Who is Nirmal Purja?

North Doodle. (All rights reserved)

In March 2019, we saw the results of a press push. Some guy no one knew was going to try to make history.

Nirmal Purja claimed he was going to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time. Not in years, but months. The record had been over seven years. Purja wanted to do it over a single season. I shared the news on social media and the reactions were in alignment with mine, but more succinct:

  • Bullshit on so many levels. Don’t give him the publicity he craves.
  • “Impossible… I think it’s cheap publicity nothing more.”
  • “This shouldn’t even be ‘news worthy’ until he actually does the deed. Anyone can say they’re going to summit all 8000ers in a single year, but I’d bet money he can’t do it.”

Yet as of the end of July 2019, he has already made history by completing 11 of his objectives with only Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, and Manaslu remaining.

So who is this guy?

First of all, the thing he is actually most famous for is the May 23rd photo of the conga line of climbers heading to the top of Everest. Yes, it was from Purja’s Instagram account. He had already embarked on his journey, which he calls “Project Possible 14/7.”

Purja is Nepalise and served from 2002 through 2018 in the British military through the Brigade of Gurkhas and later in Royal Navy’s Special Boat Teams. During that time he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire, as the MBE after his social media handles indicate. (MBE is not knighthood; there are higher orders which are knights.)

Based on Purja’s Project Possible, he is an excellent logistical planner, and has a strong will. It appears to have drawn some significant resources including his lead sponsor, Bremont, a luxury watch maker. He is also supported by four experienced Sherpas. Jeff Moag talks about his team on their K2 push — and it really was sheer will and muscle — that got them to the top this season, possibly making rather than breaking Purja’s Project Possible 14/7.

What Purja has done to date has already been historic. The previous speed record was by Kim Chang-ho of South Korea at seven years 10 months and 6 days. He finished in 2013. The previous record to that was by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987 after seven years 11 months and 14 days. His approach is innovative in concept, though not fitness or technology. Climbers have reached base camps by helicopter before. Mountaineers have climbed multiple 8,000ers in a single trip, though usually within the same expeditionary trip. Doing them all has surprised many, including me.

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The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Inaccurate but pretty Yosemite Valley. (All rights reserved)

On a towering and drenched flank of granodiorite in Borneo, Mark Synnott led an expedition that included his trusted friends Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, and begrudgingly a 24-year-old Alex Honnold too. Honnold’s historic first free solo of Half Dome the year before was fresh on everyone’s minds, and Anker talked Synnott into adding Honnold at the last minute. Synnott, then 40, was concerned about having an inexperienced and arrogant prodigy on his team. Still, Anker pleaded with Synnott, acknowledging the need for options on this adventure climb: “He can be our secret weapon.” But when they reached the walls, Synnott thought his preconception of this reckless climber was proven true when Honnold told Synnott he didn’t bring a helmet because, “Uhhh… I don’t actually own a helmet.”

Mark Synnott’s irritation with Honnold grew into curiosity during that expedition to Mt. Kinabalu. In the end, however, Honnold borrowed a helmet, and after several soggy nights in a porta-ledge, pulled off a key move – a dyno – for the team’s dramatic route completion. But for Synnott, there were many puzzles remaining.

Synnott wondered what Honnold was capable of, and, at the same time, when he would have “the wake-up call” when climbers pull back the throttle on the risks they take. So when Synnott learned Honnold was committing himself to the greatest first free solo ascent in history, he began to write his new book, The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life, published by Dutton in March 2019.

In writing this book, Synnott wanted to answer a question underlying the wonder most share in watching Honnold climb without a rope. Even Honnold’s autobiography, Alone on the Wall, (which he wrote with David Roberts,) and even the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo did not fully respond: Was Honnold a unique freak-of-nature or a human like the rest of us? And, if he was indeed human, what can the rest of us learn from him?

