Ueli Steck and the Graziani-Benoist Odyssey on Annapurna

Climbing alone into the night. (All rights reserved)

Before I get into Ueli Steck and Annapurna, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of a very special and influential alpinist. As you probably heard, Sir Doug Scott passed away on the evening of December 7, 2020. He was part of the first ascent of the Southwest Everest expedition in 1975–where he was benighted and suffered through the highest open bivy to date on the descent–and embraced traveling in small light teams on his 30 other ascents that included El Capitan, Mt. Asgard, Denali, Mt. Waddington, Shivling, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga, Pic Lenin, and many more. He also did a great deal of charitable work benefiting Himalayan communities.

As accomplished and pioneering as Scott was, he was not unapproachable. Alex Rodie, the editor at Sidetracked Magazine, shared a story like several others I recalled hearing over the years but hadn’t recorded to share. Rodie gave me permission to share what he tweeted about Sir Scott’s passing: “Saddened to read this. Doug Scott was once very kind to me as a young and clueless amateur climbing historian nosing around in the Alpine Club archives.” I raised a toast, and hope you’ll join me, “To Sir Scott: For his accomplishments and that he lived to be 79.”

Last week, I asked if you believe Ueli Steck climbed the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push through the night, and more importantly why? Many of you admitted that you were not familiar with the controversy, some stated firm positions on both sides, several significant partners of Steck were deliberately silent, and one asked posed a different question for all of us. But first, let’s get everyone caught up on the facts.

OCTOBER 9, 2013

Camped on a grassy knoll, Steck’s intended partner, Don Bowie of Canada, and Tenji Sherpa, one of Steck’s climbing friends, Dan Patitucci, a climbing photographer, and a filmmaker named Jonah, waited in camp at the base of Annapurna to the south. Steck and Bowie only went up to camp at 6,100 meters on an earlier attempt days before, and came down. Bowie was sick, or at least not in good shape, and wasn’t going to proceed with Steck. Steck immediately started thinking about going alone. Now he had been gone for over a day, saying he was going to cross the Bergshrund, which he felt was in bad shape, and go as high as he could, perhaps only 5,000 meters at ABC or their high point. But Tenji Sherpa saw a headlamp creep up slowly during the night, and saw it as high as about 200 meters below the summit.

The South Face of Annapurna had been climbed only a few times. It is one of the largest continuous slopes globally, quite steep, and requires advanced technical climbing skills across snow, ice, and rock. The first ascent was by Don Whillians and Dougal Haston as part of a seige-style British expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonington in May 1970. It was the most challenging route on an 8,000-meter peak to date. Nil Bohigas and Envic Lucas went up another line to the east of the first ascent that was more direct to the summit in 1984. Then there was an attempt by a route that captured Steck’s imagination created by Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille in 1992. Béghin died during the retreat and created a true epic for Lafaille over a five day struggle to return safely to home. Lafaille tried again in 1995, 1998, and then, reached the summit in 2002 by the East Ridge with Alberto Inurrategi.

Steck is a speed climber and traveled very light to begin with. He brought with him a down jacket, a fleece hoody, a GPS watch, a camera, a 6mm rope, propane and a stove, a thin primaloft jacket, a tent, heavy down mittens, hardshell pants, double-layer gloves, a little food most of which appeared to be energy bars and chocolate, five bolts, and an ice screw. He didn’t bring a sleeping bag or wear the hip belt on his pack. It was very light and, generally speaking, proven on his solo excursions in the Alps.

In the morning, Bowie, Tenji, and Patitucci went up the snowslope prior to the ice fall to meet Steck with tea. He was alive, well, and reported he had successfully summited the mountain. News flew over social media fast and reached my device. Sometime in the next day or two, Steck was interviewed by Elizabeth Hawley, the great Himalayan climbing archivist, in Khatmandu. She recorded his solo ascent as a bona fide successful climb to the top.

However, while Miss Hawley was satisfied, Steck’s story faced stringent scrutiny from a new generation of critics who’s standards were far more technical than Miss Hawley’s questioning about the climb and what the climber saw, and weighing the climber’s character. At the heart of the evidence against him, Steck had no route data due to a malfunction in his GPS wrist-watch and he reported losing his camera during a small avalanche early on the ascent. While he was clearly on the Béghin-Lafaille line started in 1992, whether he reached the top in the dark was disputed.

