Peter Potterfield conducted this interview over a beer near the old Mountainzone offices in Seattle, must have been in 1999 about when Extreme Alpinism was published.
Since the early 1980s Mark Twight has proven himself to be one of America's top alpinists. While probably best known for his controversial and confrontational writings in climbing journals, his routes are among the most difficult ever attempted. Many of his climbs have never been repeated or repeated only in much easier conditions. Even his failures, such as the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat and the North Face of Everest, rank among the great epics in mountaineering history.
Twight approaches climbing as a means of self-expression and transformation. With obsessive focus and will, he examined every facet of climbing and recreated himself to prepare for such climbs as "Deprivation" on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter in the Alaska Range (a 43-hour sprint) and 1988's Reality Bath, which Twight rated as the hardest waterfall climb in Canada. Some locals immediately downrated it despite the fact that it was never repeated.
With the publication of his new book Extreme Alpinism (Mountaineers, Seattle 1999) Twight presents a cohesive and comprehensive account of his career, philosophy, and techniques. In a recent interview, Twight expanded on some of the ideas he presented in his book:
Why did you decide to write Extreme Alpinism?
I realized the shelves were full of books on mountaineering but none reflected the way people actually climbed on the world's hardest routes. The slow and steady approach is fine on a low altitude volcano or a moderate alpine climb, but it will guarantee failure or worse on a harsh Alaskan wall. Furthermore, I saw little or no appreciation for the kind of mental and physical preparation many alpinists employ before attempting a big peak. So I decided to give an account of my approach. I think most of the best climbers will recognize the validity of most of what I say, even though we may disagree on particulars.
You seem to harp on mental preparation throughout the book.
That is the heart of hard climbing. All the physical training in the world won't help at all if you can't deal with psychological challenges such as fear and various forms of suffering, or if you carry too much tension into situations where relaxation is essential.
And it's possible to train for those things?
Absolutely. You can bumble your way toward creating the kind of character you need or you can force yourself to confront your weaknesses and do it in a way that won't kill you as you learn. I took many of my ideas from the martial arts but there are other ways to approach it. The important thing is to recognize that personal transformation is essential and to find a way to accomplish it.
You advocate two physical training cycles each year. Why only two?
Climbing a big hard peak is a debilitating experience. You must be at your physical peak. But the body can only recover from a genuinely difficult climb and then build back up to optimum performance about twice a year. In the book I prescribe a training cycle that builds a foundation of power and then ramps up endurance, both aerobic and muscular. Just before leaving for the climb, you must taper a bit, giving the body a chance to replenish all its reserves before the big push. It's a tricky business and I'm still learning how my body responds to the stress of both climbing and training.
You have some unusual ideas on clothing and equipment. For example, you have no use for waterproof/breathable fabrics or the whole idea of layering your clothes.
In cold conditions when you are working hard, standard shell fabrics don't breathe well enough so lots of moisture builds up inside them. On the other hand, the insulation materials breathe too well so the accumulated moisture evaporates rapidly once you stop moving, causing radical cooling. As for layering, trying to wear just the right amount to stay comfortable during each specific level of activity takes too much time, and on a severe alpine climb, speed is key. When climbing, I prefer to wear a very light set up: synthetic long underwear covered by a light, very breathable shell. In some conditions I'll wear a semi-permeable vapor barrier close to my skin to slow down evaporative loss. When I stop I pull out a synthetic fill belay jacket (and pants, too, in very cold conditions) and put it on over the shell. I used this system on Hunter to good effect. It's lighter and way faster than layering. You could object that rain would defeat the system, but if it's raining, the rocks are falling and it's time to get the hell off the hill.
You have a reputation of an intolerant and elitist climber. Do you think that's fair?
Sure. however, I'm intolerant of posers, not of those who differ in their preferences. If someone wants to pull an M-7 with bolts every five feet, great. I hope they have the experience they are looking for. But if they try to pass roadside gymnastics off as equivalent to hard alpinism, I'll call bullshit. It's the difference between ballet and war. One takes merely physical skill to accomplish and can be done relatively quickly. The other requires a careful synthesis of physical and psychological capacity, and many, diverse skills in the toolbox. It can last for hours or days. Maintaining the efficiency of both mind and body for such duration increases the overall difficulty. It's like comparing the drive-up window at McDonald's to hunting down and killing an animal, butchering it, and cooking it up into a multi-course meal. One is quite obviously not synonymous with the other.
I climb for my own reasons, for the way the experience changes me. If someone has a problem with me or my style, I couldn't care less. Each individual can pursue any path he wants. Let's just be honest about what we do.