Why Mark Westman Isn't Famous

Posted on: March 1, 2007

[Photo] Tami Knight

"How does one become a famous climber?" Mark Westman, unknown Alaskan hardman, is hanging from two flaring cam placements in a rotten sea of granite on the left side of the Ruth Gorge. Rain and snow collect on the brim of his duct-taped-anorak's hood and drip into his week-old beard.

I burrow into my rubberized fishing jacket to avoid an avalanche of slush. Soon we'll rap off; another stormbound week of cards, chocolate and Mark's sheep jokes await us in our tent. Why isn't Mark famous? He says it's because his ascents aren't hard enough. But during the last seven months alone, he's climbed up to 5.11 WI7 M8 in poor conditions, ticking off Mermoz, St. Exupery, Aguja Rafael, Fitz Roy, a new mixed route on Mt. Grosvenor, the third ascent of the Escalator on Mt. Johnson, the west face of Kahiltna Queen, a new route on the east face of Broken Tooth and the Mini-Moonflower. As Mark starts the first rappel, I use the wait to come up with some advice for how he can attain his long-overdue sponsorship.

1. HAVE UNREALISTIC PLANS. You don't actually have to climb anything to gain publicity and corporate cash. Tell everyone you're going to climb the northwest face of Devil's Thumb or the Shark's Fin on Meru: more grant money has been lavished on failures on these two objectives than the gross national product of several South American countries. Start selling posters with a direttissima red line showing your new ascent before you leave. This will guarantee that your expedition is a commercial success—and really, who needs anything more?

2. CREATE CONTROVERSY. Even bad press is good press, right? Climb fragile national park icons in the media's lens and folks will take notice. Make first ascents of obscure peaks in the Alaska Range in impeccable style and no one will put you on their cover.

3. MAXIMIZE YOUR PHOTO OPS. Forget fast-and-light, two-man teams. Take at least three people with you to ensure good photos. Wear bright new clothes with large labels to ensure product placement. The duct-taped, neo-lumberjack look has not helped Mark at all.

4. EPIC, EPIC, EPIC. Ignore weather reports, climb slowly, drop your pack, be unprepared and survive an ordeal and you can have your own movie. Do climbs within your skill level, prepare before attempting hard routes and no one will pay any heed. There is no human drama in rapping off before things turn disastrous. Cut off your arm and you'll have a story; avoid dropping an 800-pound boulder on yourself in the first place and you won't.

5. DEVELOPE AND PROMOTE A PERSONA. Aleister Crawley had Satan, Alex Huber wears leather pants, and Dean Potter embodies the raven-spirit guy. For Mark, I'm thinking "Professor Death." When he leaves a belay station, he already says, "On Death?" (The rhetorical exchange follows suit: "Death on." "Dying." "Die on.") He could help his image by giving his new routes names like "Necrolover" and describing the possibility of his demise with such enthusiasm that nearby climbers will run for a rescue (see #4).

6. OVERRATE YOUR ROUTE. So the length of your route isn't impressive enough? Try adding meters by placing the start of your climb deep within a crevasse or counting traversing pitches as vertical gain to increase the reported size (something male alpinists in particular should have no trouble doing). Don't be afraid to describe your route in dimensions that go against a topographic map: no one will check for accuracy. If your route is only 5.9 A2, add a "++" or say it in a tongue-and-cheek tone, as if to hint, "this climb is too hard to rate" or "ratings are for hotels."

7. DON'T BE AN ABLE-BODIED WHITE GUY. No one is lining up to sponsor the next up-and-coming Joe who overcomes nothing more than his personal demons. Trace your family tree: there might be an Bangladeshi, Guyanese or Inuit angle in there somewhere. Got a disability? Exploit it. One note: myopia, vericosities and toe fungie don't count.

8. CONTROL THE MEDIA. Write your press release before you pack. Bring enough heavy electronic communication devices along on your climb to ensure catastrophic failure (#4 again) and you will be bound to reach the peak of fame and recognition.

BACK IN THE SOGGY TENT, after surviving a core shot to the rope when rockfall struck us during one of our rappels (no one was hurt, so #4 was out), I try to get Mark to listen to my fame-generating ideas, but he interrupts me: "How did the Scotsman find the sheep in the tall grass?"

"Please Mark, no more sheep jokes." I don't know if I can stand a week of these....

"Very satisfying."

I try to get him back on topic, before he can think of another one.

"So Mark, what are we going to call our new route? How about Deathmonger, 5.4c++—because ratings are for hotels? An instant-classic death sandbag soon to be on everyone's must-do list?"

Before I can even propose a title for our slideshow tour, Mark interrupts me again: "New route, Jeff? Classic? We only climbed eight pitches of at most grungy 5.8 on a thirty-pitch wall. It's a lame new bail at best." He pauses. "What's the difference between the Rolling Stones and a Welshman?"

He still doesn't get it.

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