“As a general rule, the mountaineer uses the term “alpinism” with moderation, almost with parsimony; or do not use it or consider what name to put what he does. And who is not, or who has no idea what he says, introduces it at all times in conversations, interviews or texts. With what in the end the only thing we achieve is the existence of a generalized confusion of what is and what is no longer alpinism.” Write Jordi Corominas in his Diccionario Alpinismo. So here are some articles, topos, conversations, essays, quotes or discusions about Mountains:
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, 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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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?
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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 )
C: Chiński Maharadża
(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
E: Esporret / Esporreta – Espaït / Espaïda. (Catalan)
(Catalan, adjective) [aspo’ret] Que va a peu, sense càrrega i sense companys molests. /The one who walks, without charge and without annoying companions.
(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)
M: Metanoia, μετάνοια
(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)