Gods and Monsters

Posted on: September 1, 2004


"Have you ever seen the gritstone?" Geoff Birtles asked me.

I hadn't. We were in Sheffield, England, where I was visiting with Birtles, the editor of High Mountain Sports magazine, on a brief working tour of the country for The American Alpine Journal. With two hours remaining before my departure, I jumped into his Citroen, and we careened down the narrow streets, the rolling countryside greeting us as we emerged from the industrial pallor of Sheffield's roads. Parking among a row of neatly filed cars, we set off. The trail dropped into a depression, where we soon encountered a low swath of dark-gray stone, mottled with holes, cool to the touch. I followed Birtles, waiting to see the fabled grit. A couple of climbers were racking up, curiously enough, for a twenty-foot crack. Farther on, another pair was doing the same thing, racks of nuts on Perlon and giant hexes clanging at their sides. They must be out on their inaugural climbs, I thought, practicing as they were on these boulders. Suddenly it dawned on me that these boulders were the fabled gritstone. Dear Lord, I thought, the poor island and its inhabitants.

As we rounded a corner, Birtles pointed out some of the classics of the area: Masters' Edge, Ulysses, Darkness Falling. Just then, a wiry, tall man, looking not unlike Mick Jagger should Mick have spent the last forty years climbing instead of rocking, approached us on the trail.

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"Hello, Ron," Birtles offered.

The man looked up, momentarily disoriented. "Ah, Birtles."

"Off to the office, I see?"

"Yes, yes."

Birtles made an introduction. I shook the weather-beaten paw, all leather and scar tissue.

The man ducked his head as Birtles made conversation, grunted a response, then made his escape.

"That was Ron Fawcett," said Birtles. "He traversed these entire cliffs the other day, never touching ground. One and a half kilometers of climbing. Stashed water and cigarettes in nooks so he could keep going. He's a god."

Birtles paused, considering my general ignorance. "A demigod is someone whose routes have gone unrepeated for ten years," he continued. "A god is someone whose routes have gone twenty years without a second ascent."

By the above definition, the American climber George Lowe resides comfortably in the firmament. His route on the north face of North Twin, climbed in 1974 with Chris Jones, received its second ascent only this spring. The Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker, which he established in 1977 with Michael Kennedy, went eleven years before it was repeated. In 1978, he joined Kennedy, Jeff Lowe and Jim Donini for an alpine-style attempt on the 8,500-foot north ridge on Latok I; their high point, some 600 feet below the summit, has not been surpassed by any team, despite attempts by some of the best in the business. The unrepeated 1983 American success on Everest's 10,000-foot Kangshung Face was largely due to his masterful resolution of its 3,500-foot rock and ice buttress. His 1968 first winter ascent of the North Face of the Grand Teton went nineteen years before it was repeated; the North Ridge, which he climbed in the winter of 1975 with Dave Carman, took ten. Lowe's climbing is in a class by itself, and his gentle demeanor and self-deprecating humor only brighten his shine.

When Steve House and Marko Prezelj climbed the north face of North Twin in April (see Page 40), they were doing more than simply making a second ascent of a legendary route. They were, in a sense, deconstructing a monster. In the thirty years since Lowe and Jones established the climb, it had garnered a reputation out of proportion with its true technical difficulties. House was aware of this, and he tried to downplay the route's aura in his own mind as he climbed, but found that it had already warped his perspective. Fortunately, he was tied in with Prezelj, a European who knew little about the route and whose sense of perspective is rarely affected by reputations. They dispatched with the second ascent with only minor mishaps.

Another important climb featured in this issue is Arctic Rage, Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore's new route on the east face of The Mooses Tooth. That aspect of The Mooses Tooth will forever be connected to Jim Bridwell and Mugs Stump, who, in late winter 1981, climbed the face in three days, alpine-style. The resulting route, The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters, was an astonishing accomplishment, done in perfect form by two of the greatest figures in American climbing. It, too, is unrepeated. Stump died in 1991 on Denali and quickly rose to the pantheon. Bridwell seems to have occupied a place in the stratosphere since the days of swami belts and Led Zeppelin. Mahoney and Gilmore established their route well aware of Bridwell and Stump's accomplishment, but unwilling to let it dissuade them from their own ambition.

We climbers need our gods, our monsters, our legends. With them, we create a mythology of our own. This in turn lends us a context within which we understand our place in climbing. Bonatti, Messner, Kucuzka, Kurtyka; the Nose, the Moonflower Buttress, Divine Providence, the Magic Line. The people, and the climbs, we hold up for emulation determine our aspirations, and, to a degree, our sense of self in the climbing world. Mahoney alludes to this when he talks about Bridwell and Stump on The Mooses Tooth. "When you're climbing up there, you can't help but think of those guys. When the weather gets bad, and you're thinking of retreat, you've got to suck it up. Thinking of how they endured, how they pushed it, it's motivating. That's what heroes are all about: they inspire."

None of what we do occurs in a vacuum, despite our tendency to forget our history and focus only on the accomplishments of today's greats. Will the story of Mahoney and Gilmore on The Mooses Tooth become legend, as the story of Bridwell and Stump was to another generation? Will House and Prezelj's climb serve as a reality check for North Twin, or further enhance its reputation? Does it matter? What counts most is our own climbing; the pursuit is, after all, selfish at its core. Perhaps twenty years from now a team will repeat Arctic Rage. Perhaps as they climb they will feel connected back through time to Mahoney and Gilmore, who in turn felt connected to Bridwell and Stump. That connection is one of climbing's great attractions, feeding our fears, inspiring our dreams. In pitting ourselves against the monsters of our own climbing, we find our courage, and take our places, even if only briefly, among the stars of the climbing constellation. —Christian Beckwith



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