- Fast Mountaineering
Table: Chronology of Events Related to going Fast in the Mountains
History of Competitions in the mountains
Going fast to the mountains is not a contemporary activity. If we think that the innovations or tendencies of the lightweight practices in the mountains are recent we are very erroneous, because since the begining of climbing mountains or walking in the valleys, there was someone who wanted it do it quickly.
Climb mountains quickly has been done since the beginning of the times to ensure the survival of the humans. At first, a man or a woman climbed or run a mountain, without using any artificial means (because the intelligence of that hominid did not allow him to manufacture tools) and he made it quick, when he saw himself persecuted by a herd of lions. Running and climbing was the answer he found to prevent his existence from being reduced to be the weekly meals of a feline family. After a while another hominid discovered that he could make sharp ends and spears to protect himself from these animals and not only that but he could invest the roles and be the one running after other animals to get food for his family. Later, the human realized that he could also run behind, or before, depending on the fate of the day, other humans with the same exterminating purpose, but in general for other reasons than their alimentation. But in all these cases, he always ran chasing or being persecuted, by instinct for survival rather than for the pleasure of running.
Later on, when survival was no longer something for which daily struggles were needed, at least for a part of the population, other needs as intellectuals, pleasure or business appeared. With this the religions appeared and in this context, the mountains during antiquity were either a place close to the heavenly world and to God or to hell and damned places. With these beliefs, in the 5th century BCE, the Philosopher and Greek poet Empedocles climbed to the top of the Etna volcano in Sicily to throw himself into his crater, apparently he did it thinking that this would become an immortal God. We do not rush to judge him, then, twenty-five centuries later there are still many people following this belief when climbing mountains.
A few centuries later, in Japan, the lizard En No Ozunu traveled the mountains at high speed, training physically and meditating, often cooling for hours in cascades of frozen water. Apart from meditation in the mountains it seems that demons were also being pursued. During the antiquity, the highest and inaccessible parts of the mountains were not a frequented place, because the belief of cursed forces and the low utility of rising there where there was nothing useful to survive moved away to most of the population of them.
This changed rapidly, when in 905, Abu Dolaf Kazraji climbed to the summit of Damavand, 5610m in Iran looking for minerals. Its sulphurous summit became a common destination for the habitants of the region that ascended-it to extract sulfur and sell-it in the valleys. This commercial interest has also been closely linked to the history of climbing mountains, looking for gold and silver in Colorado or mineral crystals with bright colors and explosive forms in the most hidden and inaccessible places in Chamonix.
Getting to the mountains was a frequent activity in the whole history of humanity, whether it was for agriculture or hunting, to reach high and dominant positions during wars, to traverse countries during migrations or to look for minerals or plants for commerce. Even so, we cannot start talking about mountaineering as an activity until someone climbed as a fence in itself and not as a means for another activity.
As it could not be otherwise, the first to climb a summit guided by aesthetics was a poet; Italian Petrarch, who on April 26, 1336, climbed the summit of Mont Ventoux, in the south of France, for no other purpose than to climb-it. This fact, we could consider in some way the birth of mountaineering. A century later, in 1492, Antoine de Ville under the orders of King Charles VIII of France climbed Mont Aiguille, then called Mont Inaccessible, a rock needle with walls of 300 meters vertical on all four sides. To reach the summit twenty people were needed, one of which was a notary, and the help of ropes, pitons, ladders and other artificial means. Once they reached the summit they camped there for eight days, during which members of the aristocracy in the area took the opportunity to go up and make great meals. This is considered the first technical climb in history.
However, we can consider these events as occasional activities, without initiating what we nowadays know as mountaineering or mountaineering. We have to wait four centuries until we can say that mountaineering becomes a current and popular activity.
On August 8, 1786, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat stepped on the summit of Mont Blanc, the culminating point of the Alps. The motivations for that rise were mainly economic, because Horace-Benedict de Sausure, a wealthy Swiss scientist who studied alpine geology and thought to discover the geological formation of the Alps rising to its peak, offered a handful of money to whom he get it. Since then, more people, whether aristocrats or scientists, were interested in climbing mountains, and they needed the help of local guides who had the knowledge of the region and the ability to go on this difficult terrain.
The Golden Age
It began then a time that is known as the Golden Age of Mountaineering, during which they were conquering all the main summits of the Alps, and the first alpine clubs and social groups were created to be interested in Mountaineering as an activity in itself and not as a scientific or commercial justification. It was then when the mountain guide profession was born and the concepts of “first ascension”, of alpine ideology with the search of what had never been done and of the difficulty. During that period they were conquered all the great summits of the Alps. French climbers like Michel Croz or Victor Puiseux, Swiss such as Studer, Austrians as Stanig or Thurwieser and Italians as Jean Antoine Carrel were some of the most fruitful. But most of these first ascents were not made by mountaineers of the Alpine arch but by English climbers, who, in the Victorian era, went to the Alps to conquer new summits. Edward Wymper, Albert Frederick Mummery or Charles Hudson among others were the pillars of these promotions, often accompanied by local guides.
The ascent to the Matterhorn marked the end of this period; the perfect mountain steep on all sides and without any obvious climbing route. His summit was finally paved for the first time in the summer of 1865 when two teams, one on the Swiss side, with Wymper accompanied by Lord Francis Douglas, and the Swiss guides Peter Taugwalder and his son, and another formed by Charles Hudson with Douglas Robert Hadow and the guide of Chamonix Michel Croz joined forces to try the climb together. At the same time, on the Italian side, Jean-Antoine Carrel accompanied by Antoine-César Carrel, Charles Gorret and Jean-Joseph Maquignaz also begin to climb. On July 14, Wymper’s team puts the feet on Matterhorn’s top for the first time. During the descent, however, Douglas Hadow slips and take on the fall the other mountaineers with him. Only Wymper and Taugwalder’s survive. Three days later Carrel’s team climbed to the top on the Italian side.
Alpinism has been always a large activity, the evolution has been towards different directions: Dificulty (climb more dificult routes), Exploration (Go to places where nobody has been), Engagement (Do routes on a more engaged way as in alpine style, solitaire, solo, in winter…), Speed (Climb routes faster), Link-up (Climb longer). In any way it is impossible to separate one from the other, because in many cases they are complementary or all present with some (one or multiple) direction/s more present than the others. From here I will talk about those linked to go fast, some as a main goal some as a consequence of the challenge (engagement, link, style…).
During those years, some Englishmen also went very fast, in 1864, the guide Fréderik Morshead climbed Mont Blanc in 16 hours and a half from the town of Chamonix, and a few years later, in 1898, the Chamonix guides arrange a race to its summit. Ascent times dropped rapidly. In 1910 the guides Alfred Couttet and Joseph Bouchard went up and down Mont Blanc in just 12 hours.
The Pyrenean Henri Brulle, who was the precursor of the difficulty climbing in the pyrenees and author of first ascents such as the Couloir de Gaube at Vignemale or the North Face of the Taillon, among other first’s and winter ascents, also left his footprint in the Alps when he climbed during the summer of 1883 Meije in a single day and two years later repeated the feat to the Dru. When this mountain had only three ascents, on a trip to the Alps where he had climbed to peaks like Matterhorn, Dent Blanche or Mont Blanc, he left Chamonix walking and climbed to the summit of the Dru to go down again before the sun was off. Few years later, Brulle leaves mountaineering and for two decades he dedicates himself to the breeding of horses, until entering the old age returns to the mountains, climbing once a year to the Mont Blanc until 1936, with 82 For years, he died at Chamonix hospital after a last attempt interrupted by cold and freezing at his feet and hands.
Not only in the more technical mountains we find this voracity to go fast. In the United States, John Muir, one of the precursors of conservation of the environment and natural reserves, also liked to go fast, as his time of little more than 4 hours ago to climb Mount Shasta, 4317m in north California in 1874, beginning a series of attempts and records that have continued until today.
The dificulty and first expeditions
What then had to be conquered when almost all the peaks of the Alps had risen? Consider mountaineering simply reaching the highest point is a very short sighted vision of the activity. It was then that mountaineers who had been part of this golden age went to new goals, ascending more difficult routes, climbing the most vertical walls to the tops that had already been conquered during the previous decades. A visionary ahead of his time, Albert F. Mummery, was the first to direct mountaineering towards this new dimension. During the last years of the 19th century, he climbed difficult routes such as the Aiguille du Grepon, the Grands Charmoz or the Zmutt ridge at Matterhorn, and after mastering the technical climbing in the Alps, in 1895, in a very light style, without artificial oxygen, and no knowledge of the altitude and without porters he went to Pakistan and tried to climb for the first time at an 8000m summit, the Nanga Parbat. During a walk to recognize the mountain an avalanche took Mummery and the two Gurkhas that accompanied him. It was not until 58 years later that mountaineer Hermann Buhl managed to climb the Nanga Parbat.
