HOT SEAT with Stephen Koch
When Stephen Koch shows up on the climbing radar, it’s usually as "that guy who’s trying to snowboard the Seven Summits." Koch has already ridden six of the seven continent-toppers, and he’s headed to Everest this summer to attempt the North Face Direct.
Less known is the fact that Koch, 34, is also a superb alpine climber. In the spring of 2001, in Alaska, Koch and the respected Slovenian alpinist Marko Prezelj ticked a new route on the Mini-Moonflower Buttress of Mount Hunter, the first free ascent of Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress (sans summit), and an 8500-foot new route on Denali’s Southwest Face, Light Traveler, which they climbed and descended in a 51-hour push.
Last spring, Koch attempted the coveted South Face of Nuptse in Nepal with Prezelj, Steve House, and Barry Blanchard, but their climb was cut short when a coffin-sized ice block toppled onto Koch. After reconstructive knee surgery, he was climbing again in mid-December.
Do you consider yourself more of a climber or a snowboarder?
Climbing is what does it for me now. Even when I snowboard a peak, it’s more climbing than snowboarding. Ten days climbing Aconcagua, for example, and three or four hours for the descent — you’d better like climbing!
When did you learn to climb?
I moved to Jackson (Wyoming) in 1987 and started hiking a lot to snowboard, but not technical climbing. In 1989 a friend showed me how to use crampons and self-arrest, so I could go into the Tetons. I went to the Alps in 1990 — again mostly for snowboarding, but I really got into the climbing. It was all about movement — doing moderate things you can move fast on.
How did you meet Marko Prezelj?
I met Marko in Scotland at a winter-climbing meet. We hit it off, talked a lot about Alaska, and it was like, "Well, let’s go!" I’ve never had a partnership like that before — where you’re on the same level mentally, physically, and emotionally, and your goals are really similar.
What did you learn from him?
What I was capable of.
I was told to ask you about Slovenian honey liqueur.
Oh, it’s the best! It’s the nectar of the gods.
When you went up on the Moonflower, was your goal to try to free it?
It wasn’t a big deal for us. We were just going climbing. And it really wasn’t that hard. Marko led the Prow without a pack, and that’s the only pitch we hauled a pack on. I was able to lead the Vision with my pack on.
What’s your favorite style of climbing?
Good style. Doing what you set out to do, but not lowering the level of what’s been done on a route. When Marko and I repeated Beyond Good and Evil [a Mark Twight/Andy Parkin mixed-climbing testpiece in Chamonix, first climbed sans bolts in 1992], I could not believe there were bolts in it — there are cracks everywhere.
What are your plans for Everest?
I’ll go in July with Jimmy Chin and Mark Newcomb. We’ll try to summit in August, during the monsoon, for the snow cover, warmer weather, less wind.
Are you trying to emulate the style of Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet? [The two Swiss made an unrepeated alpine-style ascent of the North Face's Hornbein Couloir in 1986 in two days round-trip.]
Yes. We’re doing it without any fixed ropes, fixed camps, oxygen — it’s the only style we want to do it in.
Has the Hornbein Couloir ever been snowboarded?
It hasn’t been successfully skied or snowboarded [Newcomb will attempt to ski it]. It’s the ideal, most direct line on the highest mountain in the world. [Note: Frenchman Marco Siffredi disappeared while attempting to snowboard the couloir in September 2002]