Is that Climb Bold or Stupid?

Mount Foraker (Richard Droker 2012)

As part of my series on the boldest ascents in Alaska, I asked several leading Alaskan climbers to give me their suggestions for the boldest ascents for me to consider and share here on TSM. I didn’t define “bold”, and asked for their take instead.

The Example of Devil’s Thumb
The attempt on the northwest face of Devil’s Thumb over the Stikine Icecap near the Alaskan-British Columbia border is a good illustration of the problem with the word “bold”… In 2003, the unclimbed wall had tempted several teams to consider being the first. Before the 2003 adventure, climbers watched the wall and considered their chances against the slope, the overhang, the rockfall, the weather, and the frequent avalanches. Half the would-be suitors usually went home without touching the face, and no one has climbed more than halfway.

In April 2003, Guy Edwards and John Millar of Vancouver ventured to southeastern Alaska and peered up the northwest face like 13 expeditions turned away before them. Only they didn’t turn around and run. Despite the conditions, the storms, the rockfall, and the avalanches they went. I heard Mike Libecki once tell an audience at National Geographic in Washington, DC that this wall might be the only wall that might never be climbed. He explained that the slight overhang accumulates such seracs and they frequently cleave off wiping the wall clean.

Edwards and Millar didn’t come home, and to the best of my knowledge their bodies have not been found.

Bold or Stupid?
John Frieh provided me a his list with a bit of a warning about his choices. He explained that he struggled with the term “bold”: “It is a fine line between bold and stupid,” he wrote.

Perhaps the difference is luck. The luck of the conditions. The fortune of unfortunate events happening away from the climbers. The outcome that was actually an outlier.

Perhaps the difference between bold and stupid is whether you survive. Had everyone on the Harvard ascent of Denali’s Wickersham Wall died in the ascent, there is no way that it would even be considered bold.

So here is the list of the bold and the stupid. I am going to go through several of the stories and rank the boldest climbs in Alaska shortly. For now, let me know what you think.

The Preliminary Nominations

Late 1800s

  • 1897 first ascent of St. Elias by the Duke of Abruzzi

Early 1900s

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

1960s-1970s

  • Harvard Route, Mount Huntington, Roberts, Hale, Jensen, Bernd, 1965.
  • Allen Steck and John Evans 1965 Hummingbird Ridge FA on Logan.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 Solo of the Cassin.
  • Steve Hacketts 1976 solo 3rd ascent of Mount Igikpak (followed by paddling 365 miles back to civilization.)
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, Kennedy-Lowe, July 1977.
  • Johnny Waterman’s 1978 solo Mt Hunter Traverse.
  • North Face (“Timeless Face”) of Huntington, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, July 1978.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, John Mallon Waterman-solo, 1978.

1980s-1990s

  • Southwest face of Denali, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, June 1980.
  • 1981 East Face of Moose’s Tooth by Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, Alpine style by Glenn Randall, Peter Metcalf, and Peter Athens, 1981.
  • Moonflower 1981 FA by Mugs Stump.
  • Andy Politz’s 1984 FA of St. Elias South Face.
  • Wine Bottle, Mount Dickey, Orgler, Bonapace, 1988.
  • East Face, Mount Russell, Charlie Townsend and Dave Auble, 1989.
  • East Butt of University Peak by Buhler/Sassara in 1997.

2000s-present

  • Slovak Direct, Denali, House, Twight, Backes, 2000.
  • Blood from the Stone, Mount Dickey, Ueli Steck and Sean Easton, 2001.
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, House and Garibotti, 2001.
  • Entropy Wall on Mount Moffit, climbed in 2007 by Jed Brown and Colin Haley.
  • Haley and Aartun’s Dracula Route on Mount Foraker, 2010

I would love to know if you have anything that I ought to add to this list of ascents. Feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via email (on the About page), Twitter, or Facebook.

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What is the Boldest Climb in Alaska?

“Hard to exaggerate how big and impressive Alaska is.” (Steve Wall 2012)

In Alaska, the most memorable news are about things done on a big scale to live up to the big untamed image of thr landscape. Road trips are longer, sometimes involving RVs. Hikes go to remote places, sometimes requiring an air-lift to reach the “trailhead.” Climbs often share the signature feature of being high and very exposed.

