runout nature of the climbing also required free-climbing at a high standard. For three days they surmounted pitch after pitch of difficult, poorly protected mixed climbing, with considerable exposure to objective hazards and scant possibility for retreat. On the final day Logan took eight hours to lead the crux pitch, “at first around a roof with all tied-off pins, then onto a tied-off screw, then a bit of ice climbing.… At the top of the pitch I ran out of piton placements and ice, and set off for 30 feet of rock climbing on overhanging loose snow-covered rock with no protection” (Jim Logan, Climbing#52, 1979). The Logan-Stump remains unrepeated to this day, a testament to its difficulty and seriousness.
In the Alps the north face of the Grandes Jorasses was a forcing point for advances in alpine mixed climbing. In 1975 Nick Colton and Alex MacIntyre climbed a line of icy runnels and chimneys on the right flank of the Walker Spur. While the Colton/MacIntyre also comprises difficult ice and rock climbing, the main difficulties are mixed. When it was first climbed, the route was undoubtedly one of the hardest of its kind in the world. The Grandes Jorasses remained at the forefront of alpine mixed climbing into the 1980s with a number of difficult new routes: the famous No Siesta in particular was likely ahead of its time. Established in 1986 by the Slovak climbers Stanislav Glejdura and Jan Porvaznik, it featured much thin vertical ice, and difficult free and aid climbing on often poor rock.
One of the first routes to bring a higher standard of mixed climbing difficulty to the greater ranges was the Infinite Spur of Mt. Foraker (5304m) in the Alaska Range, established in 1977 by George Lowe and Michael Kennedy. In describing how they were motivated to attempt the route in pure alpine style in keeping with the new Alaskan idiom of “speed, commitment and technical competence,” Kennedy could have been writing today. They encountered much 60-degree ice and rock up to 5.9. The crux was three pitches of mixed climbing high on the route: “My mind was clear and surprisingly calm as I visualized the way ahead, keenly aware of the chalkboard-screech of crampons on rock, the rattling thud of an axe in too-thin ice, a sling on a frozen-in spike, the dull ring of a bad piton behind a loose block, calf muscles screaming for relief, choking spindrift in eyes, throat, down the neck” (Michael Kennedy, American Alpine Journal, 1978).
In the Himalaya, large and technical mixed faces were also beginning to be climbed in alpine style. To name but a few: the Hungo Face of Kwangde (6100m) in 1982 by David Breashears and Jeff Lowe; the south face of Annapurna (8091m) in 1984 by Nil Bohigas and Enric Lucas; the Golden Pillar of Spantik (7027m) in 1987 by Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders; and the list goes on. The ultimate achievement in completely committed alpine mixed climbing was Voytek Kurtyka and Robert Schauer’s 1985 first ascent of the west face of Gasherbrum IV (7925m). As described by Kurtyka, “the conditions on the face proved very difficult and dangerous.… Altogether, we climbed four pitches of [5.6]–two of them at 7100 and 7300 meters […] without a single belay point. The real nuisance was the very deep snow on the mixed ground through which we tunneled vertically…” (Voytek Kurtyka, American Alpine Journal, 1986). The compact rock and light rack meant that retreat was not an option. Finding the difficulties of the lower face greater than anticipated, and trapped by a multi-day storm on the upper face, they ran out of food and fuel. Reaching the summit ridge on the seventh day, they spent another three descending an unclimbed ridge.
Bolts and figure-fours: The M-revolution
“It appeared to us that ice climbers had reached the limit of technical difficulty. After all, water can only drop so vertically, and ice can only be so rotten before it can no longer support the weight of the climber. So what was to be next?” – Jeff Marshall, The Polar Circus No. 2, 1987.
“There are very, very few ice climbs in the world that are actually hard, but these mixed climbs, on the other hand, they were hard. You could pitch on them.…”– Will Gadd, Rock and Ice #89, 1998.
Though mixed climbing had been going on in the mountains for decades, M-climbing, the new wave of technically extreme mixed climbing, grew chiefly out of waterfall ice climbing. Bored with the predictability of thick ice, climbers turned their attention to lines previously considered to be unformed. In 1991 in the Canadian Rockies Jeff Everett and Glenn Reisenhofer aided up a ropelength of rock to reach the hanging ice of Suffer Machine (200 m, WI5 A2); the following year in the Alps Jeff Lowe and Thierry Renault also used aid to connect the ice features on Blind Faith (400 m, WI6+ A2). Though initially such discontinuous ice smears were linked up with little regard for the style in which the rock was ascended, it nevertheless took a visionary attitude to even conceive of these mixed lines as potential routes. Lowe in particular was inspired by the possibilities and, with his 1994 ascent of Octopussy (20 m, M8) in Colorado’s infamous Vail amphitheatre, the style in which a mixed climb was accomplished returned to the fore with a vengeance.
“Let’s get real here. No one does a figure-four ice climbing.” –Karl Nagy, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1997.
“The third time, however, was magic. This time I did a second figure 4 immediately following the first one, which allowed me to get a good stick higher up with my right tool.” –Jeff Lowe, Ice World, 1996.
With its pre-placed protection, redpointing tactics, and exotic moves, Octopussy signaled a radical departure in mixed climbing. Technically, it was by far the hardest mixed climb yet made. The easy access, reliable protection, and lack of objective hazards freed climbers to pursue pure technical difficulty. This was of course similar to what happened in rock climbing some 10 years earlier, when the acceptance of bolt protection paved the way for sport climbing and, ultimately, higher technical standards. Vail continued to be a crucible for M-climbing with Will Gadd’s 1997 first ascent of Amphibian (40 m, M9). Stevie Haston was at the cutting edge of M-climbing in the Alps, with routes like 009 (M8+) in 1997 and X-Files (M9+) in 1998. As the dry tooling craze took hold, mixed climbing began to look increasingly like rock climbing with axes and crampons. The athleticism of the new wave of M-climbing also attracted a new breed of participants, often superb rock climbers. With routes like Tomahawk (M11-) and Mission Impossible (M11) in the Alps, and Musashi (M12) in the Canadian Rockies, Robert Jasper, Mauro “Bubu” Bole, Ben Firth, and others are pushing dry tooling into a realm of previously unimagined technical difficulty. With the added catalyst of competition in the three-year-old Ice World Cup, the movement skills required for hard M-climbing have evolved far beyond the static positions of traditional mixed climbing: dynos, figure fours, heel hooks.… The equipment is evolving just as quickly: leashless tools, lightweight boots with integrated minimal crampons.…
“The hype pretended that M7 or 8, or 12 for that matter, had never before been climbed until the current practitioners rap-bolted some overhanging choss heap, rehearsed it, climbed it, did photo shoots on it, and treated it as commerce.” –Mark Twight, Climbing #178, 1998.
“009 had a crux dyno on it that […] will, by its very nature, eliminate 98% of the old ice climbers.” –Stevie Haston, High Mountain Sports #184, 1998.
Hard mixed climbing at the crags is nothing new. Scott Backes recently commented to me, “the routes at the crags [are] why I am able to go into the mountains and do what it is I do. I’ve been climbing at two 27-meter quarries since the 80s. The quest for pure difficulty mostly on top-rope has led me to know as well as can be known the limits of adhesion and made the routes done high over gear thinkable.…” What is new is the attention devoted to what before was considered mere practice. While some have deplored turning “ice climbing into sport climbing,” it is worth recalling that the 5.12, 5.13, and 5.14 barriers were not broken by mountaineers rock climbing on rainy days for something to do. They were broken by climbers single-mindedly pursuing pure technical difficulty for its own sake. Similarly, M8, M9, M10, and beyond were climbed only when climbers divorced mixed climbing from alpinism and started mixed climbing for mixed climbing’s sake. M-climbing has yet to approach the physical demands of the hardest rock climbs. But it has made a good start by jettisoning the traditionalist baggage of its mountaineering roots.
Nonetheless, one might question whether the pursuit of technical difficulty for its own sake is not missing the point. As Duncan Ferguson recently commented to me, “I strongly feel that the heart and soul of climbing, rock or ice or mixed, have to do with intimate adventure and challenges to the vision and spirit and are not necessarily fed by pure technical difficulty.” More pragmatically, one might question whether extreme M-antics at the crag have any relevance for what goes on in the alpine realm. Certainly, after spending time at an M-crag witnessing the dynos, the figure fours, the leashless tricks, it is hard to believe that any of it will ever be used in the mountains. But even if not all of these techniques find their way onto alpine routes (some of them already have), the main import of M-climbing might be in breaking down psychological barriers regarding what is and what is not climbable. To quote Ferguson again: “I see the move onto modern mixed climbs (bolt protected or not) as being a healthy part of the process of raising standards— of forcing new lines of vision. The M12 [at the crag] directly translates into an ‘impossible’ M10 pitch way off the deck.…” Or, as Mark Twight recently commented to me, “those mixed climbers participating at the highest levels of the discipline are too consumed by its demands to apply their skills in different arenas.… That said, ‘new wave’ mixed climbing must influence alpinism. Just as high levels of rock climbing ability obtained by sport climbing ‘stars’ raised overall standards for everyone, high levels of mixed climbing ability will raise the general level of every climber simply by existing.”
This brings us to the thorny issue of bolts. Much of the recent push into extreme technical difficulty in mixed climbing seems inconceivable without them. Yet they remain controversial, particularly in the mountains. In the words of a staunch traditionalist, “[bolts] do not require any weakness in the rock or any skill to place, and they destroy the traditional challenge of mountaineering” (Mick Fowler, American Alpine Journal, 2000). Whether one considers bolts to be justifiable, particularly in the mountains, hinges on what one believes constitutes a route. Mark Twight recently summarized the dilemma to me thus: “The person who chooses to bolt insists that because he can climb a particular passage, a route exists, regardless of the natural opportunities for protection.… The person who chooses not to bolt insists that a route does not exist simply because he can physically climb there, natural opportunities for protection must exist also if the climber has need of same.” Part of the reason why bolts have become an issue in mixed climbing is that rising standards have expanded our notion of what is climbable. Where it used to be that climbable and protectable lines more or less coincided, the new dry tooling skills have expanded our notion of climbable terrain far beyond what may be naturally protected. Conversely, it is absurd to pretend that mixed climbing standards would have risen as high and as quickly as they have without wholesale acceptance of protection bolts. Having said that, it would seem a pity if the challenge of mixed climbing were reduced to merely executing a sequence of difficult moves. As demonstrated by routes such as Robert Jasper’s 1998 Flying Circus (145 m, M10), which only used bolts at belays, truly hard mixed climbing and bolts are not always inseparable.
Another criticism often leveled at M-climbing is that, as Topher Donahue recently commented to me, “most modern ‘mixed’ climbs have maybe one true mixed move on them, the rest […] being dry tooling or ice climbing.” While this characterization of M-climbing is certainly accurate, I would argue that M-climbing has given us a new perspective from which to look at the mountains in winter. It is also a perspective that is more relevant for alpine climbing. Rock that because of adverse conditions cannot be “rock climbed” often presents the greatest difficulties on alpine routes. Dry tooling skill acquired on M-climbing testpieces adds an awesome weapon to the alpinist’s arsenal. From the new perspective, ice climbing, “true” mixed climbing, and dry tooling are all just different aspects of winter free-climbing.
Of course, unlike in rock climbing, the notion of “free” in mixed climbing is controversial. Mixed climbing involves the use of tools: whether or not leashes are used, one still brandishes a skyhook in each hand. To turn our backs on dry tooling and use our hands no matter what the conditions in the name of free-climbing seems a backward step, as dry tooling is an extremely effective winter climbing technique. But the use of tools does make it difficult to be dogmatic about free-climbing. (On the other hand, hazy though the free versus aid distinction might be in theory, attempting a sustained overhanging mixed route quickly makes clear the difference between relying on one’s axes, crampons, and skill alone, and making progress by resorting to aid climbing tactics where one can rest on the gear.) Ultimately, the stand one takes on such issues hinges on what is thought to be “good” style. In alpinism, a climb was traditionally considered to be in good style if it was executed with limited means and, generally, “… with little of the frigging around normally associated with a major […] ascent.” (Dave Cheesmond, The Polar Circus No. 1,1986). However, remarkably little attention has been paid to free-climbing ethics: on large alpine routes such considerations have usually taken a back seat to simply getting up. But alpinists have traditionally placed limitations on themselves to prevent “the murder of the impossible.” If by placing a bolt one does not face up to the full “challenge of mountaineering,” so also by pulling on gear one evades that challenge. (Seen from this perspective bolts are not an absolute anathema but just one more crutch, such as aid climbing, that we occasionally lean on.) By borrowing from the strict free-climbing ethos of rock climbing, the new generation of M-climbers has the ability to redefine what constitutes good style in alpinism. And finally, whatever one’s stance on the importance of free-climbing ethics in mixed climbing, free climbing is almost always faster. And speed in alpine climbing is both good style and good sense.
Into the Future
“I wanted one-arm pull-ups, big swings, speed, and see-through frozen lingerie.” –Stevie Haston, High Mountain Sports #184, 1998.
“… I found myself back on the south face dry tooling some M5/6 pitches in the death zone at about 7600 meters.” –Tomaz Humar, American Alpine Journal, 2000
Andy Parkin and Mark Twight’s 1992 first ascent of Beyond Good and Evil on the north face of the Aiguille des Pelerins was an important milestone in alpine mixed climbing. They took 26 hours to climb 14 pitches of thin vertical ice and rock up to French 5+ and A3. As Twight recently commented to me, “when we started working on it […] there had not been many, if any, routes of that level of sustained difficulty combined with inobvious protection done in the Alps.” The route’s reputation kept it from being repeated until 1995, when taking advantage of good conditions Francois Damilano and Francois Marsigny made the second ascent. However, within the span of the few years since the route was first done, standards have risen to the point that the second ascent was quickly followed by further repeats, all parties completing the route in a day and dispensing with most of the aid. Even accounting for the fact that the original finish to the route is still rarely done, the quick transformation from feared testpiece to modern classic is remarkable nonetheless. Stevie Haston has also done much to bring hard mixed climbing to the mountains, with a strong emphasis on free climbing. His routes on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, the 1994 Pinocchio (M6+) and the 1995 Scotch on the Rocks (M7), were both groundbreaking achievements. While they are not routes of the stature of No Siesta or even Beyond Good and Evil, they are nevertheless sustained multipitch offerings (around 350 meters in length) in an alpine setting, and they were established without bolts (in the case of Scotch, without pitons). In 1997, Robert Jasper added Vol de Nuit (M7+) to the right of Scotch, again climbing the route all free and without bolts. Each of these routes, when it was first done, represented a significant step forward in traditional (if not exactly alpine) mixed climbing. Yet within the span of a few seasons they had become trade routes, sometimes seeing multiple ascents within a single day—yet another stark proof of the rapidly rising skill levels. It is then perhaps surprising that a route like Vol de Nuit remains one of the hardest (quasi-)alpine mixed routes in the Alps. This is but one example of the striking disparity between technical standards at the crags and in the mountains.
In the Canadian Rockies, rising standards fostered on M-climbing testpieces are also having an impact on alpine mixed climbing. For instance when in 1996 Alex Lowe freed Troubled Dreams (150 m, M7) on the Terminator Wall, it was hailed as a major accomplishment. Lowe admitted to being “really pushed” on the crux, and the route went unrepeated. In 2000 Rob Owens, employing many of the new M-climbing techniques including figure fouring on lead above natural gear, added a direct start to Troubled Dreams called Stuck in the Middle. This more sustained variation quickly received several repeats but, tellingly, went nearly unreported. For the new wave of M-climbers, skilled in dry tooling, it was just another day out climbing. Dry tooling where a few years earlier climbers would have tried rock climbing and, failing that, resorted to aid, has also helped turn some alpine testpieces, like the Andromeda Strain, into trade routes. To some extent, a new generation of mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies is blurring the distinction between M-and alpine climbing. In the past few years a number of long, quasi-alpine mixed routes have gone up, many of them the work of Dave Thomson. The combination of technical skill and bolt protection has redefined the vision of what constitutes a climbable line. One of the best of the new routes, Rocketman (350 m, M7+), situated in a high glacial cirque, has bolts protecting the technical cruxes yet the easier climbing is quite engaging. When I free-climbed the route in a long day, the effort and focus required were no less than on many alpine routes, and the technical difficulty significantly greater. In a more traditional vein Steve House, with his new routes like the 1999 M-16 (VI, WI7+ A2) on the east face of Howse Peak, and the 2001 Sans Blitz (V, WI7 5.5) on the east face of Mount Fay, has done much to bring higher standards to truly alpine routes.
Climbers are also taking the technical skills acquired at the crags to the greater ranges. In 1996 Jack Roberts and Jack Tackle established Pair of Jacks (M6 WI5) on the north face of Mt. Kennedy (4238 m) in the St. Elias Range with the explicit goal “…of establishing a difficult new standard of [mixed] climbing via a new route on a beautiful mountain” (Jack Roberts, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1997). Climbing in a hybrid of alpine and capsule styles they covered 36 pitches of hard mixed ground. Yet Roberts admits to misgivings about their tactics. He recently commented to me, “hauling of packs in a major way, and bivouacking in portaledges, this does not constitute alpine climbing.” Although an ascent dispensing with these would certainly have been in better style, the tactics used on Pair of Jacks probably represent a necessary step in the evolution of alpine mixed climbing. At some point, perhaps soon, climbers will be strong and fast enough to climb such routes in lightweight style. But when Pair of Jacks was first done, a heavier approach was likely instrumental in Roberts and Tackle getting up the route, and doing it almost entirely free. Significantly, a very strong team later attempted to repeat their route in a single push and failed.
Single push style was successfully applied by Scott Backes, Steve House, and Mark Twight on their 2000 ascent of the huge and technical Slovak Direct route (5.9 M6 WI6+) on the south face of Denali (6194 m). Inspired by Voytek Kurtyka’s concept of “night naked” climbing, they carried no bivi gear and blitzed the route in 60 hours of virtually non-stop climbing; the previous alpine-style ascent took a week. The following year Stephen Koch and Marko Prezelj upped the ante by climbing a new route on the southwest face of Denali in this style. They warmed up with the first free ascent of the Moonflower Buttress (M7?), accomplished in a 36-hour round trip from base camp. Moving on to Denali, they established Light Traveler (M8?) in 51 hours round trip from a high base camp, with Prezelj free-climbing the crux pitch on sight.
