Posted on: July 1, 2005
It isn't difficult living the mountain life if you're born in Basque country, a generous land of rugged slopes, sheer walls and ancestral forests, where each weekend large numbers of devout mountaineers head toward the summits and cliffs of the Pyrenees much as ordinary citizens attend religious services. The mountains form a huge part of the Basque people's reality, both geographically and culturally. They evoke freedom, endurance in a hostile arena, courage and a certain spirituality that recalls the classic heroes. Their modest summits don't limit the imaginations of the local climbers, but give forth dreams of the planet's great peaks, like the Alps, the Andes and the Himalaya. For us, all such dreams have their beginnings here, in Basque country. We are who we are—we, the Pou brothers, Iker and Eneko, Eneko and Iker—because we were conditioned by the geographical and social topography of this land, and because our parents bequeathed to us their passion for these peaks. Now, the small pleasures of our childhood in Basque country have matured into bigger challenges, ones that make up our adult lives.
Our first adventures in the mountains were as mere spectators on the backs of our parents, tucked into their backpacks, our eyes opened in astonishment and delight. We were accomplices in their love of the open countryside. As a result, "walks" for us included 3000-meter peaks in the Pyrenees (none of the Pyrenees reach higher than 3500 meters). As soon as we had the sufficient stamina to walk without getting exhausted, we left our parents' backs and put ourselves on the summit of Taillon (3114m), a massif that guards the Gavarnie Cirque, theater of grand dreams on ice.
Eneko was eight years old, Iker five. The ropes and all the technical paraphernalia that accompany today's alpinism were still so foreign to us we didn't even know of their existence. At home, the atmosphere revolved around mountaineering; indeed, our parents met during an outing in the mountains. Our mother, Itziar, frequently went climbing and hiking while we were growing up. Our father, Paco, a former Spanish judo champion, was an instructor at the Escuela Vasca de Alta Montana (Basque High Mountain School). He formed part of the generation of Basque climbers who developed between the luminaries who preceded them, like Angel Rosen and Juan Ignacio Llorente, and those who followed, such as Juanito Oiarzabal, Atxo Apellaniz, Antonio Miranda; as a result, he shared the rope with three generations. His formidable organizational skills distinguished him enough that he was invited to Aconcagua and Cho Oyu, the first big expeditions by the climbers of Alava.
We grew up in the mountains at our parents' sides, learning each step and drinking in the flavor of the summits and the countryside without risks, without hurry. By the time we were fourteen and seventeen years old respectively, we had summited Mont Blanc (4807m) by the normal route from the Gouter Hut, and by the next year we had explored a large part of the Pyrenees, summitting more than fifty of its 3000-meter peaks. It was then, in 1991, that we really discovered climbing, when we tied our lives to a single rope.
The First Rope
Our father encouraged our newfound passion by enrolling us in a mountaineering course in Alava. At that point we only conceived of climbing from an alpine perspective—that is, as a means of attaining our mountaineering objectives. Truly those were the beautiful years, ones of continual discovery. Though we hardly did any sport climbing, we quickly began to increase the number of our train rides to the climbing area of Eguino, the most popular crag in the province of Alava, and our bus trips to the Pared de Oro (Golden Wall). Many days we skipped class, pretending to be sick, and then headed down the train tracks to Eguino. We were frequently so captivated by the climbing that we lost track of time and missed the return train.... Those magical, intense days of our adolescence seemed to go on forever.
Our companions were Alberto Cuadrado and Ibon Saint Boise, with whom we experienced our first strong emotions. Our education wasn't exempt from errors or accidents, as when Iker fell climbing the route Monalisa in Eguino and broke his ankle... just when our father appeared to pay us a surprise visit. On another occasion we had decided not to attend class and to go climbing instead. It was a hot spring day, and it was just the two of us, climbing and having fun, until Iker made a mistake at the end of a route. Instead of putting the rope through the anchor to rappel, he launched incomprehensibly toward the ground. It was an error typical of inexperience; nobody could have imagined that someone capable of such a grave mistake would one day make the third ascent of Action Direct. Anyway, with Iker hanging, unable to down climb, Eneko descended to the village of Eguino and convinced a local to accompany him to the wall and belay him while he climbed up to help his brother. Three hours later Iker, who was suffering from sunstroke, had practically lost his mind.
