Outside Mag Q-A

In 1995 had a sort of Q&A column with Outside Online. I culled a few exchanges from what I could find. Definitely not evolved.


Question: Mark, what tortures your soul, and why is your life filled with pain? What do you try to express through your writing? Is your writing just for your benefit or the benefit of others as well?

Answer: If you're still happy, you are obviously not trying hard enough. I refuse to coast along and settle for second best, settle for less--therefore I am rarely satisfied, thus rarely truly happy. Permanent satisfaction means the death of the soul, it means one doesn't have the will to ask the hard questions anymore, that one accepts his place and doesn't have the strength or will to change it. If the point is evolution, remaining static is counterproductive.

I set a goal and I look honestly at who I am and whether or not the goal is realistic for me as a person. If it's not, then I ask myself, am I willing to change my liabilities into advantages to reach the goal? What am I willing to sacrifice, cut away, or add on in order to go where I want to go? Fearless emotional reckoning causes internal suffering. If you look into yourself clearly, without casuistry, does everything that stares back at you make you happy? I hope not.

Writing: I write for me. I write to provoke an emotional response. Sometimes I don't care if what I write is published. Sometimes I do. Honestly, I do not care whether people love it or hate it--as long as it has an effect and causes someone, somewhere, to think and exorcises what I need to get rid of inside myself.

Question: OK, Mark. What's with the angst shtick? I mean, you're a hell of a climber, no question there. But a "soul full of rats?" C'mon. Isn't this just a way to boost your profile in the outdoor market? You can't really be that twisted a soul, can you?

 Answer: First of all, see Chris Tromp's question and response. Sure it's lame, and that's not the inflammatory response people have decided to expect from me. As "public property" in the climbing community, I laugh long and hard at the people who "know" who I am based purely on my writing, the routes I've done, and hearsay.

Mike, I could care less about my public profile. I climb the routes that inspire me. Most of these are "dangerous" when judged by others. I often climb in a way that is judged dangerous by others: either alone or with little margin of safety. These actions take me dreadfully close to my own mortality. I look at it in the face and it scares the shit out of me. I read my list of 36 climbing partners and friends who are dead and it scares me more. I ask myself why I need to go to these difficult physical and emotional places in order to be momentarily fulfilled. Often the answers are troublesome. Sure I'm twisted. All thinking human beings are.

One must ask oneself what he's doing here, is he a parasite or a contributor? Does he have the right to live and breathe simply because he was born? Is there really something great to live for or should he end it right here? Is he evolving, progressing toward some form of human perfection?

It's been six weeks or so since I last had the .45 in my mouth, testing the fit, tasting it. I think that night I was worried about stagnation, about whether or not I had done anything worthy (of my own ideals) in the last year. But the answer wasn't positive enough one way or the other to make a choice one way or the other. The moment of terror is the beginning of life, Mike, so take the "No Fear" stickers off your truck.

Question: Mark, I saw your show out here in New England at the IME Ice Fest last Feb. and loved it. I hope to see you again if you're out this way with a new show sometime soon. You have many steep-ice fans out here who can identify with the dark, painful side of ice climbing.

Here's my question: What do you feel constitutes an ice grade? Yeah, we all know the ice conditions vary, and that we shouldn't climb for numbers and that in the end it's only the fun and suffering that matters. But the question is valid, I think, because of some differing ideas on what ice climbing is and what it will be. For instance, do you think it's just the single hardest move or section, as on a rock climb? Or is it the overall length and stamina factor of the climb, which combines the Roman numeral commitment grade and the difficulty into one measure? If it's the later, how do the relatively short climbs in Colorado and Wyoming get 6 and 7 ratings? Is it possible for New England to have 6s and 7s? Or are the floes just too short and uncommitting out here? Your most tortured, informed, and spirited reply would be appreciated.

Answer: Finally, an interesting question. Ice grading (in Canada) has been logically split into two systems: the technical grade (2 to 7+ at this time) and the commitment grade (I to VII). The NEI system common to New England tries to communicate both technical difficulty and commitment with one number, similar to the French alpine grading system. And herein lies the problem. Ice routes are complex enough these days that one number cannot accurately communicate what a climber should expect from a route.

Ice conditions do vary, but most grades are consensus grades, established after many ascents and average conditions. In John Barstow's new "Cold Mountain" calendar, there's a picture of Scott Backes on Oh Le Tabernacle in the Canadian Rockies; its consensus technical grade is 5/5+. But on the day I shot the photo you could wrap your arms around the pillar and hold your hands, and it was like that for 15-20 feet--definitely not grade 5. So we gave it a 6+ that day because of the fragile and overhanging nature, lack of protection, etc. It's a one-pitch route.

It would be hard to grade ice routes by their single hardest move, because the leader will change the nature of the move and the medium by climbing past it once. The technical grade rates overall technical difficulty, so a short, vicious route might have the same grade as a long, vicious route. An example would be Riptide, which sports a technical grade 7 for five pitches of climbing and Legal at Last (one of The Fiend's routes in Cody) which merits a grade 7 but is simply one pitch long. The telling number is the commitment grade where Riptide gets 6 due to its long approach, complicated retreat, sparse protection opportunities, and proximity to seracs. Legal at Last probably should get a commitment grade of 4 since you have to do the Moratorium to get to it, and the pitch involves the possibility of serious injury if you fall, but the approach and "deproach" are mellow and there's no avalanche danger.

There are, no doubt, technical grade 7s in New England--routes with gymnastic technical moves, free-hanging stalactites, and thin ice or patches of it on overhanging rock. But there'll never be the big committing routes that exist mostly in the high mountains and offer all the dangers of hard alpine climbing along with the technical difficulties of hard waterfall climbing. The questions of the future will be: When does a route merit a mixe" grade and when an ice grade? Should Jeff Lowe's "M" grading system be adopted or is mixed climbing too transient to rate? Was Octopussy really an M8 and should grades go down if the route is rehearsed in the way the sport climbs are rehearsed?

Mark Twight
Mark Twight