The Realm and the Key

Posted on: May 26, 2015

[Photo] Ted Hesser

These are not just memories. They are the core samples of our lives, and if I look, I see a clear connection between what we dreamed about back then, and who we have become now.— Peter Croft, Alpinist X

FOR ME, THE STORY begins with the snow: white flakes falling from an invisible sky, veiling the mountains behind a curtain of dimming light, refracting the glow of street lamps into soft orange globes. I remember how the town seemed as quiet as a forest, how I stumbled through drifts that concealed the sidewalks. The small building emerged like a magic hut in a folktale, surrounded by a fence made of skis that looked almost like the bones of some giant creature. For the past few months, I'd worked, remotely, as a copy editor for Alpinist. Now, on New Year's Eve, 2004, I arrived in Jackson, Wyoming, to start my internship. Christian Beckwith, the founding editor-in-chief, was about to leave on vacation, so he asked me to stop by his house to pick up an office key. I remember how its metal gleamed in my hand, cold and light as the snow.

Three years later, in a profile of Mt. Huntington for Alpinist 20, Clay Wadman wrote, "In my youth, I remember a vision of a place savage, yet fragile, so sublime it existed completely beyond human experience. I called it the 'Realm,' a wilderness that once perceived is destroyed forever." It was an image that, for me, crystallized long-nebulous thoughts. Growing up, I'd longed for some lost, invisible country, a place imaginable only in dreamlike fragments: a sheen of reflected light against a wall, a line of translucent peaks on a horizon. When I started climbing, I felt as if a door to that world was held ajar. The crystals of granite beneath my hands, the twilit hues of frozen waterfalls—each detail appeared sharp and bright as if encountered for the first time. For a long time, I couldn't conceive of any existence beyond the pursuit of such moments in experience, memory and words.

In the black-and-white photo, a man kneels amid a pile of rocks. A white light blurs the landscape, pale as mist. Only grey shadows of forms appear. Below him lie the relics of past expeditions: an old rope, a picket and a flag. Nearby, an ice hammer is planted like a sword. It is the summit of Nanga Parbat, September 6, 2005, but it resembles an image from some older engraving, etched in silver hues, removed from any specific time and place.


Ever since Steve House first saw a picture of the 8125-meter peak in 1989, the idea of Nanga Parbat had absorbed him. By 2004, when he made his first attempt to climb a new line on the Rupal Face with Bruce Miller, the peak had become a metaphor for something much greater. In Alpinist 16, he recalled, "Merely to embark on an alpine-style expedition is to act out the metaphor of simplicity, reducing everything to the minimum.... Spareness permits an intimacy with alpinism, allowing it to assume its full potential as a work of art."

In 2005, when House returned to finish the route with Vince Anderson, the Rupal Face appeared like a culmination of that vision: more than four thousand meters of steep stone, interlacing ice, hanging glaciers and fluted snow. Over six days, with no radio and with little gear, they'd tapped between delicate drips of ice and climbed a gilded prow. A cornice had broken beneath House's feet, leaving him hanging from one axe. Minds numbed by altitude, they'd postholed across loose drifts, wondering whether the slope might collapse. By the time they reached the summit, House recalled, "We lived the answer to every question presented.... There is nothing left of our selves, only the ghost of what transformed us." Twilight drifted across the vast sky as they descended, and House stared into a void that seemed filled with both "infinity" and "nothingness."

Within a few years, the fierce debates that once raged in climbing journals about the merits of minimalism versus siege style had diminished. The ideal of moving lightly became, for the most part, an expected part of cutting-edge ascents in the great ranges. As Kyle Dempster writes of House's generation in Alpinist 50, "The alpine style that you so passionately embodied is no longer a light contained within the bounds of any narrow chamber. The cresset has been smashed to pieces, and the flames are ablaze on the sharp skylines of the earth."

In some ways, as twenty-first-century climbers, we live in an age of marvels. Since Alpinist began in 2002, countless new ascents have outpaced dreams. In January 2008 Rolando Garibotti and Colin Haley enchained the rime-feathered skyline of the Torre Traverse—only a few years after Garibotti wrote in Alpinist 4, "Perhaps another decade will go by before it is completed, but in the meantime it will spark the fantasies of many." Months later, Alex Honnold's free solo up the burnished red sandstone of Moonlight Buttress appeared so inconceivable that many people assumed, for days, that the news was an April Fool's joke. Perhaps few of us could have imagined, a decade ago, the first free ascents of recent years on routes like the windswept Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre or the steep, smooth Dawn Wall of El Capitan.

