Banff National Park, Alberta
I’ve just returned from a week-long road trip to the splendid Canadian Rockies with Bettie Blue, my trusty Westie companion—more rest, reading, and reflection than climbing this year, but a splendid time of refreshing renewal nonetheless.
You can see more photos in a Facebook gallery, here.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
This is actually a lesson we teach in basic rock-climbing (along with how to prusik back up the rope using only your shoe-laces and a bit of wisdom). For those who are under the impression that I am continually criticizing the USA, please note that the Roosevelt I am quoting here was your country’s 32nd president, at the nadir of the worst depression in your history, with a full quarter of the workforce unemployed (1933-1945).
Just sayin’… hang in there.
The first ascent of the iconic Matterhorn (yes, the one on the triangular-shaped Toblerone chocolate package) was made by Edward Whymper, Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, Michel Croz, and the two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder father and son on 14 July 1865. Douglas, Hudson, Hadow and Croz were killed on the descent when Hadow slipped and pulled the other three with him down the north face. Whymper and the Taugwalder guides, who survived, were later accused of having cut the rope below to ensure that they were not dragged down with the others, but the subsequent inquiry found no proof of this and they were acquitted.
The Matterhorn accident was long discussed in the media, in Switzerland and abroad… newspapers all over the world reported the tragedy and no other Alpine event has ever caused more headlines. Read the full background to this memorable event in mountaineering history here.
Matterhorn photo (cropped) by Juan Rubiano; Illustrations of Whymper et al’s ascent and disastrous descent are by Gustave Doré.
“A single slip,
or a single false step,
has been the sole cause
of this frightful calamity.”
If you’re a climber in or near these parts, mark the evening of 18 April (two weeks from today) to take in a talk by, slide show (yup, the old-fashioned kind) with, and a film about climbing legend Fred Beckey, sponsored by the Manitoba Section of the Alpine Club of Canada. Known variously as “the original dirt-bag climber,” “old man of the mountains,” “the climbing bum’s climbing bum” and a variety of other colourful monikers, Fred Beckey boasts an impressive resume of alpine first ascents second to few—and at the age of 87 (not a typo) he’s still climbing!
The Fred Beckey gig will take place at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre at 340 Provencher Boulevard in Winnipeg (more details still to come). In the meantime, read more about Fred Beckey here, and here; watch a 5-minute film piece that The New York Times featured two years ago here.
Image: a Patagonia climbing poster featuring Fred from a few years back.
(even as they recede…)
When traveling across glaciers, it’s obviously best to avoid crevassed areas if at all possible. While skis lessen the possibility of punching through the snow layer in winter (a ski distributes your body weight more broadly than a boot), negotiating snow-bridges and moving safely above the snow- or firn-line* where underlying crevasses can lurk can be harrowing as well.
planetFear has recently published a great reference article
addressing four key points:
1) Knowing Where To Look (for crevasses)
2) Spotting the Slots
3) Route Finding (on a glacier)
4) Roping Up
Photos (from the top): crossing The President Glacier, BC (photo by friend David Cormie); the sphincter-tightening process of negotiating melting snow bridges; belaying my partner Peter Aitchison as he jumps icy streams atop the firn (the water disappeared into bottomless sink-holes here and there with a terrifyingly-deep flushing sound); happily roped-up with colleagues on a Bugaboos ascent; crossing a tricky bit of steep glare-ice using French technique (pied à plat) for good crampon purchase, trying not to think about the long run-out below.
* the firn-line is the highest level to which the fresh snow on a glacier’s surface retreats during the melting season, or the line separating the accumulation area from the ablation area
I was delighted to receive a link this week from designer friend/equestrian Christina Weese in Saskatoon—to an online version of the 1972 Chouinard Catalog. As an aging trad climber this really takes me back… legendary climber/mountaineer (and IMAX photographer) David Breashear writes about the influence of this very same 1972 Chouinard catalog on his climbing in his 1999 autobiography, High Exposure.
“Another serious influence on my developing style came via the Chouinard climbing equipment catalogue of 1972, a slender publication with a Chinese landscape painting on the cover. Its author, the revered rock and ice climber Yvon Chouinard, called for “clean” climbing, proposing that climbers disavow pitons and bolts that scarred or otherwise altered rock. Instead, he advocated the use of metal nuts of various shapes and sizes which slotted into cracks without damage to the rock and could be recovered by the second climber on a rope. He reminded readers of the edict of John Muir, the late-nineteenth-century poet-environmentalist: ‘Leave no mark except your shadow.’ This ethic of purism and self-control made a profound impact on the climbing community—and on me as well.”
Images: a few pics from the catalog, including the chapter title for a treatise on clean climbing, a mess of ‘biners, the breakthrough Hexentrics stopper, Yvon’s ironmongery, and a pair of exquisite Annapurna glasses.
The pleasure of risk is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination—in a word, experience. Climbing in particular, is a paradoxically intellectual pastime, but with this difference: you have to think with your body. Every move has to be worked out in terms of playing chess with your body. If I make a mistake the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing, and possibly painful. For a brief period I am directly responsible for my actions. In that beautiful, silent, world of mountains, it seems to me worth a little risk.
Fear… the right and necessary counterweight to that courage which urges men skyward, and protects them from self-destruction.
Many years ago, I climbed the mountains, even though it is forbidden. Things are not as they teach us; the world is hollow, and I have touched the sky.
Short is the little time which remains to thee of life. Live as on a mountain.
—Marcus Aurelius, (Meditations)
If the conquest of a great peak brings moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach, it also presents great dangers. It is not the goal of grand alpinism to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs. On this proud and beautiful mountain we have lived hours of fraternal, warm and exalting nobility. Here for a few days we have ceased to be slaves and have really been men. It is hard to return to servitude.
I hope I die before I get old.
This is not unlike traditional, bottom-up, first-ascent climbing… you rack up and then start up what you hope will be a fruitful line leading to the summit, no beta, no guarantee. On a good day, those bold initial moves pay off…