Modern mixed climbing standards are also making their way into the Himalaya. Many noteworthy climbs have been made; the few selected below merely illustrate the state of the art. In 1996 a strong French team, climbing in alpine style, climbed Extra Blue Sky on the north face of Kwangde beside the then unrepeated 1982 Breashears-Lowe route. The new route was described as steeper and harder than the north face of Les Droites. In 1997 Andrew Lindblade and Athol Whimp completed the much-attempted direct line on the north face of Thalay Sagar (6905m). Their route, which involved thin ice up to WI5 and cold rock climbing up to 5.9, was also climbed in alpine style. The big news in 1999 was Tomaz Humar’s bold solo of a new route on south face of Dhaulagiri (8167m) with mixed difficulties up to M7+.
A direct comparison of the difficulties of crag and Himalayan mixed routes is of course highly problematical. A more meaningful assessment of the evolution of standards in Himalayan mixed climbing is provided by the recent repeats of some of the testpieces of the 1980s, and it would appear that even the repeat ascents have done little to lessen their reputations. Thus in 2000 a strong international foursome made the second ascent of the 1987 Fowler-Saunders route on Spantik. Describing the difficult and poorly protected mixed climbing they encountered, one of the members of the team wrote: “The moves, which years ago I would have dared to execute only if protected at least at waist level, were dainty in spite of the rare air and protection” (Marko Prezelj, American Alpine Journal, 2001). In 2001 the 1982 Breashears-Lowe route on Kwangde finally received a second ascent. The second ascent party took six days for the round trip, the same as the first, and avoided the thin ice crux of the original route. While today there is undoubtedly a broader base of alpinists climbing at a high standard, the Himalayan testpieces of the 1980s were so far ahead of their time that arguably they have yet to be surpassed.
In spite of the great advances in mixed climbing made over the last quarter of a century, one is struck by how slowly the technical standards in the mountains advance relative to standards at the crags. Whereas in the 1970s mixed-climbing standards did not appreciably differ between crag and mountain routes, today the gap between them has grown to such an extent that they almost appear to be different disciplines. While on the one hand this points to the immense possibilities for applying M-climbing techniques to the mountains, it also underscores the degree to which the high standards of M-climbing rely on a controlled crag environment. While the gap between the two is likely to grow, perhaps the rising standards at the crags will contribute to a corresponding rise in the alpine realm.
Ultimately, the ideal in alpine climbing has always been one of doing more with less. Aiding, bolting, fixing, jumaring, and hauling are often necessary taints, but taints nonetheless. Just as the development of ice climbing gave climbers the skills to create new alpine testpieces and turn old ones into trade routes, so the greatest contribution of M-climbing may be to give climbers the physical and technical means to reduce a major ascent to simply climbing. In fact, I believe that this process is already well under way.
While I have tried to plug the many gaps in my knowledge of mixed climbing throughout the world by extensive reading, in the end there is no substitute for first-hand experience. Thus I want to thank Scott Backes, Topher Donahue, Ben Firth, Will Gadd, and Jared Ogden for sharing their insights into mixed climbing. I particularly want to thank Aljaz Anderle, Duncan Ferguson, Jack Roberts, and Mark Twight for taking the time to answer my questions; Tom McMillan for suggesting the title; and Scott Semple for many thought-provoking exchanges and for suggesting the opening quote.
Subject: house on caffeine
From: “Steve House”
To: “Raphael Slawinski”
Sent: Saturday, October 26, 2002 8:30 AM
I just read your AAJ article this morning (and drank a bunch of coffee). Cool, I like to see things put together that way. It is really helpful for everyone to think about the “big picture.” I have cc’d this to some folks because I think it’s a great discussion.
I must say I have problems with your logic (easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback,
You make an assumption that sport (rock) climbing has improved overall standards in the mountains. I would disagree totally. I would argue that sport (rock) climbing has lowered standards. The Alps are an example of this. There were far more people climbing the harder (5.11 and up) routes in the Dolomites 15 years ago than there are currently. Also in Chamonix, the rock routes getting done are the ones that you rap from, not the big routes in the Ecrins. In Patagonia the people doing the big routes according to the alpine ethos aren’t sport climbers, they’re “from” the valley [Yosemite]…
You cite Beyond Good and Evil, but fail to mention that the belays (once part of the crux) are now two fat bolts each and you just rap whenever you want. Nobody has done the final pitches yet. That is not the same route it originally was!
I don’t think you’d be able to prove that standards of any kind have been raised in the mountains (rock, ice, mixed) since around the 1980s.
Now that it is done, Rocket Man [a bolted mixed route in the Rockies] is a great alpine outing, one I’d like to do. But how many days did Dave [Thomson, the first ascensionist] work on it? How does that fulfill your alpine ideal? It doesn’t—you can’t even call it an alpine route. M-16 [on Howse Peak—Backes-Blanchard-House, 1999] should get climbed in a day. The crux is really short (80 feet) and the rest isn’t harder than a normal top-end waterfall. But it goes unrepeated because of the psychological barrier. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it is technically easier than Rocket Man, but none try because of its alpine characteristics. And wasn’t that part of the point in the name?
You gloss over risk too easily. The real issue is what allows you or me to make harder moves at the sport crag—the fact that I’ll suffer no consequences for falling. Yours is the second article (the first was in the Canadian Alpine Journal [written by Scott Semple]) that claims sport, or “M” climbing is going to revolutionize standards in the mountains. In neither article is mention made of the presence or absence of risk in these differing approaches.
T – A = 0
[House’s expression for “Talk minus Action equals Zero”.]
Steve House has authored some of the most significant ascents in North America over the last 10 years, many of which have been lead articles in the AAJ.
On Tuesday, October 29, 2002, at 10:50 AM, Raphael Slawinski wrote back:
I have had sufficient caffeine this morning that I finally feel fit to answer you. I have no objection whatsoever to this discussion. Indeed, I am pleased that my article has not sunk into immediate obscurity.
I admit to being surprised that you should disagree so strongly with what I wrote. Allow me to quote verbatim from the conclusion of my article:
“In spite of the great advances in mixed climbing made over the last quarter of a century, one is struck by how slowly the technical standards in the mountains advance relative to standards at the crags. Whereas in the 1970s standards did not appreciably differ between crag and mountain routes, today the gap between them has grown to such an extent that they almost appear to be different disciplines. While on the one hand this points to the immense possibilities for applying M-climbing techniques to the mountains, it also underscores the degree to which the high standards of M-climbing rely on a controlled crag environment. While the gap between the two is only likely to grow, perhaps the rising standards at the crags will contribute to a corresponding rise in the alpine realm.”
What is it precisely that you object to here? The suggestion that M-climbing might come to have an impact on alpinism? I admit that when I started writing the article, I thought I would be able to show that it has already had such an impact. As I researched the subject, I was inescapably forced to the conclusion that while there is a greater base of “hard” ice and mixed climbers today, this has not translated into higher standards in the mountains, certainly not above and beyond what has been accomplished in the ‘80s.
In my article I have already quoted specific examples of how M-climbing has translated into “hard” traditional mixed routes (like Stuck in the Middle on the Terminator Wall [of Mt. Rundle]). This past summer the A-Strain [The Andromeda Strain on Mt. Andromeda] (V, M5+) has seen multiple ascents, some taking as little as 15 hours car-to-car, by local climbers like Kim Csizmazia and Rob Owens—climbers with a strong background in traditional as well as M-climbing.
What is very obviously missing from this list is any mention of major new alpine routes, routes where skills acquired at the crags (like the ability to onsight, say, 5.12 and M8) are used to raise standards over what has been done in the ‘80s by climbers with much more modest technical abilities. So while I would argue that sport climbing has led to a consolidation of standards, I would also have to agree that it has not resulted in new and more difficult alpine routes. The examples I have used above are all from the Canadian Rockies, but I think the same holds true for other ranges.
I fully agree with you that the biggest stumbling block when transferring M-climbing skills from the crags to the mountains is the introduction of risk (I referred to it in my article somewhat euphemistically as reliance on a “controlled crag environment”). I fully acknowledge that what has made technically hard routes from Octopussy [Colorado Rockies] to Musashi [Canadian Rockies] possible is the elimination (or at least the minimization) of risk. But I also know that being able to onsight, say, 5.12 and M8 on bolts makes onsighting 5.11 and M7 on virgin ground a lot more palatable. Like rock climbing before it, mixed climbing has come to encompass a huge range of activities. One should not restrict oneself to only one facet of the game.
Raphael Slawinski has topped the competition at the Ouray Ice Festival, and climbed technical ice all over North America. Closer to his Calgary home he is a relentless alpine achiever, with a continual stream of first ascents and regular repeats of Rockies testpieces. He has put up some of the world’s hardest bolted M-routes.
From: Steve House
I object to the assumption that sport climbing increased the level of rock climbing in the mountains:
I would agree it has lead to a consolidation of the level of rock climbing in the mountains and I concede to not being as educated as I might be on the recent history of rock. As comparison, I’d hold up routes like Divine Providence (hard 5.12 above 4,000 meters, on the Grand Pilier d’Angle [Mont Blanc]) with François Marsigny in the late ‘80s for alpine trad, or the 8b sport route on the Aig. du Midi (12,800′, late ‘80s) in comparison to what has been done more recently. There are plenty of hard alpine rock routes in Europe where you have to onsight 5.12c or harder to do them. They were mostly done (at least begun) in the 1980s.
Huber’s Bellavista (5.14, trad gear, but fixed/rehearsed as a sport route) or Bubu Bolle’s Women and Chalk—in my book those are still in the rock climb category, not the alpine climb category. But that is just me and my Bonatti-reading ass. And after 20 years, is this such a great leap? I’d say that repeats are way, way different than first ascents.
To continue our heated agreement, and to further my idea that alpinism has only regressed since the 1980s, I would cite the north face of the Grandes Jorasses as representing nearly all the stages of technically-hard alpinism [see No Siesta in the following article—Ed.]. [Also] Andy Parkin’s routes, some done solo, in the Chamonix Aiguilles. The Catalonians on the south face of Annapurna, west face of G4, Kukuczka/Piotrowsky in the “Hockey Stick Gully” on the south face of K2—all in the 80’s—all alpine style.
Will sport-mixed climbing help us reach that level again? Everyone going out and climbing the Andromeda Strain in 15 hours car-to-car will bring us collectively much closer to that goal than M11 will.
In my conversations with [Scott] Semple and [Will] Gadd, I realized that my Alpine grail is a lot different than theirs. Their grail is closer to being a technically difficult route on an alpine face, altitude not being important, and style being less important than pure difficulty. Mine is the Sickle on the west face of K2; theirs is M12 on Kitchener/Howse/Logan. These aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but certainly different.
Show me, and I will believe.
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From: Scott Semple:
As mentioned to Barry [Blanchard] months prior to the publication of the CAJ, “my article has nothing to do with alpine climbing.” (“What article?” he replied.)
My thesis was (is) that the TECHNICAL skill level of ice and mixed climbers in the CANADIAN ROCKIES has risen since the mid-1990s and been criticized, downplayed or ignored by the “assessments of non-participants.” More recent accomplishments remain largely unknown while visiting climbers lemming to do testpiece-now-trade-routes that locals lap.
P.S. Much more importantly, Steve, where’s your article for my spoof mag? Your editor awaits…
Scott Semple lives in Canmore, Alberta. He is an accomplished sport-mixed climber, a promising alpinist, and editor of the parody magazine Falling.
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From: Joe Josephson
I’m sincerely curious on just how many people are criticizing the bolted mixed climbs. I’m certain these issues exist but I have doubts about just how much.
I’ve not been around the Rockies as much as in the past, but aside from a few exceptions in a particular area or route, I’ve never heard any dissing of bolts that should be taken seriously.
Barry writes things like “NO BOLTS” for some of the routes they’ve done. In my mind, when a wild route is done with no bolts it is a significant achievement. No better or more valid than a wild route done with bolts—they are just different. Both have a place.
The thing that bugs me about the mixed revolution—far beyond the fact that it’s not all that new—is Mixed climbers saying that it’s the way forward, or that pure ice climbs are “easy” and “boring.” This makes no more sense than any crusty alpinist holding onto traditional ethics.
I think a major dose of history needs to be prescribed for many of the climbers in both camps. Go and read the “Hot Flashes” and “Great Debate” articles of the mid ‘80s. Remember sport climbing versus traditional climbing? All that silly lycra spewing, etc? We all laugh at it now. I would hope we’ve learned to rise above it.
Joe Josephson wrote the guidebook Waterfall Ice Climbing in the Canadian Rockies. He has climbed big alpine routes from Patagonia to Alaska, and is currently working on a guide to the Mt. Logan massif. He lives in Montana.
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From: Will Gadd
OK, I’ve been trying to keep out of this but I’ve had my morning Red Bull so here goes:
This whole debate is as “rational” as a Christian/Muslim/Atheist discussion. Steve believes in his style of alpine climbing. Raph has found a new Koran in mixed climbing. With that in mind, I’d like to proselytize in a friendly way about what I call Mountain Divinity. The church of Mountain Divinity is based on the idea that mountains are holy; I’ve decided to believe this after watching alpenglow, flying on thermals at sunset, and paddling down the Nahanni in the fog. Services to be held every day anywhere outside (failing that, bars will work).
While the above is meant only semi-seriously, it is a credo I’d like to live up to—the climbers I most admire are those who climbed lots, slandered little, and shared the mountains often before they died at a ripe old age. They had faith in what they did, and did it well.
Hugs and kisses.
Will Gadd has put up standard-defining sport-mixed climbs since the genre was invented, won the X-Games and the first season of the Ice World Cup competitions, and climbed difficult new alpine itineraries at home and abroad. He is author of Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique.
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From: Jeff Lowe
Although what I’ve read is obviously only a part of a longer discussion, I get the general idea of the respective viewpoints. Personally I like Will’s approach the best. Do your own thing with integrity, and communicate the things you’ve experienced and learned with honesty and humility, humor and enthusiasm, and you’ll end up influencing new climbers more than if you beat them over the head with the rightness of “your” style and the “wimpiness” of their style. Climbing is evolving as always in multiple directions. There are some exceptionally strong and creative hands grabbing the rock and gripping the tools: who knows where they’ll climb next, or how? I, for one, don’t want my personal myopia to be passed on as some sort of gospel. Let’s invite the sport climbers out into the mountains. Those few that come will teach us all a thing or two.
Jeff Lowe was five years ahead of the curve in U.S. climbing for three decades. He brought us waterfall ice climbing, sport mixed climbing, World Cup competitions, and extreme alpinism in the great ranges.
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From: Bill Belcourt
Come on Will! Before busting with the “I’m OK, you’re OK” hippie BS, think about what these guys are saying. It is certainly as legitimate as ratings, and when’s the last time you didn’t rate a route, or pick one based on what it had to offer?
We have not been good stewards of critical thinking among new climbers. The result is a bunch of bolts and press celebrating shit routes, with one type of climbing experience replacing others because there is no sense of history among the protagonists. It’s not, “All good, braah.” It’s fairly [screwed] up. And all of us are somewhat responsible for not wanting to spend the time or energy to discuss the issues.
Talk it up as much as possible, whatever your views. Hopefully, the result will be thoughtfulness and restraint when it comes to new routes by younger climbers. Where do I stand on these important issues? Alpine climbing rules, and you sport-mixed climbers are just a bunch of pansies.
Bill Belcourt is an accomplished alpinist, now working in product development for Black Diamond.
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From: Barry Blanchard
I think that here in the Rockies the winter alpinist is wise to resort to aid for some moves and indeed some passages because you’re less likely to fall and die. Falling off and dying pushing winter free climbing for the sake of winter free climbing is worse style than resorting to aid. I’d love to free all the steep and hard stuff that I run into up there but hey, this isnt Cham’, it ain’t granite; it’s limestone and it’s serious and it’s often blobbed up with meter-deep snow forms dripped from Satan’s own 45-gallon candle. If aid keeps you alive it is cool (but bolts could do the same thing—keep you alive. So does retreat. I consider going down as succeeding in the covenant with those who created the game).
Barry Blanchard has painted more masterpieces on Rockies north faces than any other single climber. He has long been a student of climbing’s history and techniques and enjoys thinking and writing about it.
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From: Raphael Slawinski
Whether M-climbing is seen as having advanced alpinism (or as even having the potential to do so) depends to some extent on what one values in alpine climbing. As Steve pointed out, people have different alpine grails. That grail might be a huge objective, possibly at altitude, climbed with a bare minimum of means; technical difficulty would be important but not the principal consideration; and style would have more to do with speed than with any notions of free climbing. That grail might also be a smaller but more technical objective, with emphasis placed on elements of what constitutes good style: this might mean climbing free, possibly leashless, with no jugging and/or hauling.
In many ways the ‘80s marked the pinnacle of achievement in alpinism. It is likely that the technical standards of the Hungo Face of Kwangde or of the Golden Pillar of Spantik are still not far off the top standard attained on an alpine-style high mountain route. And arguably no alpine-style ascent has surpassed the commitment of Voytek Kurtyka’s and Robert Schauers first ascent of the Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV. Even by today’s standards Kurtyka was a brilliant technical climber (for instance, he soloed 13a at the crags, displaying a level of boldness and technical skill unmatched by most of today’s leading alpinists or M-climbers). So where do we go after a climber of Kurtyka’s caliber has pushed the alpine envelope?
More fundamentally it might be questioned whether high standards in the mountains should be equated with high technical standards. It is certainly easier to impress chicks and editors by climbing something with a big number on it. Somehow IV M10 sounds much more impressive than VI M4.… But is it really harder? How does one objectively compare the overall difficulty of a long “moderate” route to a shorter but technically more vicious one?