A young disciple of Mummery, the Duke of Abruzos, with whom he had climbed Matterhorn, continued his journey of exploration to great ranges, climbing Mount San Elias in Alaska, or attempting K2 and Chogolisa at Karakorum . During the beginning of the 20th century, the highest summits of the American continent were conquered and the first expeditions went to the Asian giants.
In the race for the conquest of the Himalayas giants, it was another English who took over from Mummery. George Mallory was undoubtedly the one that put more effort and preparation and was known for the first attempts at Everest in the years 1922 and 1924, when he died trying the summit in a last attempt with Irvin, a specialist in oxygen bottles. They was last seen around the second step of the northern edge, over 8600m. Much less well-known, but no less important, was the attempt by Norton and Somervell, who along with Mallory and Irvin were part of the British expedition in 1924. In early June, the two British climbers, accompanied by 4 porters mounted a height camp at 8170m on the northern ridge. On the morning of June 4 the porters went down to the base camp and Norton and Somervell left their tent without artificial oxygen bottles towards the top. It was half a day when Somervell, exhausted by the effect of height, decided to stop. Norton continued crossing diagonally across rocky and snowy areas until reaching the great couloir that has been named since hime. Somervell, waiting, took one of the most iconic photographs of the history of mountaineering. In it, Norton is seen trying to climb in a field of frosty rock and fresh snow, with the summit pyramid of Everest right in front of him. At an altitude of 8570m, less than 300m from the summit, he had to make a half turn when encountering a too difficult terrain. It wasn’t until more than 50 years later than somebody stepped up this height without the use of artificial oxygen, when Messner and Habeler climbed Everest in 1978.
German born American climber Fritz Wiessner lead a small expedition in the spring of 1939 to climb K2 with only 5 apinists, one millionaire, Dudley Wolfe who financed the expedition, and 5 porters. They decide to do a long attempt via what became lately the normal route and in 29 days in the mountain they reached 8000m, where they stablishec the IX camp! at that point only 3 climers are on the mountain; Fritz, Dudley and Pasang Dawa Lama. While Dudley rests at camp VIII, Fritz and Pasang Dawa make a summit attempt. After surpassing the bottleneck via a difficult rock band of V class they reached 8390m. It seems that the route to the summit is open and they have only 230m of easy terrain. While Fritz prepared to push on, Pasang refused to follow. Since they could not get back to camp before sunset, he was afraid the mountain spirits would prevent their returning. Although Fritz might have continued on alone, he would not abandon his companion. They decide to go to the camp and attack the next day with the route opened. Circumstances (Pasang lost a crampon, they decided to get another in the lower camps but those had been removed because their companions thought they were dead) made that they coudn’t do that attempt the next days. They did all that without supplemental Oxygen.
However, these expeditions to high mountains were very expensive and long, only possible by very few climbers, and during those years the activity in the “local” mountains evolved towards technical climbing and vertical walls, or trying to repeat routes with the significantly harsh conditions of winter or alone or climbing faster.
In the Alps during that time it was normal the use pitons and carabiners to hang up and help to overcome the most vertical walls. The conquest of the great walls was often the result of long expeditions with numerous people and technical means. In this environment grew one of the climbers who would most influence the following generations. The german, Paul Preuß, was the first to preach and practice mountaineering not based on using all the means, including add climbing, available to achieve a summit, but that difficulties should only be surpass by elevating the skills of the climber. Preuß said that a climber only had to undertake the climbs in which he could climb and descend without the need of other means than his own body “The art of tmasters is based on self-limiting.” With this philosophy he climbed for the first time some of the most complicated walls of the Dolomites such as the Campanile Basso, and he continued climbing faithfully to his ethics until he fell in 1913 while attempting a very difficult solo climb. Despite this fatality, he marked some principles that have guided many climbers to this day.
One of the other great pioneers of climbing was the Italian Emilio Commici, who during the 1930s revolutionized rock climbing with its ascents of great difficulty or climbing alone, or both at the same time. And if we look at the summit notebooks we can see annotations with the times in which he made his ascents. In 1937, a year after repeating alone the climb of Preuß at Campanile Basso, climbing up and down in little more than an hour, he wrote down part of the history of climbing in one of these Notebooks, the one at Cima Grande de Lavaredo “On the North wall, in three hours and three quarters, climbing alone”. Commici, like Preuß, dispensed the usual equipment at the time to realize his climbs, accepting a commitment towards the risks and doing something more than it seemed possible, converting his ideas in facts. He built a large part of the bases of climbing as we know it today, climbing things that were unknown, and to achieve this by introducing training in smaller and accessible crags and boulders before carrying it on large walls, and inventing new systems to progress more quickly and safely, like the rappel system.
During this first half of the twentieth century mountaineering was a national(ist) affair; In the Alps, culminating with the first ascents of the North faces of Matterhorn by the Schmid brothers, the Grandes Jorasses by Ricardo Cassin and the Eiger by the team of Heckmair in the 30s this ascents were lived and celebrated as national victories, and the expeditions to conquer the highest summits in the world were organized and carried out as military conquests. The important thing was to put the flag of his country for the first time on a virgin summit, to show in some way the greatness and power of the nation. During this decade the first 8000’ers were climbed, starting in the Annapurna conquered by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal in 1950 until Shisha Pagnma in 1964 climbed by a large Chinese expedition. Even the competitions on the mountain were reserved for the soldiers, the Troffeo Mezzalama in Italy since 1933, or the Patrouille dels Glaciers, which began in 1943, or the ski mountaineering in the Olympic Games were a kind of biathlon with skiers in armed patrols). In this context, the Austrian Hermann Buhl was a visionary. Buhl performed solo activities very advanced at his time. One morning in 1952 he left his house in Innsbruck and cycle the 250 kilometers that separated the city from Pitz Badile before climbing its Nord-east face in just 6 hours before returning home. The following year he became the first man to climb to the top of the Nanga Parbat, of 8125m, alone and without oxygen.
During the decades that followed Gaston Rebuffat, Lionel Terray, Raymond Lambert, Walter Bonatti, Toni Egger, Chris Bonington and René Desmaison among others made continuously evolving climbing techniques both in rock and snow and ice allowing them to climb through places that before they seemed impossible. Walter Bonatti, one of the best mountaineers in history, climbed wearing the most purist of Preuß’s ethics in the big walls of ice and rock of the Alps, looking for the maximum difficulty, often alone or during the winter. His ultimates climbs it showed his master, climbing in solitary opening new routes in the west face of Dru or the North face of Matterhorn. Bonatti showed his desire for this mountaineering writing “With the use of all the means necessary to overcome any difficulty at any cost, the climber is destroying a precious energy source that has always been at the base of any human conquest: the fascination for the impossible; the impossible that united to what is unknown has inspired the sense of adventure.”
Lionel Terray, writer of the brilliant book titled with the best description of mountaineering” the conquistadors of the useless”, and his partner Louis Lachenal were very strong physically and climbed the most difficult routes of the Alps in record time. At the end of the 40s they climbed routes that usually took three or four days for the best climbers in a single day. Incredible is its ascent of the North Face of the Pitz Badile in just 7 hours and a half or also the northern Spur of the Droites in 8 hours.
On the Italian side, Pellisier climbed in little more than 8 hours and a half the Leone ridge in Matterhorn during 1946, and the same year the swiss Dieter Marchard climbed for the first time alone the Matterhorn north face in only 5 hours. The following year, another Swiss, Michel Darbellay realized solo ascents incredible at that time such as the Pilar Bonatti at the Dru, opened by Walter Bonatti a few years earlier, in only 12 hours, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey in just 6 hours and three years later he climbed for the first time the north face of the Eiger alone in a single day. One of the other big names for the solo and winter climbs was the Italian Alessandro Gogna who at the end of the sixties made the first solitaires on the Walker of the Grandes Jorasses or the Grand Capucin among others.
At the same time, in the Dolomites , alpinists climb rock walls that a few years before were seen impossible, and some also do it alone, at great speed, allowing them to climb several walls in a single day. In 1961 a Belgian in love with the Dolomites, Claudio Barbier, link alone and in one day the 5 northern walls of the Cime di Lavaredo, writing down in his personal notebook the passage times at each peak and at the foot of each wall. Speed enter in mountaineering and climbing as a way to be more efficient, to climb more and make possible ascents before unthinkable.
A moment arrived where the level of the ascents were so high that to push these limits the mountaineers began to focus much more on specific activities, becoming specialists in rock climbing, ice climbing, big walls, steep ski, technical alpinism… In the late 1960s This specialization and the influence of more scientific training from other sports and a more studied material for each activity contributed an important leap in each of the facets of mountaineering.