A year ago I was taken aback by the style and brashness by so many of the pioneering ascents in Alaska. I thought that a few of my new acquaintances, all climbers with expertise in Alaska, would be able to pitch in and give me some insight into their significance compared to one another. So I reached out to Jonathan Waterman, John Frieh, Mark Westman, and Clint Helander. These climbers are among the leading climbers of Alaska today. I asked them a question that was fraught with some excitement and a bit of tension: What were their thoughts on what were the boldest ascents in Alaska?

The list was nearly overwhelming. At the same time that I received it, I was preparing for the big lobbying day for the members of the trade association that I worked for at the time. All my energy for the necessary research crumbled under the weight of looming visits on Capitol Hill.

Now I am back and so is the list.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to dive in and consider what was the boldest ascent in Alaska.

These are not Ed Viesturs-worthy climbs. These aren’t trade routes or a list suitable for an impressive tick list.

These ascents are stories of someone’s personal limits pushed beyond our own. Foolish to some. That they returned home may make it seem repeatable.

Here are four examples of the bold ascents in Alaska:

  • The Duke of Abruzzi’s 1887 first ascent of Mount St. Elias.
  • The Sourdoughs’ 1910 FA of Denali’s north summit.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 solo of Denali’s Cassin Ridge.
  • Michael Kennedy’s and Goerge Lowe’s 1977 ascent of the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker.

More to come next week…

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Why I Won’t Encourage My Kids to Climb

Young boy scrambling (John Cathey-Roberts 2008)

I have new hesitations about whether I want my son to climb.

Schnickelfritz is almost two and he’s enjoying playing with trains and cars as much if not more so than his older sister. He loves the time he gets to spend with me, to roughhouse, and work with my wrenches and screwdrivers. He’s also notorious for pulling down the books down from my climbing library and looking at the pictures.

The other day, I suddenly had a sense of hesitation about his inclination toward climbing. I didn’t feel this way with Wunderkind the same way; maybe its because they’re so young, Schnickelfritz in particular, but he likes things for the thrill. I worry that might become a dangerous habit, and I had a very real lump in my throat the other day when I considered bringing Schnickelfritz to the climbing gym one day.

I have a long-standing deal with my wife: I promised to Natalie that I wouldn’t encourage climbing but she also knew that I wouldn’t discourage it if they were to show interest.

That was fine until I started to reconsider that they might not have the same desire to be risk adverse. As a climber, I am actually pretty risk adverse. I manage it and mitigate it with strength, technique, help, and if it gets to be too great, I bail. Always have.

Climbing can be frivolous, dangerous, and can cause trauma and grief. Broken backs, concussions, missing digits are tangible results; and that’s if you survive an accident. That’s the consequence. And the grief is said to be worse for those that love the injured. Those of us that haven’t been touched by those horrors tend to pretend it’s not there or dismiss it because we think we’ll manage the risks and threats.

For Schnickelfritz, perhaps some little scares will help. The first time falling from a toprope before being caught. Perhaps building their own anchor and asking whether he will trust his life with it.

It’s like walking onto a frozen lake. You need to feel comfortable doing it to do it.

Statistically, I know that the odds of a concussion, by comparison, is more likely to happen while falling while riding a bicycle. But I know climbing also has a different stigma about it’s danger. We climb because we’re seeking something elusive, and it’s often not risk itself but what we see through the risk.

I love the mountains. There I seek to experience peace that comes from exhaustion and the relief of simple pleasures. A hot shower, a cold beer, and the company of a good friend or loved one in the mountains beats the hot dog and beer after work at a baseball game.

I’m not going to forbid climbing. But I think I will be true to my promise to Natalie, with some new trepidation.

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What I Am Reading Now and Alpinist 49

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Alpinist 49 has my first piece for the literary magazine on pages 20 and 21.

For the last two weeks I have been immersed in conference prepations and legislative meetings here in Washington, DC for Habitat for Humanity’s annual visit with Members of Congress. Staying current on my reading list has been more difficult since we had one kid and harder since two, but it’s nearly impossible during these busy seasons. But sometimes there is a sip of words and, more rarely, a greedy gulp.

So with the conference complete (and a success), my days suddenly seemed longer… and colder. The perfect conditions for reading just a little bit more, and excuse for another hot espresso. Here’s an update and some ideas for what to read next:

Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains I am on the verge of finishing up Blanchard’s book and will tell you more about it in a review in a few weeks. I first learned about Blanchard from Steve House and have been eating up anecdotes about him for over a dozen years now. It’s been great to read his autobiography. I am charmed by his days in the Alps, but am envious of his access to the Canadian Rockies.

