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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Ulysses’ Social Temptations and Compromises

I can’t help but think of Ulysses on his odyssey these days. When the battle was over, he and his men set sail for home. The uncharted territory was sea-gone wilderness. His ship was essentially alone in the world to the point where everything they just left and everything back at home was irrelevant to their experience of the moment — they were entirely independent in every sense. No one at home knew how they were or even whether they would return.

Finding comparable adventures that are escapes from connections of our home and battles of daily life have to be sought out — often vigorously — in this day and age. As the New York Times article entitled On the Ledge and Online that seems to have circulated all over Facebook and Twitter among outdoors enthusiasts says, even the outdoor adventures we often use to be independent and alone are not necessarily the solitary adventure of Ulysses and his crew.

Since the advent of the telegraph and the railroad in the 1800s during the Industrial Age — the precursor to the Information Age, our quest for such dis-connections for renewal were often found in the hills through hiking and mountain climbing. (This was aided by the rise in popularity of walking for fitness and competitions — called pedestrianism — which was a first in England around the same time.) What was once just a method for military movements and ways of merchants, now became a wonderfully frivolous activity for mankind.

As a blogger and a dedicated armchair mountaineer, I rely on those social media connections to follow active climbers as well as the happenings around my favorite mountain destinations. But how much connectivity is too much? Suddenly alpinists  are sending Tweets from the summit of Mount Everest and the walls of Yosemite — during their climbs. Climbers have already spent energy and resources filming their climbs and writing daily dispatches to their fans. The biggest offenders in this area are usually sponsors, and in the English language media, are usually The North Face and National Geographic.

Many go to the wilderness to be Ulysses and escape the notion of being constantly in contact and enjoy being wild — in the nature sense, not the party animal sense. However when climbers take up sponsorships they are often subject to certain terms. Updating Facebook pages and sending Tweets can be quite beneficial to drawing a market’s attention to a sponsor, particularly during a well publicized attempt at a route.

However, it can also be like bringing those people with you. When I take a family vacation from work in my nation’s capital, I try to leave the smartphone from my job turned off, otherwise, my time away is often no different than an ordinary weekend.

Many sponsored climbers are attaining the status of professional athletes of popularized team sports. Their responsibilities as celebrities — including during their expeditions — to their fans and followers adds a new element to how we enjoy our sport. I think amateur climbers seeking wilderness will appreciate their amateur status all the more.

Interestingly, following climbers through social media has some broadly reaching benefits. For example, I also follow bobsled competitions. It’s a somewhat obscure sport. Without the posts of Olympic Gold Medelist Steve Holcomb and the team’s blog, I wouldn’t be able to follow them as closely as I do my favorite baseball team. Living vicariously through someone else’s alpine endeavors, whether they are reported live or after the expedition is irrelevant to me — just tell your story.

The use of social media in the mountains by climbers — while it should be discouraged for the purposes of being Ulysses — is likely to build a larger, more-informed audience for the sport. The real question is where does this take the sport next? Edelweiss and I believe that the younger generation of climbers that use social networks to a greater extent than my generation may continue to inject social connections during climbs. That is, unless, those younger climbers seeking the mountains are trying following the path of Ulysses.

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Sources: 1) Lowther, Alex, “On the Ledge and Online: Solitary Sport turns Social,” New York Times, December 9, 2011; 2) Graham Brown, Thomas and Sir Gavin Byland DeBeers, The First Ascent of Mont Blanc, Oxford University Press, London, 1957, p. 11.