Walter Bonatti predicted that “The evolution must consist of transporting to the Himalayas the traditional and glorious technique of the Alps” that he and his companions had used to ascend the difficult routes in the Alps. Until then, in the Himalayas, all the expeditions had been large enterprises with hundreds of porters, dozens of alpinists under the orders of a leader who said who was going up and who had to do each job. Camps were mounted and ropes were fixed to go up and down. And once the mountain was equipped, the team of climbers designated to climb the summit followed this equipped route. This had been the way to climb Mont Aiguille by De Ville or Mont Blanc in their first attempts. But now that in the Alps the climbers sought to climb through each wall of rock and ice and ascended the normal routes of the mountains as training, it was time to take this style to Himalayas. Apart from the ascension of Hermann Buhl in Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak by the same Buhl along with Kurt Diemberger no other ascents in alpine style had been made.
The alpine style consists of leaving the Base Camp with all the necessary material to go up in the backpack, climb to the top in a push, putting the tent at night to sleep and disassemble-it the next morning to continue climbing, without leaving no mark on the mountain more than the footprints. Neither fixed strings, nor artificial oxygen, nor porters that carry the material or installed camps.
The person who brought the Alpine style to the Himalayas was Reinhold Messner and not just once, but during the 70s and 80s all peaks of more than 8000 meters were ascended for him in this style. Messner was an exceptional climber as a young man, performing alone or with his brother Günther the most difficult itineraries of the Dolomites. In the year 1960, with only 25 years Reinhold appeared alone in the refuge of Argentière, in Chamonix, and under the astonished gaze of the best French climbers of the moment he climbed alone equipped with an ice-axe and a piton who used as a dagger the north face of the Droites in just 8 hours. That wall had only been surpassed three times before, always in team effort and for at least two days of ascent, and it was considered the most difficult climb of that time in Chamonix. Four years later, with the Austrian Peter Habeler, he climbed the north face of the Eiger in only 10h.
It is precisely with Habeler that Messner achieved the first climb to a summit of more than 8000m completely in alpine style, in 1975 at Gasebrum I. 3 years later, still with Habeler they manage to reach the summit of Everest without oxygen. At that time many scientists said it was impossible to survive so high altitude without the use of artificial oxygen. The same year he returns to the Nanga Parbat, where 8 years before on his first experience in the Himalayas he had lost his brother after climbing for the first time the Rupal face, and achieve the first 8000 climbed alone from the Base Camp. In 1980, he made one of the most spectacular ascents ever made in the Himalayas: alone, during monsoon season, he climbed Mount Everest from the north side, opening a variant to access the Norton couloir and being the first person to crown his summit alone and without oxygen. To achieve all this, apart from mental strength and determination of steel and a futuristic vision, Messner trained in a specific way, running and climbing to achieve not only technical but physical capacity for these challenges. It is said that training this ascent to Everest alone he run in approximately 35 minutes 1000m of elevation, a very good time considering that the best specialists nowadays do it in about 30 minutes!
In the early eighties together with Hans Kammerlander they made some anthology ascents as the first link of two 8000m peaks without descending to the Base Camp, when in 1984 they climbed the tops of Gashebrum I and II. Two years later he managed to be the first person to climb the 14 peaks of 8000m, all in alpine style.
But despite being primarily known for its ascents to the 14 peaks of more than 8,000 meters, Reinhold Messner also did many activities in other mountain ranges, such as Denali where he opened a new variant of climb (the route had been skiing a few years before for the “father” of the steep ski Sylvain Saudan, but never climbed) Also on the south face of Aconcagua and one of the most difficult routes Messner says has made, Climbing the Breach Wall in Kilimanjaro in 1978 together with Konrad Renzler. On a wall that is compared to the north face of the Eiger for its frozen rock and ice runners of VI degree, climbing it in just 12 hours. From that time on, he left the edge of mountaineering and started to do long-distance expeditions and crossings from the Antarctic to large deserts.
In the Alps in the 70’s and 80’s it was a period of frenetic activity regarding speed mountaineering. At that time climbing and ski mountaineering competitions were becoming popular, and a new generation of mountaineers participating in them were growing their technical and physical capacities to incredible levels and started to break the rules of what it was done before: Climbing the most technical routes solo, without any protection, and linking peaks and walls with helicopter, paragliding or skis. This period also coincides with a phenomenon of mediatization of mountaineering, with the technological means to be able to film, the indiscriminate use of helicopters, the creation of climbing or ski mountaineering competitions creating champions and the interest of the media to show spectacular images of supermen’s playing their lives and bringing to the mass public for the first time live images from the summits of the Alps. This walls become not only the field of play and training for those climbers but also a media stage, where mountaineers accept the role of stars by shooting television ads, bringing the logo of their sponsors in their jackets or even filming their most extreme promotions live for the general public. Figures such as Boivin, Escoffier, Proffit or Edlinger will be the most representative of this generation who from teenagers climbed very hard and had not fear.
Before this mediatization period, we should point out some ascents that already pointed in this direction, such as the chaining of the Bonatti-Gobbi routes to Pilier d’Ange with the ridge of Peuterey made in 1975 by Nicolas Jaeger in solitaire, surprising on the way some of the best climbers of the time. It is also to mention the first solo climb’s during the winter of the three most emblematic north faces of the Alps (Jorasses, Eiger, Matterhorn), which during the 77 and 78 saw two climbers, the Italo-French Ivano Ghirardini and the Japanese Tsunéo Hasegawa climbing the three summits in one season in a very rapid way.
One of the most incredible link-up at that time, for his young age and the difficulties, was the one performed by Thierry Volpiatto, who, at just 17 years old, left Chamonix to climb the north face of the Jorasses alone via the Walker route, and the central Pilar of Freney in the Mont Blanc. These great routes, with epic first ascents, part of the golden pages of mountaineering, were no longer reserved for climbers with a great baggage. An adolescent boy had come to show that for new generations those routes would be their training and playing ground.
One of the people who best illustrates this era of multi-activity and probably the first mediatic climber of this era was Jean-Marc Boivin. Born far away from the mountains in the city of Dijon, he begins to rock climb and participate in alpine skiing competitions where he gets good results before moving to the Alps and begin to make a name in the world of mountaineering with his solo ascents during the 1970s, being very fast on routes with great difficulty such as Lagarde-Ségogne in just four and a half hours, the Bonatti-Zapelli in the Grand Piler d’Ange, the Couloir Linceul in the Grand Jorasses in less than 3 hours, the north face of Matterhorn in little more than 4 hours or the north face of the Eiger exiting for the very difficult Harlin route in seven and a half hours, to name only a few.
He started making incredible link-ups, first the northern faces of Verte, Droites and the Supercouloir in Tacul together with Patrick Gabarrou, one of the great openers of difficult rock and ice routes from the seventies to the present and a very versatile athlete, mountain guide, extreme skier and also french champion of ski mountaineering in the late 80’s.
Precisely in 1980, Boivin, along with Patrick Berhault, one of the best rock climbers at that time, made an incredible link-up climbing the southern face of the Aiguille du Fou in less than six hours to fly in a delta wing to the foot of the Dru and climb the American direct. But if something characterized Boivin was the exploration of new ways of playing with the mountain beyond the traditional climbing and mountaineering. In 1980 the climbs the Matterhorn and ski down its east face, it was the first ski descent of the mountain. When he arrives down he crosses to the north face and climbs-it in four hours before flying down with a delta wing. A few years later he would climb the Albioni-Gabarrou again to Tacul in solo, ski down for the first time on the South face, climb the Kuffner ridge to Mont Maudit and ski the same ridge for the first time. It was not enough to open new descents with skis or performing the first solitary ascents but had to chain them, turn it over and find a unique and explosive combination. Jean-Marc continued to carry out these increasingly innovative activities for a couple of decades, first in the Alps and then in South America and in the Himalayas, opening numerous extreme ski descents to the Alps, such as the mythical Nant Blanc in Aiguille Verte and numerous 6000’ers from South America at the same time he was looking for new ways to fly, such as the BASE jump, the delta and becoming the first person to fly with a paraglider from the summit of Everest in 1988. Two years later he was practicing BASE jumping for a television show in the highest waterfall on the planet, Salto del Angel, in Venezuela when in one of these jumps he collided and died.
To give an idea of the futuristic ideas of this generation, in 1986, Bruno Gouvy jumped by parachute from a helicopter to land, or rather fall more or less well, to the narrow summit of Petit Dru, only a few meters wide, rappel down to half of its north face where there is a snow cap with a inclination of 45 degree with a 500 meters vertical wall below. He slipped his snowboard and skied until the snow was finished, and jump with a paraglider and fly to Chamonix.
Gouvy and Boivin had the idea of bringing this combination of parachute jumping to the summit of Everest before ski down, but the operation failed before beginning when in a preparatory jump, Gouvy jumped from a helicopter almost 9000 meters high and had the bad luck to land in a military camp in Nepal. But with these facts we can see the vision they had when using different sports and techniques to explore and do activities in the mountains from all corners.