You might have seen some harsh criticisms – nearly dismissals – of Synnott’s book in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times promptly after it was released. Don’t believe them; Synnott didn’t miss the mark, they did. Gregory Crouch argued in the Times that Synnott, and even Honnold, should have done a better job of teasing out the deeper truths of climbing, particularly staring death in its face. However, this is always the attempt in a lot of climbing literature, and Crouch should know as a climber that this is rarely accomplished by anyone, including Reinhold Messner, except for perhaps David Roberts.

Blair Braverman, in the Journal, attacked the whole book on the premise that Synnott was sexist. It appears to be true, and more valid than Crouch’s criticism, but the story remains. In addition, while Synnott uses some “casually” objectifying language, of the two instances she cites one was superfluous to the thesis but the other was not about Synnott’s perspective but rather illustrating Honnold’s own character and womanizing behavior.

Synnott starts his book by providing a general audience with a strategic overview of climbing culture and risk starting with his initial foray into a thrill-seeking approach to rock climbing, and introducing the reader to legendary free soloists like Jon Bachar, Peter Croft, and Dean Potter. Synnott also sheds light into what it is like to climb with the watchful eyes of the virtual audiences through social media and film crews. Synnott lead one of the first expeditions to the Karakoram that required he and his team, including Alex Lowe, to lug a laptop to draft “dispatches” to basecamp that would be posted on the sponsor’s blog.

The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Although the second half was clearly written while the effort to document the events that are now famously captured in Free Solo were underway, Synnott also brings the reader the backstory of events and considers Honnold’s humanity. Synnott goes beyond how the documentary film crew risked disrupting his climbing, but also how it did affect his own mental game, including one instance where the filming disrupted his relationship with his girlfriend. Synnott investigates further into Honnolds’ approach to fear and whether his amygdala – the supposed fear center within the brain – which Honnold’s has been shown to be inactive, and seriously considers whether that is actually unusual or even if it matters at all.

The Impossible Climb also looks back to key moments of Alex Honnold’s progression in free soloing. He considers a period in 2015, when Alex Honnold felt unusually alone after the death of Dean Potter. Since Honnold free soloed Half Dome seven years earlier he had created a vacuum to insulate him from distractions and foster his greater climbing ambitions. But perhaps it wasn’t actually an insulated vacuum, as he thought. On May 16th Dean Potter died with Graham Hunt in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite. Potter was first a childhood hero to Honnold and later, as Honnold pushed his limits, a rival in free soloing as Honnold pushed more limits. Just days before Potter’s accident, however, they had dinner together in Yosemite, marking a new step in their complicated relationship. With Potter suddenly gone, Honnold’s paradigm was broken. Honnold felt alone and, according to Synnott, an unprecedented pressure to perform on rock – believe it or not – like he had never actually felt before.

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Further puzzling over Honnold’s capacity to free solo El Capitan, Synnott compares free soloists to elite circus tightrope walkers who walk a high line without a safety net, often climbing on a partner’s shoulders. He discovers a powerful parallel to how they and Honnold approach their craft without a safety net, and provides a glimpse for anyone that might want to learn from them; ultimately, we all chose who we are and at what level we perform.

Whether we as readers consider Honnold in wonder or chastisement, The Impossible Climb presents enough evidence and new perspectives about Honnold to make a new judgment about his special strengths. For himself, Synnott concluded Honnold is not a freak-of-nature but is indeed human like the rest of us. His life is not about facing and overcoming challenges or even fear, but merely facing choices.

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Who Was the First Person to Free Solo?

Totenkirchl and the first first solo ascent. (All rights reserved.)

Have you heard of Paul Preuss before? Or what about W.P. Haskett Smith? Hopefully you were not in the dark like I was. If you were, let’s catch up together…

I stumbled on Preuss first while I was reading Mark Synnott’s The Impossible Climb and later listening to the podcast The Runout by Chris Kalous and Andrew Bisharat, I came across Preuss within weeks of each other. Paul Preuss was the first person to devote himself and promote a special climbing ethic that is like modern day free soloing.

However, as Mark Bullock pointed out over Twitter to me recently, W.P. Haskett Smith (1859-1946) started modern rock climbing. In the Lake District, he was increasingly drawn not just to the hills but the cliffs. And he attempted them without ropes or aid or any kind.

