Cliches abound in the climbing world, and life as a whole. Perhaps most appropriate to climbing trips over the past year has been the classic “It’s not the what, but the who and the how.” Climbing literature is dripping with ethics on ‘the how.’ How to best climb a route or a mountain and how, in many cases, it’s not uncommon for teams to change their entire strategy for an attempt based on past ascents – both recent and distant. It sheds light on another angle for how climbing as a sport and personal pursuit is multi-dimensional in its attraction. Inextricable to how an objective is approached is the type of experience someone looks to have in the process, how it goes during completion and how it is remembered as time passes. 2017 was a good year for different experiences, and it’s worth keeping note on how they unfolded, and how to leverage them going forward.
Europe is a shining example of how to make outdoor experiences more civil than even some civilian living in other parts of the world. One lift ticket on the aiguille du midi will carry you from morning spa treatment, fresh espresso, baguettes, paninis and tank tops, to bus-swallowing, man-eating crevasses, laser-cut golden granite, blue ice and a dose of exposure worthy of hyperbole. Within minutes of downtown Chamonix, you can subject yourself to a lifetime’s worth of fatal objective hazard during a comparatively short ski tour before getting back into town to log into a full days’ work. This while never relinquishing the creature comforts that have come to make Europe the envy of the world.
Backcountry huts perched on the side of the mountains and glaciers there ensure that if you do have to spend the night in the mountains, it will be done in luxurious fashion – with cozy bunks, hot dinner and breakfast, and your choice of a variety of wines. What happened to roughing it in a cold, blustery tent with your under-showered, effervescent climbing partner when you want to alpine start for a major objective? “No sweat,” the French respond, “we’ve been doing this for years, and there is a much better way to spend time in the mountains.”
Admittedly, there was apprehension in going over there for a ‘wilderness trip,’ in the backcountry knowing that they have a vast array of huts spread throughout their mountains, developed townships at the base of most all peaks, and a history of human encroachment on what should be nature left to its most pristine and untouched splendor. If your traditional means of “getting away from it all” involves being far from other humans and their means of leaving a trace, Europe usually isn’t the best option. But the experience was a pleasant surprise: Sure, the aerial trams are ubiquitous in many places, and there are huts, but if you change your mindset, and appreciate the area for what it is and what it offers, it’s very easy to enjoy yourself. Embrace how from the hours of 7 – 9am, the dress code of downtown Chamonix is softshell, helmet, harness, crevasse rescue kit and AT boots. You grab an espresso and panini to go, and ride the AdM cable car up to your chosen objective of the day, and be sure to either book a space in the hut in advance, or catch the last cab or train down to the valley – if you can’t ski there yourself.
The European approach to the mountains may spoil you, but it’s worth it to see what the potential is for interaction with the outdoors. It’s pleasant to see a mostly tasteful development ushering the many European and global visitors getting into the mountains safely, easily and comfortably, while still maintaining an element of wildness. It’s a nice balance of the advanced, creature comforts of modern living and technology mixed with the raw power of nature. Human impact is evident, but in most cases, you have to know where to look and where to go to see that impact, and when you do, it’s usually for the better.
More recently, after engaging in a couple of international climbing trips, it’s been striking to see the diversity of experiences people have on even the same mountain. Take for instance, Alpamayo – steeped in accolades as one of the world’s most beautiful mountains, such a moniker creates a double-edged sword. It is beautiful, and helps expose people to the beauty of the Santa Cruz Valley and the surrounding Cordillera Blanca, but it also creates an over-use issue, with bottle necks of many parties on its most popular route, as well as byproducts of having so many people approaching it to climb. With such a large quantity of climbers setting major goals of its ascent, it’s not a wonder that one sees the full variety of climber types on its flanks in the season’s peak usage.
During a 2017 trip, at col camp, there were a pair of shoe-string climbers – tight budgets restricted their expenditures to a more ‘pure’ or self-sufficient ascent. They huffed all their own gear the entire way up the valley, to advanced camps, summits and back down to town. This is rare, given the Cashapampa valley economy is dependent on climbers and trekkers paying burrow drivers to haul their equipment to basecamps for two prominent peaks off the Santa Cruz valley, and often the accompanying guides to help them summit.
Jeff and I reluctantly surrendered some control of our expedition when we hired a driver and his donkeys to do the heavy lifting both to and from base camp. That meant we had to budget in time for the burrow driver, feed and provide cover for him, and psychologically, it wouldn’t be our energy hauling the bulk of our gear 20+km up to base camp. After some hesitation, we acquiesced – it was part of the experience of climbing in a foreign country, and really a practical response to real circumstances [on top of being a win-win for all players involved]. It ultimately meant our acclimatization would be easier, the hike into basecamp more fun and relaxing [our packs weighing 10lbs instead of 65], and locals would benefit from our capital expenditure.