In those years it will be two young guys born in the south of France that will make the free climbing and the solo (climbing without protection) popular in Europe. The two called Patrick, Berhault and Edlinger, who since the late 70’s make the first 7c and 8th grade climbs in the old continent and with their films such as “La Vie au bout des doigts” and “Opera Vertical” will became popular as rock stars and discover rock climbing to a large public.
The two together will make some of the most popular link-ups in the early eighties, climbing very difficult routes at Verdon and the massif of the Ecrins at high speed. From then on they follow somewhat different paths; while Berhault takes the direction of the big mountains and the terrain of the mountaineering, renouncing to the climbing competitions and promoting a humanistic and ecological mountaineering that brings together man and nature, making great voyages in the Alps, America or Himalayas without any locomotive means, such as the crossing of the Mont Blanc massif in 1991 linking the most difficult rock itineraries or in 1997 with his friend Francis Bibollet when in one week they climb the northern faces of the same Chamoniard massif. Later on he did his crossings in the Ecrins, the Aravis and the year 2000 “La gran traversée des Alpes” sometimes alone and some parts accompanied by friends for 167 days that took him from Slovenia to Menton climbing the more iconic routes and walls on the way. Finally in 2004, together with Philippe Magnin, they imagine to link the 82 peaks of more than 4000 meters of the Alps, using skis to go from one peak to another. Almost at the end of the trip, on the edge between the Täshorn and the Dom in Switzerland, a fall caused his death.
Edlinger, known as “le blond” for his blonde long hair and athletic body, continued in the sports climbing competition, winning the majority of competitions he was participating and making more solo climbs. The popularization and his style on the rock place him as one of the most influential climbers of history and crossed this barrier of the mountain public becoming the favorite personality of the French during the 80s.
One of its rivals in the sports climbing competitions was the also frenchman Eric Escoffier. With a completely different personality, If Edlinger or Berhault represented meditation and harmony, Escoffier was the attack and acceleration. Eric was an incredible strong climber but he was restless and wanted to do and try everything; From solo climbing, to large alpine walls, 8000 meters summits, fly with delta or paragliding and even he was participating in car rallis. During the 80’s his activity was frantic. Installed at Chamonix, he made incredible climbs and link-ups almost daily. He climbed the north face of Droites in only 8 hours, the Gabarrou-Albioni goulotte in two and a half hours, the Linceul in 2 hours just, the American direct in 3 hours or the northern couloir of Drus in 8 hours among many others. He made also link ups of great difficulty and thanks to his climbing skills he could go at high speed. He climbed the Cental Pillar of Freney and of Ange in one day, the Croz and Walker spurs at the Jorasses. And in just over 10 hours, along with Daniel Lacroix, the American direct and Pilar Bonatti at Dru. He link also the north faces of the Argentière glacier, the Envers des Aiguilles, the Dru again via the American Direct and flies to the Jorasses to climb the Walker. In the Himalayas it touches the top of three 8000 in only twenty days, with the Gashebrum I and II and the K2.
In 1987 Escoffier wanted to be the first to chain the three great north faces of the Alps alone and in winter. It was a big filming crew installed in the mountains, with a helicopter following it and taking him from each summit to the bottom of the next face. He starts climbing the north of the Eiger. Four hours before him, another young climber entered the wall with the same idea. It was Christophe Profit, who was also followed by a television and helicopter team. The public sees this as a competition between the two almost in live. With interviews when they reach each peak and images for posterity. Profit, showing incredible fitness and talent climb the Jorasses, the Eiger and the Matterhorn in just over 40 hours. For Escoffier things don’t go so well and after climbing the Eiger slower than Profit and many problems in the matterhorn where with bad conditions the night caught him in the middle of the wall without shelter nor frontal and he call the helicopter to go down down and decides to retire from this race that the medias has created.
Escoffier continues with its exalted activity and the list would be endless but it break suddenly when that same year he suffered a car accident that left him hemiplegic. He went back slowly to walk in the mountains, but the aftermath of the accident does not allow him to climb at the rhythm and difficulty of before and he decides to go climbing in highest peaks, until he loses his life at Broad Peak.
Christophe Profit, with a calm and meticulous personality, made the leap to fame in 1982, when at 21 years old he solo climb for the first time the route American direct in Dru west face. This is a wall of 800 meters and difficulties maintained up to 6c in a terrain of high mountain. Profit, equipped with only a pair of climbing shoes, a chalk bag and a small backpack with a walkman and a sweater climbs in 3 hours and 10 minutes to the summit, impressing the strongest climbers of the moment. During the years that follow, he continues to climb very fast, as the Peuterey Ridge alone in 32 hours, or the chaining of the 3 north faces of Eiger, Matterhorn and Jorasses, first in summer in 22 hours and after the aforementioned winter. Profit takes this technical climbing in the Himalayas, with a first ascent of the North West ridge of K2 with Pierre Béghin and attempts on the south face of Lhotse. Profit is a highly versatile profile, strong rock climber, great alpinist in the Alps and Himalayas, and also participating in competitions such as the Pierra Menta in the first editions or ultra-trail races later on, combining it with his profession of mountain guide.
In the following years, young climbers like the Austrian Thomas Bubendorfer appear on the scene with stoning solo climbs. First in the dolomites and then the record on the north face of the Eiger in less than 5 hours, and the French Benoït Grison, Fred Vimal or Alain Ghersen, strong climbers on rock and with alpinist mentality who eat the most difficult routes of the alps before breakfast. It is precisely in a fast ascent to the Walker to the Great Jorasses that Ghersen is climbing under the camera’s when an 18-year-old boy pass him with an apology in case he bothers him on his climb and film. This young man is Carlos Súarez, a Madrilenian boy who, despite being a tallented rock climber, is in his first trip to Chamonix in the summer of 1990 and climb the Walker in only 6 hours. Súarez comes from a generation of rock climbers who at Edlinger’s image dares with more difficult and more exposed solos. He climbs 8th grade routes without rope and the 500 vertical meters of the Ravada-Navarro in Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Uriellu) also in solo. Súarez will continue to make fleeting ascents on the alpine walls such as the Pilier Gervasutti in 4 hours or the Cassin route to Pitz Badile in only 50 minutes, before combining with base jumping and solo base.
It was also during that period that Mont Blanc was the scene of a off “competition” to see who was the fastest to go up and down from Chamonix. With the church established as a starting point, runners equipped with athletic shoes with crampons on top or with track shoes and shorts, t-shirt and windbreaker jackets flow through the glaciers and slide down on the ass or belly at full speed. The 12 hours of Alfred Coutet in 1938 fell quickly, first Jean Marie Bourgeois and René Secrétant in 1968 did it in less than 9 hours and 2 years later Réné Arpin and Paul Chassagne in less than 8. During the 86’s and 87’s, In summer almost every week someone tried to do it faster. Pierre Cusin, Thierry Gazan, Laurent Smagghe and finally the Swiss Pierre André Goblet will take down the chronometer until 5 hours 10 minutes.
On the Italian side alpinists also run to the summits. In 1988 the Italian guide Valerio Bertoglio raced Mont Rosa from Gresoney in 5 hours and 29 minutes and two years later he made stratospheric time of 4 hours 16 minutes to go from Cervinia to the summit of Matterhorn and return to Cervinia. Marino Giacometti, a strong mountaineer from Valtellina, linked difficult routes in the Palù-Bernina group and made a year later that Bertoglio the ascent to Mont Rosa from Alagna in less than 4 hours. The same year he climbed the Pumori, 7160 meters, in just 12 hours. In 1990, together with Fornoni, they run from Courmayeur to the summit of the Mont Blanc and back in just over 12 hours. From the following year, Giacometti organized a race following this route, being the seed of what would become a few years the “Skyrunning”. It was precisely one of the disciples of Giacometti, the also Italian Bruno Brunod, who perform a stratospheric time at Matterhorn, climbing up and down in 3 hours and 14 minutes in 1995.
Although the most media and public attention was very focused on what the French climbers did around Chamonix, in the rest of the Alps many climbers followed this trend of link and fast ascents.
In the Swiss Alps, the brothers Salamin climbed the 4 ridges of Weisshorn in 7 hours and a half in 1981, and in the neighbor Matterhorn, if in 1966 Réné Arnold and Sepp Graven had already climbed their 4 ridges in a long day, during the eighties Marco Barmasse did it in only 15 hours. A few years later, Hans Kammerlander, who was Messner’s expedition partner, with Diego Welling climbed up and down all four ridges in 24 hours.
During those years, the Swiss André Georges impresses with his link-ups in the Valais Alps: The 4 ridges of Dent Blanche in 16 hours, the Couronne Imperiale linking 5 summits of more than 4000 meters keeping in the ridge between Dent Blanche and Bishorn in little more than 22 hours. With Erhard Loretan they enlarge this crown to make all the summits around Zermatt without going down the edge, linking 38 peaks of 4000 meters. Erhard, along with the strong Jean Troillet will do one of the most effective team in both the Alps and the Himalayas.
