Little Man, Big Mountain

Posted on: March 1, 2007

Nicolas Kalisz redpointing Pitch 25 (5.13a), Rainbow Jambaia (VI 5.13, ca. 1000m, Arran-Arran-Calderon-Gibson-Heason-Klenov-Rangel, 2005), Auyan Tepui, Venezuela, during the March 2006 second ascent. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Nicolas Kalisz was redpointing the last 5.13 crux, Pitch 25, during the second free ascent of one of most difficult climbs in the world: Rainbow Jambaia on Venezuela's Auyan Tepui. Yet through my camera lens, his figure appeared tiny, as the earth's largest waterfall, Angel Falls, shimmered past him and Arnaud Petit down 800 meters of overhanging orange and gray stone and poured into the immense Venezuelan rainforest. As I stood on my tiptoes to try to get a more striking view, I suddenly dropped twenty centimeters. One of the two cams in my bomber-looking anchor had blown, and now only a single piece held me above the void.

I realized then how small and vulnerable we are compared to the walls and peaks we climb. Over the past year as a photographer, I've followed climbers in their adventures around the world, and this experience has repeated itself in different forms, but the pattern is always the same.

In May, I was a thousand meters up a new-route attempt on the east face of The Mooses Tooth, with Christophe Dumarest and Aymeric Clouet. A cluster of cornices hung directly above, and it looked as though the first good ray of sun might send them down. Every few minutes, shards of transparent ice fell, invisible, with the sound of a thousand explosives. It was unnerving to know that something we couldn't even see might kill us. A few days before, a series of avalanches had struck Christophe and Aymeric. It was time to escape. Although the attempt failed, we left Alaska's Buckskin Glacier thrilled by the experience of having passed so lightly through such an intense, colossal landscape. As Christophe put it, "The vastness of the faces, the constraints of alpine style, the absence of night, the isolation and the commitment.... Against our society's Manichean model of winners and losers, alpinism offers ever more rich nuances."

Two months later, I found more of these nuances in Pakistan, high on the West Pillar of Trango Tower (6239m). As Giovanni Quirci, Francesco Pellanda and Christophe Steck worked their way up 1100 meters of granite to make the route's second—and nearly its first free—ascent, the narrow spire shone red and gold against the snowy peaks, the glaciers and the sky. Though Giovanni freed Pitch 13 (5.13b) with only one fall, an incredible feat at such an altitude, the mountain remained unperturbed. The beauty and the power of the Karakoram took the foreground of the scene—and our actions among them, however significant they seemed to us, could only be the background.

Giovanni Quirici free climbing Pitch 14 (5.12b) of the West Pillar (aka Gran Diedre Desplomado, VI 5.11 A4, 1100m), Trango Tower (6239m), Karakoram, Pakistan, during the second ascent, in August 2006. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Romain Pagnoux and Olivier Deroche on Punta Giradili (5.11d, 400m), Gennargentu, Sardinia, Italy, June 2005. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Climbing the Grande Glacier, with the south face of Fitz Roy in the background, Patagonia, Argentina, August 2005. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Antoine Richard bouldering in a rice field, Hampi, Karnataka, India, January 2004. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Francesco Pellanda onsighting 5.12b at 5600 meters, West Pillar, Trango Tower. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Romain Pagnoux leading out on Punta Giradili. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

Nicolas Kalisz lowering out on Rainbow Jambaia. [Photo] Evrard Wendenbaum

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