Alpinist 49 — The winter issue is on newsstands now and I have a brief piece on the bottom of pages 20 and 21 about a true story from the Adirondack Mountains and a climber hat became well known in Yosemite. Please check out my article and Kelly Cordes’ compilation on “The Unclimbed” that also includes a perspective from one of my favorite contemporary Alaska pioneers, Clint Helander.

The Tower by Kelly Cordes (again) This is next on my list after Blanchard’s autobiography. It’s a comprehensive history of Cerro Torre. I like to joke that he talks about everything about how the bolts went up the Compressor Route until they were triumphantly ripped off with cackles.

The other book on top of my list, but I don’t have a copy yet, is One Day A Tiger by John Porter about the immortal Alex MacIntyre. One friend of mine that read it already recommended that everyone should drop what they’re doing and read it now.

I have about a half dozen books on my shelf that I have mentioned before but haven’t had time for yet. Patience, I keep reminding myself, is key. This is just a busy season.

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How to Change Mount McKinley’s Name

The US Capitol rotunda, on a “hill” that I have climbed more than once (Deep 2011)

This past weekend, Fox News had an article that shed light into why, after more than 100 years, the highest peak in North America was named Mount McKinley, or rather why it was still named Mount McKinley. It’s older native name Denali is more commonly used, and I should know, I am reading and in conversation about this mountain often. Denali, rather than McKinley, is also officially recognized by the government of Alaska.

The bottom line reason the name is still McKinley is that the US Board on Geographic Names, a federal office with the authority to change the mountain’s federally recognized name, has deferred to Congress. But interestingly, they aren’t actually requiring a hearing let alone a vote to put a hold on the name changing process. No, rather Ohio Congressman Bob Gibbs introduced a bill to keep the name as McKinley and that’s sufficient.

My five years of serving as a Congressional aide and the past eight as a registered lobbyist has raised a bit of thought…

Buckeye Pride

While the mountain is in Alaska, more people than Alaskans lay claim to it. It’s North America’s highest peak and a point of America’s pride in its own vastness.

But the mountain was named by a gold prospector for a US presidential candidate that supported the gold standard, which was a political issue that was important to the prospector. But the candidate, William McKinley, would be elected president. He was from Ohio. The name would stick. And the citizens of Ohio had a president and a national landmark in America’s world class wilderness.

Changing the name of the mountain would not be a victimless act. Having the mountain is a matter of pride for Alaskans, and calling it their own is a point of state pride for Ohioans in the Buckeye State. Alaskans have the mountain. Ohioans want to be forever connected to the mountain.

“Morning in Denali” (Mark Stevens 2012)

The Map is Right

The name on the federal version map isn’t wrong. Neither is the Alaskan version with Denali written on it. In fact whatever name you were to put over the topo lines would be fine. It’s subjective. Even Denali isn’t the only native name, but it’s the most commonly used.

There was even a time when people debated about whether Denali was actually two mountains. It essentially relies on the map makers and public’s tolerance for what makes a separate mountain versus a subpeak. Factors like distance between the summits and the depth of the col between them all come into play. Some map making communities have official criteria.

If Denali or McKinley, depending on what you want to call it, was actually two separate mountains and the south peak’s name was McKinley, what would you call the north peak, Denali?

Bridging the Crevasse

The US Board on Geographic Names has the authority to rename Mount McKinley, however, its 1981 rule has made it fairly clear that the Board will abstain from taking action: “The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not render a decision on a name or its application if the matter is also being considered by the Congress of the United States.” The principle underlying this, is that it is deemed to be considered by Congress if there is a proposal. The proposal alone, officially introduced as a bill, objectively indicates that it is a matter for Congress to decide.

This means that either the board needs to change its policy or Congress has to make a determination. I think the chances of the board changing its position are unwise for its own purposes; it would be foolish for them to be the cause of more legislation if they used their existing authority to change the name while Ohio is holding the line. The advocacy/lobbying work has to be focused on the Ohio delegation and Congress itself.

If competing bills were introduced — one backing the name Mount McKinley and the other Denali — would be something of a low priority on a policy level and may not garner sufficient attention. Congress is a responsive body, it doesn’t usually lead. It needs a crisis. There won’t likely be a crisis on this issue, especially when there are issues like the debt ceiling to wrangle over.

Without Ohio’s Congressional delegation solidly buying into changing the name to Denali, I doubt that the matter would be settled if the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill and the President signed it, regardless whether Congress chose McKinley or Denali.

That said, if someone has a good reason to change the name, I’d love to hear it and I might know someone that can lead the lobbying effort.

