Posted on: June 1, 2003
February 5, 2003. We were in Paris for the Piolet d'Or ("Golden Ice Axe"), an annual award given for the finest alpine ascent of the year. The poorly organized event proved itself to be more a vehicle for the reputations of the organizers—Montagnes magazine and the Groupe de Haute Montagne—than it was a celebration of world alpinism, but the nominees were a fun lot, it was late, and we wanted a drink. We ambled out of the hall where the evening had unfolded and soon were walking alongside the oily waters of the Seine. Fleece was the fashion of the evening, interspersed with swathes of the latest waterproof-breathables, and one of our gang cradled a silver box, from time to time opened to liberate a glistening axe that was passed among the group. The lights of the city darted from arches and gables of buildings at once ancient and regal. Our conversations echoed in various languages, keeping pace with our footsteps as we crossed the cobbled streets.
British alpinists Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden that evening had received the 2003 award for a new route on China’s Siguniang Peak, and Fowler grinned shyly when another climber approached with congratulations. Despite routes such as the Golden Pillar on Spantik, the Fowler-Littlejohn Route on the northeast buttress of Tawoche and the first ascent of the Arwa Tower, all done in impeccable style, he had never before been nominated for the award. "It was a good deal of fun," he said of the route, bobbing his head quickly, then averting his gaze as if embarrassed. Eight days on a face at 6000 meters, four of which featured hanging bivouacs and severe dehydration, had resulted in record weight losses for Fowler and Ramsden. A good deal of fun, indeed.
The Swiss climber Bruno Hasler passed Fowler a bottle of Fior di Vite grappa. Hasler had named one of his team's routes on the Arwa Spire after the libation, and the rough drink added a languid cadence to our gaits. Valeri Babanov from Russia raised the bottle, smacking his lips at the viscosity, and passed it to Polish journalist Malgosia Fromenty, whose green eyes became momentarily shuttered as she swallowed. Julian Cartwright and Rich Cross from England partook, followed by Roger Schaeli and Stephan Harvey, Hasler's teammates on the Arwa Spire. So it went, until we reached a nondescript bar with smoky decor and windows propped open to let in the night.
We gathered around a skinny table and ordered drinks from a waiter who seemed to have other things on his mind. More participants from the awards ceremonies entered to general acclaim. Our clamor joined the amiable cacophony of the Parisians in the restaurant as we leaned in to trade stories from various adventures in the vertical realm. At three in the morning Schaeli, Harvey and Hasler tried to shoehorn five of us into a single taxi before letting go the idea in grappa-softened laughs. They ducked into another cab and disappeared into the shadowed streets. In a moment we joined them, and within the hour were lost in the horizontal dreams of our hotel.
Nearly two months later, as I sit and write these words, the world has shed much of its amiability. The American-led war on Iraq is on; France, Russia and China continue to protest the war in general and America's bellicosity in particular; and yesterday another half a million protesters—this time in Jakarta, Peshawar, Seoul and Osaka—gathered to decry the violence. While it is impossible to predict the effects of the conflict in a year's time, I cannot help but remember our evening in Paris and think of the wide divide that separates the spirit of that gathering from the violence and alienating rhetoric that has characterized recent global events. How differently politicians seem to view the world and our place in it than do climbers, for whom the spirit of alpinism transcends national boundaries.
The crags and mountains of this planet are climbers' inspiration the world over, and the alpinists of Iran who venture onto the north face of Alum Kuh in winter share a confederacy of spirit with the climbers of Wisconsin drawn to Devil's Lake and the Teton mountaineers who covet ascents on the high peaks in springtime. President Bush never traveled outside North America before his presidency. Is it any coincidence that his tenure is characterized by a myopic insistence on the predominance of American interests in matters of foreign policy? Climbers, as a rule, travel—to other states, to other countries—as we follow our passion for the vertical. When we go on our expeditions, we serve as ambassadors of our countries; and when we meet climbers from other lands, we often discover that we have much in common. Such exchanges are valued highly here at Alpinist, and we believe they affect international dialogue on a microcosmic scale. While they might not help avert future wars, we do feel they contribute to a greater understanding of ourselves not only as citizens of a particular country, but also of one quite fragile planet.
This sense of the international community is one we hope to encourage with the Alpinist B-Team Grant, a financial award intended to help realize the dreams of amateur climbers. For this, the Grant's first year, nearly forty applicants presented objectives that ranged from Baffin Island to Chilean Patagonia, from the Kichatna Spires to the Himalaya. The selection process was complicated by the excellence of the applications, but in the end we awarded the grants to three teams that we felt represent the best of the amateur climbing spirit.
Canadians Guy Edwards, John Miller and Kai Hirvonen will receive $1,500 for an attempt on the northwest face of Alaska's Devils Thumb. An award of $2,500 is made to the more expensive objective of Americans Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore, an alpine-style attempt of a new route on the north face of Thalay Sagar in Nepal. Finally, $3,000 goes to the Polish climbers Janusz Golab, Stanislaw Piecuch and Grzegor Skorek, for an attempt on the north face of Nepal's Jannu. These first recipients of the B-Team Grant embody the essence of adventure, a hallmark of alpinism in every country it is performed. More importantly, they will, with their adventures, reinforce a common spirit that the climbing community cherishes as a whole, one in evidence that winter night in Paris, and one we need to celebrate in these dark times, regardless of cultural or national identity. If we are to have a future of climbing to pass on to our children, it is our commonalities, not our differences, that must form the basis for our relations around the world.