Alps Masters: An Interview With Miha Valic and Martin Moran

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Tomaz Jakofcic on the Schreckhorn. Photo courtesy of Miha Valic.Photo courtesy of Miha Valic.

Alps Masters: An Interview With Miha Valic and Martin Moran

When the Slovenian alpinist Miha Valic topped all 82 4,000-meter Alps peaks in 102 days, beginning on December 27, 2006, and ending April 7, he completed a major feat, one that has, in his words, “been a thorn in the European alpinists' flesh for a while.” Valic’s mission was largely self-sufficient (various partners met him at various times), though he did use an automobile to shuttle between route, and took cable-car rides, when applicable, up into the range. In 1993, the British climbers Martin Moran and Simon Jenkins climbed 75 peaks in 52 days, using a bicycle to ferry between the ranges. Climbing caught up with Moran via email to get his thoughts on Valic’s ascents:

Back when you and Simon did the feat, only 75 peaks were listed – what changed in the ranking, or was there not an official one at that point as far as you know?We did all 75 peaks with more than 35 metres height separation in a 52-day journey; when we did our round, the UIAA list of 82 hadn't been published, so we set our own parameter of what constitutes a significant top. In effect the differences between our list and the UIAA list are fairly minor.How did you guys move between the peaks, and what sort of support did you have?Our trip was non-motorised, self-propelled, and continuous. We bicycled between the ranges and walked or skied up all the peaks (no cablecars or mountain railways). We had support teams bringing up food and supplies on several sections

Blaz Stres and Miha Valic on the summit of Mont Blanc.Photo courtesy of Miha Valic.

Alps Masters: An Interview With Miha Valic and Martin Moran

You did this in summer — what are some of the major differences between conditions as you found them and what a winter suitor might face? What were the major obstacles for you guys — storms? Wet cracks? Loose talus terrain that is perhaps better when snowed under?We had a very poor summer on our round - lots of snow on the peaks and stormy weather. However, huts were staffed and approaches to the peaks were free of snow. In winter the big problem is high chance of heavy snowfall at all levels, making progress very difficult and creating high avalanche risk. This winter Miha had long spells of excellent weather and conditions but when the heavy snows came in March he faced massive problems. In summer, a storm might last two days and fresh snow might cause dangers for a further three days; whereas in winter, a storm may last a week and create high avalanche risk and dangerous cornicing on ridges for a week after that.What would it take to do all 82 in as many days in terms of fitness, skill, and support?The big challenge is to do a continuous self-propelled journey in winter in the same way as we did in summer. This was the style adopted by [Patrick] Berhault in 2004 when in skied between ranges - but his attempt was in spring, not winter. Given a settled winter without too many heavy snowfalls I think a continuous 82-day round is possible, but it would need support teams, good knowledge of many of the peaks, and a pair of very able, determined alpinists.

Blaz Grapar climbing on Les Droites, the final peak in Valic's odyssey.Photo courtesy of Miha Valic.

Alps Masters: An Interview With Miha Valic and Martin Moran

What do you think of Valič's feat? Why has this for so long been a thorn in the side of European alpinists?Miha Valicˇ deserves enormous credit for taking this 4,000-meter peak challenge into the winter season. His aim of doing 82 in 82 days was laudable, even though he used car transport/cablecars, etc. and did not do a continuous route. His success lays down the gauntlet for further winter attempts.What are the most difficult peaks, by the easiest routes, on this list? Schreckhorn - Taschhorn - Matterhorn - Weisshorn - Aig Verte - Grandes Jorasses - Aig Blanche de Peuterey are the hardest major mountains, but it is the smaller tops on the list that are the hardest to reach and most technical (e.g., summits on Diable Ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul, and West Ridge of Grandes Jorasses).Anything I didn't ask? I've just written an English-language guidebook to all the classic routes on the 4,000-meter peaks to be published at the end of June 2007 by The Alpine Club - distribution by www.cordee.co.uk. There are thousands of climbers trying to climb all the 4,000-meter peaks over a longer period of 10 or 15 years. The challenge gives focus and purpose to their mountaineering.

Also, here in its entirety is the Q + A interview with Miha Valic.

Where are you from?Ljubljana, Slovenia

What inspired you to try this feat? Why try this in winter, versus spring/summer like the others have?I was thinking about similar projects, and when I started my research I learned about several previous attempts of marathon in the Alps. It looked very interesting and hard, so that’s why I decided to try. I chose winter because I wanted to make a step forward from the other attempts (and success from Martin Moran and Simon Jenkins in summer).