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From: Mark Twight
I believe it was John Bouchard who originally said, “either the muscle is exercised or it returns to its original weak state.” His declaration illustrates exactly why higher sport-mixed standards do not automatically raise technical standards in the mountains.
The human mind adapts to new conditions slowly enough that often, in the moment, man’s mental capacity appears finite. Because modern man is used to achieving goals with a certain degree of speed he won’t wait to naturally develop the improved mental capacities necessary to confront a new challenge. Instead man manipulates the challenge in order to successfully address a particular aspect of it.
Climbing routes at the highest level of gymnastic difficulty requires the use of bolts to minimize risk. Risk is the aspect of the problem most difficult to contend with, yet easiest to manipulate. It is not as easy to find shortcuts in the process of gaining movement skills, endurance, and strength. They require long-term attention and time.
And working out the hardest moves is likely impossible if a six-foot dirt nap is the result of falling short. Most minds are simply not strong enough to handle eating the whole elephant. It’s digested with one bite at a time.
Once bolts excise risk and the mind grows accustomed to playing freely on the overhanging consequence-free crags the mental muscle that allows man to adapt to high-risk atrophies, returning to its original, weak state. A withered ability to deal with risk is inconsistent with alpinism. No matter what level of technical ability a climber achieves at the crag, without a resilient mind, able and accustomed to entertaining high risk, that climber won’t be pushing any limits in the chaotic alpine environment. At least not until flaccid mental muscles are trained up to the task.
In this sense, Belcourt was right when he wrote that sport-mixed climbers are pansies. Gymnastically hard (but risk-free) routes make men better monkeys but they certainly don’t improve mental agility or resilience within the context of alpine chaos. Without being hunted every now and then a man cannot retain the skills required to stay at the top of the food chain. It’s all a game until the other guy is shooting back.
“Direct Action, No Prisoners.”
Mark Twight is a noted climber, writer, photographer, and commentator. His repeated attempts at self-immolation brought high-standard alpinism to the American consciousness during the ‘90s. With Andy Parkin, he put up the route Beyond Good and Evil, mentioned earlier in this article. He works for Grivel North America.
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From: David Dornian
…and a cheery “Top o’ the food chain” to you, too.
Careful, you could extend the metaphor a little too far on that “mental muscle” conceit. Press the issue and you’d have to acknowledge that real, physical muscle doesn’t correlate that closely with climbing success at any level. Think about how heavy, directed training of a single type is typically associated with overweight thugs who gradually become a) inflexible, b) clumsy, c) egomaniacal, d) ill-humoured, e) indisposed to doing anything but more training, and f) bad dressers.
Smart people? Well, I think it’s generally accepted that smart people anticipate possible outcomes, solve problems, manage risk, develop tools and techniques, get help, practice, and prepare. Even most cows have enough sense to feel the cold wind coming and turn their backs to a storm rather than face into its fury. “Mental muscle” might just be another way of saying “stubborn” or “too stupid to come in out of the rain.”
Confront risk directly if you’re a nihilist or a fatalist—then I suppose it just doesn’t matter, by definition. Otherwise, confronting risk for its own sake can appear quite juvenile. It may count as “…being hunted every now and then,” or as “developing the improved mental capacities,” but it also may count as evolution in action.
Decide what you want to achieve, and then ask yourself WHY you want to achieve it. Only then should you choose HOW you want to achieve it, select tools, and decide on appropriate techniques. Mental atrophy only comes when you refuse to think.
I personally subscribe to the Blair Witch Project, or Halloween, or Stupid theories of alpinism, where with each climb I get all dressed up and grab the camera and initially set out to make—and then somehow inevitably become a player in—my own silly low-budget horror movie.
David Dornian is North American representative to the International Council for Competition Climbing, and the collector of this correspondence.
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From: Abby Watkins
Same old pissing on the fire hydrant.
Good on ya, Will, for setting it straight. Anything other than the walk up is contrived. In fact, the summit is contrived, as there is nothing there we need for our daily lives. We climb because it feels so good. [We] can’t leave a pin scar in the rock, but it’s ok to mow down a forest to build our houses. We vote in governments who have no problem leveling a mountain range to find the evil terrorist, or destroying the habitat of the largest Caribou herd left in the wild to drill for oil. The true purists are those who live simply, whose efforts are spent wholly on feeding themselves and their family. Climbing itself is a luxury. Why get overheated about exactly how people are supposed to enjoy it? The [mountains] are big enough to house both sport and traditional mixed routes. Both exist in plenty. Most of us enjoy both types of adventures, and are glad that both exist.
Abby Watkins wins ice and mixed climbing competitions, climbs big walls by herself, and teaches women how to climb.
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From: Barry Blanchard
We’re climbers, not the sharpest tools in the shed. I think we’re stuck trying to figure this out with lesser-evolved brains. But if no cow ever faces away from the herd how will greener pastures ever be discovered? If all cows went into the storm there would probably be no cows and no need of greener pastures.
I assume that Musashi perfected the two-sword technique in the dojo and did take it out to the battlefield to make a “cut” [Musashi is also the name of an M12 sport route in the Rockies]. Spend too much time engaging and you will probably get cut, though.
In my life the summit provides the point to turn around and I seem to need that as much as I need food. Don’t know if I am helping, but this sure is fun. I’m in agreement.…
* * *
From: Scott Johnston
Folks need to say what they mean or not say it. Sadly, I think that the salient point of the whole argument is being overlooked: “Where is climbing going and where will these various movements take climbing?”
[We] know very well what is entailed in alpine climbing and understand that sport climbing is but a sliver of the climbing continuum. But the bulk of the community is not participating in leading-edge breakthroughs and many participants lack perspective on the macrocosm of climbing. I’m seeing that the public has entered the sport in the last five years and that a 10-year vet is an old timer. I submit that these folks are in no way prepared to be handed the reins of climbing’s future. Most haven’t a clue as to its past. The closest they get to the full climbing spectrum is to thumb the pages of the rags. The direction climbing is going is being dictated by the media and newbies who [motivate] the marketing machine.
Sport climbing is a true sport in that it allows direct comparisons. [It] is easily packaged, with grades and cool photos. Average schmucks who read the magazines get their inspiration from what they believe the elite are doing. You can’t take a photo of, or put a meaningful number on, commitment. So the true adventure, the soul expanding aspect of climbing becomes downplayed. Do we really want climbing to become the sport of those who think adventure is defined by where they can drive their new Ford Explorer?
The next generation of climbers should be encouraged to discover challenges by seeking out commitment. What I fear is [regression] in climbing where the fixation is on numbers. [Numbers] can only truly affect a very small group of elite climbers. The rest of us slobs are stuck in the second, third, or 20th tier and we should be able to have defining moments even if we can’t crank one-arm pull ups.
[We have] the opportunity to steer the direction climbing takes. Acknowledge a differentiation between Sport and Alpine, and make it clear in the media, [else] climbers will come to know climbing from a very narrow perspective, doomed to be seen as just an extreme sport. Don’t sell climbing short, don’t distill out the essence and present only that soulless message.
Scott Johnston has climbed on most continents since 1973, and is currently a climbing and back-country ski guide for North Cascades Mountain Guides.
* * *
From: Valeri Babanov
When you are too high in the high mountains, you can’t be one way. It is too dangerous. Speed is important for safety, and you have to be flexible, or you break. Style is of course very important and you try to climb in the best style always, but you also need to CLIMB. You need to understand you are real people—skill and experience are knowing your limits.
Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner are also flexible in this way, knowing when to use what style. So, I’m a realist! Me, I prefer to finish my dreams. I don’t want to be old and still have only the dreams.
Valeri Babanov has twice been awarded the world’s most prestigious alpine recognition: the Piolet d’Or; this year it was for his ascent of Nuptse East (see Yuri Koshelenko’s article Moonlight Sonata in this Journal).
* * *
From: Andy Kirkpatrick
I can’t really comment personally as I haven’t done any bolted M climbing. But as for nonbolted mixed, like we have in Scotland, well it’s the foundation of all the big mountain stuff British climbers do, and so when it comes to mental strength and commitment, plus that important and often overlooked gnarl factor there is no better training, and that’s maybe why the Brits seem to be leading the way in some areas of mountaineering.
Andy Kirkpatrick started from Hull and to date has made it as far as Sheffield, but he’s done it the hard way – via an enchainment of the world’s worst alpine terrain. An intense writer, he has claimed in print “Don’t believe the hype. Winter climbing is 10 percent physical, 90 percent mental. If you’re good at jigsaws you Vi probably be good at mixed climbing. It’s simply a frozen puzzle, your tools and crampons torquing and camming the pieces to fit. And like a jigsaw, the moves are easy. It’s just finding them that’s hard…”
* * *
From: Roger Payne
One really significant booster for climbing standards is international gatherings and meets.
When you get an international group of high performance climbers in one place things happen. People want to quickly climb the classics, then the testpieces, and then the hardest route in the guidebook. Suddenly that climb everyone has been waiting 10 years for the second ascent of has a queue at the bottom, and improbable blank spaces are being filled with harder new routes. Then sitting around the bar people talk about other big climbing challenges, and start to make plans for trips to get them done. It was at an international climbing meet in Scotland, fully refreshed in the bar and high on the buzz of climbing mischief, that a discussion about the use of bolts in the mountains highlighted the idea of a free ascent of Cerro Torre’s Egger-Maestri Route. Then sure enough, not long afterwards, three people from the meet (Leo Houlding, Alan Mullin, and Kevin Thaw) were packing their bags for Patagonia.
Roger Payne has climbed hard on gritstone and in the Himalaya, has run the British Mountaineering Council, and is presently steering the UIAA toward the Olympics.
* * *
From: Steve House
Admittedly, I had ulterior motives in stirring all of this up. I have tremendous respect for many of the M-routes that have gone up since I started waterfall climbing in the Rockies 10 years ago. There is an amazing pool of talent and experience and I would love to see that growth trend extend to alpinism.
The last of the new material should come from Andrej Stremfelj, of Slovenia: “The young people outgrew me in climbing a long time ago. All I can give them now is part of my rich experience. In the high mountains, such experience can be key to survival. Expeditions are my only opportunity to pass on some of my knowledge to the new generation. The young quickly acquire pure technical knowledge, but it is much more demanding to show them the essence of alpinism, which is in my opinion of capital importance for success. This is one of my future challenges.”
“…not for difficulty alone, but for elegance and style…”
Climb fast and take chances.
Raphael Slawinski (Degrees Of Freedom http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12200207200/Degrees-of-Freedom 2002 ) – Answers ( http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12200411600/Mixed-Messages-Is-Hard-M-Sport-Climbing-Influencing-High-Standard-Alpinism )
(Polish)/ˌmɑːhəˈrɑːdʒə/; Sanskrit: महाराज – historyczny tytuł królewski władców różnych regionów Indii. – An Indian prince. From Hindi mahārājā, from Sanskrit mahā ‘great’ + rājan ‘raja, king’. Chiński Maharadża (Chinese Maharaja) is a VI.5 (French: 7c+) route in Dolina Bolechowicka , the Polish Jura. Kurtyka free soloed in 1993
Mountaineering is a complex and unique way of life, interweaving elements of sport, art and mysticism. Success or failure depends on the ebb and flow of immense inspiration. Detecting a single rule governing this energy is difficult – it arises and vanishes like the urge to dance and remains as mysterious as the phenomenon of life itself.
When you are totally defeated you begin again to enjoy the small things around you. Just going to the mountains, not for victory or glory, but to enjoy nature or enjoy fine people. If you always succeed you enjoy the admiration of many people. Being defeated means being limited to the basis existential choices of life. If you can enjoy the quiet evening hours it is beautiful; a hero who always succeeds may not have time to enjoy such things.
The most significant dimension of freedom is the freedom from one’s own ego – in other words, from the feeling that I am the center of everything.
I don’t like egocentricity, which is something that I have arduously battled in myself my entire life.
I like to describe Himalayan climbing as a kind of art of suffering. Just pushing, pushing yourself to your limits.
Every move is a creation,
Maintaining the delicate balance is a creation,
The line is a creation,
Survival is a creation,
Freedom is a creation.
FROM JULY 13 to 20 (1985), Austrian Robert Schauer and I from Poland climbed the virgin west face of Gasherbrum IV to the top of the wall, though we did not get to the very summit. The descent was completed from July 20 to 23 via the north ridge. The 2,500-meter-high face has been called the “Shining Wall” and has gained the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and challenging mountain faces in the world. It had already been attempted five times by strong American, Japanese and British teams.
We did the ascent in the purest alpine-style after an acclimatization climb to 7100 meters on the north ridge, where we left a food cache. Dramatic circumstances in the last stages of the ascent, after we had completed climbing the face proper, prevented our reaching the exact summit. Appalling weather and conditions on the face delayed us and dangerously prolonged the ascent, making us suffer from hunger and thirst. On July 20, after emerging exhausted from the wall onto the summit ridge, we abandoned the apparently easy horizontal traverse to the summit and immediately started the abseils down the north ridge.
The mountain seemed to be ruled by an unfriendly spirit which opposed the germ of every effort and even of every intention. Surprisingly, it ceased to harass our faltering minds when we abandoned the last meters to the summit. However, we got off the face alive; the climb was perfect and very instructive of all possible traps and hazards of alpine-style climbing in the high mountains. A few striking examples follow.
#. Just below the summit on July 18, the sixth climbing day, at 7800 meters, when we had run out of food and fuel, we were trapped by a horrifying tempest. Protected only by a modest bivouac sack, we spent two hard nights on a tiny snow ledge, swept by avalanches and raked by the hurricane. Masses of snow constantly buried, squeezed and suffocated us. The whirling, blinding wind so oppressed us that we could fend off the snow only by crawling on all fours.
Thank you, angry sky, you cleared on the second night!
#. The bivouacs were miserable. The second and third nights, we sat almost sleepless and separated from each other, very uncomfortably, on spiky, rocky pinnacles. The sleeping bags were the only shelter from the cold sky.
Thank you, Karakoram, you were windless those nights!
#. All the following nights were troubled by furious winds and impetuous spindrift. Again we had little sleep in the bivouac sack, buried on ledges hacked into the ice.
Who is sleepy, what is sleepy, where is this “sleepy?”
#. The conditions on the face proved very difficult and dangerous. The rock was either completely rotten or of completely compact marble, which offered poor protection. Due to the total lack of belays, it was the common practice to extend the pitches from 40 to 80 meters—though some were of sustained Grade V difficulty. Altogether, we climbed four pitches of Grade V—two of them at 7100 and 7300 meters in technically very hard extremely compact marble without a single belay point. The real nuisance was the very deep snow on the mixed ground through which we tunneled vertically, demanding tortuous work.
How beautiful, the horrifying long rope, swinging away free!
#. The conditions caused slower progress than expected. We carried food for four bivouacs and fuel and drink for five days while the complete climb lasted eleven days. Finally we were saved by the food cache reached on the evening of the ninth day at 7100 meters, left during the acclimatization climb on the north ridge. We had endured four days without food and three without drinking.
Oh, how wet was the tea, how sweet were 30 candies!
#. The physical exhaustion, hunger, thirst and lack of sleep caused a number of astonishing psychic sensations. Particularly amazing was the phenomenon experienced by others at high altitudes, the feeling of the presence of the “man who isn’t there,” of the “third person.” It was so intense that at times both of us instinctively awaited the reactions and the participation of the “third person.”
Why, dear friend, did you not appear?
#. For long periods I heard strange sounds like music, the twittering of birds or whispered talk. Sometimes it was easy to discover them as transformed real sounds and to trace them to where they came from. For instance, the sound of beautiful and passionate women singing, something between Barbra Streisand and Santana, heard at five P.M. on the last days, came from the rubbing of the rope sliding over the rough snow surface punctuated by our steps.
I’d never guess that you would come out of the rough snow, Barbra Streisand!
#. Uncommonly intense and almost troublesome was the amazing inclination and ability to associate rocks, snow or clouds with human figures and shapes. These were transformed into very real images. They seemed shaped by some hidden, mysterious spirit.
Who made you, lovely and quiet figures?
#. Particularly painful, due to the severe lack of sleep, was repeatedly falling asleep suddenly and unchecked at the belay stances followed by an equally sudden awakening with a sense of terror.
Oh, it’s so nice to sleep!
#. Equally unpleasant were the tormenting visions of food and drink.
Oh, you rice, you bread!
* * * *
Though it was the most beautiful and mysterious climb I have ever done, I feel miserable for having failed to reach the summit. I can’t resist the conviction that this Beautiful Mountain and its Shining Wall are too splendid and too perfect to consider any ascent of it without its most essential point—the summit—as really completed
Esporret / Esporreta – Espaït / Espaïda.
(Catalan, adjective) [aspo’ret] Que va a peu, sense càrrega i sense companys molests. /The one who walks, without charge and without annoying companions.I
It’s ten in the evening. I feel a tear that excites each corner of my body. Today is the day. Both Enric and myself are decided. We have acclimated the last few days as much as we needed. Physically we are at an excellent moment, plethoric. When our eyes cross each other, tearing cold and darkness, the message runs like the serpent holding energy: we are really looking forward to this southern wall of the Annapurna.
We are at her feet. We are inside the tent, illuminated by the yellowish light of the headlamps. Illuminated It’s the word. A large mixed and vertical wall. A true mountain universe. The summit, one of the fourteen eight thousand, one of the fourteen highest mountains in the world. A name that stands out from the aura of myths as a large mountain emerges from among the fog that cover the earth: Annapurna.
We fold all cooking utensils and we press them into the backpacks. we will leave this tent mounted. From here until the summit we will install a small hammock with the space just for us two. There will be no platforms to be able to “camp”. Verticality will be constant.