Kalous and Bisharat were talking about Jim Reynolds’ feat on Mt. Fitz Roy in Patagonia (which if you don’t know about, please click this) and they talked about Paul Preuss. Synnott talked about Preuss in providing a history of free soloing. Smith is seems to be overlooked as a free soloist because he is generally accepted as an rock climber so early in the game. Preuss on the other hand, was intentional, and wrote several essays on the about climbing ethics and the purity of free soloing.

Taking a closer look, I realized Preuss has been coming up more often since Alex Honnold free soloed El Capitan. However, the association with Jim Reynolds’ free solo of Fitz Roy might be more appropriate, however. That’s because Reynolds, like Preuss, downclimbed whatever he free soloed. Repeating Kalous’ and Bisharat’s wonderment, could you imagine if Honnold, after reaching the top of Free Rider, then started down climbing and had to reverse the karate kick and go back down the Free Blast slabs?

Preuss was born on August 16, 1886 and lived in Austria, by his Hungarian father and Austrian mother. His father was Jewish, which caused history to forget about Preuss’ contributions for several years after his death in 1913. He practiced and evangelized a pure form a climbing that was free of bolts and aid: free soloing.

Preuss wrote several essays (with an English translation by Randolph Burks available here,) and has consolidated his beliefs into six principles. These principles were first written in 1911 in the essay Artificial Aid on Alpine Routes: A Reply by Paul Pruess in Vienna. The essay is available in the link I shared.

  1. You should not be equal to the mountain climbs you undertake, you should be superior.
  2. The degree of difficulty that a climber is able to overcome with security on the descent and also believes himself capable of with an easy conscience must represent the upper limit of what he climbs on the ascent.
  3. The justification for the use of artificial aids consequently exists only in the event of an immediately threatening danger.
  4. The piton is an emergency reserve and not the basis for a method of working.
  5. The rope is permitted as a relief-bringing means but never as the one true means for making the ascent of the mountain possible.
  6. The principle of security belongs to the highest principles. But not the frantic correction of one’s own insecurity attained by means of artificial aids, rather that primary security which with every climber should be based in the correct estimation of his ability in relation to his desire.

Please go read Preuss’ translated essays. They’re worth the effort. (By the way, I had some difficulty downloading the PDF, so just read them online.)

So the answer, of course is W.P. Haskett Smith, if you say who is the first to free solo. But who was the first intentional and devoted free soloist? I think that title belongs to Paul Preuss.

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Sources: 1) Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb, Dutton, New York 2019. 2) The Runout Podcast on April 12, 2019. 3) Wikipedia, primarily for life dates. 4) Pruss’ essays translated by Randolph Burks available here.

How Free Soloists Die According to Alex Honnold

The Valley of Light. (All rights reserved)

I just finished my written review of The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott and published by Dutton in March 2019. The “big” review won’t be published until sometime after May 8th. That’s okay. There is plenty of stuff to share that didn’t fit into the 800-word limit.

One thing I had to share from Synnott’s book was how Honnold views the risk of death from free soloing. (Synnott calls this Honnold’s “homegrown statistic.”) According to Honnold, Synnot writes, “no free soloist has ever fallen while pushing his limits.”

Synnott quotes Honnold: “It doesn’t seem to be the way that people die.”

Synnott considered these free soloists from The Impossible Climb:

However, there are two that died free soloing

While this subject was morbid and covered only about a page, the book is still more about life and facing fear and the choices we make.

Go pick up a copy, I definitely recommend it.

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How Books and Magazines About Climbing Changed My Life

The Portal on Transit Road. (All rights reserved)

The other day I was rearranging my bookshelf to put the guidebooks all in one place, the narratives in another, and box up some that I use less frequently. The shelf is stacked from floor to ceiling inter-mixed with an old piton, an old belay device, broken altimeter, thank-you cards from Banff, and the knife from my Uncle Tom. I came across my oldest set of climbing magazines from the early 2000s and two books from the early 1990s. They affected me how they always affect me; a flood of forgotten feelings, including an impulse drop everything to go to the Adirondack Mountains, came over me like a wave.

Later that week, I realized that I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences those climbing magazines and books gave me. It wouldn’t have happened without the arrival of a new bookstore in town.

Although I have been told I watched a lot of television when I was a kid, what I remember most about growing up in my home was my mother, father, and siblings reading. They read the Bible, The Buffalo Evening News (when it was still delivered daily around five p.m.), magazines, Reader’s Digest, books from the library and the bookstore at the mall. I remember reading The Young Astronauts series and how it ; my imagination was strong and while I muddled through the school day, I could always come home to read and then go out into the six-acre woods behind my home to play out exploring the Martian surface. Outside the enchantment around my house, everything seemed lackluster.Moments of Doubt

Everything except for the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, a six-hour drive away that until college, we only made the trip for a week once a year. The breeze on a bald summit, the edge of a flat-water lake, the silence on a trail surrounded by mossy boulders and evergreens, and the remote rock faces were beyond the scope of my imagination. I was awed by it all. One week in the ‘Dacks filled my cup for a whole year.

Around 1998, the sleazy bookshop at the mall was unseated as the great local bookstore. That’s when a Barnes & Noble opened up in my neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. The one at the mall was the place anyone at the mall seemed to hang out who didn’t have money to spend but needed somewhere to go. The loiterers endlessly perusing magazines and trinkets; they rarely entering the two long narrow aisles of books. I visited the American history section mostly, seeking interesting stories of people rising up to do important things.

Until the arrival of Buffalo’s Barnes & Noble, the only climbing book I owned was John Long’s How to Rock Climb: Face Climbing (1992), which I bought at the Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid. I had stumbled, without knowing it, into bouldering on mossy Adirondack glacial “pebbles” the size of pickups and box trucks strewn through the Adirondack High Peaks. No one was there to teach me so I hoped this book would unlock some secrets. It did, by teaching me different foot positions and even introduced me to the technique and joy of slab climbing, which is abundant in the Adirondacks.

R&I #102 Aug/Sept 2000I suddenly had access to publications, like the American Alpine Journal that demonstrated what a serious and detailed group many climbers were, Climbing Magazine, which taught me skills, and Rock & Ice, which had fascinating features about people that appeared to have surrendered themselves over to climbing. I peruse these issues every few years, often when packing or unpacking for a move, like when we went from Alexandria, VA to Lancaster, PA. I still get this urge and sense of suddenly being unsettled, and feel the need to load my backpack with my helmet, put on my boots and drive to the Adirondacks or White Mountains in the dead of night to be there by morning and hit a trail to a peak or a hidden (always hidden) crag.

I also discovered David Roberts’ books in that bookstore. I bought a copy of Moments of Doubt, a collection of his articles. I have two memories strongly associated with finding this book. First, I was laying in bed before going to sleep reading the essay “Five Days on Mount Huntington.” In the introduction to the article, Roberts wrote, “I have never lived through a five-day span or comparable intensity.” I read on, as if I were a silent partner traveling with Roberts and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington, even after Bernd’s mysterious accident that left Roberts alone, high on the mountain, to endure days and nights of storm. My eyes widened, I held the book tightly, and I felt my mostly-dark bedroom was a tent on a snow-blown mountainside that was horrifyingly stormy. Bernd was certainly gone, but Roberts was also certainly aware and the wisdom of his experience was like a candle lit in my dim suburban neighborhood.

Climbing #209, Nov. 2002

The other memory is thinking that I had a treasure. The climbing genre books at 796.522 next to the baseball and hockey books were deep. It wasn’t about breaking sport franchise records, or the final scores, or even changing the world or important things like ending poverty. I have always been into religion and theology and the human experiences of climbers written by climbers were the closest things that I related to and connected with from my experiences in the Adirondacks. They were human, emotional, at times egotistical, often impossible to put into words, and yet more enlightened about life and being alive than I have ever read. I had found literature that wasn’t about insight into the every day, I found people that came from the every day and transcended the every day. They found the mountain high and the peace and clarity that comes from the heights. I felt it before, but I thought it was reserved for church and prayer time and maybe after my mountain vacations, and yet, I found it reading these books by people doing something… seeking something, though they rarely ever said what they were seeking. I connected with them.

And I kept the treasure, the books, and my mountain climbing, a secret for a long, long time. It was too personal, too important, to share. Peakbagging, ice climbing, and bouldering gave me power; today I call it being centered. I didn’t share it, I think, because I  thought that if I shared my love for climbing books and climbing that my secret power would be diminished. I had been bullied and picked in elementary school. In defense, I learned not to bring up things that would make me vulnerable. In Buffalo, I had a fire in me, but I felt like very few people supported keeping it lit and a few wanted me to put it out. I don’t know why, even as I turned 40. When I graduated college, I left for Washington, DC without a job, without a cell phone, a bag with three suits and several neckties, a laptop, my Bible, and a box of climbing books.

R&I November 2000

By 2004, I was established in a job working for my hometown Congressman. One night while watching C-Span from the office, I was emailing the boss with recommendations on how he ought to vote on all of the procedural amendments to an appropriations bill. In between votes, during drawn-out remarks by other members of congress, I was exchanging messages with my former colleague who quit Capitol Hill gig to live and work in Alaska just a few months ago. Because of Moments of Doubt, and egged on by stories in those magazines, I decided I had to go, and now was the time to make a pilgrimage. That summer we saw Denali on the clearest day of the year, took in the Harding Ice Field, and even got thrown out of a bar in Anchorage.

I look at the magazines in the stacks these days and compare it to how I feel looking at a new issue of Climbing or R&I and realize I don’t get that feeling. I don’t feel compelled to participate the same way. I suspect that it’s the level of responsibility I have accepted and embraced since then; I can’t simply pickup and nonchalantly go on some adventure with aplomb like I once did.

Face Climbing by John Long.

While I remember the uncontrollable urge to go climb in the Adirondacks when I look at my old climbing magazines, I also know in the here and now I don’t feel it. I am somewhat content. (I say somewhat, because there are always improvements to be made in life, right?) The weird part is, while I am nostalgic, I don’t even feel like I am disappointed at my contentment. Perhaps because I like where I am. In fact, since Natalie and I had our little Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz I have gone on only short hikes but seen more if not just as much as I did on my 22-mile day treks high above sea level. Sometimes I miss the view and breeze atop the bald summits, yet the interest in the streams, a salamander, or a red fox, and bird watching has been truly magical. While wilderness might be far, nature is all around, and it is more rewarding than I ever realized before.

Now, my hikes with my family and my frequent trips to the climbing at the gym are the things that both center my mind and keep me physically fit. I don’t know where I would be as a partner to Natalie and the kids without either of those activities.

Natalie recently reread the biography of Maria Von Trapp, as in the Sound of Music, which we both read with joy before we had children. She recently reread it and read outloud some portions to me; it felt like we had overlooked entire sections and themes. I suppose our lenses have tinted since then.

I think most literature, but particularly books, is the same way — dynamic. My climbing books can be elastic and strike me in different ways depending where my experience has taken me to open new doors and windows into what the author put on paper. Maybe it’s time I reread some of Moments of Doubt. 

Still, it’s not that way as much with magazines. In looking through that old stack of climbing magazines, I can still see clearly who I was and how much I have changed because of them.

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A Few Feet Short by Jamey Glasnovic

The Himalaya in Glasnovic’s A Few Feet Short.

Before Jamey Glasnovic headed back to Nepal and the Himalayas, this time alone with his bicycle, he wrote what I had started to think:

What of course could be more important than living an adventurous and fulfilling life?

The answer, of course, is work. A dirty, four-letter word if there ever was one… If you grow up in middle class in the Western world, certain expectations become a part of your every-day life, whether you like it or not.