Some believe we are at the start of another Golden Age, in which alpinists' free-climbing skills will continue to develop rapidly, honed by training on boulders and crags, until they can establish hitherto unimagined lines on the world's high peaks. And yet each era has included its own wonders. During the 1980s, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet made fast-and-light ascents on 8000-meter peaks, without ropes or bivy gear, in a blur of sleepless motion. In 2013, when Ueli Steck ventured alone up the south face of Annapurna by headlamp and by starlight, his story pointed toward future possibilities, but it also harkened back to visions of what Voytek Kurtyka had already called "night-naked climbing."

Great climbers of the new generation may well arise from groups once on the margins of cutting-edge alpinism. Peter Jensen-Choi, the American Alpine Journal correspondent for Korea, writes, "Chi-young Ahn, with consecutive first ascents over the past few years, most impressively including Himjung and Gasherbrum V, has emphatically brought the possibilities of pure alpinism in the Himalaya to Korea's doorstep. Perhaps, the dawn of a new age in high-altitude Korean alpinism is in the making." Brette Harrington's recent free solo of Chiaro di Luna on the sharp spire of Aguja Saint-Exupery reflects the growing confidence of young female climbers. New voices, likewise, are emerging in alpine literature. In the past few years, talented Sherpa writers have helped bring more notice to the hazardous labor that supports the fantasies of mountaineering tourism. In The Adventure Gap, published last October, Alpinist contributor James Edward Mills has called attention to the lack of diversity in American climbing—and to the need to expand our ideas about who the protagonists of mountaineering stories might be.

In 1981 Sylvain Jouty wrote in the French journal Passage, "Despite the numerous works produced on the subject, the history of alpinism remains to be written.... [U]p to the present, it has hardly been anything other than a series of cliches, putting great men on a stage...distant from historical reality, which is teeming, multiple, and not at all reducible to several high exploits. Behind the 'greats' of alpinism, there are alpinists, quite simply—and also the institutions that they have secreted, the tales they have produced, the edifices they have constructed, the ideologies (or the mythologies) that they have given themselves."

Beyond the shimmering visions of bright granite and high snows, there are other, more shadowy tales left to tell: the vanishing of rare plants that grew in the hanging gardens of once-inaccessible walls; the consequences of a spreading commercial infrastructure on iconic peaks; the pollution of human waste on crowded mountains; the violent histories behind metaphors of conquest; the half-visible figures of obscure guides and climbers, erased from grandiose narratives they did not seem to fit; the bodies of two porters lying beside a trail, their names absent from official records; an empty slope glittering with shards of ice, after an avalanche has passed; the collapse of mountain villages with the trembling of the earth; the outpouring of words that fails to fill the absences in dim, quiet rooms; the impression left by a footprint in snow, the brief warmth of a hand on cold stone; all the vanishing traces of brief, complex and irreducible lives.

There are the myths that inspire and the myths that delude. Between the two, we navigate an edge as intricate and fragile as the sweep of a double-corniced ridge.

I've kept my original office key. It lies in a wooden chest in my apartment beneath a stack of yellowed papers. The number 50 is an arbitrary one, and yet it's been a good reminder to take stock of where we've come from and where we might be going. Alpinist was conceived of as a utopian project, "a vision of climbing," as Christian Beckwith wrote, "that has nothing to do with climbing as a vehicle for advertisements and everything to do with climbing in its purest forms." And as Michael Kennedy, the editor-in-chief after him declared in Alpinist 26, a quest to live more deeply within the world.

That belief still holds. Back then, I couldn't have predicted the rise of a new media age or guessed how much we'd have to defend the values of immersive reading and independent journalism. I didn't know how much our present zeitgeist would be darkened by the disruptions of economic and geopolitical upheavals or the risks of environmental destruction and climate change. These days, I think, increasingly, of what Steve House wrote in Alpinist 24: "Perhaps it is time to stop seeing alpinism through the lens of progress." For minimalism was never merely about advancements in knowledge or techniques, but about a timeless spirit—a way of learning to face the voids of uncertainty and mortality with integrity and dignity. Real ethics would require seeing ourselves, not as separate, but as part of a larger, human community, with all the responsibilities that awareness entails.

Amid the back issues on my bookshelf, vast geographies of memory unfold: the lunar dust of an arid canyon; the blue parasols of ice on a cobblestoned wall; a rusted piton in a granite crack; the people we loved and the people we lost. Instead of imagining gauzy otherworlds, I now long to glimpse the fragments of something boundless, ineffably Real. The most genuine narratives form in gaps between the words on paper and the mountains in our minds, between the rhythm of sentences and the flow of hands and feet. They are the moments when, lost in wonder at the curve of a ridgeline, the flare of light across a horizon, the upturned face of a child, we say to ourselves, like the speaker in the famous Rilke poem, "[H]ere there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life." These are the tales that take place in countless Realms, far beyond the pages of any magazine—for the readers are the ones who will turn old dreams into new creations. They are among the true heroes and heroines of all stories ever told.

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