The Zen of Ueli Steck

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Climbing alone and into the night. (All rights reserved)

While the 2014 Everest season is becoming reminiscent of the hockey lockout of 2012-13, and the Khumbu is looking like an empty rink, I thought it was a great opportunity to share what other amazing things climbing has to offer. Just because Everest is the biggest doesn’t mean that it is still the apex of our sport.

I asked Jason Cobb to elaborate on a discussion he and I had about the 2014 Piolet d’Or. The award is an opportunity to celebrate climbing. Cobb, a weekend alpinist and father of two from Edmonton, Alberta, compares Ueli Steck’s solo ascent of Annapurna’s South Face with another remarkable climb. Here’s his guest post…

How bad-ass was Ueli Steck’s Annapurna climb?

All different kinds of labels apply–free soloing, mixed alpine climbing, high altitude mountaineering. But by any measure, it was pretty stunning. Even for the experienced, it’s hard to make sense of the bold and audacious, oxygen-free solo of 8091m Annapurna’s S-Face in 2013. The 11th highest peak in the world via a face more than 2,500m high, in 28 hours round-trip, and by himself. He even dropped a mitt…on the way up. It just won a Piolet d’Or, an international award that recognizes the year’s “greatest” climbs.

But why does it matter?

From my point of view as both armchair historian and amateur alpinist (a.k.a. weekend warrior,) Steck’s Annapurna climb and the Piolets d’Or could inspire me ramble on about a range of topics. However, the question of “what do you compare it to?” first inspired a Twitter chat with Andrew and led to this longer ramble.

After I got over my initial awe and amazement when I heard about Steck’s climb, and well before the Groupe de Haute-Montagne (GHM) assembled their remarkable jury, my first thought was another incredibly bold solo climb from 2013 that has lit the imagination of the climbing world and beyond: Alex Honnold’s free-solo send of El Sendoro Luminoso (5.12d, 530m) in under three hours.

From the luxury of my armchair, I pondered: which one is harder? Which one is a better climb, a greater climb? They’re both free-solo…Ueli was at altitude and alpine climbing, but much of it was on snow and ice. Alex was climbing technically hard ground, free soloing on-the-edge-of-5.13 slab fer cryin’ out loud. But he wasn’t at altitude, and it was only 500 and change meters long, whereas Ueli’s climb was five times that long.

These are both mind-blowing climbs. Very different climbs, but comparable on a number of fronts–both of the most audacious category of bold; innovative, in that they each saw an opportunity for a different fundamental approach; stunning in the speed and grace of their execution; both demonstrating utter dedication, experience, and commitment, leaving the smallest fractional room for error.

But my mind has been blown by other climbs in the past as well. After wiping the dampness away from my sweaty palms watching Alex in this early clip, my first thought in comparison was actually not Ueli’s Annapurna solo but a very different Himalya climb: Kurtyka and Schauer’s alpine-style W-Face of Gasherbrum IV in 1985. Further contemplation lead to Mick Fowler (the ULTIMATE weekend warrior, I might add) and Victor Saunders’s remarkable Golden Pillar route on Spatnik on their summer vacation in 1987. And what about Alex Huber’s 2002 free solo of Diretissima (5.12) on Cima Grande in the Dolomites, or Reinhard Messner oxygen-free and completely alone up Everest’s North Face in 1980?

I got nowhere with these comparisons. All of these climbs are stunning accomplishments. Each have their merits. Some even have grades of technical difficulty and objective hazard, and while some of the climbs are more comparable than others, trying to figure out some sort of definitive pecking order of greatness is annoying and futile.

So by March 2014, we’re back to the Piolets d’Or, with a shortlist of five climbs from a pool of more than 70 in 2013. Despite all of my armchair comparisons, the 2014 award jury–chaired this year by George Lowe, in my opinion one of the all-time preeminent alpinists in the world–awarded two Golden Axes: one to Ueli, and another to fellow-Canucks Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted for their first ascent of K6 West (7040 m.). While acknowledging that “that all the nominations should be celebrated as representing the highest ethical ideals of mountaineering,” the jury noted that “the first ascent of K6 West and the solo ascent of the Annapurna South Face are, in their own way, representative examples of the state of the art of mountaineering today.”

Furthermore the jury also awarded a special Brotherhood of the Rope mention to Stephane Benoist and Yannick Graziani, who repeated the Steck route. Despite much more difficult conditions and illness high on the mountain, the pair were able to summit and descend safely and in good style. In the words of the jury, Benoist and Graziani demonstrated “that a partnership can be greater than the sum of its parts.”

It seems George Lowe and the jury got it right. I agree with the GHM when they explicitly state that “questions of style and means of ascent take precedence over reaching the objective itself.”

I think comparing the highest achievements in climbing can provide each of us with our own illumination from which to consider how we climb, and by extension, why each of us bothers.

