Published in Rock, Autumn 2004.

If mountaineering is to have a meaningful future, then we must look very closely at how we climb. Since I began to climb, the approach to mountaineering style has largely gone backwards and people have become content and satisfied with a lot less.  This is only because individual climbers choose the path of most certainty while on the mountain, not the path of genuine adventure.

There is a prevailing “fixed” structure and approach to mountaineering today, not an approach of alpinism, of alpine style. As such, we are limiting our imaginations, our experiences and what we will pass down to climbers for generations to come.

Names like Herzog, Buhl, Terray and Bonatti (and many others) are etched into our collective knowledge and understanding or mountaineering and exploration. These alpinists climbed at the cutting edge on their local Alps, before taking their experience and capability to the Himalayas where they made many stunning first ascents. Even after the Second World War, the Himalayas were a wild and relatively unknown place – especially intimidating at high altitude where few humans had been.

As a result, expeditions often put a lot of resources and support into attempting the big mountains. Despite typically fixing ropes and camps, and using supplementary oxygen (on the higher mountains) these climbers were climbing, quite literally, into the unknown. But what is most interesting is how they were always looking to improve – to do it lighter and faster, to make their relationship with the mountains as clean and simple as possible.

In 1957 an Austrian expedition (Buhl, Diemberger, Wintersteller, Schmuck) made the first ascent of Broad Peak (8047m) in the Karakoram, without supplementary oxygen and high altitude porter support, using minimal fixed camps. The ascent was very close to pure alpine style and represented a huge leap forward. Look even further back and we find the visionary George Mallory who only sporadically used supplementary oxygen on Everest (and this was at a time when not to do so at extreme altitude was considered to mean certain death). This perception drastically changed in 1978 when Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler climbed Everest without supplementary oxygen. It was a landmark climb, opening the way for others to follow – on Everest and elsewhere. Suddenly, everyone knew that the bar had been raised – how could anyone argue with this pure, unadulterated human relationship with the mountain?

Yet even now people still “conquer” Everest with a mask on, neatly connected to the oxygen bottle on their backs. When Tim Macartney-Snape went to the north face of Everest in 1984, he wasn’t interested in using supplementary oxygen. “Why seek out the most difficult objective you think you might be able to climb, then lower its difficulty by using oxygen, and at the same time condemn your climbing style to fixed camps and cylinder dumps? says Macartney-Snape. He and Greg Mortimer climbed Everest without oxygen in 1984 by a new route on the north face. The expedition fixed rope for the first 800 metres of their route and climbed alpine style thereafter. I use Everest as an example because it is simultaneously the epitome of some of the most visionary, and most banal, mountaineering.

There are many other examples of alpine style standards being applied to the Himalayas, many of them from quite some years ago: Messner and Hans Kammerlander’s 1984 ascents of Gasherbrum I and II in an alpine style traverse; or Voytek Kurtyka and Robert Schauer’s 1985 near alpine style ascent of Gasherbrum IV’s west face (they climbed the face but just missed the summit after being hit by a two day storm. Or another example: Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan’s ascent of Everest by its north face in 1986 without ropes, harnesses, supplementary oxygen or tents. They moved mostly at night and didn’t even carry a pack above 7800m. All these examples demonstrate how elite climbers have pushed the boundaries of alpinism in the Greater Ranges to awesome extremes.

Conversely, the path of “most certainty” in mountaineering is about having everything to help ensure “success” – a big team, fixed ropes, camps, high altitude porters and guides, and supplementary oxygen. As a result, the climber’s experience is narrowed to a path where the potential for genuine adventure and freedom is lost. Within this “fixed” expedition style and structure, the individual can pass on the physical or emotional responsibility to the overall structure of the expedition yet still share in the joie de vivre.

In these “fixed” expedition-style ascents, there might be personal significance for the climbers, but none for alpinism. In France, the USA or Slovenia, for example, the climbing community ignores “fixed” expedition-style ascents.  As the leading US alpinist Steve House wrote in the American Alpine Journal, “the fact is that…expedition style climbs of 8000 meter peaks so not stretch our collective experience anymore.” To reinforce the fact that alpine style is not dependent on climbing difficult routes, I will say that there is more significance in a small team climbing a technically easy peak alpine style than in the “fixed” structure of many expeditions to higher mountains.