Enric and I. Only two. This is called alpine style. We don’t have a meter of rope to fix. But ropes we have: one of eight millimeters and eighty meters long for climbing and another auxiliary of seven millimeters also of eighty meters to, together with the other, be able to do abseiling. Ten o’clock. A good time to start an adventure. Our minds are putting aside the whole world. They are only able to assimilate a unique exclusive world: this great wall. The elements will be few: the snow, the rock, the air, the sun and the moon … the void … we don’t talk. The uneasiness embraces us with euphoria. we’re so looking for…
We are at the foot of a wide snow patch that higher up will become a dangerous corridor. So dangerous that two years ago, during the first attempt to climb this wall, English mountaineer Alex McIntyre lost his life. A damned stone falling from the rock overhangs on the middle part of the wall was the cause. It would be hypocritical if I say that this sad fact does not affect me. And I think for Enric as well. Maybe it’s a small part of the cause that makes us be silent.
The blue bus is calling us;
driver, where are you taking us?
We hug. Strong. Sincere. I do not know for how long. It last for a while. It’s twelve twenty at noon. We are at the top. It is the summit?
I am pampered by the most pleasant sensations of relief and release. Today I can really hear what freedom really is. Yes, in its purest and most authentic form.
It is now. It is the end of doubts and frustrations. It is the end of good and evil. Of day to night. Of concerns and joys. Of the the sun, the moon and the stars. Of parties and farewells. Of pain and love. Of hello and goodbye. Of angels and demons. But of the southern face of the Annapurna no, not yet. We are tired, but at the same time we feel a pleasant sensation of rest.
Seated in the snow, we try to enjoy these unique moments. I try to tie me everything that I see. I wouldn’t like that something escapes me. At the same time, I’m getting drank by sun, snow, colors, silence, height, friendship, risk, effort, relief, mountains, Annapurna …
At two o’clock we wake up and start the descent. In the second step, I already feel longing for the summit. A shy and simple sadness hurts me. I turn for a last time, before losing sight. I thank her. I came back to the abyss which an hour and a half ago we exited.
It hurts to set you free,
but you’ll never follow me.
The end of laughter and soft lies,
the end of nights …
Pam pam we’re losing height. We constantly focus our tired eyes downside, below us.
We need to intuit the crevasse a few meters before reaching its top edge. We can’t get close to the edge. It could collapse with our weight. Every time we feel closer the presence of the immense dark and deep mouth that has to close our way. It is here. We look down. A hole darker than the night itself is presented as the last step of the Annapurna.
Downclimbing, we move to the right and left of its upper end. We seek some way to cross it. If there was a snow bridge…
But there is not. All of it is open wide. Yes, we got to see the bottom slope. It looks of snow. It also seems steep. Rationally we position ourselves where the opening seems to be narrower. We stop. We know what we have to do. There is only one option. We don’t have any meter of rope. Facing the slope, we prepare ourselves. We hold the backpack well, adjust
strongly the slings of the ice axes. We both know that it will be a moment. We just need an instant decision. We can’t fail to trust the energy that this mountain has given us.
I turn towards the emptiness. Enric does the same. I thought that I had no adrenaline left to give. I hear her coming out of all the pores of my skin. We look at each other. Do you jump or I go?
We both impulse ourselves at the same time. We both make a step forward and together we jump to the void. I feel the air that spins vertiginously. Then I hold the ice axes even stronger.
It is now. It is the end of our doubts and frustrations. It is the end of good and evil. Of day to night. Concerns and joys. Of the sun, the moon and the stars. Of parties and farewells. Of pain and love. Of hello and goodbye. Of angels and demons. Of the past and of the future.
It is now, the end of the southern face of Annapurna.
This is the end.
Now I understand everything, Jim.
Nil Bohigas ( from the book Cels de Safir, https://www.vilaweb.cat/noticies/nil-bohigas-ascensio-annapurna-cara-sud-enric-lucas/ Ascent of Annapurna South Face 1984)
(English, verb) /flʌɪ/ move through the air.
My three arts are climbing, flying and walking lines. What I do is a spiritual practice and art, and though I’ve been competitive in the past, my competitive drive has always bothered me. I’ve learned that my highest powers never come from being competitive.*
My dad was in the army for most of my youth. He was very regimented and I learned to train from him.*
My mom was a yoga teacher. I learned yoga pretty much as a baby. I would just mimic what my mom was doing and I learned right away to focus on breath and movement.*
I was born in Kansas, but moved all around every year. We moved to Israel for three years, and we lived in a town called Bethany. I used to go on the religious hikes with this guy Father Jerry. Father Jerry would take us out into nature. He wouldn’t really teach us religion, and I’m not religious whatsoever—at least when it comes to organized religion—but Father Jerry would take us to these caves and different mountains, and that was really the beginning of exploring the outdoors for me.*
One time, I was hiding in the boulders—long story—and noticed a piton up on the rock, shining. In my Converse All-Star basketball shoes, I started soloing up to check out that piton, and I got into a place where I couldn’t down climb. So I did my first climb as a 200-foot free solo, and that was the beginning of rock climbing for me.
That was really how climbing went for me for a bunch of years. Free solo.*
I tried going to college. I went to the University of New Hampshire and got into rowing. Rowing taught me a lot about being fit and regimented. I loved the rowing part, but I hated going into classes and learning these things that really didn’t interest me.*
I’ve never sought out sponsorship. When I eventually started doing some climbs that were cutting edge, people noticed me and sponsorship offers came, and though that wasn’t my focus, it allowed me to climb full-time and I took the opportunity and said yes to being a paid climber.*
But still, to this day, I don’t seek out sponsorship. My focus is still to just practice my art, perfect my art, and do my art at the highest level and let the rest of life work itself out.*
I first went to Yosemite in 1993, and right away I met Chongo Chuck—the godfather of slacklining. I learned how to do things from Chongo, and I also learned how not to do things by watching Chongo and seeing what a real homeless man is. I’m not OK with the uncertainty of being a real homeless man.*
The main part of my philosophy has always been: “Go toward your fears.
I was the first person to see Dan Osman dead at the base of the Leaning Tower. I found his body and there was a rope hanging above that had broken. When you see one of your heroes lying on the ground dead, with a broken rope above his head, it’s hard to get over. It took me many years before I trusted the rope again. I had seen what happens when one breaks.*
It always bothered me that I was held hostage by my fear of falling. I was a horrible lead climber. Being a free soloist, I found trying to climb to the point of failure and slipping off was not something that I ever wanted to get used to. I’ve just learned to get over that fear in the last decade.*
Since my early days climbing, I’ve always known I’d be an alpinist, and I always knew there would be a real need for speed. So speed climbing for me was with the thought of taking it to the mountains.*
The best climbs I’ve ever done were down in Argentina in 2002. I did the first free solo of Fitz Roy, via the Supercanaleta (1,600 meters 5.10 80 degrees). I speed soloed the Compressor Route (900 meters 5.10 A2) on Cerro Torre, and I did the first ascent, all free solo, of the Californian Roulette—a 7,000-foot new route on Fitz Roy. Then, while coming down, I was struck on the leg by rockfall. I’d climbed the route in under 10 hours, and it took me about 36 more hours to get down.*
While crawling out of the mountains, I thought: There has to be a better way. That’s when I realized BASE jumping is the way to get off these walls.*
I’m working with a scientist and we’re developing a safer system for wingsuit flying. About 30 BASE jumpers and wingsuit flyers died last year, and this year has been very similar. I just felt uncomfortable with what was going on. And though I felt like I was always safe—I’ve never had a close call—I realized I must be missing something.*
Because I’m a free soloist, I think about odds. It’s not good enough to think: I will survive this once. When I think about doing something, I think: Will I survive a million out of a million times?*
Sean Leary—one of my best friends and the guy that I jumped with more than anybody else—died recently. Though I’ve known a lot of BASE jumpers who have died, I’ve sort of isolated myself from the community because I don’t want to risk developing a pack mentality. But when Sean died, it hit home hard. It made me question even more the safety of our system.*
We can’t fool ourselves. We’re rock climbers, we’re highline walkers, we’re flying humans. These are some of the most dangerous pursuits known to man. We all play these games that most of the time are just fun. But if you mess up, you die.*
I feel like I’m still progressing as a climber. I mostly focus on Free BASE climbing—free solo climbing with a BASE rig on my back—and I don’t publicize what I do, but I don’t really need to. I’ve gotten myself to a place where I can do my thing quietly. But I’m still pushing my three arts.
Dean Potter (What I’ve Learned https://rockandice.com/people/dean-potter-what-ive-learned/ 2016)
ASCENT AND DESCENT OF 42 LAKELAND FELLS IN 24 HOURS BY WALKING AND RUNNING
12th/13th June 1936 by R. Graham of Keswick.
Start 01.00 hours
Distance approx.75 miles
Ascent and descent approx.27.000’
|Keswick to Threlkeld||.||.||3||M. Rylands|
|Threlkeld to Dunmail||8:00||30||12||M. Rylands|
|Dunmail to Wasdale||7:15||30||15||P. Davidson|
|Wasdale to Honinster||4:30||15||9||R. Deans|
|Honinster to Keswick||2:39||.||3||W. Hewitson (To Newlands Church) M. Rylands P.Davidson (From Newerlands Church)|
Total Time 23 Hours 37 Minutes
A Long Day On The Fells. by F. Rogerson.
On the 43th day of June, 1932 a new 24 hour Lake District Fell record of 42 summits was established by 42 year old Robert Graham of Keswick, a local guest house propietor and Lake District guide.
He traversed the summits of Skiddaw, Great Calva, Blencathra, Clough Head, Great Dod, Watson Dod, Stybarrow Dod, Raise, White Side, Helvellyn Low Man, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Fairfield, Seat Sandal, Steel Pell, Calf Crag, High White Stones, Sergeant Man, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike 0′ Stickle, Rossett Crag, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Scafell, Yewbarrow, Red Pike Steeple, Pillar, Kirkfell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey. Knotts, Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson, then down Newlands via Snab Side to the road at Little Town, then to Keswick Moot Hall.
The total time for the long walk, including 30 minute stops at Dunmail Raise and Wasdale with a 15 minute stop at Honister Hause, was 23 hours 39 minutes, a record which was to stand for 28 years.
His companions on the Felis were Martin Rylands from Keswick to Dunmail Raise, Phil Davidson from Dunmail to Wasdale Head, Robin Dean from Wasdale to Honister Hause, Bill Hewitson from Honister,. G.D, Abrahams was at Dunmail Raise to take photographs.
Waiting for Bob and his companions at Newlands was Phil Davidson who left Bob at Wasdale Head to make the long, lonely trek over Sty Head to Keswick and home, where he enjoyed a bath and after some refreshment jogged out to Newlands to await and then accompany them back to Keswick, which was reached 39 minutes after midnight.
From the Moot Hall they all went to Bob’s guest house for a meal and rest, Bob was up at 600 hours to cook breakfast for his helpers, to enable them to get back to their jobs in time.
For the walk they were dressed in shirt, shorts and rubber plimsolls. Food consisted of bread and butter, lightly boiled eggs, biscuits and sweets. Heavy rain and a thunderstorm was encountered en route.
History and Records Noteable Fell Walks 1864 to 1978
(Greek, name) /ˌmɛtəˈnɔɪə/ “changing one’s mind” Change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion.
It’s difficult to separate what part of the Eiger’s ambience is due to its actual limestone, snow and ice, and what part is due to all the stories that played out on that grand vertical stage. I don’t think it matters at this point. Most aspirants will start with those tales finely etched in their brains. At times, along the way, they’ll climb with the souls of those who perished. That’s what happened to me.advertisement
I READ HEINRICH HARRER’S BOOK, The White Spider, when I was twelve. The epic of the first ascent never left my mind. In February 1991, I wanted to climb the North Face in a style that honored its pioneers. Anderl Heckmair and company didn’t have bolts in 1938—just simple pitons of a limited range. They risked not being able to start their crude stoves to melt water. If their cotton and wool clothing got soaked, they might freeze to death. Even to approach that commitment, I had to stack the deck against myself: go alone, in winter, without bolts, and try the hardest unclimbed route I could find on the highest part of the wall. In places where my line crossed the 1938 route or coincided with the Japanese Direttissima, I wouldn’t use in situ gear. My intention was to make the purest climb I could manage.
All extraneous concerns fell away on the face. Sometimes, when the wind was just right, I could hear snippets of conversations from the streets of Grindelwald. Proximity to civilization only served as an ironic backdrop. As I climbed behind the spot where Toni Kurz was left dangling in 1936, I could have snagged his rope with my axe and pulled him to safety. (I mimed the moves, imagining his soft words of thanks.) A blizzard pinned me for two days about a hundred and fifty yards right of the Death Bivouac. I thought of Max Sedlmayr and Karl Mehringer struggling against hypothermia in August 1935. Despite the winter cold and pounding spindrift, I was warm in my synthetic clothes and sleeping bag.
On the narrow, snow-choked catwalk of the Central Band, I was sure I could see the exact spot where John Harlin’s rope broke in 1966. Harlin was my hero when I was a young teenager. I was bothered, at the time, by his uncharacteristic expedition style on the Eiger Direct. After his fatal fall, I vowed never to jumar on a skinny rope, and I chose to climb in alpine style, which limits jumaring in the first place. At the top of the headwall, another storm trapped me in a little grotto. The chamber of my “Hermit Cave” was about six feet deep and four feet tall, with a flat floor of ice. I sat cross-legged looking into a thick curtain of spindrift. I imagined Claudio Corti’s and Stefano Longhi’s cries for help from the bottom of the Exit Cracks in 1957.
After days of small rations, the space between my belly and my backbone contained nothing of substance to prop me up. Shivering in waves, I stared at a picture of my two-year-old daughter, Sonja. I felt remorse for the mess I’d made of my marriage and the sense of abandonment that she would face. My awareness detached itself from my body. I could focus on any place or time and instantly be there. My soul took me to the farthest reaches of the universe and back. The clarity of sight, hearing and consciousness was like nothing I’d ever known—beyond words. When I returned to myself, still staring into the spindrift, I knew several things for certain: I knew the sound and frequency of my own vibrational DNA; I knew that Sonja would come to feel my absolute love for her and that I could still be a good father and guide her on her life-journey. And I knew that everything was OK, is always OK, in the fundamental realities of life. The spindrift thinned to a beautiful, crisp sunset. I hunkered in my sleeping bag, sending all my warm thoughts to Sonja. I fell asleep with her resting gently on my heart.
One thousand feet of unknown difficulty separated me from the summit. A big storm was due the next afternoon. March 4 dawned clear and cold. I climbed quickly toward the flint-hard ice of the Fly. Three hundred feet of diagonal crabbing shocked me into realizing how depleted I was. Doom hugged my chest. I pushed myself harder. My moves became imprecise. My left tool popped on a tiny divot. I spun into space until I could see the town of Grindelwald, two miles below. A bulge loomed directly beneath me, so I jumped away from the wall. The rope came tight against an angle piton. My shoulder and back slammed into ice. I hung, nearly unconscious, gasping for air.
Thinking of Sonja, I climbed through the pain—every move solid and fast—to a saddle near the Japanese route. Tatters of old ropes emerged on bare rock and disappeared under ice, showing the way for the last four or five pitches. It was already afternoon. Wisps of clouds swirled. David Roberts radioed to tell me about the avalanche conditions on the descent route. He suggested a helicopter pickup from the summit ridge. My initial reaction was “No way.” But my cosmic journey in the Hermit Cave, and the image of my daughter’s angelic face, outweighed any other consideration. With little time left, I hung my pack from an ice screw and ran out the rope to its end at a band of loose blocks. I found nothing solid enough for protection. I untied and scrambled the short distance to meet the helicopter on top.
I named the route “Metanoia.” For thousands of years, shamans and spiritual seekers have starved themselves, endured long days of toil, and meditated for weeks in hopes of receiving some sort of vision or nirvana. On the Eiger, I’d felt a fundamental change of thinking and a subtle transformation of heart.
Jeff Lowe (Eiger Profile in Alpinist 41http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web16a/wfeature-1991-jeff-lowe-metanoia )
Pパチンコ PACHINKO (Japanese)
(Japanese, name) /pəˈtʃɪŋkəʊ/パチンコとは、ガラス板で覆った多数の釘が打たれた盤面上に小さな鋼球を盤面左下から弾き出し、釘に従って落ちる玉が特定の入賞口に入ると、得点あるいは賞球が得られる日本の遊技（ゲーム）である。
There were five of us Giri-Giri Boys in Alaska last spring: Tatsuro “Tats” Yamada, Yuto Inoue, Fumitaka “Itchy” Ichimura, Yusuke Sato and myself. Now there are three. The weather had been fine since partway up our ascent of Denali’s Isis Face. Now rain falls in the town of Talkeetna. We waited for days. Tats and Yuto never returned.
Climbing ranger John Loomis had taken a photo of Tats and Yuto’s route—a straight path on a snow ridge between the Kahiltna Peaks and the base of the Cassin. I was at the Denali ranger station in the room set up for the search when I first saw the picture. It made me shiver.
The photo showed the Cassin Ridge dropping south from Denali’s summit to Kahiltna Notch. The actual ridge doesn’t end there, though. It climbs up and over the East and West Kahiltna Peaks and then comes back down to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. This is the true south ridge of Denali. No one has ever traversed it successfully.
The rangers seemed to have trouble understanding the reason for Tats and Yuto’s climb. One of them, Tucker, asked, “Why did they head to the Cassin from the Kahiltna Peaks?”
My English isn’t good, and all I could muster was, “Because it’s beautiful.” Yet the lure of the Cassin is not an external or a rational thing: it’s the invisible claw that grabs at our hearts. And the line Tats and Yuto added to it has something that makes it even more captivating.
In Alpinist 24, Richard Cassin tried to explain his ascent: “Why did we go by a direct route up the south face? I don’t know; we didn’t think about it. In fact, I didn’t realize it was so direct. We were there and we climbed. And that’s all.”
John understood. “Most American climbers only look at the route above the notch,” he said. “But the tracks Tats and Yuto left shatter that vision.”
Tats and Yuto probably didn’t make it to Denali’s summit. It’s likely they had some kind of accident near the top. Still, I envied them. They were the first to reveal the Cassin’s true line of ascent. I stared at the photograph and retraced their route. Though climbers should leave no physical marks on a mountain, we like to believe our passion remains on the lines we draw. We want to follow the lines that only we can make out, that only we can climb.
