To reach a summit is not to climb-it

May 21, 2019

Didier Delsalle has been on top of Everest. On May 14, 2005, he land with his helicopter on the 8,848 m (29,030 ft) summit of Mount Everest. He can say that he did reach the summit of Everest and he wouldn’t be lying, even if most part of us would disagree. But where is the line we can draw between being in the summit and climbing it?

How many steeps we need to do to considerate that it has been effort enough to claim an ascent?

One of the most popular routes up to Mont Blanc is the traverse known les trois monts. It is one of the easiest routes up to the highest summit of the Alps as the “start” is situated at Aiguille de Midi, already at 3800m of altitude, 2800m above the foot of the mountain. Can we really consider that we have climbed Mont Blanc if we took up the cable car to Aiguille de Midi? Isn’t that avoiding the biggest difficulties of the route? To climb les trois monts from Chamonix it is different options: the easiest is to go up Mer de Glace and Vallée Blanche, but is a long path on a open glacier. The other is to climb some of the routes in Midi north face, as Mallory couloir of Frendo spur. The route becomes immediately more interesting but also more technical, and so the chances of “summiting” decreases. Where it is that starting point where we can feel comfortable to call we have climbed the mountain? To be 100% sure that point would be from our home, but that would make a huge disadvantage for the non locals, and probably thousands of miles running or walking alongside uninteresting highways. The other logical start point would be the sea, to do all the length of the mountain. But that would mean that people living closer to the mountain would need to go far and back to start, not mentioning the same uninteresting parts it may also be in that route. I normally consider that a fair point is the closer inhabited place, that is normally situated at the feet of the mountain or by the entry of the valley. By inhabited meaning where “the fire is burning all year around”.

But shortcuts aren’t only topographical. In my opinion, to climb a summit is when we are able to do all the steeps from the bottom to the top by ourselves, with our physical, technical and mental capacities. That doesn’t necessarily means to climb solo but also climbing with a partner for proposes of belaying and safety.

Coming from competition, where is all about rules and equitably, in climbing mountains is not a red line between what you can and can’t do. You can take drugs or take a lift to go faster to the finish. And that’s ok up there. Mountains are (still) a space of freedom, where anarchy reigns for its good. I believe pirates can cohabit with yuppies. It is as many motivations to climb a mountain as persons climbing, and it is many styles as alpinists are. And that is good, no everyone what to accept the same risks or handle failure the same way. It is just to call what we do with its name.

If we climb mountains to experience something more than a mere postcard tour, the reaching should never compromise the style. We should elevate ourselves, preparing physical, technical and mentally, to the dificulties of the mountain and not downgrade the mountain to our capacities.

Closer we do the activity as we are as the animal we are, bigger is the commitment we take. More we add artificial means to try on the success of achieving this activity, minor it is. So, if we say that the maximum commitment, let’s call-it Animal Style, will be to go climbing a mountain completely naked and alone, from there on, all ways we climb or run a mountain will be a compromise. But because we’re not a very well adapted animal to mountain environments, if we go completely naked we aren’t able to do that much. Then is where we want to place the line of artificiality on our climb. Where does it swipes from being the human who climbs the mountain to be the technology that drags the person up the mountain?

Alpinists has discussed about that since the early days, what’s called style is nothing more than the degree of compromise that the climber takes. And humans we like to put tags to things, to understand and comunicate with others what they are doing. Alpinists in general valorize the higher compromise; the possibility of failing is equivalent to the “pureness” of the style. Alpine style is closer to the animal than a comercial expedition. Free solo is closer than aid climbing.

In climbing, discusions about the ethical grade of the style were written since 1911 when Paul Preuss put on words his ideas on The Piton Dispute. Grosso modo saying that the purest stile was to free solo climb up and downclimb. The discussion goes also to the use of pitons to surpass difficulties that a climber can’t reach with only his stenght and technique, a discussion that has been on the table until our days.

In the 70’s Kurt Albert, a german climber started to paint a red dot at the foot of the routes he climbed only with his hands and feets. The term Redpoint is used since then to call free climbing. To flash a route is to climb-it to the top in the first try, with infos of the crux or after seing someone climb. Onsight is when a climber does reach the top on the first try and without any information about the route. 

The word Alpine Style began to be used with Messner’s and Habeler’s ascent of Hidden Peak in 1975. Therefore, some ascents had ben done before in high mountains, Mummery attempted Nanga Parbat’s Diamir Face in 1895! Shipton & Tillman summited Nanda Devi with only three Sherpas in the 1930s. In general, Alpine Style means no O2, fixed ropes or porters beyond Base Camp. But some ratchet up the purity requirements further.

An example is the 1982 ascent of Shishapangma’s Southwest Face by Alex MacIntyre, Roger Baxter-Jones and Doug Scott. They went up in one push, with no previous exploration or partial climbs, and with all gear, food and bivouac equipment on their backs. They reached the summit in three days and made it back to Base Camp a day later. As MacIntyre himself put it, “The face was the ambition; the style became the obsession.”

Mick Fowler declared that it is “all about mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, carrying all one’s food, shelter and equipment and leaving no trace of one’s passing.” meaning small team of no more than two or three, no bolts or gear left on the wall, no temporary fixing on the route (on the hardest pitches, for instance), no previous trips up the wall to set camps or carry and cache supplies. Everything you need, you carry on your back. no acclimatization on the route itself. If you want to acclimatize, do so elsewhere, so that your first taste of the chosen route is the definitive one and descend by your own means, not using fixed ropes, tracks, camps, etc. from any other source.

But here the human still need to carry the house to sleep, the kitchen to cook, so some started to do Night-naked style, completing a climb in one non-stop push, where cooking and sleeping gear are no longer needed, since you’re also climbing during the night. In the 90’s Wojciech Kurtyka, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet started to use this style in the Himalayas, opening new routes on the Southwest Face of Cho Oyu and on the South Face of Shishapangma or climbing Hornbein couloir in Everest. Mark Twight, Steve House and Scott Backes took the same style in Denali’s south Face. “when I heard that the route had already been repeated, I was saddened until we realized that we did not care if we were doing the second, third or eighth climb. Only the style we had chosen mattered. In fact, a modern comparison would make our message much clearer: We wanted to climbe-it in a single push, without sleeping.” said Twight.

In a useless exercise that I found interesting when I’m taking the decision of climbing a mountain I listed the items that would make me think about which compromise I want to take to worthy call the potential ascent climbed.

  1. Use of doping
  2. Use of oxygen
  3. Use of access to oxygen
  4. Use of altitude porters
  5. Use of fixed ropes
  6. Use of altitude camps
  7. Use of tracks (not being alone in the route)
  8. Use of weather forecasts
  9. Use of any communication system
  10. Use of porters/heli to Base Camp
  11. Use of a Base Camp
  12. Use of knowledge of the route
  13. Use of ropes and protection systems
  14. Use of tents
  15. Use of kitchen
  16. Use of technical gear
  17. Use of footwear
  18. Use of clothes
  19. Use of carried food and water

At the end, it is not about what we achieve but what we experience, about feeling coherent with our values when we climb and embracing the possibility of failure as a reward for our soul.