Many (or most) of these peaks will be unfamiliar to American readers, so to be brief, what range of technical difficulty are we talking about for all 82 peaks, and how much harder are they in the winter, and why?It depends on which route you climb. The normal routes are usually quite easy, but when you start to connect the peaks there are some very hard ridge traverses. The easiest peaks (Gran Paradiso, Piz Bernina, some peaks in Monte Rosa range) I could do mostly with skis (French grade F). The hardest ones (Arete du Diable, traverse of Grandes Jorasses, traverse Taschorn – Dom and Schreckhorn - Lauteraarhorn, Brouillard ridge of Mont Blanc…) were hard climbing up do grade D+ and technical difficulties in rock up to V-VI in UIAA grades. I think that they are much harder in winter because of the short day, avalanches, snow on the rocks, cold, and wind.

You must have been using an incredible amount of energy – what kind of food did you take with you, or how much were you eating per day or each night to stay healthy?For breakfast and during the day I usually ate some energy bars, and in the evening I cooked one package of instant pasta. That went on for many days, and right now I think they are really disgusting. I didn’t want to carry to much food with me, especially when I went in the mountains for 4 days or more.

What kinds of things went through your head on the peaks you climbed solo? Were there ever moments when you became so scared or tired that you doubted the sanity/validity of trying this?When I climb solo I usually don’t think about anything. I try to concentrate on the next step and the next move. Or I think about really stupid things, and I repeat them on and on like a mantra. Of course there were some bad moments when you ask yourself, “why are you doing this?” and if it is still safe enough. But those were brief moments.

I know about the tragedy with Berhault – was this something that presented a mental obstacle or ran through your head up there?Patrick Berhault was a great climber, of course I thought about him, especially when I was doing the Tashhorn – Dom traverse (where he got killed). The problem with this project is that you are in the mountains for such a long time that it is normal that you make a mistake. And on most of the places the mistake can be fatal, because mostly I climbed without the rope.

What would it take to do all 82 in 82 days? By linking ridges, what were the most peaks you were able to climb in one day?I think it is possible to do all peaks in 82 days, and I was also capable of doing it, but weather was really bad in February and beginning of March. In one month I did only 7 peaks, that was what caused the delay. The highest number of peaks I climbed in one day is 5.

What was the hardest of your climbs – physically? How about psychologically? Emotionally?There were several hard climbs that I mentioned before. Maybe the most demanding for me was Weisshorn because of the bad weather, zero visibility, and really bad snow conditions. I was alone, and from the valley up, I had to cover 3100 m mostly in deep snow.

What did you do to prepare?The most important thing in this project is experience. I’ve been climbing since 1995 and in these 12 years I climbed a lot of routes in Slovenia and several expeditions that gave me enough experience. Before the beginning I was training in Slovenian mountains and running around my home. Logistics played a very important role.

How important were friends to this endeavor? Did they drive you around and help cook, or were you often alone in these tasks?Without my friends I couldn’t succeed because I couldn’t find a partner for the whole trip. They came from Slovenia for few days, and we did one or two mountain groups together. Then they went back and another one came. I did the cooking and driving mostly alone.

What was the most frightening moment you had up there?There were several frightening moments and few times I made some mistakes, but I was lucky enough that I didn’t end as Berhault.

Q: You were often waiting in parking lots at ski areas and in the high mountains – how many days were there when you couldn’t climb? What did you do then – hang out with the tourists, get a coffee?I think that I did around 55 to 60 days of climbing. On the other days there was bad weather or dangerous snow conditions. On those days I was just waiting, checking the weather forecast every 10 minutes and window-shopping. Those were very long days.

How many hours were you sleeping at night? How has this impacted your body – physical health?During the beginning of winter when the night was long, I slept quite a lot. On bivouac in Arete du Diable I was in sleeping bag on a ledge for 16 hours, because the day was very short. When the day grew longer I didn’t sleep that much any more. One of the hardest things was getting up around 3 am day after day.

Q: Tell me some about the ridge connections you did, and the conditions you met up there? How hard were the winds blowing?There were many hard ridge connections, some of them where in very bad conditions with a lot of powder over the rocks. That’s why I was quite slower than I would be in summer. Wind was very strong whole winter. Sometimes I had to turn around just because of the wind. On Bernina, for example I couldn’t walk straight on a glacier because of the winds. On the ridges wind was even stronger.

How much snow and ice climbing did you do, versus rock?It was all more or less mixed terrain, except of the ski peaks.

Did you ever hallucinate, and if so, what did you see?I didn’t hallucinate.

What are you doing now, to rest and recover, or to prepare for more climbs? You must be very fit….Mostly resting, sleeping and eating (too much). I was very fit on the beginning and in the middle but at the end I was also very tired. I think my body needs some rest. I’ll do some sport climbing and easy mountaineering in near future. In July I’m going in Russia.