These days Iker frequently trains both in the mornings and afternoons; he becomes quite tense when his training schedule is disrupted. Ten years ago, however, we didn't have any place close to home where we could improve our strength and skill. We learned to train instead on the walls of one of the city churches, a beautiful seventeenth-century building. Our sessions became most entertaining when we were forced to flee the priest, who was not amused by our use of his "house" as a climbing area. He was accustomed to calling the police, and on not a few occasions we were nearly sent to the police station. It's impossible to forget those special years, when life was a continual game.
While we continued to practice alpine pursuits on snow and rock, we also started bit by bit to sport climb, and Iker slowly realized that he had a gift. Hardly a year after his debut as a rock climber, he managed a 5.13b onsight. The following year he did his first 14a. Iker's progression, astonishingly fanatical and fluid, brought him in 2000 to Wolfgang Gullich's Action Direct. He was the youngest climber to free it at the time, and the first foreigner, after Gullich and Alex Adler. Today he has climbed numerous 14b's and 14c's and three 14d's, including Bain de Sang and Mendeku. He was the first person from Spain to complete a 14d (Action Direct), the first to do a 14a boulder problem (Sorginetxe), the first to do a big-wall 14a (Silbergeier) and the first to do three 14d's. Meanwhile, Eneko continued to explore the infinite possibilities of the mountains. As he became an accomplished rock, ice and mixed climber, as well as a great skier and a Himalayan mountaineer, he cultivated a type of versatility that few alpinists manage.
The Turning Point
All the same, today everything is different. You readers are within your rights to think that we are handsome, famous and rich. Well, we won't discuss our looks; neither will we tell you that we are unknown, since newspapers, magazines and television programs have sought us out for a variety of reasons. But we're still not sure ourselves how we'll manage to find our fortune.
Our reality in 2002—the year we began to design our program to free climb seven significant walls on seven different continents—was complicated. We didn't have stable work and, unable to afford our own place, we lived at home with our parents. This admission is always a shock to Americans, accustomed as they are to frequent moves and an early departure from the family home. But in Basque country, to buy your own place means mortgaging yourself for life and marrying the bank; without fountains of dependable income, such a step is impossible.
In 2002 we found ourselves needing to make a decision: give up serious climbing to pursue a career, or try to live—and climb—professionally. It was a tough moment. On one hand, we saw our dreams of great exploits in the mountains slip away, but on the other, we didn't know if we could find adequate support from sponsors to continue with our dreams. We still don't really know if we can continue, so we live day-to-day.
Hollywood has shown us the American myth, the legend of the "self-made man," something that in Spain, especially as the term applies to climbing, doesn't exist at all. Some people have told us that we were born in the wrong country, that we would have had infinitely more professional opportunities in the United States. That could be, but one cannot choose one's birthplace.
In 1997, even before we had understood that by combining our experience together we could reach great heights, we decided to do the first one-day free ascent of Pilar del Cantabrico (A3, 600m, Gomez Bohorquez-Galvez, 1981) on Spain's Naranjo de Bulnes. We succeeded, freeing the route at 5.13b, and our success was a pleasant revelation: together Eneko's alpine skills and Iker's rock skills combined to make an impressive team. The romantic view of climbing evokes a strong image, one of a single will joined by the same rope. We had found, then, all we needed to live our dream, though our daily reality remained less idyllic. Doing small jobs at rock gyms, giving lessons, talks and slide shows provided us with just enough money to be able to do one decent trip a year. So although we didn't get to travel a lot in those days, we were able to attempt some interesting projects.