To my regret, I have never encountered a line on which I could express myself fully. But those two made their statement just by leaving their tracks. Although the footsteps in the snow will disappear, the path in the photo retains their passion.
It was the essence and the realization of Giri-Giri Style.
People ask me all the time: “Hey, what does Giri-Giri mean?”
It’s not easy to answer. The name doesn’t really mean anything. But to understand Giri-Giri, you need some notion of Shi-Shi. And for you to understand Shi-Shi, I must first tell you about climbing in Japan.
Try wading through chest-high snow for a day to get to a 200-meter wall. Once you’re there, the rock is often fragile and covered with vegetation. Useless bolt ladders and ancient, deadly anchors limit the climbable lines, and it’s rare to have a panoramic view because topping out typically involves crawling into a giant thicket.
It sounds hopeless, but I really like Japan’s walls. I like them because their innate shortcomings force a new perspective. Lately, I’ve been ignoring existing anchors to figure out my own lines, onsight, no topo necessary. Some people think such climbing is unsophisticated. My friends and I—Tats, Yuto, Itchy and Yusuke, the so-called Giri-Giri Boys—love it. It gives us space for creativity.
The quantity of climbing in Japan is still limited. But there is a solution to that, too. It’s called Pachinko.
Pachinko gets its name from a popular 1970s pinball game in Japan, with its erratic up-and-down movements on irregular trajectories. Simply put, Pachinko is a linkup of multiple routes, and it helps us train for bigger mountains abroad.
Words and translations are never simple, though: we use the phrase “play” Pachinko, but don’t let that fool you. It can push you to your limits. The Kurobe Traverse is the essence of Pachinko. From the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2008, I spent fourteen days playing it. The linkup entails crossing the Kurobe River and climbing Mt. Tsurugi (2999m), an intricate peak far removed from the world below, with storms that can leave more than a meter of wet snow per night.
We descended with difficulty to the valley floor, waded naked through the icy water and climbed onto the steep flanks of the mountain. A blizzard pinned us down for days, and then an avalanche slid us 600 meters. I began to understand our own insignificance. But the more time we spent on the Kurobe Traverse and the more energy we put into it, the more beautiful it became.
And as I played this particular Pachinko, I realized that all climbing is illogical. Because we live in a modern, rational world, the value of climbing increases with its irrationality. Pachinko—climbing up, coming back down, then repeating the process—has no rationale. It could be the answer to this age of advanced equipment, technical skills and information: Does our reliance on these means weaken our passion?
If so, pick a mountain range. Open a map and trace a route, any route. When you do, you might see that we’ve only been playing on a portion of a mountain. The more you think about how to enjoy the mountain fully, the more possibilities you’ll discover.
PASSION, LIKE PACHINKO, can begin with the first freely chosen line. Many climbers clutch guidebooks as they seek their routes—but climbing’s not about climbing a topo; it’s about climbing a wall. On my first visit to Alaska in 2005, from the Tokositna Glacier, the moment Itchy and I looked at the southwest face of Huntington, we saw a new line present itself. We studied it, and then, though we struggled in the foreign Alaskan terrain, we climbed it.
The scale of Alaskan mountains dawned on us. Though we ran up the wall to the summit, the thought of a 2000-meter descent seemed exhausting. As we down climbed the blue ice on the summit ridge, we knew that if our concentration broke, we’d fall to the glacier. We had no information. We couldn’t see what was ahead of us. Once, as I rappelled, free hanging, into nothingness, the rope passed through my device and I almost took the plunge.
Itchy didn’t say much, but I could tell from his gaze that he was holding inside himself the spirit of a warrior.
We reached the glacier just before daybreak. There, we lay on our backs for a while, unable to move. At base camp, all we could do was drink sake and stare at the wall.
Itchy showed me a book he’d brought to Alaska about Ryoma Sakamoto, a nineteenth-century Japanese samurai and a Shi-Shi, a “man of inner resolution.” I imagined myself as Ryoma, expressing my inner being on the mountain. We named our route Shi-Shi after the philosophy he shared: to live with purity you must be able to imagine your own corpse and feel no qualms about it.
Climbing can be that simple—you try to draw a line from the bottom to the top; if you fail, you may die. A year later, Itchy and I began a line like that above the Buckskin Glacier on the east face of Alaska’s Bears Tooth: if we’d continued, the only options would have been success or death. Though the route seemed doable as long as we followed the ice, we could not overcome one five-meter section.
During our retreat we became immersed in something unknown. It was the energy of the mountain, that strange air that made me feel it wouldn’t let us escape so easily. Over two days and a mere 400 meters, we felt its relentless power. Deep, unstable snow covered the slabs. The rock would not even accept a piton. We continued blindly and in silence.
I wanted to be stronger. I began to feel that the more important the route was to me, the more important it became to climb it with style. I wanted to paint my way of living with the lines I climbed.
Three months later, Itchy, Tats and I traveled with Yuki Sato to Bolivia, where we played with multipitch climbs and bouldering to our hearts’ content. On the south face of Nevado Illimani (6439m), the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real, we established four new routes. One we named Phajsi Face (“Moon” in the local Aymara language) and another, the Inti Face (“Sun”), because as Tats said, “Our souls were raised like those objects by this adventure.”
Still, I remained preoccupied with my experience on the Buckskin. For exceptional routes I decided to face them naked, engaging them with my true self. This is the central meaning of the phrase “Shi-Shi.”
SO WHAT’S THE DEFINITION OF GIRI-GIRI?
At first, it was a joke: the Giri-Giri Boys comes from the name of a Japanese celebrity group called the Giri-Giri Girls. Two years ago at the Talkeetna Air Taxi of office, we were waiting for the pilot Paul Roderick to fly us to the Alaska Range, when a receptionist asked us the name of our expedition. We didn’t have one.
“Giri-Giri Boys!” Tats exclaimed.
“What’s up with that?” I asked Tats.
“It doesn’t really matter—we can name ourselves anything,” he said.
But when people started calling us the Giri-Giri Boys, the name stuck. And one night back in Japan over sake, it all made sense.
“Giri-Giri” means “barely” in Japanese, and everything about us could be described by those words. We barely have enough money, experience or technique. We’re barely young enough to call ourselves boys (perhaps we’re too old already). But we want to face the mountain with overflowing motivation and ambition, and we want to climb to our bare limit. Doing so, I believed, would lead us to something that would let our passion take shape.
Return to the Buckskin
EARLY APRIL 2008: as Itchy, Yusuke and I gazed out the window of the Cessna, approaching the Buckskin, the dark wall formed. Somehow the east face of the Bears Tooth appeared even more intimidating than it had two years earlier.
We looked at each other for a moment, then our laughter echoed across the glacier. Half the snow on the lower slab was missing and the exposed rock seemed impossible to climb. Even if we were able to bypass this slab section, above it lay 600 meters of vertical, thin ice—endless, runout, nerve-wracking climbing on the tips of our picks.
“Oh, well,” I said. All we could do was gape at the wall with our mouths open: we still weren’t ready to climb it.
Ten days passed. During a break in the weather we headed for our backup plan: a steep and logical corner just south of The Mooses Tooth and right of The Useless Emotion that zigzagged up the northeast face for thousands of feet to the summit of the Bears Tooth.
I’d had my eyes on this line for years. But from the glacier we couldn’t see beyond a single line of thin ice on an extremely steep slab. We’d have to decide what to do on the rest of the wall when we got there.
At first, the angle daunted us. Yet the line had a sense of presence to it, far more so than the nearby chimney.
“What do you think?” I asked Itchy and Yusuke. “I think we can do it.” It was uncharacteristic of them to be indecisive, but they didn’t consider switching to the chimney either.
I told them I wanted to extend our maximum energy toward this enormous mountain and to climb the line it drew from us. If it wasn’t to be the east face, it might be this northeast one. Eventually, we all agreed.
Itchy led the first uncertain pitch. Before continuing on to the next one, he exclaimed, “I’m psyched!” There would be no more hesitation.
Before we knew it, curtains of snow covered the wall, ending our play. The snow continued the following morning… and the next… and the next… and the next. So, we ate, drank and played cards—shortcuts to geriatric diseases.
Our time left on the glacier was running out. Finally, the sky cleared.
“To the northeast wall again!”
The line was steeper than anything we’d experienced; we had to feel the pulse of the mountain in order to climb it swiftly. Yusuke instinctively switched to aid in the corner, so that Itchy and I would not become worried or impatient. But we made sure to mock him: “Was it too hard for you?”
I struggled on the pendulum traverse that followed. Every time I bumped against the rock, Itchy and Yusuke hooted. Then Itchy led the beginning of the upper wall, a delicate slab with small edges and thin ice.
On the evening of the second day, we reached a cornice. It looked spooky. We were almost at the top. Itchy tackled the steep wall above.
“Awesome!” I could hear him shouting. From my vantage point, it looked pretty insane.
Soon he must have agreed. “Oh no! I went the wrong way! But it’ll work. Come up!” he yelled from a ledge.
Yusuke, who was to lead the next pitch, mumbled in protest. But when he began, he slung a knob, then freed the crack above effortlessly. I pulled around the last dangerous cornice to the brilliant smiles of my friends. Behind them lay the huge expanse of Denali. I planned to play Pachinko on it.
Pachinko on Denali
IT’S EASY TO PLAY PACHINKO IN ALASKA, with its many routes and possible combinations. In May 2008 five of us Giri-Giri boys would play two separate games.
It didn’t take me long to come up with the idea of linking the Isis Face and the Slovak Direct. I wanted to climb the Isis because I’d met its first ascensionist, Jack Tackle, and I’d seen his clear eyes brighten as he told me its story. It had taken him four years of attempts, but even though he’d been unable to climb to the summit from the end of the route, his excitement never faded. By continuing to the top, perhaps I could take part in his passion.
And the Slovak Direct is Denali’s most difficult, so of course Itchy and I wished to give it a go.
I admit, the whole idea was slightly mad. There weren’t too many friends, apart from Yusuke and Itchy, who could take it seriously. When we talked about the plan to local climbers, they’d smile, throw their hands in the air, shake their heads, and say “Crazy!” We took it as a compliment. They described the Isis and the Slovak as “difficult” and “routes with few repeats.” It didn’t occur to them to link the two together—nor did they give much consideration to climbing the Cassin from the Kahiltna Peaks, Tats and Yuto’s plan.
I’d first told Tats and Yuto about the ridge that extended from the Kahiltna Peaks to the Cassin while we acclimated on the West Buttress. Tats declared the project “The Real Cassin” because it would make an already classic line even better. They were the kind of climbers who valued the beauty of a line more than the accomplishment.
TO PRACTICE PACHINKO, in theory, you need to know how to be light and fast. Our linkup, from May 11-18, would be neither. So what? We desired to immerse ourselves deeply in the mountain. And once we began, we remembered how simple it is just to keep on climbing!
We started simulclimbing up the Isis, stretching the pitches, and by the end of Day One we were already about halfway up. On Day Two, however, the weather trapped us in our bivy cave. We were hesitant to stake out so early in the game, but the golden rule of Pachinko is to rest when you can and make solid progress when you move.
Indeed, the following day, we finished the Isis in no time. From the top of the South Buttress, we tried to down climb the Ramp Route swiftly, but the slope was steep and covered with blue ice. I’d dropped my sunglasses on the upper part of the Isis, and now my eyes were dazzled, just when one wrong step would have cost me everything.
When night fell, we pitched our tent below a stable serac. Inside, we felt comfortable, until, just before dawn, ice chunks began to hit our tent. I buried my face into the sleeping bag, praying they would miss.
If the Isis had been easier than we expected, the descent from the top of the South Buttress down the Ramp Route was a perilous maze. Both were filled with my partners’ laughter. And each time we had to sharpen our senses, I could feel the mountain with my whole body.
A few days later we were on the Slovak Route, in the heart of the south face. By now, without sunglasses, I was snowblind. I offered to do more physical work as the third.
A few hours later, I jumared up to a belay, panting with a heavy load.
“Good work,” Yusuke said.
Something in his voice told me they were thinking of retreat. I couldn’t find a good reason not to agree. Although my eyes didn’t feel too bad, how could I know whether or not there would be complications? Yet my desire to continue was overwhelming.
“You won’t enjoy it, if you’re stuck being the third,” they said.
Having you guys is what makes it enjoyable, I thought.
Every time I jumared up to the belay, they would joke: “Well done, Mr. Mule.”
If it weren’t for partners like them, I would have turned back. Itchy placed only two screws in sixty meters of 100-degree ice. Yusuke rejoiced his way up the 5.9 X pitch. Suddenly, the crux was over and we simulclimbed simpler snow. When we cut a small ledge to pitch a tent, it was already past midnight.
The following day, we traversed toward the Cassin Ridge. We were tired by then and ended up camping again at 5600 meters. The thermometer read minus 27 degrees C when we crawled into our tent.
That night I thought I heard Tats’ and Yuto’s voices. We did not know they were missing yet. I peeked outside many times but didn’t see anyone. Itchy and Yusuke chalked it up to the altitude. But I now think that Tats and Yuto spent their last night with us.
The next day the steepness of the Cassin gradually lessened and we saw familiar scenery. We breathed a sigh of relief and headed to the top.
I wished for the game to go on. If there had been a wall beyond the summit, I would have said to my friends without hesitation, “Let’s continue.”
Tats and Yuto
ON MAY 18, WHEN WE DESCENDED THE WEST BUTTRESS, we saw Tats and Yuto’s tent on the Ski Hill nearly crushed by snow. Footprints led toward the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna, so we assumed that they gave up the traverse of the Kahiltna Peaks and instead took the regular approach to the Cassin. In my mind, I told them: Come back safely.
Back at the Kahiltna airport, we learned our friends had been reported missing. Later, as we flew over the Kahiltna Peaks in the park service helicopter, I could see their tracks along the dramatic, five-mile Kahiltna ridgeline that ascends to 13,440 feet. We saw a campsite at 17,000 feet on the Cassin and followed their trail to around 19,000. Tats and Yuto had told us they planned to take five or six days’ worth of food and fuel. According to their journals, they may have started as early as May 10. By the time we returned to the Kahiltna, if they were still alive, they may have been without food or water for days.
And then on May 23 the weather that had held since we were partway up the Isis Face broke down.
I do not want to praise someone just because he is dead. Tats and Yuto were younger than we are, but they were rare, dedicated alpine climbers. They were easygoing, and we all loved drinking together. They did not have as much experience or developed techniques, but they had a fierce passion for climbing, one that is impossible for us fully to understand. We must not forget to praise them for what they did.
For as I look again now at the ranger’s photo I see the line Tats and Yuto attempted. It makes no sense, but I am simply happy. I can see the passion they notched in the mountain.
Seeing is believing.
In this world of boundless information, all you know for sure is what you see with your own eyes. But even when you stand before a wall, you may have doubts. The act of climbing remains the only path a climber can trust. It is only when you act that you can truly see.
So for the climbers and their dreams in Alaska, for our dear friends who left their enormous passion on the mountain, and for us who are to return to Denali, we named the line on the Bears Tooth, “Climbing Is Believing.”
PACHINKO STARTS WITH A DESIRE TO KEEP CLIMBING. And by continuously climbing, it naturally takes on a physical form. With fair weather, good luck and imagination, any modern climber should be able to discover his or her own Pachinko. Yet there may still be problems a climber cannot solve—and you may die in the game.
Years ago, I took a picture of Itchy on the Buckskin Glacier heading straight toward that awesome wall formed by the east faces of The Mooses Tooth and the Bears Tooth. I want to keep my inner bearing always as such: head down, moving toward an objective without hesitation. It is both beautiful and immeasurable. I can head straight toward the mountain without losing my way. I learned this passion from Alaska, and from Tats and Yuto.
Someday on the mountain, I hope to realize my own Giri-Giri Style.
—Translated from the Japanese by Hiko Ito E
Katsutaka Yokoyama ( Pachinko on Denali at Alpinist Mag : http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web18f/wfeature-a26-the-giri-giri-boys-10th-anniversary and http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12200902400/Pachinko-on-Denali 2009)
One day three years ago, I went for a run around Green Lake, a favorite route near my home in Seattle. It was early September, just after Labor Day, one of those bronzed afternoons when the thermometer still says summer but the school buses and quickened pulse of the city suggest otherwise. As I circled the lake, it was hard not to think about the end of things—of long days, cloudless skies, and freedom.
At one point during that three-mile loop, something jabbed me in the left calf. I spun around, ready to swat an unleashed dog. There was no dog. I staggered home.
“A calf tear,” pronounced the sports-medicine doctor, bored by the mundane case before him. Take several weeks off from running, he said. Do some physical therapy. You’ll be good as new.
Several weeks passed, however, and I wasn’t good as new. Charley horses reared up whenever I flexed the muscles of my lower legs. Taut sailing knots formed beneath the skin. Calves locked, arches seized. Even when they weren’t cramping, the muscles around my shins and calves felt tight as banjo strings—as if they, too, were about to go.
As a lifelong amateur athlete, I’d been injured many times. But those afflictions had always healed in a matter of days, or at worst lingered for a few weeks before fading away, with help from ibuprofen, rest, and a photocopied regimen of exercises handed out by a physical therapist (and usually performed half-assedly). But this was different. In the months that followed my calf tear, even after the muscle had healed, nothing improved. I could no longer run more than a mile or two, after decades spent doing whatever I wanted.
In search of help, I pushed through many doors. A podiatrist filmed my gait as I loped on a treadmill. A neurologist eavesdropped on my brain as it sent messages to my legs. Therapists scraped tendons with metal tools, as if I were an old hide in need of softening. Pints of blood were drawn and spun to gauge concentrations of magnesium and potassium and creatine. I saw physiatrists, osteopaths, orthopedists, and two vascular surgeons, who breezed in late, scowled at my legs, and left.