While many aspects of our daily lives seem designed to ensure safety and certainty, the mountains offer uncertainty and infinite potential for confronting and breaking barriers to personal freedom. In the mountains, it is what we don’t know that is most valuable, and also most confronting. Figuratively, we have the whole world in front of and above us. Yet many climbers choose to refute this, to close the door on what they supposedly go to the mountains for in the first place. Facing up to a route or mountain that will push you to the limit is a daunting prospect. Strip away the elements of certainty and things really get interesting. And is climbing this is the richest, most complex proposition because it brings together both deep-seated fear and loving motivation.

Athol Whimp and I are close friends and are fortunate to share the same climbing ideas. We recently returned from the Karakoram where we were attempting to climb Gasherbrum IV. We had the entire mountain to ourselves and were climbing alpine style. Our time on the mountain was isolated, vicious and beautiful. There we were with only the packs on our backs, halfway up a huge Karakoram peak, fighting to go higher.

Every moment on Gasherbrum IV presented us with changing situations, which helped me to understand at a deep level why I climb, and furthermore to accept this as I watched my life (and Athol’s) flash before my eyes on numerous occasions. Thus climbing alpine style comes with great responsibility to yourself and your climbing partner. You can’t abseil back to your last camp and have a hot drink, or wait for someone else to arrive at your tent with more fuel. In essence, there are fewer solutions to more problems.

While not reaching the summit of Gasherbrum IV was deeply frustrating, the depth and difficulty of our experience has given me some solace since being home. Now, as I walk about in the city, “GIV” often appears in front of me like an apparition, moving in and out of focus, and I feel angry and satiated all at once. I recall sitting on our packs after our final, epic retreat and feeling perplexed as to why we had been treated so harshly by this beautiful mountain.

As on previous climbs, we were climbing as one, driven by the elastic bond between us, and the animal engine in our souls. As the wind and snowfall increasingly threatened to carry us away, we continued to climb. Because we didn’t have an alternative or a physical attachment to the mountain we found strength, aggression and love – love for what we were doing, and each other. I felt this most deeply when I sensed the temporal nature of our presence on the mountain most strongly. The uncertain outcome provides the potential for the individual to truly become free and self-contained, responding to the mountain with both tenderness and force.

The mountain and our presence on it are ever changing. So much seems to conspire against upward progress when climbing alpine style. But if we are patient enough, and are willing to endure the suffering, there is peace in our tenuous presence. We each have to choose how far we want to push ourselves, how close to the edge of our existence we are prepared to live. By making such decisions we begin to get answers to that massive question, “why am I here?”

To this extent, all climbing is the individual’s blank canvas. Or, in the words of US alpinist Scott Backes, “all climbing is anarchy.” It is the individual’s response to the frustration and ambiguity of the human predicament, a lone cry in an attempt at understanding, surrounded by the appalling savage and beautiful wilderness, with often small hope of completing what one set out to do.

While we were on Gasherbrum IV, there were 22 expeditions trying to climb Gasherbrum II (comprising a total of 207 members, excluding high altitude porters, cooks, friends and others at base camp). Why? Because it’s arguably the easiest 8000m mountain. Peaks of over 8000m have their own man-made sexiness. As Voytek Kurtyka pointed out years ago, measure them in feet and it doesn’t mean anything.  When Athol and I climbed Jannu in Nepal in 2000, there was an estimated 300 people over at the southwest base camp of Kangchenjunga, yet there was not a soul on the north side. 

Many of those climbing were following the same path to the summit, and were using supplementary oxygen. In the 2003 pre-monsoon season in Nepal there were an estimated 1000 people at Everest base camp (for the south col route). In some ways I can understand the motivation of the “non-climbers” who pay to be guided to the top and back again. Most of these people potentially relate to and understand Everest through a broader cultural lens, and not a climbing one.

Many of these people on Everest split hairs over the significance of their ascent, a sign of weakness and a far cry from the individual’s selfish motivations to climb a mountain. Why not be just another person to be guided up and down?

When climbers attribute some sort of significance to their ascent that is separate from the climbing, they are doing so from the perspective of society overall, and not from an understanding of mountaineering, of alpinism. Claims of significance where none actually exists merely underscores the lack of credibility in the climbing.

The onus is on us all to communicate a more meaningful and honest perspective of mountaineering to ourselves. And this means understanding how only an approach of alpine style will inspire us, and take us forward. We are simultaneously everything and nothing against the colossal scale of the mountains; from this there is so much to learn. To contribute to the collective mountain experience, you must first decide how you want to climb. This is what will shape the future.