Seven Walls, Seven Continents
One of these was to climb in the Canadian Yukon in 2000, when we found ourselves face to face with The Great Canadian Knife (5.13b, 850m, Piana-Skinner, 1992). It was our first experience on a big wall outside of Spain, and the first time working for the Spanish television program Al Filo de lo Imposible ("At the Edge of the Impossible"). The weather was particularly tough: the temperatures remained below zero and snow fell without a break. Out of twenty days at base camp, we could only climb for five. On top of the climbing, we had to make a documentary. Even though the harsh conditions prevented us from finishing the route, we still managed to free climb all the 5.12 and 5.13 pitches—an accomplishment that gave us great satisfaction.
The experience was so interesting that we decided to give it another shot. Thus, we took a big step forward, and announced our Seven Walls Seven Continents project. We had endless discussions about it; some of our friends thought we were crazy. But despite all their negative predictions and after an enormous struggle, we managed to come up with various sponsors who would give us enough money to tackle it (though not enough to make a profit).
In this project the two of us have formed a single team and almost a single person. Society and the media today try to create heroes who are strong and independent, with whom people can identify. This solitary individualism is not our experience: without the concept of a team we could never succeed.
When we climb together, our egos don't clash. Only by merging our skills and experiences do we conquer a particular challenge. If Iker can rock climb more skillfully, then Eneko can contribute the serenity and experience he has learned in the big mountains. If the crucial pitches go to Iker, Eneko assumes the rest as the brains of the team. Both of us know exactly where we need to be at any given moment.
Maybe because of such reasons, our project got off to a strong start. We chose the magical Yosemite Valley to begin. Never before had we climbed in such a place, as magnificent as it is imposing. The truth, however, is that our first week in the Valley was a disaster. When we arrived, we stood in front of El Capitan and spent hours trying to shake off our fear. Where we live there aren't many areas for practicing crack climbing, so when we landed in the United States, our crack technique left much to be desired. We had decided to try El Nino (5.13c, 850m, Huber-Huber, 1998), knowing full well how much we risked in attempting something so difficult on such unfamiliar rock. When the experienced Valley locals heard about our goal, they blatantly laughed at us.
In order to get in shape, we gave ourselves lessons on the cracks of Cookie Cliff. It was pathetic. We were hardly able to link together 5.11 pitches. We were so scared, we had to take turns to complete one pitch. Both technique and protection were alarmingly scarce.
One day we met the Huber brothers, the authors of El Nino. When they heard our plans for their route, they didn't laugh. In fact, they calmed us down, telling us that the cracks on the route weren't all that difficult, that it was just a question of tenacity. After hearing the news, we left the torture of Cookie Cliff behind and went off in search of El Nino.
Because all our gear had yet to arrive from Basque country, we spent five nights on the wall without sleeping bags or hammocks. An English team led by Leo Houlding was climbing on a neighboring route, with food, drink, and unlimited comforts, and they nearly died laughing when they saw us. Regardless, we continued, completing the third ascent of El Nino; our climb remains the only all-free ascent of the original route. The young and powerful team of Houlding and Patch Hamond had broken a flake on Pitch 27 on the second ascent. The incident seemed trivial at first, but it changed the 12b pitch into a 13d. Now it is one of the hardest free pitches on El Cap. We were psychologically crushed to see how the pitch had changed. But we knew it was our last chance, and after a day of struggle, we managed to free the crux. It was the best and most beautiful free route we had ever climbed, this masterpiece by the Huber brothers.
Zunbeltz: The Critical Hour
Having accomplished our goal on the North American continent, we turned our attention toward Europe, straining a bit to find a new goal that would be difficult, and the success of which would perhaps be doubtful. We had to be honest and throw our efforts into an enterprise that would be stimulating to us personally. The world of climbing was so foreign to our sponsors that they didn't really demand that we make any special contributions, only that we document our efforts.
For us, real interest only lies where there is uncertainty. We decided to attempt Zunbeltz (A4, 600m, Alonso-Olarra-Fernadez, 1989), a route on the north face of Naranjo de Bulnes. The route had been established on aid; we had no idea if we would be able to free the hardest pitches.