In the Dolomites, the same tendency is followed and we can find Franco Nicolini, mountain guide and hut keeper, combining the ski mountaineering competitions at high level mountain, including races such as Mezzalama or Sellaronda and great mountaineering and climbing. Between the 85s and 90s, he link the 15 towers of Kiene on a day during winter, the Via Dolomiteu, climbing the 15 main summits of the Brenva massif in 13 hours. Then Nicolini moved this speed to the Himalayas by climbing peaks such as the Cho Oyu or its dolomites linking 105 peaks over 3000 meters in a 50-day roll.
Englishmen Martin Moran and Simon Jenkins will make the first Alps crossing in 1993 climbing all their summits of more than 4000 meters in 52 days, although they only count the 75 main summits and not the secondary needles and summits, they show a clean style without using any means of transport, because they cross the valleys between summits with bicycle or foot, moving away of the use of helicopters so popular in those years. It will not be until 2008 that Franco Nicolini together with Diego Giovannini repeated it by climbing the 82 summits and peaks in 60 days, also with self-powered transportation.
In those years, if a group of mountaineers managed to make a little shade, at an alpinistic level, to the fast accomplishments and the link-ups of the center-alpine’s these were the Slovenes. Without the media attention and the means of the french, this climbers from a country with great financial difficulties just before Yugoslavia’s independence were very prolific in both the Julian and Western Alps.
Silvo Karo, who at the beginning of the eighties had carried out large-scale activities alone, such as the chaining of three of the most difficult climbing routes in Slovenia, the north face of Triglav of 1000 meters, the 800 meters north wall of Travnik downclimbing after another 500 meter route, all of VI degree. He trained on these walls climbing 500m in less than half an hour and developp a way of training and climbing mountains that was followed in slovenian mountaineering from the 80s in the Alps and the 90s in the Himalayas. Later on, in 2006, Silvo will climb the difficult Eternal Flame to the Nameless Tower, in Pakistan just in just one day.
It was summer of 1981 when a young Franček Knez was traveling by car in the Alps and climbed the three great north faces, with the north face of the Eiger in only 6 hours, which was a record at that time. Along with the aforementioned Silvo Karo and with Janez Jeglič they formed a well-known team named “the three musketeers” and in their trips to Himalayas and Patagonia they make some of the most difficult new routes, such as the Trango Tower, the Bagitathi III and the spectacular western ridge of Everest and the South face of Lhotse. Knez, known by the nickname of the silent climber, became a star within Slovenian mountaineering because of the visionary way of seeing mountaineering, especially rock climbing, of which, from its numerous openings , more than 800, many are still unrepeatable due to their great difficulty.
But it was Tomo Česen the best known internationally among them. His achievements, were undoubtedly a revulsion in the world of mountaineering, without being exempt from controversy. In 1985 Česen arrived in Chamonix and in a single push he climbed 2 routes in the north of Grandes Jorasses, the Walker and the difficult Colton-Mc Intyre. The following year the three great north faces in winter and alone in one week. That was one year before the 42 hours of Profit, but in this case he does not use helicopters to go from peak to peak but instead climbs up and down the mountains on foot and use his car to go from one town to another. The same year it comes the first controversy when he claim the first repetition of the No Siesta route on the north side of Grandes Jorasses in just 14 hours to climb the 1200 meter of extreme difficulties of 6a + A2, 90 ° witch had been opened during three days the previous year. Nobody could believe that he had done it in less than a day. On the same trip, he climbed the north couloir of Dru, also a great difficulty in 7 hours. After rock climbing alone and in winter hard routes as Tempi Moderni at the Marmolada in 7 hours or the Black Diedre at Tavinik in 8h, he focus his attention to the Himalayas with the ascents of the “Cesen” Route at K2, climbed alone in 1986, and the controversial ascents due to lack of evidence in Jannu north face in 1989 and South Face of the Lhotse in 1990, both in a single push of 23h and 63h respectively.
Much more unknown was Miroslav Slavko Svetičič, of the same generation that the previous climbers, who made a huge amount of activities during the second half of the eighties and early nineties. After years of climbing in Slovenia, in 1984 he left his work as metallurgist to dedicate himself exclusively to his passion. That same summer in less than 10 days he repeats the north faces of Eiger, Jorasses and Matterhorn, all at great speed. During the years to come, between the expeditions to the Himalayas and to Patagonia, he made 9 ascents at the north side of Grandes Jorasses, opening two new routes and making the first solitaires on dificult routes such as Extreme Dream in 9 hours, the Bonatti-Vaucher in 12 hours, Colton-McIntyre in 7 hours or the goulottes on the north face of Droites, Gavrorou-Boivin and Jackson MacShea in 7 and 4 hours respectively. In 1991, he opened alone and in a single push the Manitua route in 31 hours. The previous year, in an activity that earned him international recognition, he had climbed the 1800m Harlin route for the first time in winter and alone, on the Eiger north face in 26 hours.
Apart from the Alps, Svetičič also did a great activity in hight mountains, such as the opening of the “Roulette Route” on the south face of Aconcagua, with 2000 meters of climbing in 18 hours on a terrain that with the name we can imagine its exposure. In 1995, in a solo attempt on the still virgin central spur of Gasherbrum IV west face, he disappeared without leaving trace.
The Competitions in the USSR
From 1935, under the restrictions to travel from the USSR, mountaineering is organized in the same way as other sports. Under a semi-military structure and a system of selections, they rank in categories the alpinists, from alpinist candidate to Master Of Sport in Mountaineering, that allowed them to participate in the expeditions abroad. In this classification system, they used competitions similar to those of other sports such as athletics or swimming. Every year, the government organized about 20 mountaineering camps throughout the country. At least a dozen of thousands of climbers and climbers participated each year in these camps that lasted almost one month and during which they learned how to go to the mountains. Beginners paid only a small part of the cost and were given free time in their usual place of work to be able to attend the camps. After completing the training and climbing a low difficulty summit they were awarded the level of “Mountaineer of the USSR.”
With this minimum level achieved, they were authorized to participate in the “Climbing and Mountaineering Championships” that were organized from regional to national levels. During this championships, depending on the number of climbs and their difficulty achieved, the alpinist was awarded a rank, “3rd class mountaineer, 2nd class mountaineer, mountaineer…” up to Master of Sport. Those who ranked among the top three in regional competitions could participate in the next level until the Mountaineering and Climbing Championships of the USSR. These championships were organized in the mountain ranges across the country, from Pamir, the Caucasus or Tien Shan. In the championships of the USSR, each of the eight Soviet regions could present climbers to compete. All climbs were made under the observation of judges who were sitting on the base of the mountain watching the climbs and scoring the points that each athlete achieved in each promotion according to speed and difficulty, graduated between 1st and 6th grade (the higher on the Russian grade). If an alpinist reached more than thirty points, he achieved the rank Master of Sport. Approximately one of hundred that initiated the program became MoS. There were several categories and types of competitions, such as rock climbing, big wall climbing, high altitude, first ascents or speed climbing.
Since it was about getting the maximum possible points in a given time, alpinists climbed the routes as difficult and as quickly as possible, and to do more, they climbed day and night. This formed disciplined climbers with huge technique and very strong physically. Once one was Master Of Sport, he could take part in the USSR Championships or the selection tests for an expedition. If they were selected they becoming Honorable Masters Of Sport. The level in this competitions was incredible because only about fifteen or twenty of 150 or 200 participants would be chosen to go to an expedition to the Himalayas, with the prestige that this represented and the doors it could open.
Since the beginning of the 50’s, these competitions were installed. In 1953 there were 150 teams participating in the championships with up to 800 IV and V degree routes climbed, the following year 250 teams and 1200 routes of these difficulties, in 1955 up to 413 teams would climb 1634 difficult routes. Of these routes, some thirty were made to peaks of more than 6,000 meters and another thirty above 7,000 meters. This figure did nothing but increase, with people participating in for pleasure and climbing to easy peaks or also with climbers who wanted to climb new routes or virgin summits.
This system of strict and hierarchical competitions for mountaineering remained until the dissolution of the USSR. In the early eighties Vladimir Balyberdin was an exceptional climber, so much so that he was the only one in the history of the USSR to move directly to International Master Of Sport bypassing the previous requirements and rankings. In 1982, at age 32 he became the most famous climber among the Soviets for the first ascent on the west face of Everest, in the Russian style of the time, setting thousands of meters of fix rope and using oxygen . The rest of the equipment they used was quite rudimentary; Cotton shirts and also cotton altitude tents. When reaching the top of Everest, the first thing he announced on the radio was “Going down … What is the next thing I have to do?”