Jamey Glasnovic wrote bout his second visit to Nepal and the Himalayas in his new book A Few Feet Short: An Uncommon Journey to Everest, published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2018. After visiting Nepal several years earlier, Glasnovic had been facing health and life challenges leaving him lost at home adrift among the Western middle-class. Begrudgingly, at first, he packed a few key things, including his bike, and flew to Kathmandu to wander the towns and the hills leading up to the base of tallest mountain in the world.

Glasnovic decided to take this journey right before he turned 46. I turned 40 earlier this week. Although 40 is a milestone, age 45 is the time when many Western middle class men start to face a mid-life crisis. Glasnovic clearly faced one, and I hope to avoid one; Glasnovic’s advice is to slow down and live deliberately, not necessarily conforming to the prescribed path of culture. That’s why Glasnovic went to Nepal. I’m taking notes.

Glasnovic was a bar tender with rising blood pressure heading him down the path toward a stroke or heart attack. His doctor asked him if he had some non-alcoholic beer at the bar. Glasnovic replied that it wouldn’t be as much fun. It just took time to realize he needed a lifestyle change.

Slowly, Glasnovic changed his attitude and agreed: living and living meaningfully were two different things. While he could go “all-guns-a-blazin'” with his friends at the bar or trying to make every day the best day of his life by more and more thrills, to the detriment of his wallet and his health, he decided he needed to do something different.

Nepal took on a practical and romantic meaning for Glasnovic. He appreciated the landscape, the people, and — now — how different it was from his current lifestyle. But in going, going to visit wasn’t enough. He needed a challenge. He needed something to make this life journey a quest. So he wouldn’t just visit the landmarks via car and bus, or even a pied, no, he’d ride his bicycle. He was also certain it hadn’t been done before.

If I didn’t take Glasnovic so seriously, and didn’t empathize with his life changes so much, I would have laughed more early in the book; he was quite funny about his reluctance to actually ride across Nepal. It was cynical. It was also anything but positive. It was funny, but underlying all that it was also sad.

Of course, part of the plan of his journey riding from Kathmandu to Everest base camp was a change of scenery and take a slower pace than back home. As he struggled with the anxiety of the journey, he did have time and procrastination was convenient. But he still had to shift his approach to tell himself to slow down, relax, the town isn’t going anywhere. His bike trek isn’t going anywhere.

After he wandered Kathmandu for several days, visiting the tourist-congested neighborhoods and the lesser known and places the foreigners rarely see, he started pedaling. He took in funeral tradition at river, the likes we never see in the Western world. The deceased are wrapped in colorful cloth, dressed in flowers, and carried on a stretcher to the Bagmati River. There the deceased are burned to ashes in front of the whole family and gathering. It was hardly a private affair; Glasnovic could just stop and watch, meanwhile the traffic along the path by the river simply routed every else around.

The traffic, when it wasn’t merely manic, it was curiously reckless. Many rode motor bikes, and while the drivers wore helmets, well… why don’t the passengers?

As Glasnovic pedeled for days uphill toward Everest, he began to finally appreciate the journey, despite the pain and aches as his body found a new groove. Nepal was poor. Nepalese didn’t have much. Nepalese worked hard. And they were joyful. Perhaps he didn’t want to get too intimate to find out the outlook for the Nepalese, but he’s convinced they had a lesson for someone like him.

Glasnovic argues that Nepal has it hard, but maybe they have a lesson for we Western adventurers and Western middle-class workers, both in our rush to the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, or even to our jobs. Maybe the problem is how we measure everything:

We measure distance in time, not miles or kilometres. Speeding up the experience of travel has changed how we view each trip. Movement becomes about the intervening period to the destination, and the ground covered loses significance. The focus is on being here and getting there, and te details simply pass us in a blur.

I recommend A Few Feet Short. I don’t recommend it because of Glasnovic’s journey, but because he helps open eyes. We ought to be aware of what norms are cultural and pushed on us, not to rebel, but to know what inside and outside us hold us back from being at peace.

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