Thank you, everyone, for your input on what are the characteristics of what makes a bold climb, and your suggestions for what is the boldest ascent in Alaska. I want to thank three people in particular: climber, mountaineering historian and author Damien Gildea, the editor of The Scree Steve Gruhn, and climbing instructor Norm Rasmussen who all left some lengthy comments after my last post.
This exercise — of seeking the boldest ascent — could have covered any region. I chose Alaska because it’s special. It’s at the edge of the far north (or is the far north, depending on your mental map). It’s also vast wilderness with few towns and outposts. There are no porters. Bush planes are the mode of reaching the backcountry. Predators are bigger than just Giardia. And the mountains are big, cold and famous for routes with knife-edge exposure.
But to get at what makes the boldest ascents, we need to state what bold really means and what characteristics the greatest bold ascents must posses.
What is Bold?
In its simplest terms, bold is about accepting risk and taking action with confidence. As John Frieh pointed out earlier, the risk and confidence could be interpreted as being foolish. In Alaska, a bold ascent needs a little more explanation.
Fundamentally, the danger that accompanies great Alaskan ascents differentiate bold ascents from ordinary ascents. The danger or risk on ascents are different, as Gildea pointed out. The danger might be a route under a serac. The danger might be self imposed, such as going ahead with a long route with an extremely light rack. And the risks and bold qualities of ascent for a siege-style ascent are going to be different for an alpine-style ascent or a single-push climb. I genuinely appreciated Gildea’s clear perspective on this definition. It was very helpful.
In addition, there is an element or breaking ground into the unknown, either in terms of danger, route, rate of ascent, equipment, and general adversity. The pioneering spirit varies from one ascent to another, and this might be a great separator. Gruhn is spot on with this point. Rasmussen carried on the notion of pioneering in a different way: Some ascents challenge perceived limitations. While breaking new ground in a pioneering fashion is essential, if it changes the way we actually think about what the climb accomplished on a human level it stands out even more.
So for our purposes a bold Alaskan ascent is a pioneering ascent that carries significant risk, relative to the route and style of the climb. The boldest of the bold ascents challenged conventional thinking and may have defied what we thought about humans in the mountains.
To compare the ascents, however, we need the definition to provide factors for considering each ascent. These are, unfortunately, subjective. If you ever wondered how in the world the Piolet d’Or committees come to their decisions — ones you and I frequently disagree with — then try naming one ascent the boldest ascent in all of Alaskan climbing history. But for exploring the history, this is the best exercise that was compelling to me.
Please keep in mind that these factors are not standards but matters that must be considered and balanced with one another:
- Pioneering — Did the ascent break ground on a new route or technical challenge?
- Dangers — What were the risks the alpinists faced and were they extraordinary?
- Style of Ascent — Was the ascent done in siege-style, fast and light, or traditional alpine?
- Impact — Did the ascent change the way people thought about adventures in the mountains?
These factors should help with my other objective, of considering the boldest ascent in Alaska of all-time.
As soon as possible, while balancing a busy work season at Habitat for Humanity, family and personal responsibilities, I will roll out the top five boldest ascents in Alaska. I am going to roll them out over a five-day period while sharing a profile each day and naming the boldest ascent in Alaska on day five. In the meantime, please follow some of my thoughts on this on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #BoldAlaska.
[To read the next post in this series, click here.]