In 1992 he returned to Everest, climbing it in 3 days from the Base Camp without oxygen and only after just two weeks of acclimatization. But his goal was to try to break the speed record that Marc Batard had set two years before in less than 24 hours. Not being satisfied with his performance, Bal, which is how his teammates called him, tried again and reached 8200 meters in 20 hours, without crampons! because their companions had token them with the rest of the material days before without realizing it.
That same year, Bal went to K2, but by then the times were changing in the Soviet country. With President Gorvachev dismantling the communist system and introducing free market, the government funds for the expeditions had dried out and Bal and his colleagues had to learn to move to the complex world of international alpinism and finance the expeditions. Despite these new difficulties for them, they continued to perform great ascents, and Bal also managed to climb K2, becoming the first Russian to climb the 3 highest peaks on the planet, aside from Everest and K2 in 1989, he participated in the expedition that brought the strongest Russian team together to complete the Kangchenjunga crossing, climbing its 4 main summits in 4 continuous days above 8000 meters.
In this expedition there was also the russian mountaineer most well known internationally, Anatoly Boukreev. This Kazakh of hard factions that contrasted with his blue eyes and his gentle smile grew far from the mountains, practicing cross-country skiing, but despite starting at age 21 at mountaineering he quickly showed his talent and became an international Master Of Sport. In 1987, in a competition, he climbed Lenin Peak (7134 meters) in just 8 hours from its Camp Base, 3000 meters further down, and in the same competition he also climbed Communist peak of 7400 meters, raising a rhythm of 550 meters per hour! That same year he achieved another record in the Elbrus. A record that remains today. This allowed him to be selected to participate in an expedition the following year in the Himalayas, where he made his first trip to the Kangchenjunga and that opened for him international doors to work as a mountain guide for foreign companies. During some free time during those trips as a mountain guide he did some high-speed climbs, such as the West Rib of Denali in 10 hours and a half while their clients rested before climbing. In Russia he continued to make incredible ascents in competitions such as his double ascension to Pobeda Peak of almost 7500 meters in 36 hours and another fleeting ascent to neighbor Khan Tengri.
Anatoly continued his successful career as a mountain guide and speed and dificult climbing for his own account in the Himalayas until he died in Annapurna.
Another climber who reached his place in Kangchenjunga expedition in extremis was Alexander Shejnov “Kirghiz’s”. This exceptional and introvert climber had a predilection for solo climbing, but the enthusiasm for this practice was severely punished by mountaineer authorities (in the competitions aside from speed climbing to summits there was the difficulty competitions where it was necessary to show the knowledge to go quickly in a team and to always go down alive, which promoted and rewarded that the climbers climb using the maximum security as possible in the most technical terrain). Shejnov was expelled from the camps, they removed his rank and recognition of his activities and prohibited him from accessing and climbing a certain number of mountains or routes. But this did not stop him and he continued to climb alone. He lived in a separate camp, ate and climbed alone.
During those solitary years he had made unimaginable ascents such as the Ullu Tau wall in 1 hour 45, the solo climb in the difficult route 7 to the Donguz-Orun in only 12 hours or the only climb in this style of the Bezengi wall to the top of Shkara in 12 hours during the winter, among many other activities of this caliber and style.
For all this, and much despite his rejection of the discipline requested and the persecution by the officers, his talent and ability ended up recognizing him as the best Soviet mountaineer in 1989 and included him in the selection for the Kangchenjunga.
Gleb Sokolov, was one of the dominators of these competitions during the eighties, winning several ascent competitions to Khan Tengri and the other summits of the so-called “Snow Leopard” that encompasses the 7 summits above the 7000m of the USSR : Pic Comunisme, Korzhenevskya, Lenin Peak and Pobeda Peak, where he opened a new route in just 20 hours from the base camp. With the ticket for international expeditions he made important openings to the Himalayas as the Central Lhotse and the difficult direct route on the Everest north face.
During this golden age of the Russian mountaineering in the Himalayas, a young climber named Denis Urubko start to climb. In 1990 he enters the Camps and in a few years he was ahead of the most experienced climbers. In 1995, he made the first traverse between the summits of Mramornaya Stena and Khan Tengri. In mountaineering competitions, he achieved several records in a few summits and before the end of the twentieth century he climbed all the summits of the snow leopard in only 42 days, a record at the time. Then he starts climbing at the Himalayas, achieving the Gasherbrum I in only 7 hours and a half and Gasherbrum II in less than 12 hours.
In 2006, he managed to beat the speed record to Elbrus, the highest climb in the Caucasus and Europe, it in less than 4 hours. After that, Denis focuses on climbing 8000 meters summits where he climb new routes, some fast ascents, and he reach all the 14 8000ers and become a specialist in winter ascents.
Precisely the race at Elbrus is one of the few remaining competitions of this period of Soviet mountaineering competitions. Until the end of the 80’s, if the practice of mountaineering was almost exclusively the official doctrine, the decomposition of the USSR led to a new paradigm for the whole country and also for climbers.
In 1987, during selective competitions for the expedition to the Kangchenjunga that was celebrated that winter at Elbrus and where Alexander Sheynov got a new record, the participants talk after the race and the experienced Vladimir Balyberdin “Bal” began to shape the idea of opening these competitions not only to the climbers who had the rank to be able to participate but to all those who wanted to. Organize a race to climb to a glacier summit, not only as a selection to go expeditions or to achieve a rank but as a goal in itself.
The following year he organized this open race and there were many climbers to point in, but the focus was on the four great climbers who had just returned triumphant from crossing Kanchenjunga. Anatoli Boukreev was the winner of that first edition and a few of the following ones establishing still unbeaten record. Since then, Nick Shustrov has been organizing the race year after year with increasingly international participation and other competitions, such as the Pic Lenin, have been reborn with an important flavor of the nostalgia of those years of Soviet mountaineering.
Although in mountaineering there have always been many less women than men performing leading activities, because during the past times it was not well seen that women did risk sports or solo activities, during the eighties and ninety a few women carry out activities of great commitment and difficulty.
In 1991, a light-eyed French woman born in Algeria surprised the world of mountaineering as she opened a new route to the enormous western face of the Dru, in 11 days under the media focus. Nobody can believe that this climber was alone on such a large and difficult wall. In the previous year, Catherine Destivelle had climbed in free solo, with the exception of a small section, the Bonatti pillar on the same wall in 4 hours. Destivelle, coming from sports climbing and competition, where she won several competitions and was the first woman to climb difficulties of 8th grade, emphasized for her free solo and fast ascents during the seventies and eighties, whether was in the hot rock of the Verdon or Riglos or in the most alpine walls of Oran, Ailefroide or Dru.
From the nineties, she directed her career towards mountaineering, becoming the first woman to climb the three Alps north faces alone and in winter during the years 92 to 94, climbing the Eiger in 17 hours and doing the first repetition of the Bonatti route in Matterhorn north face.
One of Destivelle rivals on the first competitions was the American Lynn Hill, also one of the first to climb eighteenth grade, she revolutionized the world of climbing when in 1993 was the first person to free climb the famous The Nose on El Captain in Yosemite, and repeat it immediately in less than a day climbing all the pitches. “It goes boys”!
In the summer of 1995, a young British woman, Alison Hargreaves, after climbing Everest without oxygen or assistance, became the first person to climb alone in one summer the 6 most important north faces of the Alps, a concept created by Gaston Rebuffat in his book Étoiles et Tempêtes. In the trilogy of Eiger, Cerví and Jorasses they are added those of Piz Badile, Cima Grande di Lavaredo and Aiguille du Dru. Alisson climbed them all in just a few months. Relinquishing chronos within reach of very few, like 2 and a half hours at Linceul, 5 and a half at Matterhorn for a total of 23 hours and a half for the six faces! A few years earlier, Alison had climbed the Eiger north face 6-month pregnant of her first child, Tom. Under the criticism of the people, asking how it could be that it endangers the life of his son in this way, she responded “I was pregnant, not sick.”
Fast and Light in the Himalaya’s
“As we pack our gear for our attempt on Annapurna south face, we do so in the knowledge that one day, in the not too distant future, some lad will be packing half as much or less and setting off to climb the wall in a timetable beyond our comprehension, backed by a methodology and understanding of the environment that we do not have today. Our lightweight sacks will be like dinosaurs. The Himalaya will, for a few at least, become an alpine playground, while the waiting millions watch!” These lines were written down in the notebook in which Englishman Alex MacIntyre wrote his daily reflections that came to his mind during the expedition in the 1982 fall where, together with René Ghilini and John Porter, they were ready to attempt this complicated wall of more than 2000 meters in alpine style for the first time. Alex, who during the previous years had purified the Alpine style in big difficulties in the Alps and then exported to the Himalayas, understood speed and lightness as a way of achieving challenges in high mountains in this style and being the least time possible exposed to dangers. He studied and designed his own equipment, backpacks and tents to reduce its weight. This time, however, the lack of material played a bad pass when him and René came to a vertical and slab wall in the central part of the face. With the only two pitons they wore they could not keep going up and had to go down. Unfortunately, while they rappelled, a stone hit Alex’s head and he fall and left us unknowingly where he had been able to put his ideas into practice. 20 years later, a Swiss man met MacIntyre’s predictions, climbing the wall alone equipped only with what he was carrying on and in a non-stop shoot of 28h.
But we are not moving ahead of events. Two years after the attempt of McIntyre and Ghilini two Catalans appeared at the foot of the South wall of the Annapurna. With only 23 and 26 years old, Enric Lucas and Nil Bohigas, were accompanied by two girlfriends and little equipment. They mounted a camp at the foot of the face and start climbing surrounding peaks to acclimatize and wait for good conditions in the mountain to climb. And they did climb-it, as Enric said: “We made the Annapurna because we did not know it was impossible before leaving Barcelona.” This was the first great difficulty climb in alpine style on a 8000m peak, and it was made by two climbers without experience at high altitudes, although both were strong climbers in rock and ice and also very strong runners and skiers. They had shown it in the Pyrenees and the Alps by ridging dificult ridges and peaks only equipped with running shoes while participating in mountain running or skiing competitions.
If during the 70s Messner had been the great protagonist in the Himalayas, the eighties were dominated by Polish climbers, who during those years turned that decade into the most prolific in terms of activity of difficulty and commitment to the highest summits of the Himalayas and Pakistan. But the price was very high, since a good part of these pointing climbers also left their lives. With whom he was the second after Messner to complete the 14 eight-thousandths, Jerzy Kukuczka at the front. He made numerous first ascents to all the hight summits, often in winter or alone. With him it was Voytec Kurtyka, capable of free solo climbing 7c +, make first ascents in the Alps, Himalayas or Norway during the winter, and in Karakorum and Himalayas he brought the most alpine style to climb the most difficult routes in those giants, with ascents still today without repeating. Krzysztof Wielicki, a specialist in winter ascents (from the 14 to eight thousand that he climbed, three were the first winter ascents) was the first to go up and down an eight thousand in a day, in 1984 at the Broad Peak: in 16 hours to the summit from the base camp and 6 to came down, while his companions Kurtyka and Kukucka were opening a new route to the mountain. Wieliki continued to make fast ascents; in 1990 he made a first ascent on the south east face of the Daulagiri in only 16 hours alone and three years later another new route on the south face of the Shishapangma in a single day.
Two Swiss mountain guides, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet surprised the world of mountaineering in 1986 when they climbed the Hornbein couloir in Everst north face in a not stop push of 43 hours from the foot of the mountain to the summit and back, during monsoon season. For the descent, due to the big amount of snow they went down using the backpacks like sleighs to be able to go faster and more safely. An ascent of this magnitude was only possible thanks to its great physical shape and technical capacity, making them pioneers of express ascents in difficult routes, creating a very efficient style: climbing without rest, day and night, without tent, nor sleeping bags and with very little food to go lighter. If the terrain allowed them, they climbed at night, since moving during the night avoided having to carry sleeping bags and extra clothes to withstand the cold. That concept completely disturbed the mentality and mountaineering rules until then, where by common sense people slept at night and climbed or descended during the day, with warmer temperatures and visibility. The non-stop ascents that Erhard called “naked night” were surely absurd and dangerous from the point of view of the time, but without a doubt, to achieve a new level, things until then absurd must be done. Although climbing at night in very technical sections was complicated as it is necessary to see well to know where to progress and it slowed the pace, in a favorable terrain there was a great advantage, because with the cold nights, the risks of rock falling or small avalanches due to the heat of the sun were much lower.
Troillet, of strong complexion and extraordinary physical ability had already made fleeting ascents for a long time. In 1973, when he was only 21, he climbed with Jean-Pierre Frossard the Matterhorn north face in only 4 hours and 10 minutes. After several bigwall ascents he discovered the Himalayas in the eighties where he made new routes to peaks such as K2 or Dhaulagiri, precisely with Loretan. After this it should be noted that during the 90s he returned to the Everest north face, where he made a snowboard descent from 8700 meters by the same Hornbein couloir.
Loretan, who was only 27 years old when they climbed Everest, had begun as young to climb 8000’ers, in 1983, in the 17-day space he climbed the summits of Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak. Erhard was the 3rd mountaineer to climb all eight thousand and all in his philosophy “climb a peak so high, as difficult and as fast as possible, and without a doubt in alpine style”
A few years later, the two Swiss joined Voytec Kurtyka to try to make two eight thousand in two weeks. They already known each other, because Voytec had climbed with Troillet they together in K2 and with Loretan at the Trango Tower. In the “naked night” style and in just 13 days they opened two new routes on the west face of Cho Oyu in a single push of 27 hours and another in the Shishapangma south face in 19 hours.
During the late eighties, the French also adopted this fast style in the Himalayas, apart from Eric Escoffier who, as we have seen before, linked the summits of Gashebrum I and II and K2 into 3 weeks, Marc Batard and Benoit Chamoux also brought their capabilities to the limits in altitude. The high-Savoyard Chamoux climbed in 1985 the two Gasherbrums in just eight days and the following year he climbed on June 20 the subpeak of Broad Peak in 16 hours from the base camp and a few days later, on July 7, he climbed K2 in only 23 hours from the base camp, with the fix ropes and campgrounds mounted before. After reaching 10 eight thousand in his account he died while trying to climb the Kangchenjunga.
Formed on climbing in the Pyrenees, Marc Batard is a mountaineer of small size but incredible physical strength. From young he emphasized by his great capacity of endurance that allowed him to climb much faster that his companions. In 1975, with 23 years he climbed his first 8000, opening a new route to Gasherbum II with Yannick Seigneur. But it was not until 1988 when he would make a dream year. After climbing the Dhaulagiri during the winter, in spring he did Makalu south pillar in an unimaginable time of 18 hours ( equipped ). In the autumn he returns to the Himalayas to climb Cho Oyu in 23 hours round trip from the base camp and later in the end of September he climbs Everest for the first time in less than 24 hours from the Nepali Base Camp. He did it in only 22 hours and 29 minutes. This gave him the nickname of the Everest Sprinter. Batard was a meticulous mountaineer who prepared his ascents consciousness. Two years later he returned to Everest with the idea of linking him to the Lhotse summit, but he had to leave because he was too cold after the first summit.
One of the strongest climbers in the 90s was Russian Anatoly Boukreev, who after showing his physical condition and resistance in Caucasus and Pamir burst onto the Himalayan scene as a balloon.
After his first expedition with the large Russian team in 1989 in Kangchenjung he ascended between three and four peaks of eight thousand meters every year, including new routes, peaks as a mountain guide and some speed climbs. He needed only 21 hours to go up to the top of Makalu from the base camp and after 46 hours he was back down again. Just over 17 hours to go up the Dhaulagiri from his base and 21 hours to 16 minutes for the Lhotse alone. In 1997, Gasherbrum II was eaten in 9 hours 37 minutes and a few months later, during the following winter, while trying to climb the southern face of the Annapurna along with Simone Moro and Dimitri Sobolev an avalanche surprised them to fall 800 meters of unevenness. Only Moro could escape from death.
A year before, Boukreev was guiding Everest’s summit during what is known as one of the most important tragedies in the history of Himalayas where 8 people died in a storm on the south col. This episode put the discourse on the responsibility and legitimacy of commercial expeditions to high mountains in the center of the hurricane. If during the previous decades the Himalayas had been a land reserved for mountaineers, from the 90’s with a wealthier and more adventurous society, commercial expeditions became popular, where customers with limited experience were guided by climbers and helped by porters to reach the summits. This led some mountains such as Everest, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu or Manaslu to a system and mountain equipment to make these climbs easier and safer for clients who wanted to climb: A team of sherpas/porters traced the path with fixed ropes and mounted the camps before the clients arrived at the mountain, and then they were accompanied by guides, tied to the ropes to avoid death in case of fall and with oxygen bottles for greatly facilitate the effort. This completely changed the appearance of the mountains. If during the seventies or eighties the natural thing was to find as much one or two expeditions in the same mountain, from the nineties in the base camps of these mountains during the most favorable season, the natural thing was that they would convince hundreds of people in them. On the one hand, it contributed a large capital income to countries such as Nepal, Tibet or the mountainous regions of Pakistan, poor regions and the number of locals that could work as porters or guides multiplied, and made them much more accessible to non rich mountaineers. But on the other side a large part of the commitment and difficulty in these summits was lost.
One of the leaders of one of the great guiding companies working in the Himalayas, Russell Brice made some fast ascents during those early years, such as Ama Dablam in little more than 3 hours from Camp 1 or Cho Oyu in 11 hours from Base Camp.