As my exasperation grew, I strayed from the white halls of Western medicine. I submitted to the needlepoint of acupuncture, the feather touch of Bowenwork, the spasm of strain-counterstrain technique. A myofascial specialist said everything would be fine if I simply learned to walk slower. An integrative-medicine doctor prescribed bone broth. Over a span of months that soon became years, I spent $20,000 on appointments and tests and unguents.
I also spent a lot of time on the floor of my little house, stretching and kneading and coaxing my legs back to exercise. After months of reduced activity, they had grown pale and less muscular; they no longer seemed an intimate part of myself, resembling instead the legs of a stranger.
Many times I tried to run again, slowly bricking up tenths of miles, but the circuit around Green Lake might as well have been the road to Marathon. Once, I managed to run all the way around the lake and wept with happiness. A few days later I set out again. Two hundred yards in, I felt a familiar jab in the left calf. I staggered home. I was right back where I’d started.
Back when I was first becoming a journalist, I tried to keep the habits of the writers I admired. But whiskey nights brought devastating hangovers; cigarettes turned me green. So it would be running for me, as it always had been. On the day I tore my calf I was 45, and I’d already been a runner for 38 years.
You could say the choice was made for me. My father was a field-artillery officer in the Army, stationed at the U.S. Military Academy. The Colonel was at the forefront of running’s first big boom in the 1970s, a grinning, caffeinated martinet who ran down our street in West Point, New York, wearing New Balance sneakers, our Labrador retriever straining the leash beside him. He never ran very fast or very far, but he put in his roadwork daily. And when the Colonel decided that his three children should also love running, it was more decree than suggestion. Other neighborhood kids had to take out the trash for their allowance; my sisters and I ran for ours.
The conventions of memoir dictate that we must have hated our father for this—our own Great Santini. But my sisters and I adored him, and we adored running. I grew up an eager if unexceptional athlete; my medal haul from years of competition would not fill a soap dish. Those early decades of running shaped me, though. At day’s end in college and then later, as a young writer, I laced up. Having run almost every day since childhood, I rarely found the act too unpleasant, even when I was pushing along at a decent clip. On these runs, something curious always happened by the 18th minute. The ragged bellows in my chest grew less insistent. The chaos of arms and legs settled into a rhythm. Thoughts from the day—current arguments, past heartaches, the sentences that resisted being pinned to the page—drifted past as if on a conveyor belt. I reached out and picked up each in turn, considering it from different angles.
These runs rarely produced thunderbolts of insight. But by the time I got home, with streetlamps flickering to life, my brainpan had been rinsed. The world felt possible again. For me, these runs were almost like dreaming.
And sometimes, when Churchill’s black dog—depression—appeared, I would pull on my running shoes and pound the streets until I left it heaving by the roadside and I was too tired to wake at night. As years passed, towns and job titles changed. Friends came and went, as did success and failure, romance and loneliness. The one thing that never left me was running. When a woman I loved wrote, on the night before Christmas Eve, to say that I meant the world to her but she was going to marry someone else, I pulled on my shoes and ran for hours through the darkness, the only sound the creak of cold dirt. Running was not the answer, I knew even then. But it was the only thing that was shaped like an answer.
Like my father, I never ran very fast or far—four, five, six miles at a time. But I ran daily, an act as certain as vespers. I was never happier than when I was moving, a low-budget Mercury skimming along the skin of the earth in torn running shorts. The satisfaction lay simply in heading out the door and covering ground. To be able—that was the thing.
My body and I were on a grand adventure together in those days. We ran marathons. We ski-toured for weeks through the Swiss Alps and Dolomites. Sunburned and dehydrated at 13,000 feet, we crabbed across tilted granite on the Grand Traverse of the Tetons. We pedaled 460 miles and 45,000 vertical feet in one week, up and down the byways of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, through hailstorms that would strip paint off a Buick.
Often these adventures were arduous to the point of misery. But for me, to experience days where the body bends but doesn’t break was the reason to be out there. It was an animal pleasure, uncomplicated, a thing worth doing for the simple reason that it could be done.
It never occurred to me to be grateful back then. The joys came daily, and they seemed without end.
When the wheels start coming off an athlete’s chassis at middle age, the big surprise isn’t that it happens. It’s that you, me—we—barreled along so blindly for so long, not seeing that the road ahead was really a narrowing one-way street.
We were built to break down. Throughout the course of human history, 40 years was more than enough time for us to sire children, run down the meat to feed them, and wink at the grandkids before death by sabertooth. In the cosmic roll of things, by middle age we’re taking up space.
And yet, if you’re like me, you’re caught off guard one day when you spur your body on and your body balks. It’s bewildering, this betrayal of the flesh. In the span of a moment, you’ve left one place and arrived at another. You see that you can never go back. And with this knowledge a peculiar grief descends.
Americans struggle to accept the changes. We’re happy to know that Old is out there; we just can’t countenance Old happening to us. And so we talk about aging not as a normal stage of life but as a personal failing—as if the changes were the result of having skimped on our 60,000-mile maintenance. We say that our bodies break down, they fall apart—a casting from paradise. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man flinging out a spanner.
And so we resist. We massage the body. We Botox it. We lift it and buttress it. Still the changes come, as unstoppable as evening.
“The question,” as Robert Frost wrote in “The Oven Bird,” “is what to make of a diminished thing.”
One morning, I pack a bag with my running shoes, pull shut the crooked door of my little house, and fly to Virginia. I find the Colonel hunched and stiff in his easy chair. He’s nearly 80 now. Parkinson’s disease has frozen his muscles and chewed at his mind. He doesn’t recognize my mother, his wife of 54 years. His eyes are afraid. Some nights, after we’ve helped him to bed, he cries. He says he fears that he was not the person he wanted to be.
When I awaken these days, I smell my father on me, a musty smell of attic and old clothes. If only the Colonel was still doing his roadwork, I think. Then things would be better. Just a mile or two, every day. Then neither of us would be so afraid.
Not long ago, I rented out the house in Seattle. I packed my car and headed east, into the Cascades, to a place with ready access to all the things I once did all the time: trail running, nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking. City friends remarked on the romanticism of my move. Yet there was an edge of desperation to it, like when a spouse in a creaky marriage accepts a job offer across the country in the hope that a change of scenery might salvage things.
In the mountains I rented another small house, an old cabin on a bald knob. During winter, cold air fingers into the interior through gaps in the window frames, and wasps seek shelter in the walls. But its large windows look north, into the wilderness, and they are good for daydreaming. The cabin’s flawed charm suits me.
All these years later, my injury remains undiagnosed. But here in the mountains, I can do many of the sports I enjoy, in moderation, without too much discomfort. I miss my old self, though, and I miss those daily runs, with a bruised feeling behind the rib cage. It is the same feeling I have when I think of the woman who wrote that letter.
It’s not age that makes you an adult, I see now, or even most of the experiences that age brings. What finally does it is the things you lose along the way. A parent dies; you don’t get the girl. And you are wrecked. And you are less for these losses. What makes you an adult, finally, is that you choose to keep going afterward.
The problem is that I can’t decide who I want to be. I want to be the bulletproof man I was, but I want to age with equanimity. I want to fight, but I want to appreciate the grace of all I still can do. Maybe this confusion explains why acceptance still feels too much like giving up.
At day’s end, I get up from the keyboard. I change clothes. I lie on the cabin’s creaky floor. I stretch and knead and coax my legs, as before. Then I head out into the forest. Shards of blue sky hang in the branches of red-skinned ponderosa. I run for three minutes. I walk for a minute. I run three minutes again. The latest physical therapist has ordered this regimen. It scarcely counts as running. There is none of the old dreaming in it. There is only the hope of dreaming.
When I reach a small rise, even this modest challenge robs me of breath.
It is useless, I think. I should give up.
The wind sighs its opinion to the tall trees.
The minute’s rest is over.
I don’t know what else to do. So I run.
Christopher Solomon, When Your Body Says No. Outside Magazine https://www.outsideonline.com/2374356/body-says-no
Triglav / Slovenian/ (nemško: Terglau, italijansko: Tricorno) (2864 metrov nadmorske višine) je najvišji vrh Julijskih Alp in najvišji vrh Slovenije.
From its inception, alpinism has gone through different periods of development. Various factors influenced that development; in the beginning, they were knowledge about mountains, equipment, and the accessibility of an area. An essential element of alpinism has always been exploration. From the first, mountains have been explored, but at almost the same time exploration became a discovery of human boundaries. Furthermore, alpinism has always been, at least in its extreme realizations, an adventure; taking up an ascent is to some extent still a risk. That being said, situations in alpinism are unpredictable, and having to deal with uncertainties as they arise remains its basic allure. Economic factors have also been important, as is particularly the case today.
Reviewing climbs that took place in distinct periods, one is able to define a central course of development from which some events inevitably deviate. The more remote in time the events, the easier it is to analyze and classify them. Consequently, though they may be of the same importance, some events bear more emphasis and some less in each review. In the last few years, with media globalization, it has become evident that the importance of single events may be strongly influenced by media notoriety. Without sufficient media support, an ascent might pass quite unnoticed, regardless of how good or important it is.
I have been active in the Himalaya for a quarter of a century. Before I look back, I would like to describe the current state of affairs in alpinism. The most distinctive characteristic of the present time is the proliferation of commercial expeditions. Lately, among the phenomena that restrain the development of alpinism, this encumberment has replaced the “collecting” of 8000ers at any price. Most commercial ascents aim for Mt. Everest and other, easily approachable peaks, spending a lion’s share of money earmarked for alpinism in the process. In addition, there are a handful of individuals who try to make some money with their fame and media-supported ascents in the Himalaya. Mostly carried out in alpine style, these ascents are often not as good as presented by the press. Since they cannot afford to fail in their attempts, the climbers find different ways to facilitate the ascents. (Examples of this phenomenon are two of the ascents nominated for the 2001 Piolet d’Or. On Kangtega, Valeri Babanov equipped the first part of his route with fixed ropes and did not reach the summit. The winners, Thomas Huber and Iwan Wolf, fixed extensive ropes on a route on Shivling that was climbed alpine-style in 1981. However, the media can present these achievements ignoring such stylistic compromises.)
Next, there are some alpinists in the classical sense of the word. Having a high technical knowledge and true adventurous spirit, they discover less-explored areas and faces, where they accomplish quality ascents that are important for the development of alpinism. Teams coalesce on the basis of friendship, with less sponsorship money and larger self-imposed contributions. They have responsibility to no one but themselves; therefore, their way of climbing is often purer and open to the inspiration of momentary circumstances.
Expeditions of national character, climbing in the classical Himalayan style, have become extremely rare. Fortunately, there are many alpinists with an investigative spirit who believe that exploring unfamiliar mountain areas is more important than the technical difficulty of ascents. Every year, some expeditions are devoted to this sort of exploration, but all one can learn about them are a few details from the specialized alpinist magazines. In this field, the British and the Japanese definitely have done the best. From World War II on, brave individuals who seized the opportunity during explorations have made many ascents in the Himalaya in an enviably pure, almost completely alpine style.
When the competition for the first ascents of the highest peaks of the world began, it was strongly nationally colored and as a result appropriately supported financially. The expeditions had to be successful at any cost; any technical means were provided to achieve the goals.
In the 1970s, similar nationalism happened on the first great Himalayan faces. In 1975, I missed the first successful Slovenian expedition to the south face of Makalu. (Though it would be accurate to say “Yugoslav” until 1990, when the former Yugoslavia broke up, I use the term “Slovenian,” as all expedition members until 1990 were almost exclusively Slovenian; the only important exception was Stipe Bozic, a Croat.) The same year, the British climbed the southwest face of Everest; five years earlier, they had climbed the south face of Annapurna. All ascents were carried out in classic expedition style and almost all with the help of supplementary oxygen. These expeditions set an example for many that followed in the next few years.
Slovenians climbed the west ridge of Everest in 1979, and we were one good-weather day short of the summit on the south face of Lhotse in 1981. On this same face, Soviet alpinists succeeded in a similar style in 1990, but via a much more demanding route; the collective spirit imparted to them by the Soviet political system enabled them to deal with quite a number of difficult Himalayan faces. Nevertheless, all these ascents required an individual approach to the very top, so that the success of an expedition actually depended on the success of a single rope party.
I remember the ascent from Camp V (8150m) to the top of Everest in 1979, as well as the descent down the Hornbein Couloir to Camp IV, as one of my hardest Himalayan ascents. A completely unknown west ridge toward the top, great technical difficulties, heavy rucksacks (14 kilos alone for the two steel oxygen containers), bad weather, and complete uncertainty regarding the descent: all these were characteristics of the most difficult alpine ascent. Nejc Zaplotnik and I were alone from Camp V on; nobody could have helped us. The Messner brothers must have felt the same on Nanga Parbat in 1970, or Scott and Haston on Everest in 1975. It was only a matter of time before climbers from such a rope party would dare to risk an ascent of an 8000er in pure alpine style, climbing independently from the bottom to the top.
It is no wonder Reinhold Messner was the pioneer of this style, since he had numerous experiences with living on the edge. Innovation and a delicate feeling for the mountains, which he acquired through his extensive mountain activity, led him to the famous 1975 ascent of Hidden Peak with Peter Habeler via the Northwest Face, the first time an 8000er was climbed alpine style. He and Habeler had set an example of pure alpine style for summits 8000 meters and below, and in so doing established the cornerstone for alpine style in the Himalaya. Later, many alpinists tried to imitate them, but only a few ascents were executed so purely.
By pure, I also refer to purity in the psychological sense. To execute such a pure ascent on Hidden Peak is now practically impossible during the high season, because the presence of other expeditions on the mountain deprives the experience of the sense of loneliness and of uncertainty. Another mitigating factor is the amount of fixed rope present on some routes (for example, the Abruzzi Ridge route on K2), or abandoned camps, which can be found on frequently visited mountains.
When I matured as an alpinist in the Himalaya, I did not lean on Messner’s cornerstone. The conditions in Slovenia were specific to Slovenia. In the 1970s it was almost impossible to organize an expedition consisting of friends to an 8000er, and to get a chance to participate in the well-organized state expeditions required too much effort. I climbed my first 8000er (Hidden Peak) with Nejc Zaplotnik, who at the time had some experience from the south face of Makalu, in a semi-alpine style. From Camp III (7200m), we kept ascending in a world completely unknown to us. We pitched a tent at 7500 meters, and the next day proceeded toward the top. Later my energy was stymied by two big expeditions to Everest and Lhotse, but I also gained valuable experience at great altitude in a safe manner on these trips.
The idea of purer climbing came again after some time, while I was visiting the Pamir in 1983. Because of an international camp, the mountains around Peak Communism were more intensely besieged than any in the Himalaya. In a rope of three (with Iztok Tomazin and Sreco Rehberger), I managed to climb the Bezzubkin Pillar on the north face of Peak Communism in a “pure” alpine style—“pure” because we were truly alone only for two days on the steepest part of the face, and we had radio contact with the leaders in Base Camp, where the rescue team and helicopter were on alert. I also tried to acclimatize by ascending the neighboring peaks, first a 5000er, then a 6000er, and last a quick ascent of Korzhnevskaya Peak (7150m)—a “multipeak expedition,” as Doug Scott would call it.
In the 1980s, many excellent alpinists tried each in their own way to climb in the Himalaya in a pure style. The generation of alpinists that distinguished themselves by “big- wall climbing” on the faces of the lower (ca. 6000m) Himalayan peaks and who gained experience at altitude in a relatively safe way had done a number of good ascents of 8000ers. Unfortunately, moving the limits higher and higher took its death toll among the very best (Alex MacIntyre, Pierre Beghin, Miroslav Sveticic, Jerzy Kukuczka). The seriousness of alpine-style climbing on the highest summits was revealed. This generation climbed in the Himalaya incessantly until the end of the century and so brought alpine style to such extremes that the future will require a twist in psychology in order to enable even greater deeds and more difficult routes to be done.
On the other hand, the 1980s also brought a competition for the 8000ers. Messner was the first to clearly and loudly express this idea. It was not bad in the beginning, although later it became a great impediment to the development of alpinism. The collectors, especially those after Messner and Kukuczka, chose the normal routes (there are exceptions, such as Poland’s Kryztof Wielicki). With great media support, they created an atmosphere wherein sponsors were not at all interested in peaks lower than 8000 meters, regardless of how demanding the routes were. Clearly, any ascent of an 8000er is a great feat, but using a normal route has not been considered a supreme achievement for a long time. “Collecting” oriented alpinism more toward quantity, persistence, and the determination to take part in expeditions two to three times a year than toward quality.
Frequent visits to the Himalaya require a lot of perseverance, while at the same time they enable quicker acclimatization and better knowledge of one’s body at great heights. In between frequent visits to the Himalaya, one cannot prepare well enough for a difficult ascent, which nowadays requires specific physical preparation, more and more similar to the training of a sport climber.
A consistent characteristic of daring alpine-style ascents is an intense psychological pressure that exhausts the climber completely. After such an ascent, climbers are often not capable of performing an ascent of that difficulty again for several years, or perhaps ever.
The most beautiful example of such a daring ascent is that of Robert Schauer and Voytek Kurtyka on the west face of Gasherbrum IV in 1985. This jewel among alpine-style ascents was carried out ahead of its time. Great problems, bad protection, the high altitude of the mountain, a descent via an unfamiliar route—all this contributes to the climb’s outstanding value. Its only flaw is that the main peak was not reached. One of the important features of the ascent was the near impossibility of an escape after a certain point in the climbing, which must have been very stressful. If a team wants to survive on such an ascent, it simply has to climb all the way up and return down by a different route. This can be a very strong motivation, but it can also quickly turn into insurmountable troubles in the case of bad weather or health problems (as happened to Miroslav Sveticic, who disappeared while trying to solo a new route on the same face in 1995). In the ten years that the Piolet d’Or has been awarded, Schauer and Kurtyka probably could have won the award on many occasions had their climb been one of the nominees. To contemporary climbers, such a demanding ascent represents an obstacle rather than encouragement, as there is little chance of anybody exceeding it.