We suffered like never before. We still recall with anguish twenty-meter falls that pulled out the old, rusted buttonheads, smacking us against the rock, or moments of desperation, hanging from micro-friends while taking off our climbing shoes in an attempt to warm our feet. Some belays were so precarious that had they suffered a Factor Two fall they never would have held.
Fear doesn't care about grades; it doesn't distinguish between one who climbs 13b and one who climbs 5.10, so that at any time a climber is free to feel panic, especially when it seems as if one's life is on the line. Many people assume that strong, experienced climbers are immune to fear's devastating effects, but they are wrong. Even our camera suffered in misery as it filmed the inherent dangers of the route. Often, when we had to climb and film at the same time, the leader would have to beg or insult the belayer to put the camera down, because he was ready to pitch off at any moment.
We completed the route, without rest, on October 11, 12 and 13, 2003, freeing it in its entirety at 5.14a in winter conditions. Temperatures were below freezing, we never saw the sun, and it occasionally snowed. Zunbeltz is the hardest and most dangerous route we've ever climbed, but it gave us great satisfaction, because it allowed us to contribute something different to climbing.
Curiously, the media, especially outside the climbing world, doesn't even try to understand the value of something like Zunbeltz, where we suffered nearly unbearable stress. Magazines and television programs have the power to put a climber in the limelight, but in most cases they portray just anything, without looking into the relevance of the climb. In other words, someone who has summited Cho Oyu by the normal route, jumaring the entire way without ever once fixing rope or breaking trail, gets the same recognition in the media as someone who does a first ascent on an amazing big wall. Such misleading coverage is a huge problem in Spain. The other problem is how the media tries to compare climbing with other sports like cycling or soccer, where there are always winners and losers. They measure climbers by the difficulty of a particular climb, as if this were the only way to judge it. In doing so they forget to look at the importance of a climb's innate adventure, a team's spirit and our activity's romance.
Few know that in the summer of 2004, during the third phase of our project, on the Tsaranoro massif in Madagascar, we found ourselves on the brink of tears on the last pitch of Bravo Les Filles (5.13b A0, 600m, Feagin-Hill-Rodden, 1999), a route we had thought would be among the most feasible of our project.
Bravo Les Filles is a lovely and courageous route put up by a team led by Lynn Hill, but its members had been unable to free the crux. It was the month of July, and after a couple of days working on the route, we'd freed the crux at 5.13b. After overcoming that obstacle, we started feeling that the route was ours and that we would get with relative ease the first entirely free ascent. At the last belay, we went so far as to congratulate ourselves.
The topo showed the final pitch to be 5.10. When Eneko left the belay to head out on the compact granite, the immensity of the face made him feel like a grain of sand on the beach. He was unable to see the right way to go. He began to gain height without seeing anywhere to get protection. The face got steeper as the holds diminished. Eneko continued on without protection, first twenty meters, then thirty.... When he got to the summit, he was so stressed he could barely breathe. When Iker got to his side, he couldn't believe what they had just climbed. The outcome of our adventure was unknown until the last possible moment. But a conventional journalist would have been blind to the nuances of excitement that occur within such singular efforts, regardless of success or failure.
We are brothers, but we don't behave like inseparable twins. The fact is, we have different lives and distinct motivations. Iker's fixation on rock never really spread to Eneko, who continues to long for ice, snow and mixed routes, or extreme ski descents. In 1998 Eneko, in his goal to be totally versatile in the mountains, tried out for the Primer Equipo Nacional de Jovenes Alpinistas (First National Team of Young Alpinists), the soul of which, and the example to follow, was the late Pepe Chaverri. The Equipo attempts to select the most promising young alpinists, and with the support of sponsored climbers, to involve them in interesting projects. When Eneko tried out for it, he came in second.
