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State of the Heart: The Evolution of Alpinism

Matt Van Biene and Joel Enrico search for a bivy on The 6,400-foot Care Bear Traverse (VI 5.11 A0) in Patagonia. Photo: Austin Siadak

“She crushed V15 at 14 years old. He’s about to send 5.16. They free climbed a 30-pitch 5.14d on El Capitan. Climbing’s progression is staggering,” says the voice around the campfire as flames spark into the shape of mountains, snap, then disappear. Any mention of alpine climbing is usually omitted from this recurring conversation because mountains transcend grades and deny appraisal. While numbers might tell the story at the crag, alpinism testifies to inner strength.

Axes and crampons first pierced the Alps, then the mountains of Alaska, the Sierra Nevada, and South America. A fascination with the natural world and a desire to explore uncharted places fueled the early days of mountaineering. In 1492, the same year Columbus set sail from Spain, Antoine de Ville made the first known technical ascent of a mountain. His small team used aid climbing to overcome steep sections and gain the summit of Mont Aiguille in France. Of course, native cultures around the world had long been scaling peaks in search of gods and spirits, but those ascents are largely undocumented.

By the 1950s all eyes were on the Himalaya and its crucible of the world’s highest peaks. Simple, pure alpinism was sullied by ego, siege tactics, and a lust to be first at any cost. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used porters and rigged safety lines to force their way to the summit of Everest. To this day, hundreds of boots trample across fixed ladders and gloved hands “climb” chains of fixed ropes in an attempt to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. The hollow siege of this Himalayan peak disgusts many modern alpinists. Conga lines of clients leave trash, and a lack of respect for mountaineering has led to theft and even violence on the great peak.

“There is probably nothing finer than to climb free and unencumbered by equipment, reveling in the gymnastic upward movement…relying upon yourself, keeping a sharp eye on things, feeling the rock beneath your feet and fingertips,” said Hermann Buhl, who made the first ascents of Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak in the 1950s. Buhl died while applying these alpine-style techniques to Chogolisa in 1957, but he left behind an alternative approach to climbing Himalayan mountains. In 1975, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler made the first ascent of the Northwest Face of the 26,510-foot Hidden Peak, also known as Gasherbrum I or K5, in pure alpine style. Done as a self-reliant team without fixing any rope, their ascent broke from nationalistic, expedition-style climbing. Messner and Habeler correlated the style of ascent with the gains of the experience. By meeting the mountain on its terms and not forcing success with fixed ropes and porters, they learned more about themselves.

“Part of the idea is to get yourself out of yourself, to push beyond what you think your limits are and to transcend your normal life,” said Michael Kennedy on Episode 49 of the Enormocast. “You come back from these things and you’re changed; you see the world in an entirely different way.” Kennedy, who made alpine-style ascents of the Infinite Spur in Alaska and the Northeast Face of Ama Dablam in Nepal, built on what Messner and Habeler had done on Hidden Peak. Questing for the ultimate route, the leading climbers of the 1970s used similar tactics, but on steeper and more technical mountains. In 1976 Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman tackled the West Wall of Changabang, a 20,000-foot blade in the Garhwal Himalaya. They fixed ropes between camps, but remained on the wall for 25 days. Two years later, cousins George and Jeff Lowe, Jim Donini, and Kennedy attempted the North Ridge of Latok I, a 23,442-foot collage of ice and rock in Pakistan. They wanted a pure alpine-style ascent but instead used eight ropes for fixing between and above their camps. They were on the ridge for 26 days, nearly summiting before illness and weather drove them down 500 feet from the summit. Eighty-five rappels later, the team was safely on the glacier, having achieved a highpoint that has not been reached since.

“We pulled the ropes and I began rappelling. Four meters below, as I went over a small bulge, the V-thread popped and we both fell 90 meters to the glacier,” wrote Kyle Dempster in “Near Miss on Ogre II,” published in the 2016 American Alpine Journal. Success on the north face of the peak would have been a highpoint in Karakoram climbing history, eclipsing Dempster and Hayden Kennedy’s (Michael Kennedy’s son) first ascent of the south face of Ogre I in 2012. Dempster’s partner Scott Adamson had teetered out of a mixed corner 300 meters below the summit and broke his leg, so they were descending the 22,834-foot monster with a dwindling rack when a failed anchor tossed them 295 feet to the fluffy glacier.

