Carpe Climb ‘Em: Follow Through on Your Life List

I began writing The Suburban Mountaineer in April 2010 to fill a void of climbing in my life. I’ve been a repressed mountaineer, though I did it to myself, really.

I fell in love with climbing in the Adirondacks and from reading Moments of Doubt, the short stories of David Roberts. I taught myself to rock climb through bouldering, an indoor gym in Niagara Falls and top roping short routes. I even practiced climbing a giant oak right in my backyard with prusiks. And Ed Palen and Bill Simes at Rock and River Guides in Keene, NY taught me to ice climb.

Instead of dreaming of thin Himalayan air I aspired to climb throughout North America. I wanted to train on Mount Rainier, even frequenting various routes during my infrequent paid vacations from my career in our nation’s capital. After one day reaching the summit via the Liberty Ridge, I expected to go to Alaska to take in the mountains from the snow, ice and mixed routes from Denali to little-known, remote peaks (some hopefully unclimbed) in the Wrangell Mountains and Brooks Range. I didn’t have to put up routes up the most striking lines in the most aggressive style like Steve House, one of my heroes then, to be satisfied. I just wanted mountain highs and exposure.

About half-a-decade ago, I came to a fork in the road, though I didn’t recognize it as one. At the time I was advancing in my career, I felt I had a little money to spend, and my love life was starting to take off. That’s when a buddy of mine moved to Alaska and he invited me to visit him. We went to all the usual sites, the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park, and I also did some modest climbing in the Chugach.

Since then, I haven’t climbed. I travel. I hike. But it’s been a while since I took my crampons and ice axe up a slope. My priorities changed. Now I was saving up for an engagement ring, a down payment on a home, and now a college fund! Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of something occurring that would impact my family’s future because of an accident due to one of my hobbies. So here I write.

There was a time I used to think that I would refuse to settle into a life that didn’t support my climbing ambitions. Parents, friends, and loved ones haven’t always embraced or accepted my passion for mountaineering. Now, despite our disagreement on where alpinism ranks (which has been long since settled,) we’ve all come to a truce to enjoy the mountains and climbing in ways other than climbing them. And interestingly, it wasn’t hard – despite my lack of notable ascents – for life to be not just good but great. I have a wonderful family and a moving career I highly value to support them. In fact, when I vacation now, my family and I visit the mountains at ski resorts, like Stowe, Whistler – you know the type. I’m guaranteed to have great food, craft beers and a luxurious “bivy” for the night.

Though life is great, I look back when I visited my buddy in the forty-ninth state, and have made a how-can-I-be-so-stupid realization: I wished I climbed Mount Rainier instead. I had the time. I had the funds. The only person I was worried about was me. At that time, I thought I would have more of both in the future to do Mount Rainier later. Life took its turns and climbing gradually became considered too expensive, time consuming and risky. Maybe that will change, but not anytime soon.

The lesson is this: The best time to climb – or do whatever you dream about, for that matter – is now. Make a plan. Execute it. If you don’t, life may still turn out to be as great for you as it is for me, but you might wish you have ticked off that other accomplishment off your life list sooner when you had the chance.

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Thank You, Walter Bonatti and Farewell

I was on the subway on my way to work when I got the news. One of the world’s legendary mountaineers and climbing leaders has passed away. Walter Bonatti died on September 13, 2011. He was 81.

He was progressive in his climbs, often in the midst of controversy, and often lucky to survive. His routes range from the Alps to the Himalayas during its Golden Age.

Here is a selection of informed stories marking and celebrating the great Italian alpinist’s life and accomplishments:

While he is part of numerous stories of climbing, he wrote his own account of them too. Here is a link to his book, The Mountains of My Life.

Thank you for your inspiration, Walter Bonatti.

Kaltenbrunner Summits 8,000ers – Deserves More Celebration

Shortly after the news was official, I announced through Facebook and Twitter that Austrian alpinist Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has become the first woman to summit the world’s fourteen highest mountains (above 8,000 m./ 26,246 ft.). That feat alone is worth an accolade and a book deal these days, but Kaltenbrunner went a step further. She climbed these mountains without supplemental oxygen.

