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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Rarely Seen Rarely Attempted: Fitz Roy’s West Face

About a month ago, a friend shared with me Alan Arnette’s opinion piece on the standards of some of the guided commercial expeditions to Mount Everest. It pointed out what I hope are some exceptional promotions to prospective clients, like guaranteed Internet access in BC, gourmet food, and never having to lug more than a daypack up the mountain. I couldn’t help but think that a climber choosing this guide company because of these promises didn’t deserve to be there.

Regardless whether my knee-jerk thought was valid, it also reminded me of the places that are still climbed mostly independently by climbers without choosing the challenge because they picked it out of a glossy brochure. I say “mostly” because there are still competent and experienced climbers that hire guides because they help bring an competent amateur climber elevate their game and possibly climb a grade higher.

Still, there are mountains that seem to be the objectives, either for their difficulty or style of climbing, that lend themselves to independent climbers. Take big walls, like those in Yosemite, Baffin Island and Patagonia. No one can help you climb those, really. You and your teammates have to climb them on your own.

But while El Capitan, Mount Asgard, Polar Sun Spire and Torres del Paine have all been done, where do we go for the truly unusual ascent. There are certainly more obscure peaks, but what about a rarely seen face?

Fitz Roy in Patagonia is part of that iconic horizon always captured in photographs and drawings from the east. But visitors, including even some climbers, only ever see if from that angle — mostly from the roadside. It’s highly visible flanks are also the most commonly accessed ways to the top. Aside from having competent climbing skills, the weather has to remain calm long enough to allow passage. So proceeding further, to the “backside” of the spire is often to gamble with valuable time.

Fitz Roy’s West Face is bigger and more complex than its popular eastern face and north pillar. Surrounded by a glacial moat, it rises 7,834 ft./2,400 m. from the Torre Glacier. The first section, which stretches up at a low angle for about 2,297 ft./700 m. appears to be not too difficult, however this area is prone to frequent rockfall. According to Alan Kearney, it has forced many parties to skirt this portion and reach the more vertical portions by indirect routes.

The first attempt on the West Face was in 1962 but there isn’t a great deal known about it, though we know it was attempted by Jose Luis and an unnamed partner. The next attempt was made in 1977 by Alan Rouse and Rob Carrington, but lack of gear and those notorious short weather windows turned them back.

Still unclimbed in 1982, six Czech alpinists worked for two months and made four pushes to gain elevation. Difficult technical climbing high up, combined with violent weather, finally forced them to retreat.

Less than a year later, Czechs Zdenek Brabec, Robert Galfy, Michal Orolin and Vladimir Petrik returned and brought with them Milan Hoholik and Dr. Frantiseki Kele and Tibor Surka. They skirted the hazards of the initial 700-meter slope by approaching from the Fitz Roy Glacier. They climbed from mid-December thru the middle of January.

On a particularly windy day, where the wind was lifting the climbers’ gear and ropes far from the wall, a rock fell, bounced off a ledge covered with snow and smashed into Brabec’s leg, “leaving an acrid smell of pulverized rock in the air,” as Kearney wrote. The team quit their attempt and helped their partner down to their shelter nearly 3,000 meters below.

After a rest, Galfy, Orolin and Petrik started up once more, despite being driven down eight times. From their previous high point, the crux became a lengthy offwidth that Orolin tackled. At last, they stood on top on a perfectly clear and windless day.

These climbers didn’t enjoy a comfy camp, gourmet food or good connections to reach home or the latest news. They climbed to climb something worth exploring. Isn’t that what’s it’s about?

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Sources: 1) Kearney, Alan, Mountaineering in Patagonia, 1993; 2) 1984 American Alpine Journal.

Mountain Drool: Overlooked Torre Egger

Good morning and happy Friday! September is always a tough month for me to keep up with my climbing reading and research — my preferred way to relax. September is probably the busiest month of the year at my job in Peaklessburg where there are more deadlines, planning for the new fiscal year and monitoring and controlling the work of my teammates; the effort needed to succeed involves a lot of energy and some steady nerves. Add baseball’s pennant races to the mix and I’m usually spent by the end of the week.

Still, as I recently explained to one regular reader, my mind has been drifting to the mountains of Patagonia. I expect to be posting on them for a bit before I return to writing more about Alaska, British Colombia and other parts of North America.

If you read the climbing magazines and blogs even occasionally, you know that Cerro Torre was featured in nearly every one. They covered the shock and celebration (take your pick) at Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s fair means ascent of the Compressor Route where they knocked off a quarter of Cesare Maestri’s bolts. It also covered what happened days later on the same route, where David Lama freed the vast majority of the route — the first to do so. Lama’s accomplishment also followed his own controversy on Cerro Torre in the previous years.

While Cerro Torre is iconic in Patagonia — a sharp spire neighboring other distinguished peaks like Fitz Roy and Poincenot — it’s immediate neighbor, Torre Egger (8,809 ft./ 2,685m.), might be easily overlooked. In 1993 Alan Kearney wrote in his history Mountaineering in Patagonia that while Patagonia is a common destination for many climbers and hikers, there are places that are less traveled and still seem like old, remote Patagonia, and the minor neighbors of major peaks are often a way to find that experience. I recall Jim Donini, who later became an American Alpine Club President (2006-09) by the way, writing in an issue of Climbing that even today Torre Egger remains one of the most challenging climbs in the Americas.

Torre Egger was named for Maestri’s partner, Toni Egger, who died while descending Cerro Torre. He fell with their only camera, leaving the alleged proof that Maestri claimed they mad the first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959.

The mountain spire was first climbed by American alpinists John Bragg, Jay Wilson and Donini, whom I mentioned before. Their ascent was made in the southern-hemispheric summer of 1975-76. Their route creation was frequently interrupted by the famously bad Patagonia weather with its harsh winds referred to as the broom of God. For these reasons, the work stretched from mid-December to late February.

The first winter ascent was completed only recently in 2010. Swiss climbers Stephen Siegrist and Dani Arnold (Arnold also recently made a fast and furious ascent of the Eiger Norwand) and German climber Thomas Senf. A fourth was part of the team, Austrian Mario Walder, but knee trouble held him back from reaching the top. After some load ferrying to the base of the wall a weather window opened and allowed them to the summit in a three-day ascent. Like everything in climbing, nothing is certain until you’ve made the accomplishment and are safely in basecamp. According to’s report, the team had their doubts even in their last bivy; would the weather window close and thwart their hopes. The weather held and they navigated the ice and cracks to the top. After three days they arrived on top in calendar winter.

The story that has drawn me to this mountain, however, was the new route put up by the late Bjorn-Eivind Artun and his climbing parnter Ole Lied over Christmas day and December 26. The route on the south face was called “ephemeral” in and the climbers named it Venas Azules (6b+ A1 AI6, 950m). It earned elevated attention of the judges for the 2012 Piolet D’Or who gave it an honorable mention. What gets me the most about this climb is Artun. I’m sorry we lost him too soon, evidently hit by rockfall earlier this year. Artun sought challenges that were ambitious and pure — long, hard, and in a beautiful, minimalist style.

I called Baffin Island my Patagonia recently, and in many ways it is. But Patagonia is unique. So is Torre Egger and its stories.

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Colin Haley Versus the Snail

Let me put this time of year in perspective. I’m not referring to the holiday season. This time of year is a little slow for me in the way of climbing news that typically interests me, and maybe you too. With Alaska and the Himalayas, it’s all about winter ascents on Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter — which are few and far between.

Ordinarily, for those of us geographically limited to North America, the fun is typical winter fun — skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, skating, hockey (preferably outdoors) — is all we have. No breaking news from there.

So thank goodness for the Andes, Patagonia and Colin Haley’s progressive climbs! The summer season is on now down there and Haley, as usual, is seizing every moment he has.

Haley and Jorge Ackerman of Bariloche, Argentina, worked the “un-finished” route on the south face of Cerro Standhardt. It was originally attempted by a 1977 British team, but remains a line that hasn’t brought alpinists to the summit.

The photos on his report are quite nice (see link below) but my favorite part of what these guys did was improvise on their objective and still came away with a decent prize. These climbers intended to ascend the O’Neill-Martin route on Cerro Egger. However, conditions were poor; they planned on a rock route, but lingering winter conditions required crampons and tools. Slow advancement and limited supplies made the decision to abandon the attempt clear.

They shifted their energies and efforts on Standhardt. Needless to say, they finished the job on the 1977 south face route — now the Haley-Ackerman 2011 route! They named the completed route El Caracol, meaning the snail, both for the spiral pattern of the snail shell and their weaving route and also because of their slow pace due to some route finding challenges and errors.

So going forward this winter, we’ll be monitoring whether the Russians make a winter ascent in the Karakorum on K2, any projects in Denali National Park, and of course, the attempts in the southern hemisphere. If you hear anything interesting, leave me  comment or shoot me an email. I’ll do the same here.

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Source: “Cerro Standhardt, El Caracol” on December 6, 2011 on Skagit Alpinism, Colin Haley’s blog.

Trail Restoration and its Contradition

The American Alpine Club (AAC) is currently supporting a trail restoration project in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.  For we hikers and climbers, this type of effort should be up there in our priorities for giving financially right after general efforts to preserve wilderness, like the work by the Alaska Wilderness League or Friends of Clayoquot Sound, for instance.  However, the idea of the need for such work is contrary to our sense of simplicity and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Trail restoration is odd when juxtaposed to our notion of valuing wilderness.  In an extreme position, wild places ought to be untouched, sacred from society or civilization and man in general, except for perhaps spiritual sojourns.  But more reasonably, we want to enjoy our wild spaces and geographical and biologically unique places on Earth.  So we permit modest intrusions, like foot paths, bridges and the occasional ladder.  It allows us access natural wonders without trampling them to oblivion.  God forbid that the land and biological things change too quickly because we visited, rather than by natural forces like tectonics, wind and water.

In the same way that a society requires rules and rights for the people to be free, our wild places need paths and limited infrastructure in order for we trekkers and mountaineers to roam wild.

Think about your favorite wild place and consider the infrastructure as part of your assurance that that place will be there for you in the future, even as the trails encourage more to come.

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Colin Haley Solos Cerro Standhardt

This past weekend, alpinist Colin Haley was in Patagonia where he sended the Exocet route on Cerro Standhardt solo, according to his blog.  Cerro Standhardt neighbors Cerro Torre and Cerro Egger.

The Exocet route has never been soloed, until now.  It involves some scrambling, water ice (WI5) and some mixed climbing.

The route had been attempted solo before in 1994 by Tommy Bonapace, an Austrian climber, but was forced down due to one of those legendary “broom of God” Patagonian storms.

Haley’s accomplishment is all the more interesting when all the peaks in Patagonia have been conquored and the most challenging routes have been mostly repeated.  It’s good to know there are still some records that can still be a “first.”

Well done, Colin!

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