In 1977, a col away on Ogre I, Doug Scott had a similar epic, breaking both of his legs while rappelling near the summit when he slipped on some ice and slammed into a rock wall. For seven days Scott descended, etching his own tale into mountaineering lore. Despite 40 years of climbing advancement, the two groups faced similar experiences in the Karokoram because of the very nature of alpinism. Mountains don’t care who you are or what era you come from.

Alpinism differs from other climbing disciplines in the survival aspect. The “cutting edge” of sport climbing or bouldering is performance-related, while the edge on alpine climbs is sharp enough to kill. High peaks demand climbers be better than they could otherwise be in order to survive. Mental and physical abilities must be honed with training, then wielded perfectly in the most intense circumstances. Downclimbing 6,000 feet of exposed ground with a broken arm like Jean Christophe Lafaille on Annapurna in 1991, forging a new route up K7 with a seven-pound pack like Steve House in 2004, and surviving broken legs in the Karakoram can only be done on the stage of high consequence. An alpinist’s performance peaks under the right amount of stress. This biological phenomenon, known as the “fight or flight” response, causes chemical release and nerve cell firing from the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls the nervous system and produces hormones. When managed correctly, strength and overall ability increase. This is a reason why alpine routes of the past are still relevant today. Threatened with death, the alpinist must perform.

The California sun shines on Yosemite’s Astroman every day. First freed in 1975, the route ushered in a new standard in multi-pitch free climbing. At mid-5.11, Astroman is easily accessible for modern climbers. The West Face of Changabang and the North Ridge of Latok I, standards from the same era, remain unfinished despite attempts by the world’s best.

“During our time waiting and watching, we learned a lot about why the North Ridge has been such an unmerciful objective,” says 37-year-old Josh Wharton, who has spent six months of his life camping under Latok I. “Essentially you need the unlikely combination of a long period of very good weather (two days to clean the ridge and a minimum of four days to climb and descend), a low snow year, and relatively warm temperatures (often found during the poor monsoonal weather of July and August) to succeed in alpine style.” More than anything else, emotional control is needed to summit. This tempered confidence comes from a bank of experience that takes years to fill. No amount of hangboarding, campusing, or lapping a Treadwall will see you to the top. The higher you go, the more mental and physical fatigue builds while the air thins. The strength for the final steps to a summit come from the heart and the mind. On an alpine climb, personal components like fitness, technical skill, and mental toughness must magically mesh with the unpredictable and random weather and conditions found on the mountain.

In April 2016, on the dark, windy summit of the Canadian Rockies’ Mt. Robson, 23-year-old Marc-Andre Leclerc fumbled with his stove. He had successfully soloed 2,200 meters of chossy limestone banded with snow and ice on Infinite Patience (VI 5.9 M5 WI5), but when his water boiled over and drenched his clothes, his fortitude was tested. “I yelled an obscenity and realized that my situation was getting too desperate now to stay on the summit any longer,” he wrote on his blog. He downclimbed thousands of feet, through a red dawn and fatigue, to the shores of Berg Lake. Like Buhl, Messner, House, and the others who came before him, Leclerc is at the heart of modern alpinism. “As a young climber, it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport,” he wrote. “Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch and the grades and all the lists of records, I’ve slowly been able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.”

All climbing disciplines foster personal growth, but alpine climbing forces self-improvement to a different degree. Central to alpine achievement is strength of heart and the commitment to let something frighteningly magnificent drive your actions both on and off the mountain. Risking one’s life for sport isn’t enough to drive great achievement—a deeper passion must be present. Without the human element, the summit is merely a pretty, windy perch.

After establishing new routes in Patagonia and Alaska, Jens Holsten still finds inspiration outside his doorstep in the Cascades.