Another issue is that only a few prominent objectives are known to the public. In the 1990s, many ascents involved technically more demanding faces and lower peaks; nevertheless, they have in a way been safer. They have the advantages of better protection, a possibility of descent in the event of sudden difficulties, typically shorter routes or at least with difficulties concentrated in shorter parts, larger teams, and a modified alpine style (capsule-style, or the route partially fixed in the lower part).
The exceptional nature of GIV and similar ascents is also proved by the fact that such a level of achievement is hard to repeat even for the performers themselves. Schauer, for instance, has done no other significant ascents since, whereas Kurtyka has made no ascents as remarkable or important. Something similar happened to the Catalonian party of Nil Bohigas and Enric Lucas who managed a new route in alpine style on the south face of Annapurna in 1984. An interesting sidelight: both of these ascents did not draw media attention, but were noticed only by a narrow circle of alpinists.
In order to list the cases where alpinists exhausted themselves completely after an extraordinary ascent, I would probably need to know some of the greatest alpinists in person. One alpinist who did not exhaust himself is Doug Scott, whose series of ascents is truly fantastic. Even after a bad accident on the Ogre, he returned almost immediately to the Himalayan scene and has continued ever since to make great ascents in alpine and semi-alpine style with little equipment and no altitude porters.
In my own Himalayan career, I managed my first truly alpine-style ascent in 1989, when, with Pavle Kozjek, I climbed the south face of Shishapangma in three days. Prior to this, Kozjek, Stane Belak Šrauf, Filip Bence, and I had made the first ascent of Nyanang Ri in the same way. Well acclimatized, Pavle and I had no major problems on Shishapangma apart from very strong wind and deep cold on the first day. Base Camp was rather far, so we started from ABC beneath the face. ABC had been established because, as an expedition of several teams, we had planned some other ascents on this face. But we were alone on the face and we descended down an obscure ridge to the saddle below Pung Ri. Climbing this route, I acquired useful experience for later ascents.
Agility is crucial with alpine-style climbing. Sometimes it is better to sacrifice some safety in exchange for speed. Therefore, how difficult an ascent a rope party is capable of climbing in alpine style depends on the extent to which they are in command of the situation without belaying. I think that alpine-style climbing in this regard has not yet reached its extreme.
I consider our Shishapangma ascent a pure alpine-style ascent. Still, it was not an ascent that would stand out in its time, nor an ascent that would deprive me of energy for the next few years. It was simply a very successful ascent. Pavle and I were members of a larger expedition, which is important. Loneliness during such an ascent, like that experienced by Kurtyka and Kukuczka on the Gasherbrums in 1983, for instance, results in greater stress. Later, I experienced loneliness myself on Menlungtse in 1992. Together with Marko Prezelj and our doctor, we were isolated, four days’ walk from the nearest people, without radio contact, and in every aspect dependent on ourselves alone. There are many other climbs at the same level as ours of Shishapangma, including two more routes on the same face (Jones-MacIntyre-Scott, 1982, and Kurtyka-Loretan-Troillet, 1990). These were done in the same style, as was the 1990 Kurtyka-Loretan-Troillet ascent of the west face of Cho Oyu. These ascents resemble that of Hidden Peak in 1975, the only difference being that Messner and Habeler were the first and had to face additional psychological pressure.
Something completely different was my 1991 ascent with Marko Prezelj of the South Summit of Kangchenjunga*. The idea occurred during the Shishapangma expedition two years before. I lived for this idea for two years. I wished for the ascent and throughout the expedition was determined to make it. Such strong motivation is very important for success.
We began the ascent alone from BC. In the morning, the leader and the expedition doctor helped us carry some equipment to the base of the climb. In the first part we belayed only three pitches. I could compare the difficulties with those of the Supercouloir on Mont Blanc de Tacul. A storm during the night dropped 15 centimeters of snow. The third day we left the south ridge due to fierce wind and avoided a part of the ridge by climbing up the southwest face. The last part of the route, in proximity to the Russian Route, was very demanding. When ascending, the Russians used fixed ropes, the remains of which we found on the face. We climbed mostly unroped, except for a short passage where we symbolically belayed with a piece of their fixed rope.
Though we climbed in an area that had been climbed in before, we did not know it. Also, we did not expect such difficulties. Having surmounted them, we realized that the ascent route was too demanding to descend without a rope. We had to descend a different route. We lost our rucksack, sleeping bags, and the cooker, as we had left them below the summit on our way up. Descending, we found old Polish ropes, but the second part of the descent led us across unexplored ground to the plateau. Here a friend, who happened to be in a camp that night on Kangch’s normal route, helped us, giving us directions over the radio until the batteries finally died.
That we were members of a large Slovenian expedition, that from this point the route was marked, and that in an emergency help was available, were the only—and not unimportant— deviations from the pure alpine style as embodied by Kurtyka and Schauer on GIV. I believe that we would have managed the ascent without all this, but the psychological relief it provided cannot be denied. On the other hand, the ascent stands out as exceptional due to the high altitude of the peak.
How strong was my motivation for that climb becomes clear if I compare it with my second ascent of Everest, which I did with my wife, Marija, the year before, via the normal South Col-Southeast Ridge route. I wanted to climb without supplementary oxygen. In the morning of our summit bid, however, I worried about frostbite because of the strong wind, so I started using oxygen. The motivation was gone, and I reached the peak of Everest with much more difficulty than I would a year later on Kangch after five days of arduous climbing without the use of supplementary oxygen. At the end of that climb, I found myself wondering why the top was not another 100 meters higher, since I walked with such “ease”!
After the Kangchenjunga ascent, neither Marko nor I were capable of doing anything similar. We had an opportunity to go to the west face of K2 two years later, but we had no real zeal. Such an ascent as ours of Kangchenjunga simply exhausts you for a couple of years. Our first ascent of Menlungtse the following year cannot compare with it, although I remember the Menlungtse climb as one of the most beautiful Himalayan ascents executed in pure alpine style. Together with our 1999 ascent of the north face of Gyachung Kang, it belongs to the category of ascents where choosing the objective plays an important role. It is not easy to find a face that has not been climbed yet, a “hidden” or forgotten peak that offers a good alpine ascent.
Here I would like to bring up the phenomenon of Tomo Cesen. Whether people believe him or not, Cesen was very influential in the early 1990s. Before the discussion about the evidence concerning his ascents, the majority of climbers believed his words, and the series of his achievements powerfully influenced the development of alpinism. He had gained high altitude experience by participating in great expeditions. Technically, he grew up in Slovenia in the Julian Alps, and matured in the Dolomites and on the high faces of the Alps. All the time he knew exactly what he wanted, and directed all his forces toward the final goal. With his success on the north face of Kumbhakarna (Jannu) in 1989, he shocked the alpine world. He prepared well for the effort, physically and mentally, and was able to stake everything on his speed. Only his friends, especially those from the first period when he was not yet climbing alone, can attest to the strength of his character. He had imitators in Slovenia and must have had them abroad, too.
Slavko Sveticic followed Cesen most closely. Sveticic’s 1990 ascent of the west face of Annapurna is one that is hardly remembered. In three days, he climbed the majestic face alone in pure alpine style; his route was partly original. The weather prevented him from going to the top after he had already climbed the major problems. He descended along the unfamiliar north face. The primary difference between Sveticic and Cesen was that Cesen knew when to cease the dangerous game of solo ascents and Sveticic did not. Cesen was aware that Lhotse had exhausted him and that he would not be able to do another ascent of its kind. So he stopped, because he has never been satisfied with little things in life.
What happened after the notorious Lhotse affair is not important here. It does, though, highlight the question of trust: When do we still credit someone’s words? Big sponsor money and ascents of extreme difficulty require reliable evidence. In the future, climbers whose achievements reach ahead of their time will have to be careful about such evidence.
Alpine-style ascents do have some limitations. With 8000ers, especially the highest ones, the greatest disadvantage is the limited possibility of staying for a long time at high altitude without supplementary oxygen. Another disadvantage is the difficulty of climbing, particularly on rock, because in severe cold it is barely possible to climb long rock sections without gloves. You cannot get far climbing in gloves. Some very demanding faces were for this reason climbed in a brilliant semi-alpine style (for example, the 1997 Russian ascent of the west face of Makalu) with partial fixing of the lower part of the route, little gear, and no altitude porters. These ascents may be a step closer to pure, even more demanding alpine ascents. The future generations will push the limits of difficulty even higher. Usually the limits are first expanded on the lower peaks, and then transferred to the higher mountains. Improvements in training and changes in climbers’ minds are the necessary companions of development.
In the end, I would like to mention the last great alpine-style ascent. Tomaž Humar climbed the south face of Dhaulagiri in 1999 alone. Undoubtedly, this was an exceptional act of an exceptional alpinist. The occasion seems to give rise to two questions. To what degree is an ascent worth the risk? Let me rephrase: To what extent does risk in the form of exposure to greater and greater objective danger seemingly increase the difficulty of ascent—and in this way also increase its market value? The second question regards the objectivity of the reporting of an ascent when it is under pressure from the media and sponsors. Tomaž proclaimed his climb to be the first ascent of the face, although the first ascent was performed almost 18 years before by his Himalayan mentor, Stane Belak Šrauf. Both routes end at the same spot, and at this spot, right below the top, the same decision was made due to the necessity of circumstances. Both Humar and the Slovenian team relinquished the summit in exchange for their lives.
The 1981 ascent is another example of a climb known only to the narrow circle of experts. Viewing them in time, the ascent of Belak and his friends on one hand, and the ascent of Tomaž on the other, carry approximately the same weight on the scales of history.
Each ascent in the Himalaya influences ascents that follow. Each ascent is something that the ascensionists themselves and then other climbers learn from. The best ascents are a cause for radical changes, above all in mentality, which is from my point of view the basis for progress in alpinism. The influence of an individual ascent depends largely on media attention or support. Most outstanding ascents have been done by alpinists who gradually discovered their true selves in the Himalaya and performed their ascents based mostly on their experience. There is no recipe to follow. One can only imitate the basic principle, the frame. But each climber alone adds the important details, usually on the spot when they make crucial decisions. The higher the decisions are made, the more affected they are by the lack of oxygen, the more they can turn out to be fatal. Therefore, those who can adjust to high altitude well have an advantage. This cannot be learned or imparted; this is something with which you are born.
Andrej Štremfelj, Observations From The Top of the World. AAJ: http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12200115400/The-Himalaya-Observations-from-the-Roof-of-the-World
They wouldn’t tell me Joe was dead—not at first. “Disappeared” is what they said. Lost without a trace on a knife edge of ice and snow at 27,000 feet. Last seen on the evening of May 17, 1982. I was 30 then. Joe Tasker, my boyfriend of two and a half years, was on a British expedition attempting Everest’s then-unclimbed Northeast Ridge. Thirty-four years old, he was one of Britain’s climbing stars, with a number of new Himalayan routes to his credit, including the north ridge of 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga, on the border of India and Nepal, and the west face of India’s 22,520-foot Changabang. With him on the ridge that day was his frequent partner, 31-year-old Pete Boardman, who, in 1975, had become the youngest man, and one of the first Brits, to summit Everest.
Joe and Pete set off from advance base camp, at 21,000 feet, on the morning of May 15. Monitored via telescope by expedition leader Chris Bonington and base camp manager Adrian Gordon, they climbed higher for two days, without supplemental oxygen. As the light faded on May 17, they moved out of sight, behind a pinnacle on the ridge. They never reappeared.
The news blew my life to pieces. For months I staggered from day to day, unable to fully accept the fact of Joe’s death, unwilling to believe he wasn’t coming home. That September, Pete Boardman’s widow, Hilary, and I set off on our own journey to Everest. We stayed in the same hotels they had; we crossed the high, dusty plains of Tibet in the back of a truck, as they had. We trekked for ten days across the passes of the Kharta and Karma valleys, on the eastern side of Everest, and up the rough 12-mile trail to the site of their advance base camp. We sat in flattened-out areas where their tents had stood, and we collected relics: an empty whiskey bottle, film cartridges, the tattered remains of a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which I had given Joe to read on the trip. On our way back down, through the Rongbuk Valley, we left mementos among the stones of Joe and Pete’s memorial cairn. We planted a garden around it, scrabbling in the dirt with our fingers, transplanting patches of moss, burying poppy seeds, trying to beautify the closest thing we had to a grave.
No one can teach you how to mourn. As with climbing a mountain, you can try to prepare, but it’s impossible to know what will happen once you are on its steep slopes. Before my trip to Everest, I’d gone from my home in Manchester, England, to the Lake District to visit the Boningtons—Chris and his wife, Wendy. Chris and I walked with his dogs, and he listened with kind patience as I talked endlessly, repetitively, about Joe. Standing on the top of a hill, watching cloud shadows slide over the rolling green fells beneath us, Chris suddenly said to me, “I know you can’t imagine it now, but one day you will fall in love again—and be happy.”
I remember feeling angry with him, as if he underestimated my pain. Eventually, however, he was proved right. In 1986, on a teaching exchange to British Columbia, I met Dag Goering, a Canadian veterinarian who, like Joe, loved adventure but, unlike Joe, was prepared to compromise so I could come along. We got married and began to explore the world by kayak.
A decade later, we were in Austria, paddling down the Danube. One windy afternoon, as the sky filled with roiling storm clouds, we pulled ashore in Vienna. While Dag studied a menu at the marble-topped table of a coffeehouse, I went outside to a phone booth to call my mother, in England. She answered not with her usual delight and relief but in a voice choked with tears. “They found a body on Everest,” she blurted out. Time slowed, images sharpened. I leaned against the glass door of the telephone booth, staring at fat, perfect raindrops bouncing off the shining flagstones of the square. “It was on the news,” my mother continued haltingly. “They say it has to be either Joe or Pete.”
I called my friend Ruth Seifert, a psychiatrist who has been married to London neurologist and expedition doctor Charlie Clarke for 32 years. She told me that a Kazakh climber had come across the body on the Northeast Ridge. He had taken photographs and, when he returned from the Himalayas, would send them to Chris Bonington. It would be several weeks before they arrived.
A photograph, I told Dag. If it were of Joe, how would he look after lying for a decade near the summit of Everest? Surely he would be perfectly preserved, forever youthful as I’d grown older? Gently, Dag warned me about the ravages of UV radiation, dry winds, extreme cold; the remains might not be pretty, he said—might not even be recognizable.
A month after I stood in that phone booth in Vienna, Chris received the pictures. From the clothing, Hilary and her mother-in-law identified the remains as Pete’s. For Hilary, it was an affirmation of her belief that Pete hadn’t fallen. If he’d died violently, she had always claimed, she would have sensed it. I was relieved, too. During the weeks of waiting, I’d begun to dread what the discovery of Joe’s body might unearth in me. But I felt compelled to see what death on the mountain looked like.
The next time I saw Hilary, she handed me a large brown envelope containing a copy of the black-and-white photograph, then quietly withdrew. I thought I was prepared. But when I saw the picture, I cried out loud: desiccated skin drawn tight over bones, hair bleached white, the head uncovered, the hand gloveless in the snow. As shocking as the ravaged body, however, was the supreme bleakness of the place where it lay. That image of Pete Boardman’s shell, leaning against a bank of snow on the Northeast Ridge, is fixed in my memory as one of profound loneliness and desolation. When I cried over it, I cried for Joe, too, for the fact that he had perished so far from warmth, and from life.
“This is a desperate place,” he’d written to me from base camp a few weeks before he died, describing the high winds, the cold, and the unforgiving landscape. And now I saw, truly, what he meant.
“If climbing were totally safe, it wouldn’t have the same draw,” says Royal Robbins, 68, one of the pioneers of big-wall climbing in America. “You know it’s dangerous in the first place, and the ironic thing is that when there’s a mountain on which people died, getting up that mountain alive has a greater value.”
It’s true: For many, risk is a necessary part of the game. Over the past decade, however, more climbers have begun to talk openly about the darker side of high-altitude mountaineering. “The defining thing about climbing is that it kills you,” says British mountaineer and author Joe Simpson, whose 1988 classic, Touching the Void, recounts his own close call with death in the Peruvian Andes. “Not many people publicly question the fatality rate, because it opens up a very nasty Pandora’s box. Your rather fragile rationale for why you are climbing might not stand up to a close examination, and so you’d rather not talk about it. People feel uncomfortable and think, No, no, it’s not like that. But you only have to look at the facts.”
According to figures collected by Kathmandu-based historian Elizabeth Hawley, the 79-year-old chronicler of decades of Himalayan expeditions, the death rate on climbing expeditions to Nepal between 1950 and 2001 was 1.9 percent. But, she points out, that includes all Nepalese mountains. Zero in on people doing new routes in the high Himalayas and the statistics change dramatically.
A 1988 survey by Charlie Clarke and Oxford pediatrician and High Altitude Medicine Handbook author Andrew Pollard examining 83 British expeditions to peaks over 7,000 meters between 1968 and 1987 found that 23 of 535 climbers were killed. Excluding the deaths of Sherpas and porters, for which it was difficult to find accurate information, this added up to a fatality rate of 4.3 percent—at least one death for every fifth expedition. “If that were Formula One and more than one out of every 25 drivers were killed over this time span, it would be crazy,” says Clarke, now 59. “The level of risk would never be accepted.”
Joe used to say he was as likely to get killed in a car crash as on a mountain, and many climbers still echo that sentiment. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 42,000 people in the United States are killed every year in motor vehicle accidents. Out of a population of 281 million, that’s approximately one death in 6,700. When I ask Steph Davis, a 30-year-old climber from Moab, Utah, who has tackled some of the biggest walls in the world, how many of her friends have died in climbing accidents, she counts eight. American alpinist Mark Twight, 41, says that 43 people he’s known have died climbing. Over the past 15 years, Joe Simpson has lost, on average, a friend a year to the sport. How many people have lost that many friends to car wrecks?
According to Ruth Seifert, risk is, for many people, a totally abstract concept. “Mountaineers know terrible things happen to other people, but they think those people have been unlucky or made some mistakes. They say, ‘Oh, I’m a careful person. I’ve survived lots of other expeditions. I’m going to be all right.'”
