Various Notes: Annapurna, Steve House Etc.


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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Looking Ahead: 2013

Happy New Year!

I enjoyed getting to know several of you during 2012 and thank you for the great post ideas — some of which I am still working on. Keep the emails and “Likes” on WordPress and Facebook coming, as well as the re-tweets. I’ll keep sharing new stuff that’s worth sharing as often as possible.

The twelve months ahead always hold some exciting potential, no matter when you choose to do a forecast. For 2013, there are a handful of key events and follow and dates to mark. Here is a sampling:

DENALI WINTER ASCENT — The most immediate news will be about whether Lonnie Dupres can become the first solo climber to summit Denali in Calendar winter — during January or at least the first week or so of February. He’s currently waiting for a weather window so he can fly into his base camp and begin his third attempt.

GRANT RECIPIENTS — Tracking the grant announcements from the American Alpine Club. The beneficiaries will be announced in the coming weeks and those climbs will be worth checking in on later in the year. Another grant I am going to check-in on is the SHARE Grant, which is the Seth Holden memorial grant that goes to an explorer setting out for remote Alaska. The SHARE Grant is not limited to mountaineering endeavors.

8,000ers in Winter — Only three 8,000-meter peaks remain unsummitted in winter:

2. K2 (28,250 ft./8,611 m.)

9. Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft./8,125 m.)

12. Broad Peak (26,401 ft./8,047 m.)

Pay attention for word from these peaks for attempts next winter.

NEW BOOKS — Two interesting books are due out this year: 1) Training for Alpine Climbing by co-authors Steve House (a Piolet d’Or winner) and Scott Johnston, which is being published by Falcon Guides, will be out by the end of the year — or said the announcement last summer; and 2) Kelly Cordes — the Patagonia ambassador, AAC Member and margarita master extraordinaire — is working on a book on the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia aout its recent de-bolting controversy. I can’t wait.

MOVING DAY — On a personal note, and one that will have several positive effects including benefitting The Suburban Mountaineer, my family and I will be moving into a larger home in the next couple of months because the condo is too small for the three of us. I just packed up a very heavy box of climbing books that I am not referring to now and put them in storage — a little sad. But in the new place there will be a better library/work space for me and a decent place to finally mount my hangboard.

Have a good year and have a good adventure, or at least support someone else in theirs!

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Armchair Mountaineer News

The other morning, after getting Wunderkind out from her crib and setting her down to play, I took my copy of High Alaska off the shelf to take a look at the Sourdough ascent later. Well, I got distracted, set the book on her changing mat, and I played with Wunderkind a little bit before leaving for work. Edelweiss found High Alaska where I left it and she wondered if I was leaving climbing propaganda, like a religious zealot, for Wunderkind to find.

The zealot part wasn’t too far off, but the attempt at proselytizing was — er, ah — an unintended result of too many things on my mind.

Despite the hectic ways of life here in Peaklessburg this week, there are a couple of interesting pieces of news that have trickled my way recently:

  1. Steve House is writing a new book. He recently asked through social media for a list of all of the technical new routes on the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks climbed alpine style. He explained that he had his list but was checking his research for what would be a reference in a new book he was writing. Beyond the Mountain, his first book,was a very interesting narrative because of House’s intense perspective on climbing and his writing style. Whether the new book will be a narrative, a history, or something instructional, I’m sure his special perspective will make it worth picking up.
  2. Katie Ives was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist. This is great news. Ives has been helping push the publication’s contributing writers to another level. Writing is a difficult thing and the quality and insight from the stories in Alpinist deserve thanks to Ives.

As for the Sourdough ascent on Denali… Well, it’s not just about them. But that’s for next week.

Thanks for dropping by again and have a great weekend! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Training for Climbing: Square One

If you haven’t climbed in a while because of life, career or family has taken you to Peaklessburg, training to climb by just climbing is almost impossible, and yet that’s what the experts tell you to do. In fact, I reached out to a climbing guide in the Adirondacks recently about climbing some routes on Gothics (everyone needs a goal). Since I haven’t climbed seriously in years, I also asked for his advice about training, as in how I should prepare for this climb. He responded with the answer I’ve found unhelpful for years: “To prepare to climb any route you need to climb, simple as that…”

Despite this, I remained hopeful that there was a way to maintain general climber fitness, even if my skills deteriorate from lack of practice, without climbing. However, it’s difficult to get at climbing training information while avoiding what I would call extreme training regimens of super alpinists. I admire the climbers that maintain that level of fitness but it’s impractical for me, and maybe you too. But I have taken serious looks at them to see what truths might be applied to acheive goals on the more modest end of the spectrum.

I’ve been impressed by Rob Shaul’s programs at Mountain Athlete in Jackson, Wyoming and Mark Twight’s Gym Jones. Twight is better known and created the popular 300 Workout used by a lot of ambitious people. Shaul’s program, on the other hand, is more specific to mountaineering, though it appeals to military personnel too.

At Mountain Athlete, Shaul applies the fundamentals strength training to achieve of power, stamina and durability. This is especially important for professional mountain guides because they are “industrial athletes,” as he refers to them, that rely on their daily, physical work to earn their livelihood. However, Shaul’s standard for personal fitness is beyond my goal, such as lifting twice your body weight. I would like to do that, but to do so I would have to rearrange my life priorities too much, which is beyond my interest.

I have also looked to well-known, successful climbers like Ed Viesturs and Steve House. Like their approaches to climbing as well as their public persona, their advice differs. The advice based on Viesturs’ workouts talks about the exercises mainly. House gives his own advice on his blog and he doesn’t fret about giving technical advice. For instance, he explains the absolute need for training phases and varying the routine and taking rest days in order to build strength, finesse and speed.

Having explored those avenues, I turned to the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall, Jr. Library and borrowed Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Imrpove Your Performance by Eric J. Hörst. After reading House’s blog, which is informative but just introductory, Hörst’s book is in depth and reminded me of the text book in my college health class (I took it one of two required science classes.) It goes through what you should know to create your own training program. It does presume a baseline climber fitness level, but it also explains what that level is.

Hörst seems to answer all of my questions. I’ve learned that he role of running is to help increase my VO2 max alone and that training doughnuts are not ideal for training for several reasons except in special cases like injury rehab or obtaining a baseline grip strength. What he emphasizes you focus on is 1) grip strength, 2) lock-off strength, 3) lunging power, and 4) core strength. He goes into each in great detail.

He also clears up the key issue of whether climbing alone is the only means of preparing to climb. He acknowledges that climbing skills cannot be learned through strength training: “Skill practice is paramount, since climbing skills and tactics are distinctly unique from those of other sports. Only going climbing will make you a more skilled climber.”

But the rest of his book — all 11 chapters and 247 pages — address making you a better climber by enhancing your strength needed for climbing. He provides the principles to apply, the reasoning behind them, and what they do to make you a stronger, fitter athlete for climbing.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Sources: 1) Hörst, Eric J., Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Performance, 2nd ed., Falcon Guides, 2008; 2) Shaul, Rob, “Mountain Athlete: Weight Training for Climbing,”, June 4, 2008; and 3) House, Steve, “The First Entry,” Training Blog.

Beyond the Mountain

Beyond the Mountain is the alpine climbing autobiography of Steve House. For those of you not familiar with House, he is a progressive mountain climber that is known for great alpine challenges, or, as Reinhold Messner put it in the forward, “He climbs the right routes on the right mountains in a time when everyone is climbing Everest.” Generally, it is an engrossing, intense and at moments even offensive story about climbing at the highest possible level. He takes his reader straight into the action of his climbs from 1989 through 2004 without hesitation.

The book addresses House’s introduction to alpinism through the Slovenian student exchange program he was a part of when he was nineteen years old and the trip he took with his Slovenian hosts to Nanga Parbat and first the Rupal Face. He also addresses his most impactful climbs personally and in the climbing community, including a lightning ascent of the Slovak Direct Route on Denali and even a multi-expedition trip to conquer K7 in the Charakusa Valley of Pakistan, plus his ascents with famed-mountaineer, guide and one of his mentor’s, Barry Blanchard, in the Canadian Rockies.

The main take away from this story is about greatness. Steve House is a great climber. He’s got the 10,000 hours put in that qualify him as an expert climber. Not only that, he has an additional 10,000 hours on the most challenging peaks and alpine walls of our day to boot! The book gets at the idea of commitment as the way to greatness. Whole commitment. Maybe obsession is a better word. The book is worth the read if you want to be challenged to climb better and is inspiring to the armchair mountaineer on the idea of pursuing a goal relentlessly.

Of course, the goal that House chose was one that opened the door to the top without the potential for disappointment, unless he quit or died trying. While he started his young climbing career as wanting to be good enough to climb the Rupal Face, he matured and dogmatically pursued becoming the best alpine climber he could become. Whether he is the best is up for debate, but he is certainly in the top five of climbers currently climbing.

He continues to climb. He recently returned from climbing Makalu in the Himalayas. Beyond the Mountain was not a complete autobiography, but it was a milestone in climbing literature for its forthrightness and a rare chance at intimacy with a private, self-motivated climber that has a lot of life issues and value propositions that might offend, but his output from the equation of his life in climbing has netted out to being remarkable.

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The Common Core of the Outdoor Experience

What we're seeking is out there. Can we be satisfied?

We often get asked — and sometimes we ask ourselves — why do we hike? Why do we climb? “Because it is there” is not deep enough any more.

The essence of it is the same for John Muir, Reinhold Messner and Andrew Skurka. I believe the common thread between them was what they were seeking. In fact, they all talked about it. The great thing is, it can be experienced in different levels. But you cannot know about it until you’ve been there and felt it. Figuring it out for myself took me years.

Mountaineer and author David Roberts worked for years trying to determine what drove him to the mountains. In his book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, he references how notable climbers all talk about challenging themselves and learning things about themselves they would never have learned without their pursuit. However, as Roberts points out, the climbers have never said what it was they learned. I now know, and Roberts probably does too, that it was not something they could teach.

When I go into the backcountry, I go to get away from society’s structure and its related pressures, temporarily deprive myself of comforts, and emphasize my simplest needs, such as food, water, shelter and sleep. I also enjoy the self challenge of going to the outdoors, particularly when I set a trivial challenge like hike and climb to that peak. Nobody really cares if I’m successful but me, so long as I return unhurt and alive. High stakes are part of the sport, though.

I also go because it is on my terms — or at least the allusion of my terms. It’s an allusion because even when we go into the wild today it’s wilderness only because it is designated so by regulation. Of course, it’s also on my terms in regards to my tolerance for risk. What is tame and acceptable for me might be overwhelmingly frightening for someone else. I can choose my own fate that way.

In addition, according to alpinist Steve House in his book Beyond the Mountain, sharing our deprivation, basic needs and goals with a partner or a team can make the experience be nothing short of, well, magical. That is because it creates the rare opportunity for someone else to know exactly what you’re going through. However, chemistry between you and your partners is a necessary factor.

These can only be done and felt in the wilderness. Muir made a religion out of its value. Messner promotes the idea of connecting with our wild side. Skurka discovered it for himself on his long hikes, particularly on his 2010 Alaska-Yukon Expedition. Wilderness is an experience. It’s why we go and what we seek. But you have to go to know.

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