The Sharp End
Posted on: July 13, 2011
Slowly, like a drifting flake, a distant climber descended the West Buttress of Denali. Now and then, he sank into the snow, but he kept staggering toward Gary Bocarde and Michael Covington's 17,000-foot camp. Whoever it is must be ill, Bocarde thought. And then he realized: it was his friend Charlie Porter. "I feel like shit," Porter said, when Bocarde reached him. Porter had suffered from altitude sickness during his entire solo of the 8,000-foot Cassin Ridge. And yet he'd forced himself to move faster than anyone thought possible in 1976: a thirty-six-hour single-push ascent from the top of the Japanese Couloir to the summit—in an era when gear and clothing were still heavy, and when people were only beginning to think of nonstop alpine-style climbing on technical high-mountain routes.
Bocarde and Covington tried to convince him to rest, but after a while, Porter got up and continued down the normal route alone, desperate for thicker air. There were more parties on the mountain than usual that season. Big-name alpinists—Doug Scott, the Burgess twins and Reinhold Messner—were generating international news. Porter's lone figure faded amid the crowds. His accomplishment nearly disappeared from history. He didn't bring a camera, and he didn't like promoting his adventures. In a Rock & Ice interview, seventeen years later, he said, "Climbing was a very personal thing.... It had a bit of a mystical aura about it. You could say we were romantics."
Tales of Porter's (often solitary) ascents trickled out through partners or eyewitnesses, accumulating a reputation of quiet, almost ghostly brilliance, glimpsed partly in fragments and gaps. A year after the Cassin Ridge climb, a small note about a "remarkable solo" appeared in the American Alpine Journal, with only the basic statistics and the editor's terse conclusion: "With his usual reticence, Porter has given us no details."
Beyond the shadows on the icefields, a pale blue glow shimmers across the mountain's slopes like the play of color beneath the surface of an opal. The peak has no official name, just a number. And for a long time, it seems to have no climbing history:
Rumor has it that in the 1970s a Fairbanks climber and his friends made the first ascent of three 10,000-foot peaks in the Alaska Range. When he went to climb the third one, his partner swore him to secrecy—to preserve, for a while at least, "a blank spot on the map." Storms nearly blew them off the west ridge, and they returned to the base. The next morning, the weather cleared. As they kicked clean steps up the south face, the light illuminated tiers of white peaks, rising and glowing and fading into all the vanishing points of the horizon.
Had the Fairbanks climber simply reported his climb, it might have been, at most, a small note about an obscure peak. But the only clue he gave, years afterward, was a series of numbers on the vanity plate of his car. And thus "10910" grew into a local legend, an emblem of the unspoken and the unknown. "When you hear only a fragment of a story," he says today, "you start to imagine the rest, to build it into something possibly bigger in your mind."
The history of mountaineering doesn't only exist on the most visible level of popular websites, glossy magazines, feature articles and classic books. There are infinite strata: footnotes and corrections in mountaineering journals; forum posts on regional websites; diaries tucked away in archives and desk drawers; untranslated books and articles; unnoticed reports by lesser-known climbers; barroom, campfire and base-camp conversations; oral recollections that are always and ever-so- quietly being retold; all the way down to those muted and unknowable reflections inside each climber's mind.
Even the most dedicated scholars perceive a mere fraction of these layers. Sift carefully through the written records of past eras, and you find hints and pieces of half-hidden and forgotten narratives. A paragraph in the 1979 American Alpine Journal contains an oblique reference to anonymous footsteps on the West Ridge of Mt. Hayes—traces of its unpublished first ascent. Anecdotes abound of climbers discovering bits of webbing or old pitons on supposedly untouched summits around the world. Legends hint that Mugs Stump may have soloed more routes than we will ever guess.
And then there are those esoteric heroes like Frank Jourdan, found asleep in his car in the Alpine Club of Canada parking lot in July 1994. According to Dave Dornian's Calgary Mountain Club World News report, after the staff gave Jourdan some coffee, he confessed to soloing up and down Mt. Andromeda's Skylad-der Direct, then up the Shooting Gallery and down The Practice Gully, up The Andromeda Strain and over the col to the summit of Mt. Athabasca, and back to the road in a stormy forty-five-hour round-trip. Mark Twight praised the enchainment in Kiss or Kill (2001): "Some of us could keep up [with Alex Lowe] when he was having a bad day. Frank Jourdan, on the other hand, was climbing at least 30 percent better than the best guys in the world." Will Gadd still keeps a copy of Dornian's story enshrined on one of his websites.
Perhaps we get so attached to these elusive figures because they represent a cherished belief: that the purest form of climbing is the kind that's done alone, in secret, with nothing interposing between the human and the wild—no egoism, no conscious thoughts, no hopes of praise or reward. The "silent history" (as Jack Turner names it) preserves the inner, private space at the heart of alpinism: where all that exists is the inexpressible mystery of our being in this world.
