Recently I attended the annual Guide’s Festival in Courmayeur, Italy, which is home to the second-oldest guide office in the world (founded in 1850!). As part of the celebrations I was invited by the Guide’s Office to participate in a discussion about the future of alpinism with my Italian friend and alpinist Herve Barmasse. Renowned Italian sports journalist Luca Castaldini, of Sportweek, did an excellent job moderating. The conversation made me think, and so I’d like to share some of my thoughts with our readers here. What follows are a selection of Luca’s questions and edited (by me) versions of my responses.
1. In your opinion, what will be the future of alpinism?
In one word: Creativity. If we look at the history of alpinism we see a trend from the national expeditions of the 1920–1960s that slowly gave away to the current state of a highly individual approach, small teams of one to four climbers, often from different countries, exploring the mountains but most importantly exploring their personal limitations and therefore their personal growth.
In alpinism there is no set race, distance, or time. No marathon. No Giro d’Italia. The mountains are the canvas where the alpinist paints a picture, and the journey is the paintbrush. When and where and how the alpinist decides to climb determines the journey, and therefore the picture. Every ascent is different. So the challenge for the alpinist today is to go creatively to the mountains with an open and honest approach to him- and herself and climb the best they can on that day. Alpinism is both art and sport, but for me, it is more art.
2. When you were a kid and then a boy, what did you like most of climbing and mountain?
I did not really discover alpinism until I was 18, a boy, but also a young man. And I’m honestly not sure why I loved it so much. It was partly the curiosity, how to do it, how to climb up a wall or a peak. It was also partly the joy found in being in nature, outside, away from noise pollution, in the most beautiful places I could imagine. This environment brought peace to me, and the climbing brought excitement. It’s a special combination and one I still love.
3. Tell us about your vision and practice of alpinism, how would you describe it?
I believe in simplicity. I believe the power of alpinism is in how it affects us as humans. And to be most deeply affected, you should go with your mind and heart open and in as close a contact with the environment as possible. I like to climb with only one partner; I like to have very good, but a minimum of, equipment; I do not like to have communication with the outside world during my climbs; I do not like to film or photograph or even think too much about my climbing while I am doing it. Climbing done well is like a meditation. When you come back your mind feels cleansed and refreshed, as if it had a good shower. Practically my alpinism is simple in that I need a partner, a small amount of equipment, and good mountains. In Italy, of course, are many of the best mountains, from the Dolomites to the Monte Bianco and all the Alps in between.
4. Which are your main sources or models of inspiration?
The great Italian alpinist Walter Bonatti was and is my hero in many ways. But nowadays my inspiration is more often found in the artists, the painters, poets, and authors who find a way to cut through the everyday drama and noise and remind us of the simplicity and beauty of being human.
5. Are you working on new projects or ascents?
I have a young son, Franz, who is now 18 months and he and my wife and family are my first priority now. I try to spend one day every week in the mountains practicing my meditation, my climbing. If possible, I will go more often to practice climbing, but only when my family is taken care of first.
6. On September 2005 with Vince Anderson you climbed a new route up the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. What are your memories of this ascent?
So many memories. The difficulty for me is to know which ones to share with you. I honestly think about that climb at least one time every day, and it was 12 years ago now. To know thyself, the ancient directive handed down from the Greeks, will always be the ultimate challenge. A challenge greater than any mountain can offer. Every person I’ve ever known, at some time, has employed external means to realize internal tranquillity, to find friendship with ourselves, to experience the bond of brotherhood (or sisterhood) with those we care about. Vince is still my dear friend, though now we talk more about raising boys than climbing.
The climb taught me much, not only during the six days of ascent and two days of descent, but also during the 15-year process of preparing to do something like it. As a society we find it easy to recognize the masters, and the masterpieces, after they are done, after they are painted. But it is those many, many hard years of consistent, often daily, toil before the masterpiece is done that count the most. The climb itself, while amazing, was in many ways a simple and logical manifestation of the previous 15 years. The eight days on the mountain were hard. But the 15 years before them were infinitely harder. And so did the 15 years before teach me so much about myself and my friends and about life. And of course, even now, I know almost nothing, but I know so much more than when I started.
The important thing for personal growth is to have a goal, a project, something almost unattainable. And a lack of balance. I don’t believe that you can make progress with “balance” between life and love and work. Something has to take priority. To make real progress in any area takes a heavy emphasis on one of these areas. If you want to achieve great things for yourself, your journey, you must be wholly committed to that one thing. Nothing can interfere. For many years, for me it was life, my climbing, my art, myself. Now it is my family.
And this brings us to the next point: timing. Dreams require immense sacrifice and determination, like the Rupal Face did, but they must happen at the right time in one’s life. This is one way in which Bonatti was wise: he left alpinism behind him at 40 years old. He recognized that the time for him to practice alpinism was over and made a clean break to start the next phase of his life. Messner was also wise in this way. But both men illustrate a simple fact: very hard alpinism is a young person’s game. Its best done before families enter the picture, before we have other commitments. In this way timing and commitment are tied together.
7. You’re also a mountain guide. What is your approach to this job?
I spend most of my time with my online business (www.uphillathlete.com) teaching training to climbers, skimo racers, and mountain runners. I do guide, but only a handful of days each year and only teaching group classes. More information about our offerings is here: www.skywardmountaineering.com.
8. Do you think that alpinism is culture?
If you go to Courmayeur or Chamonix or Kals am Grossglockner, all three towns in different countries, different languages, all at the foot of the highest mountains, when you go to the main square of each of these three towns you will see the buildings of the two most important institutions in those towns: the Catholic Church and the mountain guide office. Yes, alpinism has a culture that is a deep and integral part of the culture of the mountain areas, and not only in these three examples.
To all who practice, and to all that watch and read and follow alpinism, it represents beauty, simplicity. Nothing less than man’s quest to know him/herself through a self-appointed suffering and struggle that does not harm anyone. In this way alpinism is every bit as important as any other sport or any other art form. The fact that the ascents, the climbs, are ephemeral and alive only in the moment they are experienced emphasizes that this path of self-knowledge, the tests, the lessons, the reflections, can never end, and this is a core lesson in being human.
-by Steve House