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Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

From Left: Oh Eun Sun, Steve House, Reinhold Messner at the 2010 International Mountain Summit, which was held in South Tyrol (Gore Tex Products)

Despite appearances, and some disputed evidence to the contrary, all great explorers, climbers, and endurance athletes are people just like you and me. Well, not quite just like you and me. They are indeed human, but their development took a very different path.

Great adventurers have usually reached the requisite 10,000 hours required to become an expert in their specialty early in life. Then then got innovative. Once they became an expert, the things that were said to be impossible, they could react with open mindedness: “Well let’s give it a try and see.” (Think of Tommy Caldwell and the Dawn Wall project.)

I have been reading biographies of mountaineers and climbers for 20 years. I have been following climbing news closely for 10 years. Over that time I have made some observations about how great climbers became great. It applies more broadly because, fundamentally, it’s no different than how a great baseball player or musician rises to the Major Leagues or Carnegie Hall: They started at a relatively young age, never gave up, and at some point started obsessing over their craft.

The Day’s Greats Visit

Every so often, mortals like you and me get to see these exceptional humans. My meeting with super hiker Andrew Skurka has had a great impact on me. Skurka has combined long trails to form enormous loops, like his 7,000-plus mile tour through Alaska a pied. He’s fit, organized and has a geeky quality, and an awe for the wilderness experience we crave. Almost a hundred years ago, someone better known toured the US: George Leigh Mallory, the legendary Englishman who was part of three expeditions that explored and attempted Mount Everest.

Skurka and Mallory both rose to the tops of their sports by starting early. Skurka circumnavigated his home state of Minnesota when he was still in high school. He did so with style too: In the dark and cold of winter. Mallory started young as well, climbing in the British Hill Country and later the Alps, earning appreciation from his older fellow climbers for his extraordinary rock climbing abilities and stamina. When people later learned about these men, they weren’t teenagers and they had been hiking and climbing more often and longer than nearly anyone else at any age. Their visits might be likened to going to see the Pope.

More recently, Ueli Steck toured the US for a series of presentations and even stopped at the headquarters of National Geographic here in Washington, DC in early December. Steck, it seems, has been climbing his whole life. It’s hard to see his ordinary-man qualities here in the states, yet Lisa Hummel posted a picture on Instagram of Steck enjoying a rich parfait after breakfast the day of his presentation. The image showed something of the disciplined athlete rather displays: indulgence. We suddenly saw through a window to his humanity.

Reinhold Messner is coming to New York City for the American Alpine Club Annual Benefit Dinner on January 31. I haven’t seen or heard about a frail moment with him. His ego is giant, which we, from far away, tend to excuse. Up front it can be displacing; Ed Viesturs met him and said that he’d read everything Messner had written. Messner replied that it was impossible and he was right. Not everything Messner had written was available in English.

Messner started like the rest of them, climbing his local crag and aspiring for more.

While all of these men started working on their specialty early in life, there was another element in their makeup: They believed in themselves, and some of them, if not all of them, had a sense of destiny. Their effort and skill grew into the vision what they dreamed would be possible.

I’m positive that the same could be said about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the climbers that have become a household name after they free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.

Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

The formula for achieving great things is less about age; you don’t have to start young, even though being young when you start your quest helps considerably. The formula requires expertise; you have to master hiking, navigating, travel, rowing, rope management, technique or whatever is required of your specialty. And the details can’t be underestimated; walking the Long Trail in Vermont is one thing, but traversing the a routeless path ten times as long in winter is something more advanced than putting one foot in front of the other. Getting 10,000 hours in at your favorite activity is necessary, as the author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out. It applies to the adventurous among us too.

The other key characteristic is the need to advance and take moderate risks. Andrew Skurka, who hiked around nearly the whole of Alaska and the Yukon calls himself risk adverse. When I heard him say that at National Geographic people in the audience scoffed. However, it was true: If you tracked his progress since he was a teenager, his hikes got progressively longer and he added a new learned skill each time. For instance, he went from following trails and roads to going mostly trailess, and graduating from snowshoes to skis. He grew by taking reasonable and moderate risks at each step. On thr other hand, too many risks or too much risk might have gotten him hurt or killed.

Based on what I have seen and been reading for years, my advice for someone that wants to make a grand adventure is this: If it’s worth the time and sacrifice to you, then set aside the time to hone the necessary skills, don’t rush, and believe that you will do it. And along the way, expect people to suspect you’re crazy or wasting your time.

Good luck!

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