The team's usefulness to Eneko arrived in 1999, when Juanito Oiarzabal invited him to Annapurna, the last 8000-meter peak in his attempt to be the sixth man to climb all fourteen 8000-meter peaks. On Annapurna, Eneko was surprised by the steepness at 7300 meters, in the middle of one of the most difficult mountains that exist. His descent was an unexpected return to life. In 2004 he again accompanied Oiarzabal, this time to Ama Dablam, while Iker traveled to Germany for various rock projects.
The world of superspecialization has now spead to climbing. Just as Lance Armstrong only wins the Tour de France, Ronaldo only scores goals, or El Gerrouj only reigns over the 1500 meters, those who win the climbing World Cup or excel at aid must dedicate themselves heart and soul to their pursuits. We rarely celebrate the merits of the all-around climber, the one who is capable of maintaining a high level in sport climbing, bouldering and big walls (like Iker), or in alpinism, skiing and big walls (like Eneko). Dominating a specific discipline requires increased training; the all-around climber probably won't reach the highest level of any particular one.
We consider ourselves all-around mountaineers, because this is how we have trained ourselves and because we grew up under the romantic values of solidarity, enjoyment and epics (and their avoidance)—values that today are diluted in favor of competition and the dehumanization of the mountain world. Our participation isn't competitive; it's a lifestyle in which we travel, make friends and have goals, in which the effort is more important than any superficial victory. During our first years climbing, we promoted a climbing competition in our province of Alava in order to try sport climbing. We quickly stopped because we understood that, at their worst, competitions represented values that we reject, like the thirst to dominate by fighting against others.
Friends as Well as Brothers
Optimistic as ever, but still with very few crack-climbing skills, we decided to accept the 2004 invitation by Television Espanola to free climb The Nose (5.14?, 1000m) of El Cap, which only the incredible Lynn Hill has managed to free. Besides having to climb it, we also would have to make a good documentary of our efforts, so we didn't have too many illusions about success. The route is magnificent, but packed with climbers, so many that Iker could barely work the pitches on The Great Roof or Changing Corners. Freeing it seemed unlikely but not impossible. We freed every pitch except those two, a great excuse to return one day and get our revenge. Well, if we could manage not to get angry with one another.
Sometimes we have so many arguments that they change our brotherly relationship. Until our twenties, we shared an intense closeness and identical lifestyle completely focused on our sports. Everything was easy, we had fun climbing, and our mutual fanaticism drew us closer. Any big problems our parents figured out for us. Easy! But in 2000, when we traveled to the Great Canadian Knife, everything changed, and we experienced a wake-up call that affected how we relate to one another.
Although we were proud of our solidarity on that climb, the first barriers emerged between us, small fractures that we often face today. We had matured, and climbing was no longer the only thing in our lives. We needed to sort out our passion for big walls with our adult existences and balance our climbing with the new responsibility of working for television. The burden of having to be a professional in order to climb big routes confused Iker, who wasn't mentally prepared to accept how the changes would alter his life. Eneko, more aware in this regard, immediately dove into the bureaucracy and the work of convincing potential sponsors. Truly, Iker suffered from the paradox: now that he was a professional, he had less time to train and climb than when he had worked for others. Isn't becoming a professional the dream of any tennis player, cyclist, or soccer player? Why does a top-notch climber have to waste time and energy on fundraising in order to live as a professional? As he jumped from sport climbing to big walls, with lots of trips and days without training, Iker found himself struggling to stay fit, a problem that severely troubled him.
We believe that few rope teams have argued and yelled as much as we have. At times it must have been funny to see us shrieking at one another in the middle of an 5.13d pitch, 400 meters from the ground. Fortunately, the bloodshed never became a river: we're brothers, and we know how far we can push. But sometimes we feel on the verge of giving up, and we ask ourselves seriously what we are doing with our lives, why it is so complicated, and whether facing an expedition emotionally defeated by a thousand and one details with the media or our sponsors is even worth it. We also try not to lose perspective: we are in this because we love the mountains and climbing, above all else. Perhaps our most important project won't be climbing these seven walls, but maintaining intact the unique connection we have made as brothers in the mountains. This connection is, after all, what we enjoy the most.