But what if something does happen? What if they don’t survive? This is a question that has long been taboo in mountaineering. Most climbers are happy to discuss the reasons they climb—the thrill, the joy, the sense of purpose—but ask about the people waiting at home and their tone changes. The ebullient Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar, a 34-year-old father of two, suddenly grows silent. “This is the hard question,” he says.
Andy Kirkpatrick, a 32-year-old British alpinist who also has two young kids, becomes defensive: “If I were an armed first-response cop, would it be any different?”
Only Royal Robbins is unflinching in his reply. “We have to remember that if we’re talking about true risk,” he says, “occasionally there has to be a price paid.”
“By whom?” I ask. “The people left behind?”
“Yes,” he says. “That’s part of the largeness of the price.”
Until the 1980s, most elite climbers were men. Since then, an increasing number of women have taken up the sport, but the arena of high-stakes mountaineering—the most difficult routes on the world’s highest peaks—remains dominated by men. These days, their partners are often involved in the sport themselves and are aware of the dangers. It wasn’t always so.
When I first entered the climbing tribe, few of the other wives and girlfriends of mountaineers I met were climbers. I sensed a wall of silence surrounding them, as far as “the life,” and the possibility of death, was concerned. They didn’t complain about it or question it. The implicit understanding: Take it or leave it.
I’d met Joe in the fall of 1979, in the kitchen of a friend’s house in Wales. I’d walked in while he was recounting how he and his friend Dick Renshaw had put up a new route on the 23,184-foot Indian peak Dunagiri and then, without food or fuel to melt water, endured an epic five-day descent. Joe was slim and wiry, with blue eyes and rather pinched features. He wore jeans and a fisherman’s sweater. A web of fine lines ran across his forehead, and his hair was thinning. Had I passed him on the street, I doubt I would have given him a second look.
I already knew a little about the climbing world. My oldest brother, Mick, was a climber at the time, and I shared a house with a young mountaineer, Alex MacIntyre. I had watched their girlfriends suffer the stress of separation when they left on expeditions, and it wasn’t the life I wanted. Nevertheless, I was drawn to Joe’s mix of danger and charisma, and the glamour of his life was a welcome distraction from my job as a high school teacher. I found myself in the company of some of the world’s elite climbers, people who were always on the move, making plans, zipping off to remote mountains to do audacious routes, and returning with wild stories. Nothing was static; nothing was certain.
As a newcomer, I looked up to veterans like Wendy Bonington, a woman with long and hard experience. In 1966, while Chris was on a volcano in Ecuador, their two-year-old son, Conrad, drowned in a stream. It was more than a week before Chris got the news, another week before he could get home. Even then, Wendy never asked him to stop climbing. The couple had two more sons, and year after year, while Chris went off to K2, Annapurna, and Everest, becoming one of England’s most famous mountaineers, Wendy stayed home. “Love to me is the whole plant,” she says. “Once we put conditions on something, that is cutting off one branch of growth. There are very often things about another person that you cannot understand, but to me that does not change whether you love them or not.”
Not all of the wives were so supportive. “I don’t see why mountaineers need to be protected,” says Ruth Seifert. “What—they’re going to have absolutely everything? Plus the dear, faithful wife who’s never to say anything horrid about them? Well, that’s too much to ask, frankly.” For 20 years, whenever Charlie left on expeditions, Ruth became a single mother to their two daughters while practicing psychiatry full-time. “I’ve preferred to have a life where I’ve not been the little wifey, where I’ve had to be the man and the woman,” she says. “I know what I did at home was much harder than what he did in the mountains. It took me to my extreme. I thought, Good, I know who the strong one is.”
Of course, Ruth also emphasizes that she and Charlie “really like and love each other and always have. Mountaineers aren’t disappointed people. They don’t feel they are wasting their lives. They’ve gone out there and done something.” Charlie came into his element in the mountains, Ruth realized. He was a different person, more lively, more confident. Like most mountaineers, he felt alive in high, wild places. It was a feeling that home life couldn’t provide. “Chris left Wendy with babies. Charlie left me with babies and a full-time job,” she says. “They thought, What’s the big deal? I’m a brave mountaineer. I’m doing something incredibly dangerous here, and all you have to do is look after the house and family. Let’s get this into proportion.”
And when he did come home, Ruth says, “Charlie was a nuisance. He just wrecked the whole well-oiled machine. They come back and expect that the whole universe of their home is going to revolve around them—God, I hated him when he came back. He was so full of himself. And then, after every expedition, he became depressed. And so I wasn’t adequate—none of the wives could ever supply the real love and the enormous romance that they have with the mountains.”
For many climbers, the hard part starts when they get home. According to Joe Simpson, the fears they face in the mountains are primal ones, of falling, or suffocating in an avalanche. Against these he sets “uncontrolled fears,” about money, children, career, success, love—the daily concerns that can never be fully resolved and that never go away.
When I mentioned these theories to Chris Bonington, he smiled knowingly. “The big questions are simple questions, aren’t they?” he said. “It’s the little questions that are hard. Sorting out your income tax, trying to make the fridge work, getting the car fixed, dealing with your children being expelled from school or wanting to borrow money from you so they can do something you don’t really approve of—those sorts of things are much more difficult questions than trying to climb a mountain or facing life and death. Life and death are simple.”
So why stay married to a mountaineer? Ask Ruth this and she’ll laugh. She was too busy to leave him. Others like the time apart, including Erin Simonson, 45, whose husband, Eric, 48, co-owns International Mountain Guides, in Ashford, Washington, and led the 1999 Everest expedition that discovered George Mallory’s body. “Eric going on these long expeditions is a positive thing for our relationship,” says Erin, who helps manage IMG. “It’s this process of constant renewal. Just about the time we’re getting on each other’s nerves, he goes out the door for a couple of months and it gives me time to reflect on the things I really like about him.”
“Life is just easier if you put him on the back burner and do your own thing 100 percent until he gets home,” Lauren Synnott, 32, told me when we spoke in early 2002. She has been married to 33-year-old North Face-sponsored alpinist Mark Synnott for five years. For several months each year, while Mark is off climbing, Lauren is at home in Jackson, New Hampshire, with their two sons—Will, age four, and Matt, one. The possibility of becoming a widow crystallized for her in 1999 when Alex Lowe was killed on Shishapangma, a month after he and Mark were in Pakistan together climbing Great Trango Tower. “It really brought it home to me,” she told me. “I just have to block the worry out. It does affect our marriage, because I put up an emotional wall when he leaves, and when he comes back it’s hard to instantly tear it down. It never comes all the way down. The wall helps me prepare myself for if I ever did have to deal without him.”
Four years into their relationship, Lauren left Mark and got engaged to her high school sweetheart. A regular guy with a regular job, he came home to her every night and weekend. Lauren is a self-confessed homebody with no desire to travel; it should have been a perfect match. “The life was so boring,” she told me. “I kept comparing him to Mark.” She eventually dumped her fiance, returned to Mark, and married him. “Everyone loves an adventurous spirit,” she said, “especially if you’re not that way yourself. I live vicariously through him.”
A year before Joe died, he and several expedition mates gave a lecture, in London’s prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall, on their first ascent of 25,325-foot Mount Kongur, in China. Standing at the back of the auditorium, I watched Joe cast his spell. As he spoke, pictures were projected on a huge screen behind him. Precipitous snow slopes. Knife-edge ridges. Summits soaring into the sky. Joe stood before us, brimming with hubris, spinning stories of daring and death. By then I knew his faults, the weaknesses behind the image. But like everyone else in the audience, I was enthralled. I envied him the certainty of his calling. He was the hero I could never be, the hero I thought I needed—without any real inkling of what that would cost.
Nothing can prepare you, of course, for the phone call or the person at the door telling you there’s been a storm, an avalanche, a falling rock, and that your husband, wife, father, or daughter isn’t coming home. You can’t allow your mind to expect that sort of anguish.
When Erin and Eric Simonson met, on a climb up Kilimanjaro in 1997, she asked him if he would climb Everest again if he had a family. If children were involved, he told her, he would think twice. “What his answer told me,” says Erin, “was that he felt he wouldn’t have the same sense of responsibility to a wife that he would have to children.” In 2000, the couple had a daughter, Audrey; Eric went to Everest the next spring. “I used to feel like I came home from trips with my little bag of experience fuller than when I had left,” he told me that fall. “That whatever I brought back with me overcompensated for something I might have missed. But you can’t rewind the tape on a kid—you’re either there or you’re not.” Eric continues to climb, but he has made a conscious effort to reduce the time he spends at high altitude. Still, says Erin, “he’s willing to take that risk, even as a father.”
In 1995, 33-year-old British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to climb Everest alone without oxygen, and the mother of two small children, wrote from K2 base camp, “It eats away at me—wanting the children and wanting K2. I feel like I’m being pulled in two.”
Like many climbers, she didn’t stop. As she neared the summit of K2, on August 13, it was late in the day and threatening clouds were forming to the north, but she kept on. At 6:30 p.m., she stood on top of the world’s second-highest mountain. The sky was clear, the air still. But thousands of feet below her, the clouds were generating storm-force winds. On her descent, Hargreaves, along with two of her climbing partners and three Spanish alpinists, was plucked off the mountain by the wind and slammed down so brutally that her jacket, her harness, and one of her boots were ripped off. After the storm, another climber found these items, along with a trail of blood leading down the mountain to where her body lay, unreachable. How do families—children especially—make sense of something like that?
It doesn’t matter to 45-year-old Andréa Cilento that her father, American mountaineer John Harlin II, never finished his dream climb, a direct route on the north face of the Eiger. Or that the route he took now bears his name: the John Harlin Direct. What matters to her is that he’s been gone since she was eight.
The Harlins moved to Leysin, Switzerland, in 1963, when Andréa was five and her brother, John, was seven. Harlin and his wife, Marilyn, had jobs at two American schools there, and in the Alps he could pursue his passion for mountaineering. By the time Andréa was eight, he had given up his regular job to establish the International School of Mountaineering and to focus on his plans for the Eiger.
Harlin made his attempt in the winter of 1966. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Eiger expedition was big news. On March 22, a British reporter, Peter Gillman, was on a hotel balcony at the bottom of the mountain, scanning the north face through a telescope. He was searching for Harlin and his climbing partner, Dougal Haston. Suddenly he saw a figure in red, falling. A human figure. “It was stretched out,” he wrote in his book Eiger Direct, “and was turning over slowly, gently, with awful finality.”
A fixed rope Harlin was jumaring up had broken, and he fell 4,000 feet down the face. Haston later admitted to Marilyn Harlin that he’d noticed the rope was frayed but thought it would hold. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the body.
Andréa built up a fantasy around her father’s absence. He hadn’t died; he’d faked his death. It was perfectly plausible. He’d run away to start a new life. Eventually he would come back. He would let Andréa know where he was. It would be their secret, and she could go and visit him. Back in America, she held on to that fantasy until she was a junior in high school. When she started dating, she went for “skinny city boys.” Eventually she married a nonclimber. Now they have a family, and in their house in Olympia, Washington, among the framed photographs of their children, are shots of her father and of his near double, her brother, John. He, too, is a climber. And the father of a seven-year-old girl. Andréa shakes her head at the thought.
“When climbers die,” she says, “I hear lots of people saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s OK—they died doing what they love best.’ I don’t think that at all. You should make sacrifices when you have children, because they need you. People say, ‘If climbers didn’t do what they love to do, they would die inside.’ Well, excuse me, but there are other people involved in life, and you’re not an island, especially when you have a family. I can only go by how I felt growing up in that situation. I felt abandoned. I felt like I was less important to my father than that mountain. I still feel that way.”
Was she less important? Certainly Harlin loved his children, but he resented the demands of fatherhood. In a 1960 letter to his wife, when Andréa was two and John was four, he wrote, “With [the kids] I have a trapped feeling, and I lose interest in myself, you, even life….Away, I become a romantic…just a different person. This person is more me, and it’s the way I want to be.”
“He had us too early,” says John Harlin III, now 47 years old. “I wasn’t planned. My father was 19 when he conceived me. He had great, driving ambitions. I was twice my father’s age when I had a child. But I was still frustrated by not having climbed what I felt I should have by then.”
When John was six, his father took him on his first multipitch climb, in the Calanques, on the southern coast of France. Harlin’s competitiveness was legendary, and as hard as he was on himself, he made impossible demands on his son. When he died, John was ten. “Everyone else was crying,” he says. “But I thought, How could he do that? How could he fall off? I wanted to know the details right away. I wanted to hear that he hadn’t made a mistake.”
Conclusive proof of death is a basic human need. On May 25, 1996, 37-year-old Bruce Herrod, a British photographer on the first South African Everest expedition, reached the summit of Everest and was patched through via Base Camp to his girlfriend, Sue Thompson, in London. He was never heard from again, and his fate remained a mystery for a year. Then, in 1997, Sue received an e-mail from an expedition on Everest telling her that a team led by Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev—who himself would die on Annapurna that December, leaving behind his own grieving partner, American Linda Wylie—had found a body attached to the fixed ropes at the bottom of the Hillary Step. There was little doubt that it was Herrod; he’d been the last person to summit the mountain in 1996, and Boukreev’s team was the first to go so high since then.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, so you can come home now,’ ” says Sue. “Until you think, No, he’s still just as dead as ever.”
She contacted several expeditions at Everest Base Camp, asking them to look for personal effects on Herrod’s body. Most important was his camera—she knew that he would have been recording his journey for as long as he was able. “You’re aware it’s the most horrible request to make: ‘Can you look through his pack, and if his camera’s there, can you bring it back?’ But that became my obsession,” she says.
An expedition led by American filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears agreed to the task. When they reached Bruce’s body, it was still clipped into the fixed ropes. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears wrote in his memoir, High Exposure, “lashed to his white whale.” Another American climber on the team, Pete Athans, secured Herrod’s pack to the fixed lines, then cut the body free and watched it fall out of sight.
The roll of film inside the camera was marked, in Herrod’s writing, “Eve of 24/5/96 South Col.” There were only two exposed frames. They were identical: There was the memento-strewn marker on the summit of Everest, and Herrod, leaning over it, smiling jubilantly at the camera, the earth curving behind him.
The image brought Sue some comfort, but the questions of how Bruce had died and whether he had suffered still haunted her. In the spring of 1999, she went to Everest and met Athans, who had just come down through the Khumbu Icefall. “To meet the guy who carried out the burial,” she recalls, “who sent Bruce spinning thousands of feet into space, is the ultimate proof that his body has gone and he no longer exists. I knew that when I shook his hand, the hand that had cut the rope, this would be confronting the final truth as far as I was ever going to see it.”
Sue suspects Athans was being kind when he assured her that, despite having hung near the summit for a year, Herrod was recognizable. He told her that he thought Herrod had suffered a very bad head wound, and that it was likely that he’d got his leg caught in old ropes and flipped back, knocking himself out. Athans also assured her that, unlike the remains of George Mallory, which had been discovered that spring, Herrod’s body would not greet future climbers—the fall from the Hillary Step was long and hard. “I got this image of a body in pieces, and it’s almost like that was the dissolution I needed,” Sue says. “I realized it’s easier to deal with when you don’t think of the body as a dead entity anymore. It’s somehow dissipated.”
Imagining a body broken into a thousand pieces, watching a coffin being lowered into the earth, planting flowers around a cairn: These are ways of finding acceptance that someone is truly gone. But the questions that surround death in the mountains always linger. Herrod chose to go to the summit of Everest alone, late in the day, when his climbing partners were on their way down. Joe and Pete were fully aware that their strength was sapped by weeks on Everest, and that, should anything go wrong, their tiny team was too depleted to mount a rescue attempt. Nonetheless, the two men set out from advance base camp that May morning. What happened remains a mystery. What is certain, however, is that they didn’t say to each other—in good enough time—”This is crazy. We’re way beyond our limits. Let’s turn back. Let’s return to the people who love us.”
I used to claim I felt no anger over Joe’s death. Other climbing widows admitted to bouts of rage—one kicked a bouquet of condolence flowers around the house, another slapped the person who came to break the news of her husband’s death on K2. I used to say, “At least he died doing what he loved best”—as if that somehow made it all right, both for him and for me.
Ruth always insisted that, at some level, though I certainly knew what I was getting into when I chose Joe, I had to be angry. “Joe and Pete—all the climbers—pursued a passion that was above their responsibility for their family, and which took precedence,” she said. “It’s like a mistress, really. The anger has to come out somewhere.”
A few weeks after Joe died, a trunk of his belongings arrived from Everest. Inside it I found love letters from another woman. It felt like the ultimate betrayal—and I realized that, if the mountain hadn’t claimed him, I might have lost him anyway. That was unbearable. I burned those letters, and buried the memory of them for two years. When I finally spoke of them to a friend, I experienced a huge upwelling of anger—for what Joe had put me through, for what he’d expected of me, for what he’d left me with. And then I felt tremendous relief; at last I could move on.
But even when you think you have reached acceptance, when you are sure it’s all sorted out, your subconscious tells you otherwise. All these years later, occasionally I’m disturbed by dreams that Joe has come back from Everest, sorry for all the upset he caused and wanting to be together. Grief, for me, has not been in stages or in tasks completed. Rather, it has been like a spiral: At first the spiral was so tight I could see nothing beyond it. Now it is made up of huge arcs, only faintly perceived on the horizon. Some of the old pain will always be there, but mostly I think of Joe fondly, and with gratitude.
Ask mountaineers why they climb and invariably they say that it allows them to live in the moment. Ask those bereaved by climbing accidents if anything positive has emerged from the tragedy and, in one way or another, they usually echo the climber’s sentiment. If they love someone, they tell them. If they have a gift to give, they give it. They take nothing for granted.
I understand that sentiment. Joe’s death stripped away my desire to live for the future. My life became the past and the present. I lived from moment to painful moment, a vivid and extreme existence where nothing mattered and anything was possible. That intensity, I now realize, was Joe’s legacy. It compelled me to follow his example, taking from life what I wanted and needed, knowing that the end can come suddenly, without warning.
Joe’s death jolted me alive.
Maria Coffey, from the book ” Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow”