Barbarians at the Gate

This began as a piece about bolting and how risk is being manipulated out of the sport of climbing to make it more accessible. I recall the original title was "We're Pissed", then it became "The High Art of Soloing" and I finally settled on "The Brotherhood of Alpine Style: the religion of climbing and a case for Jihad". Rock & Ice published it under the title "Barbarians at the Gate" (on the cover), and "The Passion of the Twight: why alpinism is worth dying for" (inside). It prompted one of the most cowardly voice mails I have ever received, which was a priceless comment on the character of the fellow who left it.


A friend once asked, when discussing the Second Amendment whether I could give credence to an alternative point of view. My "no" prompted him to exclaim that my belief was not rational but religious and I more or less agreed. Today, on the subject of climbing ethics I am quite comfortable with the fact that I am a religious zealot. I hold my ideals dear, and when others piss on those ideals I shout for jihad.

In the past I tried to explain why I believe in certain principles and why they are important but learned that, when it comes to ethics people only want to hear themselves speak. None truly listen, perhaps because they already know their own truth, a code that resonates with them, which is not unlike religious belief. So I quit trying to explain the "why" and concentrated on telling "what" I believe.

The ethos of my church includes a love of the resource, usually expressed by an unwillingness to overpower a naturally occurring challenge with excess technology. Everyone in my church reveres history, and respects the climbers that came before us as well as the routes they did. We honor partnership and the icon that is the rope. We believe that commitment and risk are necessary to achieve spiritual growth. Of course, there are other precepts and as with all religions these are open to interpretation, from the fundamental to the most liberal. In my church, balls trump difficulty every time. The climber who hurls himself into the perilous unknown, passes the point of no return and survives (or not) earns a special status within the hierarchy of history.

Our church is not full of old has-beens hoping to remain atop the heap by decrying the normal evolutionary process common to any sport or pastime. To be sure, as I have aged and gained experience my values have evolved but these need not contradict the advances made by generations of climbers that follow. I love climbing and I love the mountains. I love what both demand of me, often my best. My religion values the confrontation between a climber and an organic challenge that causes the climber to achieve his best. Too often today climbers overwhelm that challenge with high performance technology instead of skill or commitment. Reinhold Messner described this type of climber as one who "carries courage in his rucksack."

Messner also wrote that, "Each goal achieved is equally a dream destroyed." The price of a dream's destruction is worth it if the climber rises to fulfill that dream rather than dragging it within easy reach using the excessive force of technology. Our dreams are not infinite. How many will you have in a lifetime, and what replaces them once they have been realized or destroyed? Loving quantity more than quality, the modern climber repeats his dreams with minor variation: slightly harder, longer, or faster, and maybe in a different range. When a climber chooses an objective that is grossly beyond his abilities he often uses technology to bridge the gap between his experience and his ambition. And another chunk of the resource is used up. Another dream dies. Few climbers are able to both dream an evolutionary leap and then take it during their careers. Sadly, it is equally hard for other climbers, intent in their own religion to recognize such leaps.

Dougal Haston, in a remarkable moment of self-criticism wrote after his successful ascent of the Eiger Direct (Harlin Route) in 1966, "why should these magnificent routes be reduced to a matter of mere drudgery by adoption of outdated methods?" An optimist despite being a student of philosophy, his Nietzschean goal was the evolution of man so he was quite disappointed when his team's efforts on the Eiger begat, not an alpine style ascent of the route they established, which seemed logical but a worse siege of the face than that his team laid. A Japanese team spent five weeks of 1969 fixing, drilling (100 bolts on the Rote Fluh alone) and hauling their 1.5 tons of equipment up the face. It seems that overuse of technology in the mountains rarely produces an opposite, more positive reaction. Instead it is taken as carte blanche to do even worse. And once the drill is deployed it is rarely used to place an absolute minimum of fixed protection.

This is acceptable in certain geographic areas, condoned by particular ethical points of view and "religions." A drill is like a big stick; when a man has one he is almost sure to hit something with it. Don't imagine that, possessed of the means to manage risk, or to render convenience, such a man can resist the temptation to do so even if it means revising or erasing history by retro-bolting routes climbed by men of more traditional belief. The technological superpower knows best. He bolts the 5.8 crack saying, "Now you're going to have MY experience." He imposes his comfort level on others by placing bolts at intervals to coincide with his determination of acceptable risk. In so doing he denies others a more traditional experience wherein they are free to place more or less protection based on technical ability, personal safety, and experience. Through his almighty drill he participates in every ascent thereafter, having successfully rewritten the route's history to begin with him.

The ability to rewrite history doesn't entitle its alteration. Technology-driven revisionism obliterates the truths apprehended in an era when climbers contested with mountains on a simpler level. I learned the greatest lessons from the mountain on days when my relationship with it was most equal, when I trusted survival and success to my own assets or those of my partner and used a minimum of inorganic resources. On these days the mountain could have said "no." When the mountain did defend itself strongly we retreated, refusing to artificially reduce the difficulty or manage the risk.

"Managed" routes are so convenient and safe that they may be undertaken with unknown partners picked up at the crag or on the Internet. When risk is excised, the trust among partners explicitly required by dangerous routes and unknown outcomes may be eliminated as well. Such careless treatment of the twin ideals of partnership and the meaning of the rope pisses me off. The rope is a religious icon for me because, as the product of a broken home, I distrusted my fellow man for years, only to discover the value of trust after long suspicion. And it's said that the reborn are the most fanatical of all.

When I began climbing in 1980 I held my own interests paramount, to the degree that for years, at the risk of accepting sole responsibility for failure I refused also to share my successes with another. Those were years when I climbed by myself, or rarely, reluctantly with partners if I thought they could do something for me. I thought I was on the path to enlightenment; the Ronin, roaming the wild land alone, punishing his body to perfect his soul and thinking grandiose thoughts all the while. But it was slow-acting poison. I started believing my own bullshit. I chased my own tail. I repeated myself. I was stagnant.

Some nights I wondered if the rope was more than that, more than a means of self-protection, more than the lifeline I used to retreat when expectation failed to match experience. Then I met a man who taught me the meaning of partnership and of the bond represented by the rope. I had always thought climbing utterly selfish and perhaps ignoble for it. Scott Backes showed me that self-interest is the antithesis of a climbing partnership, that for the whole to become greater than its individual parts one had to extinguish the I and fan the flames of the We. When we knew each other's most intimate fears and weaknesses, loves and strengths, and each accepted his vulnerability we transcended our selves. We trusted each other implicitly knowing neither would abandon the other or dishonor the rope just to save himself.

Our partnership, while it joined us together and drew us nearer to others that had entered into similar brotherhood, it also separated us from climbers that did not resonate on the same plane. We brothers could only speak amongst ourselves, having shared hardship and overcome it upon the strength of our partnerships. This separateness may be perceived as conceit but at its source it is far from the arrogance I once felt when success elevated me to not only the mountaintop but "above" my fellow man. I had heard the word and taken it to heart. The Brotherhood grew and declined as believers joined and were killed for their ideals, still we held firm.

Our Brotherhood values courage over technique because we believe that the risk of death is a necessary component of spiritual growth, that consequence inspires one to greater honesty (technique merely allows access to more terrain upon which to express our values). The heart of climbing as I know it magnifies the transitory nature of life; partners died, I nearly did, I became aware, I learned who I am, and I learned to respect life and life lived now. When I climbed close to the threshold of my ability, when the threat of death urged me to give all of myself without reservation to the task, then courage won over doubt and I felt purified. In these moments risk compelled me to overcome limitations I had accepted simply because others suggested them, and I grew. The duration and intensity of the stress imposed by alpinism pushed me to states of extreme psychological and physical exhaustion accompanied by hunger and thirst, by hypoxia and cold, and sometimes loneliness. This self-flagellation ultimately granted access to positive feelings. Not the transitory confidence of the "ropes course" graduate, rather a quiet appreciation of my proficiencies and faults, of a mountain's beauty, of the falling cherry blossom. Our religion values the sharp reality of the blade, spontaneously engaged, over the mock test and rehearsal allowed by the wooden sword. Our church is on the mountain itself, not in the dojo.

There is nothing wrong with the gym: its principles and product simply don't coincide with our beliefs. In the gym risk has been sterilized by legal liability. When climbers -- whose only experience is in such an environment -- graduate to the crag they think it normal to apply maximum technology in order to minimize risk. But in nature there are no crash pads, no lines above which one is forbidden to climb without a rope, no colored tape indicating which holds to use, and points of protection do not naturally sprout from the cliff every six feet. In the gym a climber expects to confront a minimal amount of fear -- enough to be titillated -- and to have that anxiety managed by others. Accustomed to the niceties of the dojo, this climber may -- consciously or not -- expect a similar experience outdoors, and such may only be orchestrated by "managing" a naturally occurring challenge.

Because The Brotherhood considers Alpine Style the highest climbing ideal, with siege and sport climbing its antithesis we reject efforts to modify a mountain's tests through excess technology or spurious tactics. We won't use supplemental oxygen to reduce the height of a summit, or fix ropes to guarantee retreat should the mountain offer some resistance. We won't drill bolts for protection when none is naturally available but we will, perhaps hypocritically, fix pitons or leave nuts as rappel anchors. We accept a minimum of equipment as necessary to express our ideals in the harsh environment but this is being eliminated piece by piece as skill, courage, fitness and "positive acceptance of pain" increase. We practice with the sharp sword, train our minds and bodies to endure, and express our ideals to the utmost with each challenge we face -- and sometimes we fall short. Every instance of failure is followed by analysis, rarely of physical weakness, as this is uncommon, it is rather more often the mind that gives in, pushed beyond the sustenance of principle by the exigencies of environment.

This environment imposes tests of long duration, which our religion also values. The big route insists on introspection and self-analysis, and allows opportunity for it. The long, painful experience teaches better than any other the mettle of one's spirit. Many who looked into the mirror of the mountains found themselves wanting so they applied other religious ideals to make up for personal deficiency. Or distilled the alpine experience as best they could into efforts of such short duration that introspection became impossible, and unnecessary. The religion of Alpine Style selects for character and impostors fall out all the time.

Commonly, religions use events to illustrate ideals and ours is no different. The gold standard of Alpine Style was set in the mid-80s. First, in 1984 Nils Bohigas and Enric Lucas climbed the 2500-meter high south face of Annapurna 1 (8092m). The Catalonian pair fixed no ropes or camps, relying instead on their own capacities and what little they carried on their backs. After six days on the route (5.9, A2, 80° ice) they visited the central summit (8051m) and rappelled the Polish Route. The next year Voytek Kurtyka and Robert Schauer climbed the west face of Gasherbrum IV (7925m). Even missing the summit, their ascent shines like a beacon across two decades of efforts to improve upon their style. These climbs, though exceptions to the rule of the time, lit up a path that others ought to have followed. Sadly, few shared their vision.

Those who did see it were vigorous in its expression. Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic climbed the west face of Bhagirathi III (6454m) in Alpine Style (5.11c/d, A4, 85° ice) in 1990. Marko Prezelj and Andrej Stremfelj dashed up the southwest ridge of Kangchenjunga South (8476m) in 1991. Steve House's Y2K single push repeat of the Slovak Direct on Denali (with Scott Backes and myself) prepared the way for Prezelj and Stephen Koch to climb a difficult new route up Denali (Light Traveler) in similar style. It also proved to House and Rolando Garibotti that Mount Foraker's Infinite Spur could be dispatched quickly (25 hours), with minimum equipment. House upped the ante in July 2004, soloing a new, 2600-meter high route (5.10, A2, 80° ice, M6+) on the southwest face of Pakistan's K7 (6934m) in 27 hours to make the peak's second ascent. During the same weather window Kelly Cordes and Josh Wharton started up the southwest ridge of Trango Tower (6286m), with a single 27-pound pack. They flashed the 7500-foot route in four and a half days (5.11 R/X, A2, M6), vastly improving the style used during an unsuccessful Spanish siege in 1990.

Commenting on the successful siege laid by Alex Kunaver's expedition to the south face of Lhotse in 1981, Al Rouse said that Kunaver "had done mountaineering a great service, for by climbing possibly the hardest face in the world, he proved that big expedition climbing had reached a dead end." I suspect that Rouse, who died adhering to his Alpine Style ethic on K2 in 1986 would be saddened today to know that proponents of the religion of the Siege did not consider that effort on Lhotse's south face the end. They keep their religion vital by changing the venue, and with each greed-fed accumulation of a summit they reduce the few remaining icons of good style to conquered rubble beneath their drills and chisels, their oxygen and fixed ropes, their boot-shod masses. A Korean team beat Gasherbrum IV's west face into submission in 1997 and, in 1998 and 2003 respectively Bhagirathi III's west face and Nuptse's south pillar were drilled and sieged despite the examples set by previous Alpine Style efforts. Jannu -- already the scene of Alpine Style ascents made by such believers as Rouse, Rab Carrington, Brian Hall, and Roger Baxter-Jones (south face), Pierre Beghin and Erik Decamp (north face), Andrew Linblade and Athol Whimp (north face) -- was just this year driven from grace beneath an unparalleled onslaught by "every man who can still hold a gun." Challenging? Extremely. But evolutionary? I think not.

We consider these Alpine Style efforts -- whether successful or not -- and the routes and peaks themselves the icons of our religion. When we express our religion in your church or on your icons you don't know it because we leave no trace of our passage. The current international climate should help you understand that, when you bring your religion to my church, and you permanently deface my icons I want to put a bullet in your head.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight