Conversations, (most recently with Robert Shauer, a great alpinist and one of the team of two, ((Wojciech Kurtyka being his partner)) that climbed what is for me the greatest ever alpine style ascent in the greater ranges, the shining wall on the west face of Gasherbrum IV) posts on blogs, e-mails and articles have made me think about the forthcoming expedition.
Why Annapurna III and why the Southeast Ridge? Why alpine style? Why live this mountaineering life that provides discomfort, uncertainty, apprehension, on occasion sadness and at times terror?
Alpinism is attempting to climb with minimum impact and maximum commitment. Alpinism gives great rewards both physical and psychological. You learn a lot about yourself when you go out on a limb. In the run up to the climb voices constantly squirm, burrowing into the depth of youre drive and ambition. On the days before the voice speaks increasingly louder. And throughout the climb the voice shouts and nervous glances to the left, to the right, to the horizon and above to snow covered rock and below to the gaping emptyness and into the eyes of partners and into you're psyche are frequent. You learn very quick about who you really are and what is motivating you. Cut loose without a bolt kit, fixed rope, porta ledge – lead as free as you can, second by climbing not jumaring, keep youre sack on if at all possible, give the hill a chance and reveal the red-raw hidden beneath the bravado and ego.
In my case climbing in the greater ranges is me and a mate. On this climb it’s me and two mates. We will walk to the foot of a big hill that is in the back of the beyond, acclimatise, make a plan and set out. The objective is secluded and guarded by rock walls the size of the cliffs of Yosemite Valley. Towering and dark and intimidating. Packing our bags beneath the ridge with a limited amount of food, a limited amount of clothing, we will begin to climb in the hope that our experience and drive and determination will keep us going. Once the ridge is reached it will no-doubt present the usual technical ridge type challenges, unprotected traverses around gendarmes that may or may not be reversed, technical, unknown climbing, the voice shouts, what gear, what holds, what hope?. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve performed in the past, you’re body and mind at altitude can suddenly decide not to cooperate and of course the weather is uncertain.
After the summit, the same drive and determination that has kept us going for a possible 7 days will have to get us back down, and getting back down is not straight forward – no fixed umbilical cord to slide, no bolts for an easy anchor. At the moment we are thinking reverse the ridge (long and arduous and time consuming). Down climb the ridge to the right, (unclimbed and unknown). Down climb the ‘standard’ route, (unknown and leaving us in a different valley with a possible 5 to 7 day walk to BC).
A big part of alpinism is dealing with all of this … all of this, unknown. You can sit and say “well isn’t everyone in their day to day life dealing with this, which of course they are, but climbers and more specifically alpinists who are attempting new routes in the greater ranges, new routes climbed in a style which is giving the mountain a chance, choose to take their unknown beyond the realm of what most are comfortable. If this sounds arrogant, it isn’t supposed too, I completely understand that life is precious and something to be savoured at whatever level, but for me and people like me life is also something to be questioned and pushed and then it becomes rich and full.
Failure on this type of climb is common. The Southeast ridge of Annapurna III has been attempted five times and to my knowledge the ridge has only been reached once! Failure is something that makes this type of climbing what it is. Failure is what makes success something so far removed from what the glossy magazines and newspapers can comprehend they do not report it or want to begin to understand. To the media in general, a label has to be attached to a climb to turn it into an understandable objective. Many people who climb mountains, purely climb, or should i say haul up on fixed rope, to get to the top by whatever means, for whatever means, the thought of attempting a climb that is as unknown, as uncertain as the Southeast Ridge would not be guaranteed enough, it would not be good enough or well know enough to inflate their standing in the minds of the ignorant and easily impressed.
On his blog, The Mountain World, http://themountainworld.blogspot.com/ Dougald McDonald has written an interesting essay about the article in Alpinist 4 that is called unclimbed. Interesting for me is one of the comments written about the essay by Peter Beal who asks, “Do you have the feeling however that while these objectives are interesting to certain climbers, that they are no longer the topic of a larger discussion even within the climbing community?” I’m sure he is right, but have they ever been, and if they were, has mountaineering just turned fast food like many other aspects of climbing?
Successfully climbing, or, successfully failing on the Southeast ridge will be a deeply rewarding and soul seeking experience, it will bring about spiritual growth, it will make the climbers (Pete Benson, Matt Helliker and me) reliant on each other as soon as the first step is taken. There will be no Sherpa’s, no helicopter rescue, no other teams to run for to help, no oxygen, no fixed rope to easily slide back to safety and no bolts for certainty. Memories will last for life and the lives and character of those who have attempted (my mates and me!) will be enriched and changed for ever. This is what attempting to climb in a style where the mountain holds most of the cards is about. It is about putting yourself out there and seeing what you are made of, it is not about desecration, it is not about success at any cost, it is not about ruining the dreams and a finite resource for future parties.