DOUBT AND A PIOLET D’OR

During climbing’s rise to being mainstream (not that alpine climbing has ever truly been mainstream,) the New York Times covered this topic: “Swiss climber’s feat honored despite lack of proof,” read the headline. The Piolet d’Or is an annual award that honors the greatest climbs of the year. If you believed Steck, there was no doubt his ascent was worthy of such a trophy.

When I first heard the criticisms, I wasn’t annoyed. The critics were nitpicking; Steck had an honest character. He had no need to lie, conflate, or exaggerate his claims. But my attitude shifted during my annual volunteer work for the Banff Centre’s annual literature competition; I read Ed Douglas’ story in Rock and Ice #251 from July 2018, “The Other Annapurna,” a title inspired by how Maurice Herzog ended his book on the first ascent of the mountain, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Douglas wrote about two French climbers, Yannick Graziani and Stéphane Benoist, nearly eclipsed by the fanfare around Steck.

The coverage here in the states about Graziani and Benoist was limited to PlanetMountain.com, if I recall correctly, but it was there. The news I read at the time was modest, but the gist was shortly after Steck returned, the Frenchmen went up the Béghin-Lafaille route too and experienced much harsher conditions, made it to the summit, experienced severe frostbite, and were rushed to Kathmandu for treatment after an eight-day slog. Shortly after they returned, Douglas says Graziani might have seen some ice axe pick marks in the snow higher up but could not be certain. The only other sign that Graziani and Benoist did see was a tent platform cut out, and that, they told Douglas, was before the “real difficulties.”

Douglas also mentioned a report on Steck’s 2011 Shisha Pangma climb that struck Graziani in retrospect. The author was French climbing analyst Randolphe Popier, and he concluded, though Steck was on the route, he could not have made it to the summit of Shisha Pangma in 2011. Graziani told Douglas: “If [Steck] can lie once then he can lie twice.” Popier produced an even more thorough analysis on Steck’s 2013 Annapurna South Face climb. In the Annapurna report Popier used more photo illustrations and points in time to demonstrate credible reasons for doubting Steck. Asking other’s opinions on these reports, after having read them most tell me the same thing: He climbed incredibly but he could not have actually reached the summit and he lied to all of us.

Graziani’s and Benoist’s story was far more credible than Steck; compared to their Odyssey on Annapurna, Steck’s seemed vague, and as Popier and others have pointed out, inconsistent. How can you believe Steck? But could we all be wrong? Or could Steck have been so consumed by pressures that delusion and ego rose up and enveloped his sense of truth? My curiosity rose from just doubt and suspicion to Steck, to a new question: Could Steck still, in light of this research, have made the top of Annapurna, and if he didn’t what happened that compelled him to claim he did?

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Do You Believe Ueli Steck Really Climbed Annapurna’s South Face?

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The Behgin-Lafaille / Steck 2013 Route on Annapurna’s South Face. (All rights reserved)

Before I even had my coffee on a sunny morning in Alexandria, Virginia in October 2013, I woke to several notifications all with the same simple news: Ueli Steck returned to basecamp after climbing Annapurna’s South Face solo in a continuous push over 28 hours. I was mesmerized and aglow from that news all day.

I remember the sunlight shining through early fall leaves into my old condo’s kitchen as I poured the coffee into my favorite mug from Middlebury, Vermont. I was re-tweeting posts and posted on Facebook about the news. This was special. It was the most significant human achievement in the mountains I had witnessed since I started this T.S.M. blog just a couple of years earlier. And it was something to share with my non-climbing friends, which were mostly nonclimbers then, because even they saw videos on YouTube of Steck climbing fast solo in the Alps. I was a witness to a great moment.

I didn’t have a great deal of detail about Steck’s climb that morning, but I was aware the South Face was arduous and rarely climbed. (I think I thought the route was similar to Denali’s avalanche prone Wickersham Wall, which wasn’t precisely the sole challenge. It’s also at high altitude and steeper.) It was first climbed by an expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonnington in 1970, via a vulnerability on the western side of the South Face. Steck climbed the route started by Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille in 1993. That first attempt was Lafaille’s epic. Béghin died during their retreat, and he wrote about it in a memoir, Prisonnier de l’Annapurna (2003).

Steck was nominated and won a Piolet d’Or for the ascent. But before he earned a Piolet d’Or, doubt had crept in. He climbed without his partner, Don Bowie of Canada, his altimeter wristwatch malfunctioned, and he had no photographic proof; his camera fell early on during the ascent. He had no documented proof of his climb — a notable first ascent of a new route. The New York Times even covered the controversy.

Considering Steck’s lack of evidence, I have been asking questions and trying to come to conclusions. Is what he did reasonable for Steck? If he lied, why would he have done so? Was he mistaken? Delusional? Was it media pressure for a professional athlete? And does good reputation and Steck’s character overcome all doubt? I’ve struggled with wanting to believe he pulled it off, but the more I’ve dug, the more complex is the story and our own human judgments.

Over the next two weeks, I hope to have a conversation with you over social media and over email. At the same time, on this T.S.M. blog, I am going to share what I have learned from interviews, what I can share from some confidential sources, and what other climbers have written about Ueli and whether he actually climbed the South Face of Annapurna, or whether its a hoax, a delusion, or something else entirely that points its finger back at ourselves.

Before we go down this rabbit hole, the key question is this: Do you believe Ueli Steck climbed the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push through the night, and more importantly why? Leave me a comment on Twitter or Facebook or shoot me an email (which is on my About page.) I look forward to hearing from you.

Read the next post in this series by clicking here.

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Sorry, Your Summit Didn’t Matter: Here is Why

Mt. Kennedy. (All rights reserved)

After you reached the top of Denali, you tugged at your left mitten with your teeth and let the fingerless glove dangle on its tether. Your hand, covered in a blue fleece glove unzipped your chest pocket and reached in for your camera. You snapped shots of the view, with the ever-changing camouflage pattern of gleaming white and gray cast over the West Buttress by shifting clouds. Finally, you put your arm around your two partners and snap a selfie.

When you tell your story with your family or your Mountaineering Section of the Appalachian Mountain Club, that photo of the three of you always comes out. To you, it was the culmination of so much time, money, and above all, heart. The photo shows the three of you, with grey sky on the left and bright sunshine on the right and in between your heads is snow and indication of a valley, or maybe that’s just dark from a cloud’s shadow. In fact, your other photos, of the North Summit and the West Buttress, and possibly the one of not-so-distant Begguya, were better proof of your arrival on the summit.

The honor system is widely applied worldwide. Climbers generally accept other climbers claims so long as the climber claiming their first ascent or summit is of good character. For infrequently visited summits, if the story is doubted, a summit record is occasionally disputed in the record. Usually only the larger mountains, that are more competitively climbed where climbers doubt and dispute summits.

My favorite example is the dispute of Frederick Cook’s claim that he made it to the top of Denali in 1906, then referred to as Mount McKinley. Cook visited the range, retreated, and suddenly turned around with one lesser partner and returned with news that he had climbed the highest peak in North America. He even had a photo as proof. His story was dubious to knowledgeable climbers, yet Cook published a book and was generally regarded as the first ascentionist among the general public. The doubt spread by climbers incensed at his injustice, and in 1910 Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker, who Cook made the initial retreat with, returned to the Alaska Range and replicated Cook’s photo-of-proof and debunked the climb altogether. Cook went on denying any hoax.

Summit photos are evidence, particularly with landmarks, even at a distance. Narratives are evidence, and the timing and conditions must be reasonable. Maps or even a GPS-tracked route, are very helpful. All of which could be fabricated, but the honor system still holds generally speaking. As Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Trust, but verify.”

Eberhard Jurgalski of 8000ers.com has records, some of which aren’t widely known, of disputes around the summits of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri I, and Manaslu. To be more precise, there are questions of whether the climbers reached the actual summit. And if the actual summit wasn’t reached, has a custom or norm been created where the area surrounding the summit is considered a successful climb?

Over the last year, in between more pressing life things, I have been talking to established climbing researchers and perusing Jurgalski’s website and have been fascinated by the system he and others have developed using peak photos. Through some painstaking work, they have collected quality views from and of the summit, and labeled all of the notable features with letters, A, B, C, and so forth. The photos submitted as evidence of a climb can then be compared to these points. For example, if the rock covered in snow forming a knob, feature E is always in line with peak D in the distance with a certain amount of visibility from the lower peak in front of it, from a southwest camera angle, then you can clearly see where on the climber stood on the summit.

Of course, with so many instances of climbers reaching the top but not actually arriving on the summit, Jurgalski and others have suggested in 2019, for a point of discussion, introducing summit Tolerance Zones. This is essential for the work on 8000ers.com where counting climbers, by name and date, who reached the summit. When it was assumed everyone was reaching the true tippy top, tallying summiters was simple. The photographic evidence has shown the treatment of summits as a, well, slippery slope.

I believe the summit is the summit. We should be reaching the top, even if there is only room for one person at a time. I’ve done that on much less significant peaks. However, I would hate to have my “expedition” scrutinized like this. I like the self-reporting of the Alpine Journals everywhere, but while the Elizabeth Hawley-like verification prevents more Frederick Cooks, I just want to climb, I don’t want to write a book about how I was first. Of course, too many are speaking to corporate circles and giving Ted Talks (supposedly) about their perseverance and vision through their summit of an 8000-meter peak. Fine, go climb and tell. I’m going to find some better peaks that are under the radar and enjoy it for what it is, a summit. And I know there are others, that will find more impressive lines to go up than a summit to verify. Thanks, I hope I’ll stumble on your story.

UPDATE (Nov. 30, 2020): A few days after I posted this essay, the American Alpine Club published an extensive piece by Damien Gildea, Antarctic alpinist and author, about the dilemma of climbers claiming summits they have not stood upon. He goes in depth into the discovery and the challenge it presents to archival accomplishments as well as what we do going forward.

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Was Reading Your First Climbing Book as Impactful?

Dusk Descent, inspired by cover of Alpinist 69. (All rights reserved)

If you were fortunate to read a mountaineering history or one of David Roberts biographical tales for your first book on climbing, your appetite for more would be difficult to sate.

I got into climbing when I was 12. I was principally interested in peak bagging but walls fascinated me. I bought a copy of Face Climbing by John Long. I manged to learn how to smear and edge, and more fundamentally, to stand on my legs and feet. I climbed in my Timberland boots back then, since I was, still aiming for treeless summits. Saving up for La Sportivas then seemed like too big of a challenge.

I don’t know the date, but I remember the evening vividly. I was in my parents home during my freshman year in college reading in my bed. It was late, and my parents were downstairs watching television. The story was from July 1965, with Harvard Mountaineering Club Members, David Roberts, Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts included one of four article-length versions of the story in an anthology titled Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings of David Roberts (1986). On the descent from the summit, having established a significant new route and the second ascent, the team split up, Jensen and Hale to one camp and Roberts and Bernd to the other. Bernd vanishes in the dark and Roberts spends days alone waiting out a storm running through the vagueness of Bernd’s disappearance. I had never read anything so remarkable, for the story, and the rawness of the story. It seemed fictional, yet I believed that this extraordinary and horrible experience truly happened. I felt as alive as Roberts had in his tent on Mount Huntington.

I returned to the bookstore and found another book with Roberts byline, this time shared by a name I was not yet familiar with, Conrad Anker. Together they wrote alternating chapters of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest (1999). I read it only months later and finished, according to a Post-It-Note inside, on January 8, 2000. I wrote, “This book is an enjoyable read because it mixes the romantic era of climbing in wool and silk with reality and the reality of climbing today and its culture and the history of mountaineering.” I should have edited that better before leaving that note in there.

Although I hadn’t learned the breadth of various climbing styles and disciplines, yet, I now saw the alpine style on Mount Huntington, the siege-style expeditions to Everest, and the modern commercial-style expeditions to the 8,000ers. I think it was that spring that I discovered Ed Viesturs on MountainZone.com, who lead me to read the influential Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. From there I just kept reading climbing books and started subscribing to climbing magazines.

Amrita Dhar, an English professor at the University of Ohio Newark, originally from Calcutta, India, calls mountaineering the most literary of all sports. I think that is true, even compared to the expansive writing about baseball I have read and know there is more to be consumed. Part of this, Dhar explains in the Alpinist Podcast on November 21, 2019, mountaineers often start their journey with literature, climb, and then write about it afterwards. In her vein, I would argue that mountaineering and climbing proper doesn’t include spectator stands, but involves the experience inside the climber as well as the physical route, which is best told as a narrative. Words are powerful, and they blossom in amazing ways from our inner climbing journeys.

Whether I may have fallen just as in love with climbing literature with another author or different books, I can’t say. Even our adventure off the mountain, can have its own unpredictable surprises. But after the last 20 years of reading climbing narratives, I would still be where I am now. Climbing narratives are powerful and best told in words.

Was the first climbing book you read as impactful on you? And what book was it and how did you find it? Send me an email (address found here) or leave me a comment on social media. I would love to know your story.

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Climbing is a Therapy Not an Antidote: A Review of All that Glitters

Margo Talbot, an ice climber, a leader for women’s climbing, and an advocate for mental health published her autobiography in 2011. It was self published because Talbot is stubborn and refused to quit when the publisher’s warehouse burned down. The 2020 publication of All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey through Addiction and Depression by Rocky Mountain Books was made possible because of Talbot’s stalwart attitude in 2011 and reader response to date, including being a 2011 Banff Mountain Literature Finalist. RMB knew, like I have realized, more people need to read this book.

Talbot was born in Frederickton, New Brunswick in the 1960s to her disconnected parents. Her father was an un-involved father, which was typical of the era but compounded by being an orphan and claiming he doesn’t know how to raise children. Her mother was neglectful with her girls and showered attention on her boy. The girls, except Margo Talbot, all got pregnant early. Talbot left on a journey the was an Odyssey with characters and the 1980s and 1990s twist with alcohol and drugs.

One of my favorite lines came after she spent time as a sugar-baby to a wealthy, married, addict, drug dealer named Jay. She challenged him to tell his wife about her, which he does, and the situation explodes sending her back to Jasper, Alberta where they had originally met. She wrote, “Whenever I went to the post office or to do my banking, women would stop me and tell me how great I looked, how thin I was. I wanted to tell them that my secret was an eight-month diet of cocaine followed by betrayal and intense emotional upheaval.”

Talbot discovered climbing through one of her lovers and another addict. She continued to struggle, and things were dark, but she explains how the effort of climbing matched the intensity of her depression. While she climbed, she felt better. That’s not to say that there weren’t pressures from climbing that crept into her life; it did. When she started climbing in competitions, the stress often prompted bouts and periods of deep, darkness.

I like to believe that climbing is a cure or at least a therapy for many things, as climbing helps me deal with stress and centering myself. But Talbot’s story made it very clear to me that climbing is not an antidote to depression. Getting out of depression as deep as Talbot’s still requires exorcising demons, which is a hard, long process — possibly years long. Talbot does show that ice climbing is a helpful tool during the process of alleviating the pressures and triggers of depression, but does not necessarily mean the condition was healed.

While I think there is a valid case that this book is about climbing, I do not call this a climbing book, if that is what you are explicitly seeking. In fact, this is the second climber biography that was distinctly not about the climbs as well as the climber. (The other being Sixty Meters to Anywhere by Brendan Leonard in 2016 which had a greater focus on climbing than All that Glitters.) There is a trend these days of climbers and adventurers writing their book involving a mountaineering goal but using it as a Trojan horse to convey a message or illustrate a point about the fragility of the planet or mental health.

As a reader, I genuinely enjoy getting to know the climber as a whole, but I enjoy it most when the story is about human achievement in the mountains, and how they succeed or fail in life as a secondary theme. For instance, I am currently reading tennis champion Maria Sharapova’s autobiography and I want to know about her early life in Sochi, but if the book rarely addressed how it helped her compete against Serena Williams I would say she misunderstood her audience. For Talbot, however, I suspect that more people are drawn to her because of her nonprofit work and her Ted Talk on mental health. I am the rare climber-reader looking for more climbers’ stories.

Of course, Talbot is a climber and her love for climbing is woven through the book in subtle ways. She identifies as a climber, as the book’s subtitle points out, and the chapter titles are taken from names of ice climbing routes (my favorite being Polar Circus for obvious reasons.)

Talbot found ice climbing and mountaineering before she overcame depression, and yet, her climbing life blossomed after her battle.

It is a very quick read and a page turner but this book was not what I was expecting. There were far fewer climbing stories and anecdotes, proportionate to the pages, than I anticipated. Yet it reminds us, as an audience passionate about the mountains, that life is more than our interests. Talbot concludes that relationships are the most valuable things we have in life. The power of relationships over us can be precarious, with the potential to cause lasting damage if repressed, or empower us to thrive and climb to the heights.

I recommend that you read All that Glitters because I learned things I may not have been exposed to elsewhere and I needed to know, and Talbot does it all with a hopeful and sensitive tone. You will be a better climber and person for reading her book.

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Climbing Publications Merge but Will the Core Hold?

Rock & Ice Issue 102 from August/September 2000.

After a few days camping and being off the grid, I resurfaced to learn Rock & Ice Magazine will be “merged” into Climbing Magazine, while Gym Climber Magazine will remain a distinct product.

If you’re a subscriber less in the know than me, here is the background: On October 9th, Pocket Outdoor Media, which owns Climbing, announced that it acquired Big Stone Publishing, which owned Rock & Ice and Gym Climber. Pocket Outdoor Media’s CEO Robin Thurston said, “By merging Rock & Ice into Climbing, we’ll be better positioned to deliver exceptional content and cover all of the sport’s disciplines—trad, sport, gym, and alpine climbing—in ways not possible before.”

Publishing companies have been simplifying through acquisitions and mergers and paying less for content (meaning paying writers less and less) for years. It’s not a new trend, which is why combining Rock & Ice and Climbing into one publication does not surprise me. After all, several climbing publications have come and gone over the years and Urban Climber is my favorite example for my generation’s lost magazines. The space for the nontraditional climbing magazine has since been filled, in a way, by Gym Climber. I still haven’t read Gym Climber beyond it’s website, but it does effectively speak to the namesake audience without bothering with helmet and ice axe reviews, when the latest comp format and training protocol is spot-on relevant.

The two merging magazines could be confused by some readers. They both covered rock climbing, in all of its forms, ice and alpine, bouldering, and even indoor climbing. However, on the newsstand Climbing is mere dollars while Rock & Ice was twice that. Why? Because Climbing publishes 10 issues annually and shares news, profiles, skills, and hacks. They also share an advocacy update from the Access Fund regularly, which as a monthly donor, I enjoy reading. Rock & Ice had more features, investigative stories, and tales for the more seasoned climber. Also, Rock & Ice was printed on heavier grade paper and glossier, if that’s a suitable description; I don’t mean to be negative on that facet if it sounded that way. Climbing is the magazine I read to catch up on the latest, and Rock & Ice was the publication I bought to be immersed. What the new Climbing will look like, as well as its price-point no one I have asked knows.

Climbing, you readers and subscribers know, was changing a bit earlier this year. They moved to a digital subscription model for premium content and training programs. (By the way, the training programs are effective.) This will likely be how Rock & Ice content — features, long form, and photography — will be made available.

Also, you may recall that the publishers and editors of Rock & Ice adopted the annual long-form publication Ascent, which predates the existence of Rock & Ice. I like to think it will endure the consolidations. Is it valuable enough to Pocket Outdoor Media to put limited staff bandwidth and marketing, among so many brands, for climbers’ benefit?

Climbers, however, all like climbing their way. And there are different flavors, greater than just sport, trad, alpine, and so forth. Some of us are more athletically focused, and others emphasize the natural and even the metaphysical benefits. Merging a publication, in theory, is fine. But what gets emphasized comes at a cost. I think there is room for many different climbing magazines because climbers have a variety of things they prefer and seek them out. The best thing is to tell Climbing and Rock & Ice what you like about them; they need your guidance now so the new Climbing can meet our expectations.

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