On the other end of the experience spectrum, while sharing col camp with these shoestring climbers, the four of us ate dinner on the third night whilst watching a party of three Swiss women ascend to the same locale. Their experience could hardly have been more different. They hired personal guides for each climber, along with at least three porters to haul the rest of their supplies to within a few hundred meters of the summit. They didn’t even hike in their own food to the col, and were upset that the guides didn’t stop more frequently for food breaks on the long day between base and col camps. They carried water and insulating layers, and were more celebratory than other groups – and even their guides – for having reached the advanced camp and engaged in their celebration while their porters sliced their appetizers, cooked their dinner and set up their tents.
Most recently, such a differing experience was witnessed in the Southern New Zealand Alps, where the standard itinerary to climb the country’s highest peak is to take a 10 minute helicopter ride to the luxurious Plateau hut at the base of the technical section of Aoraki’s most frequented ascent path – the Linda Glacier. We bore witness to one client-guide combo who arrived at 10:30AM on a helicopter, lounged and rested throughout the day in preparation for their summit attempt. They awoke at midnight, scaled the peak, descended and flew out on the return flight in time for happy hour at Mt. Cooke Village below. They spent 30 hours in the grand plateau area – half of it inside the hut itself.
In planning for climbing New Zealand, we all scoffed at the very thought of taking a Helicopter instead of earning all of the mountain. We relished in the idea of hauling everything we needed [save the fuel, stove and sleeping pads that were not necessary in the huts] from the car to the summit, stashing unnecessary items in the hut during our summit bid. Then the approach began in earnest. The trail for the first five miles is nearly all an old road formerly accessing a now abandoned ski area – easy strolling, with only the last 20% being a marked hiking trail winding up the deteriorating moraine remaining from a rapidly receding Tasman Glacier below. Then one sees the business end of ‘earning Aoraki-Mt. Cook.’
Time and nostalgia have a tendency of squeezing out discomfort and negativity of many an outdoor activity, and looking back, we tend mute our exaggeration of how bad it was. In the thick of approaching the 3000’ of steep, dangerous scree and talus, however, the thought of retreating to the helicopter pad in town for the typical heli ‘bump’ up to the Plateau was real for all three of us. But in the end, we pushed through: It was our intention to earn all of the mountain, and we did. Of course, it was also a mutual decision to hire a helicopter for the return back to town.
And so there is one additional variable to consider when planning for a climbing trip, or experience in the backcountry: what type of experience is desired? Is it objectives requiring little to no major expenditure? Staying local to ski backcountry powder with good friends off an easy skin track, easy alpine cragging in a tee-shirt and a light wind breaker for the summit. Or is what you pursue a greater objective requiring ‘true grit,’ necessitating a different country and language, a greater price of admission where all the vertical is earned with all the tools and weight for the job and enduring more discomfort and sub-optimal conditions? Let those questions float around until they are adequately answered before you book a flight.
What is also interesting is how you interact with people who are all in the same location, but who seek a different experience than your own. Admittedly, it can be difficult to accept that their approach, style and priorities are far different than yours, and the situation can become sour if in so doing, their actions impinge on your efforts. This becomes especially salient when another team – using potentially less ‘pure’ methods of ascent experience success that eludes parties on more fair means. But what is equally interesting is how they will reflect upon their experience later, and also how that experience impacts them. In this regard, Teddy said it best.
So although it can be frustrating and easy to ridicule people with far more means or with much different priorities use their resources to delegate risk mitigation, energy conservation, and eliminate much of the effort required to complete objectives, it can ultimately attenuate their experience. Perhaps what fuels this perceived attenuation is the personal observation of how an experience ends up being much richer if there is a possibility of failure. If a pursuit or an objective is a sure bet, it risks becoming mundane and forgettable. Sometimes that’s fine – nearly everyone has an outing where in the course of execution, it becomes readily apparent in the subconscious and conscious mind that ‘success’ is imminent, but we replace the thrill of uncertain success with security and comparative comfort.
So, what? When planning what to do, I found over the past year that an important variable in selecting an objective is to first decide what type of experience you want to have, and 2017 provided an interesting window into that process. Some questions that were helpful in retrospect:
1. How much planning and logistics are involved?
2. How comfortable do you want to be?
3. How much control over the process do you want to have?
4. How difficult is the objective?
5. How much objective hazard is involved?
6. What are best ways to experience the mountain?
And lastly, undoubtedly, you’re going to encounter people along the way who answer questions like that differently, and that’s fine [with some exceptions]. What’s most important is that the people you’re doing it with share the same outlook as you, and the same determination to make it happen.