At the same time, we live in a society that has become increasingly noisy and glaringly bright. Advances in new media allow for ever-more seductive forms of communication with ever-more pervasive reach. Economic and cultural forces amplify information that can be easily packaged, marketed, forwarded and Facebook-ed, increasing in volume with each repost. Viewers are inundated with images in which the most obvious "extreme" and photogenic elements have been heightened for quick consumption. A glossy hyperreality substitutes for the unimagina- ble depths of original, solitary experience. Mystery is replaced with all-exposure. Distance is erased as minute details of remote adventures are broadcast into our homes.
But as Marko Prezelj says, "Personal experiences in the mountains can't be transformed into a uniform creation that will copy and transmit the same feelings." Gradually, some- thing indefinable starts to fade—a quality that Turner identifies as "the 'aura' of art and landscape," quoting the philosopher Walter Benjamin, "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it hap- pens to be." As the audience for climbing news expands, the mass reproducibility of the report becomes more valued than the original historical or personal significance of the ascent. In a much-discussed 2009 blog post, "Is Sponsorship a Sin? (NO. But Bullshit Is)," Scott Semple declares: "Many climbers are sponsored for what they say, or how well they're known, rather than for what they've done."
The instant name recognition of celebrities, iconic peaks and familiar storylines jostles to the forefront of viewers' consciousness. Quieter narratives—nuanced and ambiguous, and more time-consuming to explain—slip through the digital stream, and often, out of print. How many still recall the first ascent of the complete Northwest Ridge of Latok II in 2009? How many will remember Erhard Loretan, who passed away this spring, as one of the alpinists who made a truly minimalist speed ascent of Everest's Super Couloir in 1986, without supplemental oxygen, ropes or a tent; simul-soloing, sleepless, through the night? David Pickford, Editor-in-Chief of Climb Magazine, warns of a possible future: "As sponsorship budgets grow and the marketing hype around certain ascents snowballs, it is inevitable that talented climbers lacking commercial incentives will become more reticent about their achievements." And in that process, we'd risk losing the possibility of any meaningful recorded history at all.
Light falls into an empty alcove of rock. Overhanging schist ripples in hues of gray, silver, green, blue and rust. Here, in 1998, Bob Timmer established one of the hardest mixed lines in Smugglers' Notch, The Beginning of the End. Scarcely known outside the state, Timmer was among the greatest climbers in northern Vermont. He was also a Mountain Warfare instructor and a father. In May 2011, he died of cancer. At his memorial service, the village church was full of friends, family members, fellow soldiers and local climbers. His partners told a few stories: how he'd kept climbing during chemotherapy, vomiting his way up El Capitan; how much Mt. Logan had meant to him. A handful of flowers rested in an old plastic boot. On one side of a postcard, there was a photo of Bob in Yosemite, his radiant, bemused expression embracing everyone and everything. The other contained a message he'd written: "I had a good time."
That image has stayed with me ever since: a vision of a climbing life, and a human life, lived well. Alpinism reminds us of the presence of death; each movement becomes weighted with potential consequence and meaning. But it's only one symbol of what's taking place during our entire existence. Individual choices influence the shape of our visions, paths and legacies. Each day, infinite forms and possibilities surround us—from the dark gleam of minerals in a piece of rock to the pixels on a laptop screen. "What you pay attention to is what you experience, and what you experience becomes your life," says Turner. "You have to take a philosophical stance: What is important? What are we going to pay attention to? Because the answers will determine your world."
Climbing, reading and writing are all existential acts. We have to ask what images we want to form our world, what narratives should represent our era and our selves. In a recent edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Janet Fitch observes that "all our self-display is causing an odd diminution of personality—we're cutting ourselves down to mouth-sized bites." She calls, instead, for a literature that reminds us of the "dense private thoughts that are the seedbed of the self, out of which an authentic life can spring.... [T]he human psyche should be larger on the inside than on the outside."
So, too, should our climbing lore. We need more of the rare, vital stories that arise from the silent history, slowly, over months or years; cleansed of ego and hype; layered with retellings and reflections; hinting at deep and wordless encounters with nature, with the other and the self; encompassing the fullness of life and death; admitting contradictions and flaws; invoking our imaginations to picture those vaster, inner realms; and still containing the imprint of the very thing that is most valuable to us, even as it vanishes in the act of its writing—the invisible soul of our pursuit.
And we depend on you, Reader, to tell them.
[With additional advice from Jeff Apple Benowitz, Roger Robinson, Michael Down, Joe Josephson, Andy Selters, Scott Semple, Marko Prezelj and Jack Turner.—Ed.]