Cobb on the sharp end on the crux of Big Step on the East Ridge of Mount Temple (Brett Wheler)

Like many, I have never believed that the heart and soul of mountaineering is a competitive endeavour, at least not in the classic sense with winners and losers. I certainly don’t believe that you conquer the mountain when you climb it; if you master anything, I believe that you master your self. If there is a test in climbing it’s a test of your mettle, your skill, training, preparation, your willpower–and in many cases, it tests those qualities in your partnership, the brotherhood of your rope team.

The grand accomplishments of Ueli, Raphael, and Ian are a far cry from my weekend expeditions in my home range the Canadian Rockies, but their climbs–along with the others I mentioned–will remain as benchmarks for some of the qualities that I find most appealing in climbing: adventure, skill, self-reliance, determination, fitness, wilderness, fun, discovery.

The late great Alex Lowe had a deceptively simple, very powerful answer to the who’s-the-best-climber question: “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” I’ve always loved that. It deflates self-importance and unnecessary competition and puts the crux of the matter right back on the crux that all of us climbers face, whether we crank 5.13s for breakfast or just manage to make it up the trail to see the flower-burst meadow at the pass or turquoise tarn sparkling beneath the peak.

(Of course, when it comes to alpine climbing and mountaineering, there’s always that sage wisdom from Barry Blanchard, that “it doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun.” But that’s meat for another conversation…)

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Various Notes: Annapurna, Steve House Etc.

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Every Wednesday evening, or another night during the week, I see this person carry his ultralite pack and his rock climbing shoes ride the Washington subway to meet his girlfriend at the climbing gym. He doesn’t climb outdoors much and he doesn’t know the route names of those he’s been on. But that’s not the point.

He and I haven’t spoken since the first time we met in a slightly belabored conversation, but I like seeing him on the train. Maybe climbing doesn’t end when you live far from real mountains; maybe it just takes on different forms.

Sometimes it’s just about following the news and living vicariously. The news from the last several weeks has been centered on one big alpine route: The south face of Annapurna. On October 9th, Ueli Steck summited Annapurna via an incomplete line first attempted by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin of France in 1992. He did so alone and at a lightening pace during a mere 28 hours.

Then, only days later on October 24th, French climbers Yannick Graziani and Stephane Benoist went up the same way (but that is unconfirmed), though no where near the same pace Steck traveled. They took eight days to climb.

I started thinking that the conditions (including the rock, snow, ice, weather, stability, etc.) on the south face must have been ideal to allow Steck to climb so swiftly and for a second team of two to ascend this wall. Ed Viesturs and David Roberts talk about the challenge and appeal of the wall in their book on Annapurna, The Will to Climb. If you have copy it’s worth going back and reading that chapter on the first ascent of the south face. (I’ve been carrying my copy in my bag on my commute these past few days.)

Now knowing that Graziani and Benoist struggled their way up, unlike Steck’s apparent saunter to the top. The pair experienced some cold nights with at least one spent without a shelter. Benoist suffered with significant frostbite and was evacuated once the they neared the base of the mountain.

What may seem like a stable route in ideal conditions can change quickly. It can also be subject to so many other factors, such as how a climber matches up to the challenge. Can they overcome the rock band? If their rope is too short, do you descend? If you run low on food, can you keep going?

It makes Steck’s ascent more impressive. But it also makes the climb by Graziani and Benoist stand for its own characteristics. They didn’t saunter, and their story will likely be a more compelling epic, especially in that they followed Steck’s lightning first ascent.

As a final note, the training guidebook that Steve House has been working on with Scott Johnston will be available to the general public in February 2014, and sooner if you can get to the Patagonia booth at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market on January 24 in Salt Lake City. Its title is Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete. The forward is written by Mark Twight.

Well, Happy Halloween. I’m looking forward to leaving work a little early to take Wunderkind trick or treating for the first time. What costume do you think her father will wear?

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Farewell to Maurice Herzog

Last Friday, while waiting for my bus to start my morning commute, a new acquaintance sent an email to many of his contacts to share a news story from Le Monde: Maurice Herzog passed away. In Herzog’s 93 years of adventure, he is remembered for being the first person, along with Louis Lachenal, to stand atop an 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna.

I read the story of that 1950 first ascent written by Herzog the first time when I was a teenager and again late in college. Herzog lost cache with me sometime after the second reading when I learned more about the disputed elements of the story. Herzog may not have been so galante or brave so much as an egomaniac.

Regardless, I can’t deny the effect that the ascent and his book had on me and countless climbers. I read the book a third time on a recent vacation for just what it was and for the simple pleasure of an journey into the unknown. I’m grateful to him.

One thing I’d like to point out, is that Annapurna was the alternative objective of that 1950 expedition. A neighboring 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri, was the primary target for the French that year. However, the mountainous terrain was virtually unknown and the maps were poor and often wrong. The exploration and the climbing that they accomplished was remarkable, especially in a mere few months. Herzog deserves credit for leading and managing his team through such a risky enterprise and for making the decision to shift objectives in a timely manner.

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Two Understated American Giants

Ed Viesturs and David Roberts (taken and shared with permission by Jana Kunicova)

Yes, I am crazy. I must be. I voluntarily sold my ticket — my only ticket — to see Ed Viesturs and David Roberts at National Geographic Live last night. The next two weeks ahead were getting busy at work in the evenings and that was taking away from my family time. So I went to my Peaklessburg support group — DC Mountain Madness — and offered it up.

Viesturs was a hero of mine when I started climbing in the mid-1990s. I bought my red Mountain Hardwear fleece jacket for the reasons baseball fans buy jerseys with their favorite players’ numbers on them. He doesn’t play the same role for me now he did when he was pursuing all 14 eight-thousanders, but he is still a role an hero for his approach to a wild pursuit that he balanced with a commitment to his life at home. His reputation for turning around many times when his gut said “this is bad,” and still being very successful at his goals is inspiring. That makes him appealing to many climbers, particularly amateurs. He is an example of stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Roberts is my favorite climbing writer. He also lead or was part of some legendary expeditions in Alaska, including the Harvard Route up the Denali’s north face and the Angel in the Revelation Mountains, a subrange of the Alaska Range, just to name two. I enjoy his books because they include rich history, great research and he tells all of it in such an insightful way. He makes his readers feel compelled to go on.

Viesturs and Roberts are two very different people and climbers. They came to Washington to speak on their latest book The Will to Climb, however they also talked about their other work together on No Shortcuts to the Top (2006) and K2 (2010), I was told. But while they are both articulate, well-educated men, they are very different climbers.

Since following Viesturs Endeavor 8,000 quest, I have learned more about climbing and learned that the kinds of climbs that make it into history books or the American Alpine Journal are special climbs. They are first ascents and original routes. Those were not the kind of climbs Viesturs pursued. At one time that was disappointing to me, but then I realized that I probably would not seek out the steepest, longest routes necessary to make a climb that is deemed significant today. Roberts, on the other hand, had pursued new steep routes in Alaska in the 1960s. As nerdy as Roberts is — and he is — he’s got street cred.

Viesturs sought out a whole other field of climbing. Rather than seeking challenging new routes, he pursued a tick list of the world’s biggest mountains. The route wasn’t critical. Reaching the top — legitimately reaching the top — was essential for quality of the accomplishment.  While American climbers celebrate him for being the first of their own to stand atop all 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen, it was ultimately a pursuit all his own.

Viesturs and Roberts are two American giants. I don’t feel the need to qualify that statement by adding “…in climbing.” They are accomplished climbers, accomplished writers, and I am glad they came to Washington to share their adventures and their experiences.

Oddly, though I have been a fan of these two men for about 20 years and I have never seen or met them in person, I don’t feel overly regretful that I wasn’t able to attend. I know much about them from their books and their articles elsewhere. Perhaps I also feel that I will get another opportunity. Perhaps its also because I have met so many interesting climbers over the past several years — thanks largely to social media and this blog. I suppose that even as they have moved on from climbing to other ventures, so have I.

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Now is the Best Time to Be a Climber

If you’re not Sir Edmund Hillary or a member of Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna expedition team, you might have a longing for the time when giant mountains were mostly unclimbed and adventures of historic proportions were still ripe for the making. This is a sentimental perspective; one that doesn’t have to be so disappointing.

I used to be wistful about this notion but not any more. I used to wish I was born sixty years ago when world travel was a novelty and mountains were waiting to be summitted. When mountaineering was even more obscure than it is today and outfitting for an expedition meant contacting someone in Europe who would hand make your crampons and supply your rope. Travelling to the objective required trains with sleeper cars, flights with many landings for refuelings and long backpacking hikes into the wilderness. It’s romantic in many ways, but even more so in hindsight.

Actually, now is the best time to be a mountaineer. Now is also the best time to be an armchair mountaineer.

Remote destinations are more reachable than ever before thanks to modern airlines and travel networks worldwide. Photographs of mountains, beta and accounts from previous attempts (or at least observations about the possibilities for a fresh attempt) have never been more accessible thanks to the Internet. Lastly, it’s not so lonely any more being the only mountain climbing obsessed person within your circle of friends and family thanks to the spread of climbing gyms, outfitter chains spreading across the country, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the expansion in membership of the American Alpine Club.

The big routes have been done, but if you long for old romance, the stories are within reach on a book shelf. If you long for the challenging climb, they are waiting to be climbed by you. If you’re looking for a partner, he or she is probably looking for you too.

Now is the time to live as a climber, whether you’re actively climbing or just dreaming about it.

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This Day in 1936

Mountain exploration has come a long way in less than eighty years.  A significant milestone was reach on August 29, 1936 when a group of four American climbers and four British mountaineers, including legendary Englishman Noel Odell, reached the summit of Nanda Devi (25,643 ft./7,815 m.).  It would be the highest peak ascended by man until the French reached the top of Annapurna in Nepal.