The Changing Nature of Climbing

Posted on: December 1, 2003

The highest recorded temperatures in 250 years closed the Matterhorn to climbing in July; the permafrost that had held it together for time immemorial melted, and the resulting rockfall as the mountain sloughed off its layers made ascent a suicide run. Mt. Blanc was next, its crevasses yawning, the Mayor of Chamonix issuing an August warning against ascent by the voie normale, until the mountain guides stopped booking climbs of the peak by any route. The closures did not last long—a lot of income rides on the summer months in the climbing communities of the Alps—but they underscored the ephemeral nature of our mountain environments, not to mention the decimation global warming is having on our world. "We have found that the ground temperature around the Matterhorn has risen considerably over the past decade," commented Professor Michael Davis, who happened to be meeting in Switzerland for a conference organized by the International Permafrost Association when the Matterhorn was closed. "The ice that holds mountain slopes and rock faces together is simply disappearing. At this rate, it will vanish completely with profound consequences." Estimates suggested it will take thirty to forty meters of snow to return the Alps to a state of glaciation they enjoyed one year ago. The Alps may never recover from the devastations of the summer's heat.

Closer to home, the heat settled in, unwelcome, unrelenting. July was the hottest month ever recorded here in Jackson, Wyoming—we saw sixteen days with temperatures above ninety degrees—and the Tetons were soon stripped of their usual elegance as the heat desiccated the land. As I write, in mid-September, snow has returned to the summits, and the mountains are reclaiming their shimmer. The storms of autumn are, however, a temporary reprieve from the more permanent attrition affecting the mountains of the world. Our mountains are changing. While rock climbers are taking advantage of the new possibilities the warm temperatures and drier stone provide up high on the north faces, in most parts of the world the change is for the worse.

We cover the important new routes of the world in our Climbing Notes, and we've come up against the affects of global warming even here. In July, the Slovenian team of Matevz Kramer, Tadej Zorman and Matej Mejovsek put up what they thought was a new route on the northeast face of Yerupaja (6634m) in Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash. Limitless Madness! (VI 5c WI6, 1900m), as they called their effort, was climbed in a thirty-eight hour push from July 28 to 30. "The first pitches were mixed climbing, announcing a very delicate ascent," wrote Mr. Mejovsek. "The middle of the route surprised us with numerous seracs [and] the first extreme ice (WI6). The next day the face became crazy! Rocks from the top were falling down, making it all the more like a battlefield scene...." Hugging the rock wall to the left to avoid the rockfall and serac danger, the climbers made it to the top of the east buttress (ca. 6550m), less than 100 meters shy of the summit, before retreating in the face of storm and avalanche conditions.


We do research whenever possible on the new routes we report in these pages, and a quick glance through the journals revealed that the line claimed by the Slovenians was noteably similar to one climbed by Paul Dix and Chris Jones in 1968 and Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner in 1969. All three lines share 400 meters of climbing at the base of the face where it bottlenecks into a "V"; higher, Dix and Jones took a line to the right, Habeler and Messner carried on straight up, while the Slovenians stayed to the left to avoid the objective hazards. Though all three parties did indeed climb different parts of the upper wall, variations on a broad ice face fifty meters away from an established line are just that: variations. Coupled with the fact that the Slovenians connected with a line established in 1969 by Austrians Egon Wurm and Sepp Mayerl before turning back short of the summit, our research seemed to be done: the team had established a variation, and we would omit it from our Notes.

But the climatic changes of the last generation have rendered such matters more complicated. A phone call to Mr. Jones to clarify details of his 1968 ascent confirmed that he had, indeed, climbed the face, but he is the first to admit that recent photographs of Yerupaja suggest his ascent and the Slovenianís 2003 effort occurred on quite different terrain. Indeed, Mr. Mejovsek and company climbed 500 meters of technical terrain up to 5.10a WI5+ simply to reach the start of the northeast face proper; Mr. Jones remembers "roped glacial climbing that required some rope maneuvers" thirty years earlier. When we presented our findings to Mr. Mejovsek, he remained convinced his team had climbed a new route. The "approach" today involves technical climbing, and the upper part of the face climbed by Dix-Jones and Habeler- Messner, threatened by seracs that did not exist a generation ago, is now only climbable on the extreme left. In other words, the mountain has changed so much the 2003 team feel they climbed a completely different route.

There are a couple of points here. The first is that climbers need to do better research. One good resource is the Himalayan Index (, which chronicles ascents in the Greater Ranges and which cites references to the various climbing literature available. Publications such as this magazine will do what research they can, but deadlines and sheer volume of climbs put a cap on the amount of work we can do; we depend on the climbers themselves to provide accurate context to their climbs. The other point is a far larger one, and less easily resolved: How do we deal with the changing nature of the climbing mediums?

There are no established methods in the climbing journals of the world to handle climatic change and its effects on alpinism. Glaciated snow routes that thirty years later become overhanging WI6 is one thing, but the larger issue is, of course, more problematic and more social in nature. Our environment is changing, and as humans who drive cars, heat homes, generally consume more than our share of the natural resources, and vote, we share a responsibility for that change. We cannot simultaneously extol the virtues of our adventures in the natural realm and remain ignorant of our effects on its evolution. In our daily lives, and in the voting booth, we must remember our obligation to protect and preserve the medium we so deeply enjoy. Great damage has already been done to the planet, but we have the power to limit the damage in the years to come. In climbing, we experience nature on its terms, not ours. Letting these experiences influence our comportment will help to preserve the climbing life for future generations.

—Christian Beckwith

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