Mountaineering celebrates first the way baseball does; first pitch and first ascents; leaders in batting average and leaders in categories. Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment has been sought after by men and women alike. While nearly 30 alpinists have topped out on all fourteen 8,000ers, only about a dozen – all of them previously men – have done so without using “gas.”

Gas is essential for climbers to get to that top. At higher altitudes, particularly above 6,000 meters, but also much lower, the lack of dense air can make mountaineers feel lethargic, similar to the feeling of a bad sinus congestion with sleepiness brought on from medication. Put into a fog that slows down reflexes and thinking processes, many climbers choose to use oxygen bottles to enhance their air density. In fact, some climbers find it necessary to use gas and would not be able to summit otherwise.

Earlier in climbing history, it was thought that it would be impossible for man to attain the summits of the Himalayas without gas. However, in 1978, Reinhold Messner showed the world that it was possible – through proper acclimatization and will power – to climb 8,000ers without, as Ed Viesturs put it, “cheating.” On May 8, 1978, Messner summited Everest completely under his own lung power.

It is unclear to me at this time whether Kaltenbrunner felt she was racing against other women to be first or had the ambition to be first. Regardless the title was clearly sought after. You may recall that in August 2010, South Korean female alpinist Oh Eun-Sun claimed that she summited Kanchenchunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), which if that attempt was not disputed by several reputable sources, would have made her the title holder.

Kaltenbrunner also deserves more attention. In North America, outside the climbing community, there has been very little coverage of Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment and even less about who she is and how she got there. I suspect that it is her language and nationality that separates her from my English-speaking world. But as a woman and a climber, her story should be retold more broadly. Everyone can benefit.

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Sources: 1) “Gerlinde Kalkenbrunner Summits K2!”, August 23, 2011; 2) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top, Broadway Books, 2006.

No Shortcuts to the Top: A Review

I’ve got a confession. I was introduced to climbing by the fifth Star Trek movie when Captain Kirk attempted to free soloed El Cap before nearly falling to his death. But growing up in snowy Upstate New York and hiking and climbing the winter wonderland of the Adirondacks gave me a flavor for alpine ascents, not big walls. Being introduced to the American climbing icon Ed Viesturs nudged me further along. I can’t remember when I first learned of Viesturs, but it was before the Imax movie Everest, where he played a leading role, was released.

Viesturs became well known among American climbers for his Endeavor 8,000 project where he became the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen in over an eleven year quest that concluded in 2005. In 2006, Viesturs and David Roberts, author of climbing classic Mountain of My Fear, combined efforts to tell Viesturs life story and his journey to the top of the Himalayas in No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks.

Overall this autobiography tells the reader more about the things that compel Viesturs fans to follow him. He is known for his phrase, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,” which is odd to come from a well known climbing celebrity. Often climbers are thought of as risk takers. Instead, Viesturs book shows how he has actually been risk adverse and still been successful in the mountains.

The book was exactly what a fan of “Steady Eddy” like me wanted. It explained how Viesturs climbed at the level he did and addressed the challenge of the mountains from Mount Rainier, to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. First, Viesturs’ physiology is above average and explains the science behind his ability to grab more oxygen from thin air. Viesturs also shares his firm belief in being self reliant in the mountains, including listening to one’s gut: If something doesn’t feel right, listen to it and turn around. It was this second part that both kept him out of danger and delayed success in Endeavor 8,000 by several years.

People are also interested in his family. Despite the risks he takes and the expeditions he goes on for months at a time, he maintains what appears to be a strong family unit. He also talks about that, including intimate details about how he and his wife Paula met and having children.

In his belief of self-sufficient climbing, Viesturs and his partners – for the most part – have embraced the alpine style of climbing. He talks about sharing gear to pack lighter and also what he puts on his rack for various ascents.

Comparing Viesturs to progressive alpinists like Steve House is like comparing an Ice Road Trucker to the Stig from Top Gear. It’s just unfair. Viesturs approach, goals and tolerance for risk is different. But it is that contrast that makes him appealing, especially to the casual or even average mountaineer.

The book Viesturs produced with Roberts is worth the purchase and read. In fact, I have two copies. One for myself with some penciled notes and another to lend out to friends.

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