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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