I’ve been surprised by the amount of feedback that I’ve received from my question of who are the best climbers of all time. The comments have come from personal friends, regular readers and those of you that follow TSM on Facebook and Twitter.
I also reached out to several people asking for their list, but two of them gave me something more valuable than their opinion: I got guidance.
However, there was a down side. In giving guidance, the sense that I was assuming a daunting project only swelled after I received their thoughts.
Katie Ives and Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn were my sources for help. Katie is the Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist and a former juror — no, not at the Piolet d’Or, thankfully — rather the Banff Mountain Book Competition. Her work and her team at Alpinist scrutinizes the accomplishments in climbing based on their place in history, style and philosophy.
In an email, Katie shared the questions that ought to considered in order to produce a credible list:
It’s hard to make lists of top ten greatest climbers–do you take into account the quality of routes vs. the quantity? Difficulty vs. style vs. remoteness? Do you look at climbers from all nations? Do you look at their routes in and of themselves or at the historical impact? Do you consider the philosophy that drove them? Or, as Alex Lowe would say, do you consider the climber having the most fun? There are obvious names of legendary mountaineers who have appeared many times in print. But what about the great climbers who haven’t made it into history books?
Okay, so there’s nothing to it.
My friend Bob is a mountaineering historian that specializes in K2 but has a broad breadth of mountaineering knowledge and natural skills suited for such research, including an excellent memory for details. Bob took some time to reply and when he did I received a memo, four pages long, single spaced and plenty of names. Before he got to his list of names, he shared his rationale for weighing true mountain climbing and alpine climbing more heavily over other styles of climbing.
For anyone that has worked on their own list (and I encourage you to write one up before my next post), you better read what Bob had to say too:
First off, and this applies to both categories, what are the criteria? What makes a good climber or mountaineer an outstanding one? With regards to rock climbers I would suggest it’s all about the grades they manage to successfully master, the style they apply, and the philosophy they bring into the game. I am full of respect and stand in awe of their stunning achievements, but what appeals more to me is the versatility and the wide[r] scope that can be found in mountaineering. In that discipline one needs more than just agility, athleticism, pure strength, or bold courage. IMHO mountaineering is more of a craft then what we encounter in [rock]-climbing [or bouldering, let's include that one as well here]. My preference to mountaineering has got to do with that bigger scope where it is important that a participant is gaining a degree of experience in all fields of the game; rock, ice, mixed alpine, maybe even the greater ranges like the Himalaya. On top of that, it’s more of an overall adventure, as you need knowledge about weather, and more diverse dangers awaiting you, about the effects of altitude, about cultures, languages and people.
Feel free to fill me in when you think I’m missing certain aspects, but the steady progress from a novice, to becoming an experienced one, to an exceptionally outstanding mountaineer, lies in the quality of the skills the managed to build, the length of their career, and the big leaps forward they manage to make in alpinism. That last item is more a thing that has to do with philosophy, I think; the way they form a new view on how things can be done differently. In my humble opinion that may very well be the most important aspect, the one defining characteristic that separates the ["merely"] good ones from the extraordinary climbers and mountaineers.
So, please forgive for making this distinction, but else I wouldn’t be in the position to answer your question as you may have expected. As much as I respect and have big admiration for the big names in the history of [rock]-climbing, to me it’s not the same type of appreciation as I experience for great names in mountaineering. Don’t get me wrong; the likes of Paul Preuss, John Gill, Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Jim Bridwell, Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, Alex Honnold and the brothers Iker and Eneko Pou would probably tick most or all of the boxes listed above, but with their qualities and agility, their vision and fantastic skills I consider them to be “superbly athletic rock artists”. As such they operate in only a narrowed playing field and don’t make use of many skills and qualifications that are needed for big mountains, mixed terrain, unknown territories or geographic “blanks on the map”, nor do they need to. Their “unknowns” are the next couple of meters of rock that they have to scale, the “unknowns” of new techniques, new methods to improve their physical and mental strength and maybe the scariest of all; courage. Well, at least I suggested a couple of names there :-)
Mountaineering to me is [so much] more than “climbing”, so I hope the preceding didn’t come across like talking out of the back of my neck. [No need to answer; that was a rhetorical question I just reflected on to see where I was going...]. The main reason why I did this was because I didn’t want to send you a tsunami of names; I had hoped to limit my list to three or at five persons at max, or else we’d be better off writing a new encyclopaedia about the “who’s who” of mountaineering history.
Bob’s point about the hierarchy of approaches to climbing and the objectives has to be taken into consideration, and I think that will bother some of you. I’ve got my prejudices, and you’ll probably see them in my next post on this question, where I’ll lay out a rubric for determining the best climbers of all time. After I do that, I’ll share my original list, which might be amusing to those of you playing at home.
Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.