Climbing overseas in the 2000’s

There’s no doubt the standard of technical mixed climbing in New Zealand has been boosted recently by the dedicated efforts of the Remarkables aficionada. It’s good to see this previously disregarded medium (ie. steep, rotten rock glued together with a modicum of ice) being put to good use and Kiwi climbers challenging themselves to climb M8. But will this herald a renaissance in the standard of New Zealand alpinism? After all, a dozen years ago a handful of Canadian climbers were hooking their way up M8’s in the Rockies, the home of mixed climbing. Now there are hundreds doing this grade and harder. I’m circumspect about New Zealand following suit -our climbing population is small and any ice that does form is jeopardised by our short winter. In Canada the ice hangs around for six months and the bar is set by world class climbers like Will Gadd and Raphael Slawhinski, who are currently climbing M14. I can’t see Kiwi’s really excelling at mixed climbing unless they complement the Remarkables with a good dose of Northern Hemisphere winter.
Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but there seems to be a misconception that climbing short mixed routes alone will produce world class alpinists. This isn’t true. At best it will equate to climbing similar short hard technical routes in other low altitude locations. Of course this is fine- it’s a great sport in itself. But to climb well in the really big mountains (Alaska or the Greater Ranges) this skill needs to be messed up with a sustained alpine career. There’s no point being a hot shot mixed climber if you’re unhappy scampering along the summit ridge of Cook, soloing the Caroline Face, or merrily traversing Torres/Tasman without a rope. Or if you are frightened of crevasses or inexperienced reading snow conditions or weather. No amount of mixed climbing, however hard, will serve you better than putting in the mileage on New Zealand’s longer alpine routes; it’s something that can’t be bypassed if you want to be considered a top mountaineer. This is why Guy McKinnon, despite his modesty, climbed so well overseas. A solo ascent of the Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe in winter must be the best preparation New Zealand has to offer for climbing in the Greater Ranges.
Neither is there any harm in putting in a couple of season’s waterfall ice climbing in Canada. In New Zealand if you get half a dozen days on ice a season you are doing well. If you only spent half a dozen days a year rock climbing, you’d never be more than a mediocre rock climber. It’s the same with ice- you have to put in the miles. Head to Canada for a couple of back to back winters and you could end up with 100 days on ice under your belt and return to NZ to find the harder routes on New Zealand’s South Faces flow beneath your crampons in a way they never did before.
There are many factors to climbing successfully in the Greater Ranges that don’t relate to technical ability. In fact there seems to be a miscomprehension amongst Kiwi’s that they will automatically climb BETTER in the Himalayas than they do at home. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You generally climb feeling below par, either from the altitude, or a stomach bug picked up on the walk in, a high altitude cough or just the relentless cold. Your route will take multiple days, necessitating a heavy pack -a new experience for Kiwi’s as our routes rarely take more than a day. There is the uncertainty of being several days up a route with bad weather moving in and no easy way down. There’s the drudgery of waiting out a week of storm at basecamp without becoming demoralised and a trial to your climbing partners. Whipping home to recover and coming back the following weekend isn’t an option. The opportunity is there and then, the moneys been outlaid, you are half way across the world and there’s a climbing partner and sponsors who can’t be let down. It’s hard to learn all this on the south face of the Remarkables, but a solo ascent of the Caroline Face will give a tiny tiny inkling of the commitment needed to become really ‘good’ in the really big mountains.
Our most successful alpinist of the past few decades is Athol Wimp who won the Piolet D’Or in 1998 for climbing the North Face of Thalay Sager. Athol put in decades of alpine climbing in NZ before he headed overseas. In the early 1980’s his name could be found in the most remote huts of the Godley, Rangitata and Rakaia headwaters where he’d be climbing equally as remote peaks, often by himself. He worked as a possum trapper to fund his climbing and keep fit. He climbed every grade 4/5/6 in the Mt Cook region- he didn’t find them too easy, too boring, too unchallenging. Rather he loved to climb, loved the mountains and was dedicated to becoming the best alpinist he could. It didn’t hurt that he was no slouch on rock, trained with the SAS and was a superb athlete. All these factors and decades of commitment to his sport combined to make him a world class alpinist.
I think there is a tendency for Kiwi’s to give up mountaineering before they become really good. What’s happened to Alex Palman, Peter Dickson or Brian Alder? The majority of the top climbers in the world today – Steve House, Simon Moro, Marko Prezelj, Ueli Steck, for instance- are all in their 40’s and just reaching their best now. Mick Fowler is still amongst the top half dozen climbers in the world at 55. My friend Malcolm Bass, who got a Piolet D’ Or nomination this year, is only just hitting his straps at 45 – this after a dozen trips to the Himalayas and hundreds and hundreds of days over the past three decades spent climbing in the French Alps, Alaska and Scotland. It takes years and years of climbing, failing, enduring hardship and risks and living on the smell of an oily rag (just read Steve House or Tomaz Humar’s autobiographies ) to become a truly world class alpinist. I wonder if Kiwi climbers realise how hard it is – how much commitment, sacrifice, bravery, talent and ultimately time is required?
There is a short paragraph in the epilogue of Steve House’s recent autobiography, Beyond the Mountain which sums this up for me:
“When I adopted my mission, atop a boulder in far northern Pakistan 19 years ago- to be the best climber I could become-I couldn’t have foreseen the implications that decision would have. I abandoned a nascent science career and became a mountain guide. I have lived in vans and been so broke and hungry that I checked into foreign hotels, billed meals to my room and walked into the night at 4am, carrying a backpack containing all my belongings, the unglued sole of my boot slapping softly in the cold night. I have fathered no children. Ive burned through my emotions and left inadequate reserves for a marriage. I have trained for thousands of hours: hiked, run, sprinted, lugged 40 pounds uphill, bounded, pedalled, skied and lifted. I have climbed and climbed and climbed. Four, five, sometimes seven days a week. I have pushed to my limits and beyond.”