I wrote this for "The Art of Ice Climbing", a book, written by Jerome Blanc-Gras and Manu Ibarra, and first published in France. Blue Ice published the book because the company president, Giovanni Rossi believed in it so much that he wouldn't wait for a larger publisher to step up. The book is an amazing testament to the experience and innovation of the two authors. It is a modern version of Yvon Chouinard's seminal "Climbing Ice", which influenced the generations active in the later chapters of the new book. Here, history and practice is compiled around the protagonists of the sport - a timeless record of what men first imagined and then executed in some of the coolest - if not the coldest - places on earth.
I used to wonder sometimes, when I was up against it, on a hard climb or in a social predicament precipitated by my dedication to climbing, "How in the hell did I get here?"
My family introduced me to the mountains but it was Freedom of the Hills and The White Spider that inspired me to climb them. A book from the Time Life Nature Library titled "The Mountains", which was published in 1962 gave me an idea of what to expect.
I started climbing on the rocks and cliffs in Washington but when my friends headed to the sunnier venues of Yosemite and Smith Rocks I turned my attention first to the Cascades and then the Alps. After all, I was born in Yosemite and to maintain the integrity of my adolescent rebellion I couldn't go back there.
I found a great partner, rather he found me and his creativity and lack of self-limiting behavior opened my eyes to a different way of climbing. Andy Nock and I figured out how to go light, and to climb fast. He made the first insulated bivvy sack I ever saw, with a contoured floor to fit a foam pad. We climbed in the winter. We tried out different ways of eating to learn what gave us the biggest caloric bang for the weight. We skied to climbs and did them in ski boots. Those climbs with him prepared me well for the future.
But the Cascades were a dead end. Nothing was happening there in the early-80s. The talent pool was shallow and although several good climbers emerged from that area and era they all earned their experience in the greater ranges. The Alaska Range didn't yet appeal to me - it was way over my head and much too "wilderness" - so the cosmopolitan accessibility of the Alps beckoned. Happily, the best guys in the world were there so I knew that if I went I'd either be destroyed or tempered by the fire.
Jon Krakauer invited me to climb the Eiger with him in 1984. Outside Magazine offered him an assignment to write a story about the ascent, the history of the face, and whatever cultural and travel tidbits he could include. The trip blew my young mind. We sat out the wettest September since 1864 hoping the weather would improve. In the midst of that three-week purgatory the foehn destroyed our camp above Kleine Scheidegg. That night I smoked some hash, hooked up with an older woman who turned me inside-out, and basically anesthetized my ambition for climbing. But it came back with a fury when during a two-day high pressure, which we deemed too brief to tackle the Nordwand, there was a party at Kleine Scheidegg. I was like a pressure cooker. I wanted to go climbing badly and I hated missing the weather window. I hit the party, tried to suppress what I was feeling by chasing some pain killers with a few glasses of wine. But I saw the night for the temporary suicide it was, left, packed my pack, and by headlamp I hiked toward the north face of the Monch.
By the time dawn broke I had punched through two snow bridges on my way across the Eiger Gletscher but hadn't fallen further into either crevasse. I worked my way up the icefall beneath the face, always trending toward a striking vein of ice bordering its right flank. At sunrise I was committed to the route, which I later learned was first climbed by Dougal Haston and Ole Eistrup in 1976. There were some steep sections. The grade is TD+ and that was near the top end of what I had at the time. It was a life-changing experience that introduced me to my own potential. That day I learned I might actually have the talent to match my ambition.
Eventually, Jon and I attempted the Eiger but the snow was too deep so we bailed from the base of the Second Icefield. Christophe Profit and Sylviane Tavernier turned back too and after Jon flew home I followed them to Chamonix. When I glimpsed the Chamonix valley for the first time my stomach told me that my destiny was in front of me. Right there.
During my first two weeks in the Mont Blanc Massif I soloed the "Triangle du Tacul" as Benoit Grison showered me with ice chunks after having passed me. Then I climbed the "Gabarrou-Albinone" and the "Super Couloir" on Mont Blanc du Tacul, also alone, and the "Swiss Route" on the north face of Les Courtes. My knuckles were too swollen to do more and a brief spell of bad weather gave me a break. After it cleared I made the first of my "birthday ascents", this one on the north face of the Grands Charmoz. It almost ended badly when, high on the Heckmair-Kroner finish my feet blew off and one of my tools ripped. I stayed stuck though and kept climbing into a storm that had been forecast for the following day. Poor visibility and a bad memory for details led me down the east face instead of the west, where I almost died again as the avalanches grew larger, and I rappelled off single anchors to conserve gear when it was too steep to downclimb.
At the base of the face, quite lost, intuition guided me to the Mer de Glace and down to the town that would eventually become my home. The power of the Mont Blanc Massif changed me forever. I refined my attitude there, which changed the way I climbed. The freedom of expression, and absolutely banal relationship to risk, uncorked a fountain within me that could never have flowed had I remained in the U.S. On top of that, the relationships that developed with locals Francois Marsigny, Alain Ghersen, Jean-Christophe Lafaille, Fred Vimal and Andy Parkin built the foundation for future ascents. What I learned from them made my future possible. And it could only have happened on the great ice routes of the Mont Blanc Massif.