Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Alpinist No 50! Q&A

The brilliant editor in Chief at Alpinist sent me a Q&A form seeking to get some background context to her Sharp End (Editors note) for the jubilee issue no 50 of Alpinist.

The email read like this:

"Dear David, 

Here are the questions that I've been asking people. These might not be the right questions, so feel free to share other ideas.... 

I’m grateful for any responses you have time to give. I’m hoping to finish this research soon, so if you have time to respond in the upcoming week, I’d be deeply grateful. 

Please let me know if any of your responses are off the record—and mark which ones are as such—since there’s a chance I may be drawing on some of these answers for quotations in the magazine."

Below with the permission fro Alpinist Magazine and Katie Ives I decide to public my answers in full her on my blog. I hope some of you enjoy it.



1) When you think back to some of the major ascents since 2002, which ones now come to mind as representing changes, controversies or advances in the art of alpinism? And why? 

Thinking for only a few seconds: Cerro Torre / Patagonia in my mind has been the center stage of efforts questioning the impossible and see if its possible. Alex Huber deemed a free of the head wall of Cerro Torre impossible. And even if it has been done now it might well be impossible in the future, all will be depending on the Rime conditions. 

When David Lama first tried to free the head wall all hell broke out. The style was questionable to put it mildly. Bringing Guides who helped him get on to the head wall, adding bolts and littering the mountain must be categorized as a toatal meltdown in terms of style. David Lama then cam back and set the record straight much to his credit.

The future is clearly laying in a free and clean effort, much like the one HK and Kurk did a few years later. To me the HK - Kurk climb on Cerro Tore must be one of the major break troughs in Alpinism lately. They changed the game in Patagonia by chopping the bolt on Cerro Torre and now the impressive Ragni Route is the "normal" route. Finally this aesthetical route is getting the attention it deserves. What is interesting with Ragni is that when Korra Pesce and Michi Lerjan (November 2011) climbed the Ragni route early in the season (much publicized climb) they said that it was the most exposed ice route they had ever been on. 

A few seasons some 200 (not sure of exact number) climbers did the route in a single season some of who had virtually never been on a major alpine Ice route before. In the season 2013/14 I think only one team managed to climb the Ragni Route and this past season we where back to a huge amount of top-outs.

I can't think of a single mountain / range with the heritage and statue that has seen more developments. It’s down to more predictable weather patterns and favourable conditions. Also the ability to share info has altered the game in Patagonia. One can basically sit in the US or Europe and follow the pressure systems and jump on a plane and hit a perfect window. Two Italian climbers manage to land in El Chalten and with in a week they had climbed Cerro Torre via Ragni and the Super Canaletta on Fitz Roy. The Anthamatten brothers showed up and climbed virtually "every thing" in Patagonia in 6-8 weeks. Then we have the Travers, Reverse Travers etc. It’s simply the central stage for cutting edge alpinism. 

One other observation I have noticed is the consistency among the top alpinists. If we look at the Piolet d'Or we se some names returning frequently to the list of nominations. That is a change.

I also notice one other major trend. Small team in the lightest of styles has carried out all the best and most interesting ascents. I can only remember the NW Face of K2 and the North Face of Jannu as major efforts on huge complex walls in the Himalayas carried out in traditional expedition style.

We in the alpine community tend to look at this type of expeditions and ascents as less impressive but I think they deserve credit. It’s a mind opener and nothing prevents future generations to improve the style. Its been proved its possible to climb this type of walls, not in the best of styles but its possible. Any one complaining is free to try and improve the style and set a new benchmark.  

1b) In a 2000 American Alpine Journal article, Steve House wrote that “the last stylistic climax in alpine climbing came in the mid- to late 1980s when many of the 8000-meter peaks were climbed in single-push style, often by new routes. Such climbing was termed ‘night-naked’ by Voytek Kurtyka; he, Jean Troillet, Pierre-Allain Steiner and Erhard Loretan were at the center of adapting this bivouac-less style to the peaks of the Himalaya. More recently, the ‘night-naked’ or ‘single-push’ approach has been applied successfully to more technical routes in the Himalaya by the Slovenians. But the Alaska Range and Patagonia are also important crucibles for this expression of light and fast.” 

Since then, do you think there have been other major breakthroughs in the overall development of alpine climbing, as significant, in their own way, as those of Kurtyka, Loretan and Troillet? 

Not really. Iconic walls like the West face of G4, Masherbrum, Makalu, Everest SW Face, the North Ridge of Latok, Meru, Thalay Sagar, Nuptse South Face (even if the two French St├ęphane Benoist and Patrice Glairon-Rappaz climbed a new line in pure alpine style they opted to skip the summit snow ridge and bail out) are all mentioned mountains are still up for grabs to do in this light and fast style. Babanov made what I think is an underestimated ascent of the West Pillar of Jannu the Piolet d'Or was cancelled in 2008 otherwise that ascent would clearly have had to be awarded the golden axe. 

But no, I don't think we can say that we have really seen quantum leaps like the one you mention above outside Patagonia, but that’s explained above. In this perspective one might say that the Steck effort on Annapurna is such quantum leap forward, sadly that ascent is some what surrounded by some unanswered questions and even if I don't question Steck others do (for jealousy reasons I think) and Ueli is not a very vocal defender of his accent and I understand him, why bother. He knows he did it and he is at peace with that and so should the rest of us be! I think this is down to Ueli’s personality rather than an argument for Ueli not being able to be more detailed. 

2) Back in Alpinist 29 (2009), Chris Weidner wrote about Ueli Steck as an example of the future of high-end alpinism; Chris envisioned a return to the idea of a “climber” as someone who practices all forms of climbing (as opposed to the distinctions common since the later part of the twentieth century of trad climber, sport climber, gym climber, boulderer, and so on) and predicted that the great climbers of the future will be those who are able to blend the skills gleaned from those different pursuits in hard technical routes at high altitudes: “Now, more than ever, climbers must acquire an extraordinary level of competence in all genres to push the rising standards of cutting-edge alpinism.” To what extent do you think this is true now—or will be, in the future?  

It’s pretty much happening right now. Most good alpinist might not climb 9a but most can climb 8a that’s enough to climb 6c / 7a on a very big mountain with a backpack and crampons. Also the M-style climbing of former aid pitches in a semi dry-tooling style has altered this game and you need to be both explosive and have a huge amount of stamina to pull off M5/M6 at high altitude. When we are looking at the best and hardest climbs we see them carried out of climbers that are all round very strong climbers. Its super impressive!

3) In Alpinist 42 (2013), Kyle Dempster wrote of the shift between the climbers of Mark Twight’s cohort and young alpinists today: “minimalism is no longer seen mainly through the eyes of the rebel and the mystic…. The superiority of fast-and-light, single-push, disaster style is now largely the consensus [among high-level alpine climbers]. Today, it’s the spirit behind this form of alpinism, the art and beauty of climbing, that we must work to uphold. More and more people are taking cell-phones, computers and video cameras into the mountains. In emergencies, some of these tools can save lives. Yet the overuse of these devices can taint the internal clarity gained from time in the mountains….. In the future, the boundaries between bouldering, traditional, mixed and alpine climbing will also continue to blur. Lines like those that cobweb El Capitan, the Moonflower Buttress, Cerro Torre and the Eiger North Face will also cover mountains in the Karakoram and the Himalaya. With each first ascent, the next unclimbed route will be harder to find. We must focus on methods that keep mountains clean, so that future climbers will be able to see the ideals that they inherit: a legacy of nearly pristine walls.”   

To what extent do you agree with this prediction, today, two years later? What do you see as the current discourse on style and ethics as compared to ten years ago?

I think Kyle's right and spot on. At the same time its politically unstable in the world and the time and efforts involved with an expedition to Pakistan for example is complex, time consuming and expensive. Weather is an issue but the forecasts and availability to good forecasts are increasingly going to change that factor. 

What I think we will see in the future is drone reconnaissance of lines in the Himalayas and that will be a total game changer. Take the North Ridge on Latok. Imagine if you can scout that line with a drone and watch 4k footage from many angles and aspects of the climb, its going to change what can be done and it will spark huge controversies among climbers and alpinists.

Its not a development I think is desirable but I think its in the human nature to try and eliminate obstacles preventing dreams come true and using a drone might well be the key that can help some dreams come true. Is it worth the price? Is its cheating? Is it unethical? Probably all of them… 

What contradicts Kyle’s possition is the rapid growth of commercial expeditions to peaks a true alpinist can only dream of climbing with out degrading the style. I'm thinking of the disastrous HIMEX / Kenton Cool climb on Nuptse when they fixed the rout all the way to the summit for paying customers. Kenton Cool used the fixed ropes to claim some kind of record.

I just think that we will se this happen more and more as the crowds who paid to be guided up iconic peaks will unlikely decrease in numbers. I think that the commercialization of climbing in the greater ranges is a real and present threat to clean mountains and future generations ability to find and explore new things and show what they are capable of in terms of pushing the boundaries. Its so easy to think we are at the forefront of what is possible, but just look at a video you shoot 7 years ago and compare it to a GoPro of 2015 and your old video will look pre historic. 

4) In Alpinist 49, Kelly Cordes wrote, “This much is true: members of every generation, at every step, have thought they’d bumped up against the limits of possibility. In their time and place, they may have been right: at one point, 5.10 was unattainable, and 5.11 appeared blank and holdless. Many of the existing classics once seemed unthinkable. The Golden Age forever reemerges as climbers race ahead with newfound visions and abilities.” 

What do you see as some of the possible great climbs of the future (not necessarily specific routes, but more in terms of kinds of objectives)? 

Like I said above there is plenty to do in terms of improving style on existing routes. Technical difficulties will be pushed etc. 

5) In Alpinist 39, Luca Signorelli argued, “We make our ascents in an increasingly complicated and multilateral world. And thus, mountains may no longer represent extraterritorial regions where people can do what they want.” During the past few years, local communities have been increasingly vocal about their concerns with practices of both mountaineering and of mountain tourism—most recently with the writings by Sherpa and other Nepali journalists about the struggles that expedition workers face on commercial 8000-meter peak expeditions. To what extent do you see relationships between local communities and foreign climbers or foreign clients evolving now and in the future?

The climbing world are face with its own dilemma much like the issues Samuel P Huntington describe in his book "The Clash Of Civilizations and The Remaking Of The World Order. Again the commercialization and human desire to fulfil personal goals and dreams will trump what might be labelled as the greater good for local communities and future generations, not to mention sustainability form an environmental and economical perspective. 

6) Back in 1963, Yvon Chouinard wrote the famous article “Modern Yosemite Climbing,” predicting that “The future of Yosemite climbing lies not in Yosemite, but in using the new techniques in the great granite ranges of the world…. Yosemite Valley will, in the near future, be the training ground for a new generation of super-alpinists who will venture forth to the high mountains of the world to do the most esthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth.” In the wake of the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, and of all the publicity surrounding it, do you think that ascent will ultimately have an impact on climbing in the Greater Ranges, as well as in Yosemite big-wall climbing?

Yes - and No. 

Yes - to the extent that more people will start to understand what seasoned Himalaya climbers already know. Climbing complex routes in the greater ranges is not an easy task and most likely you will need to invest years of trying and return many times to the same objective trying and trying again and repeat the effort each time learning more and more of what is required in terms of technical skills, fitness and conditions to be able to one day finally stand on the summit. 

No - That was very much a media event that went ballistic and mainstream. I don't think we will see live broadcasts from an alpine style attempt of the West face of G4 or at least I hope we will not. To me adventures in the mountains are a personal experience that’s is primarily shared with the climbing partner.

Its great too share the experience but don’t go "reality TV style" climbing is way to personal and it would totally destroy and dilute the experience and pleasure of going to the mountains. We have to remember that climbing is a bourgeois hobby that is very insignificant to most people in the world where many live under duress on the run from evil in refugee camps or in other forms of misery. Any one who can afford the luxury of even the most insignificant venture out in the backcountry is living in luxury beyond comprehension for most of the world’s inhabitants. We should remind ourselves of the more often.