The Olympics: Today’s Hot Climbing Topic from Nonclimbers

City living. (All rights reserved)

These days when people learn I love climbing and have this blog, they inevitably say one of two things:

“Have you seen Free Solo?”

And,

“You must be thrilled that climbing is included in the Olympics now.”

In short, Yes, and, Eh.

Yes, I have seen Free Solo. The climb was incredible, but no, my hands didn’t sweat. Maybe because I wasn’t there filming it. I remember when social media exploded with the news Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan alone without a rope. I read about it a ton. It was spectacular. In fact, I even waited to watch the film until after I read Mark Synnott’s book. (I suspect I was the only person in the world to do this.) And I still liked Jimmy Chin’s Meru more.

And as for the Olympics, I am actually indifferent. I’ve never gotten excited about the summer Olympics and I don’t enjoy competition climbing. Although I climb indoors for fitness and center myself, comp climbing is its own discipline.

In fact, the Olympic comp climbing doesn’t fit into my scope: Here are my guidelines I follow (and regularly break for a rant:) Focus on the essence of the alpine experience, Draw on the power of the mountains, No Mount Everest, No sport or comp climbing.

I’ve heard that potential competitors aren’t pleased with the format. The Olympic Committee requires the 20 male climbers and 20 female climbers to compete in all three events, including lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. All three events are unique, especially for the climbers. The training and preparation for each event is different. We’re all specialists, or at least we’re specialists at one discipline at a time. Speed climbers are usually just speed climbers and the lead climbers won’t be competitive at speed climbing. Either way, the winner will be the best overall. But even then, it’s not just comp climbing, but Olympic comp climbing.

TSM aside, I think the Olympic adoption of climbing events had plenty to do with the growth of climbing gyms worldwide. In Buffalo, where I grew up, I didn’t have a gym in the 1990s. I had to drive north to Niagara County for an odd climbing gym that only had preset knots in carabiners ready for a harness. Now, Buffalo has a large, upscale Central Rock Gym, like those in the greater Boston area. In fact, for a while, the climbing gym industry was seeing 40 new gyms a year being added across the country.

Climbing’s popularity has grown exponentially and fostered more competition events, coverage on mainstream television stations, and I suspect one day soon I will be buying Five Ten climbing shoes (now owned by Adidas, by the way) for my kids at Dicks Sporting Goods, or — gulp — Target.

I think that the growth in climbing gyms has been wonderful. Again, it goes to my general point and value statement that climbing matters. Whether we want an escape from the urban or suburban wasteland, a vista from a summit, or just found a way to get our body engaged with nature, whatever we seek has been met with climbing somewhere, somehow. Even, for some of us, in the Olympics.

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David Smart Shares the Pure Fire of Paul Preuss

Knowing that loved ones’ worries about his climbing impeded his attempts to free solo, Paul Preuss allowed his friends to move on to another route without him. If his friends had known that they would watch what would be the most difficult climb in the world, they might have stayed be witnesses. It was July 24, 1911 at the base of the the West Face of the Totenkirchl. Preuss carried a rope, but it remained in his pack only for rappels, and his only technical gear he would employ were his Kletterschuhe or rock climbing shoe with rope soles.

He climbed hundreds of meters, unroped, and without placed protection. He followed a route established by a party lead by Tita Piaz in 1908 until, near the top of the wall, he continued the line along an unclimbed fissure extending the route higher. At a hut, he logged in his climb publicly and added, unnecessarily but intentionally, “allein” or alone, and thus started a stir of wonder and controversy that set climbing on a new path.

This was just the beginning of the bold disruptions to climbing made by Paul Preuss as told in David Smart’s latest book Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss: Life and Death at the Birth of Free-Climbing. Until this book, the most I could find — in English — about the great climber and free soloist were in entries in 1913 and 1914 editions of the Alpine Journal and some translations of his essays. No stories. No context. No explanation.

David Smart, the author of A Life Wasted Climbing (2015), among other titles, and the editorial director of Gripped Magazine, has intricately woven stories of Preuss’ life and accomplishments with vivid illustrations of the times and the rising middle class in the outdoors into a magnificent biography. The result has been a short-listed nominee for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and Banff Mountain Book Competition.

(And by the way, Smart is also being honored this year at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival with the Summit of Excellence Award. The annual award has recognized individuals — which reads like a “who’s who” list — that made significant contributions to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies and across Canada. Smart pioneered routes on the Niagara escarpment in Ontario and wrote its first guidebook in 1984. If you’re a regular reader on this blog, you won’t be surprised that Smart fell in love with publishing through climbing literature.)

I love reading climbing books. It’s my favorite genre. I read books about politics, nature, religion, baseball, and novels, but I always come back and never bore of the nonfiction found at 796.522 in my library. But this book sparked the same sense of discovering some lost and mesmerizing treasure when I started reading climbing literature in college. Not only did it make me want to climb, but also roll out maps of the Alps and Dolomites and find more information about the other characters in the story.

The influence of German and Austrian climbers in Canada was felt by Smart, and thereby the legacy of Preuss (pronounced “Proyce”) was known, though the German stories were usually shared orally. Writing a book about Preuss had been on Smart’s mind for about a decade, even before the public’s rise in interest in free soloing from Alex Honnold’s first free solo of El Capitan in 2017. Smart committed himself to the project, by starting the research phase, around 2014. If you page through the Acknowledgements and the Selected Bibliography, you’ll see that Paul Preuss was a monumental undertaking involving a great deal of translating from the original German and Italian and conversations and manuscript reviews by a who’s who list of climbing history and literature, including Reinhold Messner, Katie Ives, and several others.

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

One the treasures in Lord of the Abyss, was how Smart seems to keep track, subtly, about how many occasions and various ways Preuss may have died. (There is no real scorecard in the book, for the record, but perhaps someone could make one.) Of course Preuss tallied the ascent on the Totenkirchl, and even more so on the smooth face of Campanile in the Dolomites or downclimbing the Ferhmann Dihedral, and the hundreds of solo ascents he did in secret while growing up. And counts the initial meeting with Tita Piaz, the Devil of the Dolomites, Preuss’ rival. The day they met, during a wine-filled evening, arguing that the other was the greater climber, Piaz disappears and soon returns with pistols and hands one to Preuss. Dueling was not completely uncommon, and Smart says Preuss had managed to steer clear of it during college in Vienna. Piaz and Preuss took their paces and assumed their positions. The nearly jolting sound of another popping cork shifted the mood and the argument was brushed aside. Preuss 300, Death 0.

In reading other books from the period, even earlier stories, like Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, I never got the sense of the climbing community at home. Granted those stories were tales of the attempts and climbs, primarily. Smart however, in explaining how Preuss’ uncompromising and principled style of climbing came to be, illustrates what it was to be in the rising middle class in Austria and Germany in the late 1890s and early 1900s. At least from the descriptions of life around Vienna and Munich, I got the sense of life being very similar to how it was for Natalie and I living in Washington, DC for 15 years. We all made our living using our minds and writing, being culturally stimulated, pay a great deal for small apartments, and escaping to the countryside and the mountains frequently for everything from hunting, skiing, walking, and climbing.

The urban centers also housed alpine clubs, which varied in activity from simple presentations, to planning outings, providing trainings, and sometimes expedition funding. Smart shares a translation from the Bergland Alpine Club meeting minutes: After dinner and some members were blowing the cream filling out of the cream rolls, the club marched to an a neoclassical monument in town. Preuss climbed the monument’s walls when a Bavarian policeman was alarmed and wanted to catch the builderer. Preuss climbed to the other side, mixed with the passersby and then helped the policeman search for the culprit.

But the core of the story is Preuss’ life and the disruptions his beliefs brought to climbing. Smart provides we English readers a solid understanding of how Preuss came to climb so hard, why he became stalwart against artificial aides and principled in the purest form of climbing. And they’re still enchanting, especially when you consider Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider, or Jim Reynolds ascent (and downclimb) of Fitz Roy. Read Preuss’ principles again and see how it made us consider what we do, even today.

When Preuss converted from Judaism to Christianity (a story unto itself), he read a commentary on the Ten Commandments and after each it added fürchten und lieben, which means fear and love, and continued to say trust in God above all things. The the exhortation fürchten und lieben stuck with him. It’s often that sublime quality that keeps drawing me back to the mountains. As for Preuss, as Smart wrote, “Paul’s passion for the mountains was fueled by fear — or falling short of his ideals and the judgments of others — and by love for the mountains.”


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PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links supports The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.

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.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might want to follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links supports The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.

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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