Autographs from the Climbing Community and Other Notes

Autographs from Mendi (Szalay 2014)

Mine got lost in the mail. Everyone received their copy weeks earlier. I wasn’t even sure what I was waiting for but I was convinced it was special because it was coming from Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn.

Before Bob left Bilbao, Spain and the Mendi Mountain Film Festival for home in The Netherlands, he had asked a few friends for their current address. I gave him mine right away.

Whether it’s in Banff, Canada, Kendall, United Kingdom, Bilbao or someplace else, the mountain film festivals bring the climbing community together, and their reach goes beyond the gatherings at climbing events like the Ouray Ice Festival or Red Rock Rendezvous. Active climbers show up at the climber meets, but active climbers, artists, filmmakers, authors, and armchair mountaineers go to the mountain film festivals.

The postcard I received was an illustration of the broad gathering at Mendi, and also its status.

After some prolonged waiting, I got mine. What we all received was a picture of the Guggenheim Museum, which was near the Mendi festival that was held all over Balbao. On the other side there was no message, only the signatures of four extraordinary members of the climbing community: Award winning author Bernadette McDonald, legendary Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki, Polish climbing star Adam Bielecki, and leading Kazakh mountain climber Denis Urubko. Most of their marks were barely readable.

At the top, in the return address space, signed with only his first name, is Bob himself. He and I joked about how it devalues the postcard’s value with the other four autographs (how it’s gone from several hundreds of dollars to mere cents with his pen stroke).

In reality, in my opinion, Bob has played a valuable role in telling and retelling some of climbing’s greatest tales. He is a historian with a incredible memory for detail and he has a collection of climbing autographs and memorabilia you might not believe. Yet, his name only appears in footnotes in some of the books and periodicals you might read, particularly from National Geographic and Alpinist.

The fact that Bob thought to send me one of his several signed postcards from Mendi has sent me soaring. When I learned the other recipients I blushed; those I knew are people that I admire. It was good company.

Thanks, Bob, for making me feel like a part of your community.

As a total aside, there has been a lot of climbing news worthy singling out or at least a mention. I’ve mentioned them all through my Twitter feed (@SuburbanMtnr) but I can touch on them a bit more here:

The biggest and saddest news from the past couple of weeks has been the loss of Chad Kellogg, the well known speed climber and less well known alpinist. He ascended Fitz Roy’s Northwest Ridge with Jens Holsten and was killed by rock fall on the descent in the Supercanaleta, only three rappels below the summit. Jens descended alone. I didn’t want Chad’s story to be over yet.

The opposite side of the coin of sadness yielded this development: The same week Kellogg was lost, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold tried some Patagonia alpine rock and were the first to complete a full traverse of the Fitz Roy massif via a unified ridge with an ascent of 4,000 meters. It’s been dubbed the Fitz Traverse.

Several climbers continue to work toward making the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. As March 21 looms, the ascent just gets more exciting. Raheel Adnan has been covering the details on his blog, Altitude Pakistan. I also post much of his material on my Twitter feed.

Lastly, I conducted a few brief interviews with some of the leading climbers in Alaska today and asked them about some of the boldest ascents to remember. Well, it’s not pretty, but the list is longer than I thought it would be and the climbs are more daunting than I originally considered them (when the leaders are impressed, you have to be more scared than they are, right?) So look for the first post on that later this month.

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Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time II


Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

I’ve been surprised by the amount of feedback that I’ve received from my question of who are the best climbers of all time. The comments have come from personal friends, regular readers and those of you that follow TSM on Facebook and Twitter.

I also reached out to several people asking for their list, but two of them gave me something more valuable than their opinion: I got guidance.

However, there was a down side. In giving guidance, the sense that I was assuming a daunting project only swelled after I received their thoughts.

Katie Ives and Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn were my sources for help. Katie is the Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist and a former juror — no, not at the Piolet d’Or, thankfully — rather the Banff Mountain Book Competition. Her work and her team at Alpinist scrutinizes the accomplishments in climbing based on their place in history, style and philosophy.

In an email, Katie shared the questions that ought to considered in order to produce a credible list:

It’s hard to make lists of top ten greatest climbers–do you take into account the quality of routes vs. the quantity? Difficulty vs. style vs. remoteness? Do you look at climbers from all nations? Do you look at their routes in and of themselves or at the historical impact? Do you consider the philosophy that drove them? Or, as Alex Lowe would say, do you consider the climber having the most fun? There are obvious names of legendary mountaineers who have appeared many times in print. But what about the great climbers who haven’t made it into history books?

Okay, so there’s nothing to it.

My friend Bob is a mountaineering historian that specializes in K2 but has a broad breadth of mountaineering knowledge and natural skills suited for such research, including an excellent memory for details. Bob took some time to reply and when he did I received a memo, four pages long, single spaced and plenty of names. Before he got to his list of names, he shared his rationale for weighing true mountain climbing and alpine climbing more heavily over other styles of climbing.

For anyone that has worked on their own list (and I encourage you to write one up before my next post), you better read what Bob had to say too:

First off, and this applies to both categories, what are the criteria?  What makes a good climber or mountaineer an outstanding one?  With regards to rock climbers I would suggest it’s all about the grades they manage to successfully master, the style they apply, and the philosophy they bring into the game.  I am full of respect and stand in awe of their stunning achievements, but what appeals more to me is the versatility and the wide[r] scope that can be found in mountaineering.  In that discipline one needs more than just agility, athleticism, pure strength, or bold courage.  IMHO mountaineering is more of a craft then what we encounter in [rock]-climbing [or bouldering, let’s include that one as well here].  My preference to mountaineering has got to do with that bigger scope where it is important that a participant is gaining a degree of experience in all fields of the game; rock, ice, mixed alpine, maybe even the greater ranges like the Himalaya.  On top of that, it’s more of an overall adventure, as you need knowledge about weather, and more diverse dangers awaiting you, about the effects of altitude, about cultures, languages and people.

Feel free to fill me in when you think I’m missing certain aspects, but the steady progress from a novice, to becoming an experienced one, to an exceptionally outstanding mountaineer, lies in the quality of the skills the managed to build, the length of their career, and the big leaps forward they manage to make in alpinism.  That last item is more a thing that has to do with philosophy, I think; the way they form a new view on how things can be done differently.  In my humble opinion that may very well be the most important aspect, the one defining characteristic that separates the [“merely”] good ones from the extraordinary climbers and mountaineers.

So, please forgive for making this distinction, but else I wouldn’t be in the position to answer your question as you may have expected.  As much as I respect and have big admiration for the big names in the history of [rock]-climbing, to me it’s not the same type of appreciation as I experience for great names in mountaineering.  Don’t get me wrong; the likes of Paul Preuss, John Gill, Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Jim Bridwell, Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, Alex Honnold and the brothers Iker and Eneko Pou would probably tick most or all of the boxes listed above, but with their qualities and agility, their vision and fantastic skills I consider them to be “superbly athletic rock artists”.  As such they operate in only a narrowed playing field and don’t make use of many skills and qualifications that are needed for big mountains, mixed terrain, unknown territories or geographic “blanks on the map”, nor do they need to.  Their “unknowns” are the next couple of meters of rock that they have to scale, the “unknowns” of new techniques, new methods to improve their physical and mental strength and maybe the scariest of all; courage.  Well, at least I suggested a couple of names there :-)

Mountaineering to me is [so much] more than “climbing”, so I hope the preceding didn’t come across like talking out of the back of my neck.  [No need to answer; that was a rhetorical question I just reflected on to see where I was going…].  The main reason why I did this was because I didn’t want to send you a tsunami of names; I had hoped to limit my list to three or at five persons at max, or else we’d be better off writing a new encyclopaedia about the “who’s who” of mountaineering history.

Bob’s point about the hierarchy of approaches to climbing and the objectives has to be taken into consideration, and I think that will bother some of you. I’ve got my prejudices, and you’ll probably see them in my next post on this question, where I’ll lay out a rubric for determining the best climbers of all time. After I do that, I’ll share my original list, which might be amusing to those of you playing at home.

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Click on this link to read Part III of this series on The Suburban Mountaineer.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

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