It was that same year of the tragedy that, on the north side, Hans Kammerlander, who was Messner’s companion in his final ascents, made a rapid ascent in 16 hours and 45 minutes from the ABC, at 6400 meters to the top of Everest before going down with skis. Kammerlander meet on the mountain with a Swedish, Goran Kropp, who after cycling from Jönköping to the Base Campalso climbed to the top without oxygen or support.
Coming from the skyrunning competitions invented by Marino Giacometti in the early 90s, a generation of runners among which Italians Adriano Greco and Fabio Meraldi had been breaking all the ascent and descent records to the tops of the Alps. They ran in running shoes and ski poles summits like Mont Rosa, Mont Blanc or Matterhorn, and races on Mount Kenya or Aconcagua, where Greco and Meraldi, accompanied by Jean Pellisier, went up in only 3h40 minutes and down in an hour. After these ascents and competitions they considered exporting that same philosophy to the Himalayas. In 1995, Fabio Meraldi, accompanied by Catalan Pep Ollé, climbed Shisha Pangma in just 12 hours. At the beginning of the 2000s, both Meraldi and Brunod would attempt to set new Everest ascent record, without achieving it.
In the lower 48, alpinists were running on the summits and ridges since John Muir’s Mount Shasta in 1874. The climbers and runners from the more alpine ranges also set fast times at mountains like Grand Teton where John Holyoke and Joseph Hawkes went for a speed record on August 17, 1939. Holyoke said his purpose in climbing the Grand Teton was “simply to see how fast he and Hawkes could do it.” He wrote in his journal: “Tomorrow Joe Hawkes and I will climb the Grand in as short a time as we feel it advisable to do.” Hawkes wore shorts and a pair of smooth, rubber-soled hiking boots and carried only his honey water. Holyoke climb to the summit in 3h22 and and was back after 5h21, some minutes before his friend. This record keep until 1983, when first Creighton King set the record in 3:30:39 a week before winning Pikes Pike Marathon and 2 weeks after Bryce Thatcher run-it in 3h06. Or Longs Peak, where in 1953 Phillip and Leland Tigges run up and down in 2h53. Jim Whittaker run up and down Mt Rainier in 5h20 in 1959 or brothers Bill and Roger Briggs, as well as Saudan in Europe the pioneers of extreme skiing in North America and mainly in the Tetons where they set record rises during the seventies. Roger along with Colorado runner Chris Reveley also rushed to climb the Longs Peak, and the latter in 1978 left a 2-hour fair mark that would not be exceeded until 32 years later!
But the special climate from the far north and south of the American continent also influenced non-stop ascents. The climbing seasons in Alaska and Patagonia as well lasts for only few months, and the windows of good weather are short and infrequent so when one of these matches the mountain in good conditions, climbers know that after a few hours of sun and calm wind, bad weather will come back. For that reason the ascents in these places were very complicated and they often became epic adventures climbing in the middle of storms.
Alaska is an enormous massif that stretches thousands of kilometers without any other access than flying in small planes to glaciers or weeks of hike approach. This makes it difficult to know the conditions of the mountain and alpinists have to wait in a camp at the foot of the mountain until a window of good weather gives them an opportunity to climb.
Charlie Porter climb Cassin ridge in the south face of Denali in 1976, for first time solo and in a single push from the top of Japonesse corridor to the summit in 36h. This accomplishment was certainly ahead of its time. It is written in the 1977 American Alpine Journal, “With his usual reticence, Porter has given us no details.” Then everybody was using a heavy style, with 4 or 5 camps in the mountain.
During the eighties Mugs Stump, an American mountaineer, was inspired from the non-stop climbs of the European alpinists in his trips to the Alps or Himalayas, and began to apply the same strategy into the mountains of Antarctica, where the danger of sleeping making a bivouac in the cold temperatures made it very dangerous and then exported in the early nineties in its multiple ascents in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, until he climbed Cassin ridge at Denali for the first time in a single run, although exhausted when he exit the ridge and he had not any more energy to continue until the summit, witch was only 20 minutes walking an easy ridge, and he descended the other side to the camp.
Mugs who believed that his climb of the Cassin ridge was not an exceptional thing, saw it as “what it really did was to open my mind to many more possibilities”
Inspired by the enchainments made by its gallic contemporaries in the Alps, Mugs began to imagine linking Alaskan giants like Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter thru difficult routes. It would be a project of unimaginable proportions, involving big elevations, technical climbing, many kilometers of glaciers and the harsh climate of the polar circle.
Unfortunately a year later he died when he dropped on a crevasse while descending Denali guiding some customers through the normal route.
Its influence was important in the next generation of American mountaineers like Conrad Anker or Alex Lowe, who continued with his philosophy of exposed, difficult and fast alpinism.
In one of the more accessible ranges for mountaineering in the United States, the Tetons, composed of 10 peaks or needles, linking all those summits was a dream since the 60s when it was done for the first time, and called the Grand Traverse of the Tetons, in an effort of 21 hours. Alex Lowe did-it for the first time in solo in 1988 in only 8h15.
In the late nineties, Alex went to ski down the Sishapangma south face, in an expedition with Conrad Anker and Andrew McLean, among others. In a reco day at the foot of the wall an avalanche buried him forever.
Lowe’s time at the Grand Traverse stayed for more than two decades unbeaten until 2000 when the Argentine-American climber Rolando Garibotti dropped from 6 hours.
But who really led and consolidated the one-push movement in Alaska was Mark Twight. This climber born in Yosemite in the early sixties stood out from the end of the eighties for his climbs with big engagement. With a spirit of Nietzsche nihilism with a strong influence on punk culture, he began to climb routes on very exposed walls, often described as “So dangerous that have not interest for others than those with suicidal inclinations”. Probably for that reason he was frequently climbing alone. Specialist in ice climbing, he began solo climbing at high speed as his record in the icefall of Slipstream at the top of Snowdome, with almost 1000 meters high in just 2 hours. After a few years where he set new difficult ice and mix climbing routes in the Alps and made numerous attempts in alpine style on the large walls still not climbed to the Himalayas, he explored the meaning of one-push style on the toughest routes in Alaska.
The consolidation of this style came in 2000 when together with Scott Backes and Steve House they made the exceptional climbing of the 3000 vertical meters of the Slovakian direct on Denali’s south face.
The route was climbed for the first time in 1986 by a Slovakian team during 11 days sleeping on the wall and fixing up to 300 meters of rope. Few weeks before Mark’s team reached the glacier, the route was repeated for the first time by two Americans in 7 days in alpine style. Upon knowing this, Mark, who was ultra-competitive, said “when I heard that the route had already been repeated, I was saddened until we realized that we did not care if we were doing the second, third or eighth climb. Only the style we had chosen mattered. In fact, a modern comparison would make our message much clearer: We wanted to climbe-it in a single push, without sleeping. “
Twight, along with Backes, had already climbed in this style in very difficult routes, such as 72 hours of push to open the Deprivation route on Mt. Hunter’s north face. Steve House, ten years younger, had recently set a couple of new routes with this style on the Father and Son’s Wall of Denali and on the West Buttress northwest face at the same summit.
After acclimating in the normal route, the three climbers went to the bottom of the wall and began climbing. The tactical preparation was just as important as physic strength and technique. They climbed through blocks, until the one that was in front finished all the equipment he was carrying in the harness and then another climber passed to lead the next block, which could take a few hours of non-stop climbing. Every 12 hours they stopped a few minutes to eat and melt snow for drinking. They studied that the first stop would be during the heat of the day, second in the middle of the night and so on. In order to realize the ascent they had minimized the equipment that they would have to use for a climb this difficulty, carrying only two backpacks between the three.
After 60 hours without stopping they reach Denali’s summit, completely exhausted and went down on the other side.
After that Twight stopped making ascents of this scale, but the young Steve House was at his peak of capacity and motivation. During the years that continued, he used this style in Pakistan, with solo climbs opening new routes to the summits of the Hajji Brakk and the difficult K7, both open in one push.
Other companions of House like Marko Prezelj or Rolando Garibotti also applied this style to Alaska or the Canadian Rockies. The style was already established.
But it was some Japaneese who imagined further, not only climbing fast those routes but linking more than one. In 2008, the Giri Giri Boys Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato and Fumitaka Ichimura linked up two of Denali’s more difficult routes, the Isis Face ( M4 5.8 A1, 60 degrees, 7,200′) and the Slovak Direct (5.9, 100 degrees, 9,000′,), in a 8 day push. A year after, Yuto Inoue and Tatsuro Yamada link the long ridge of Kahiltna Peaks and the Cassin Ridge at Denali but they died in the climb some hundred meters below the summit. Those climbers used to do huge link ups in Japan, where the quantity of climbing is still limited. But thy find a solution to that, the Pachinko. Named after a popular 1970s pinball game, with its erratic up-and-down movements on irregular trajectories. Pachinko is a linkup of multiple routes, and it helps us train for bigger mountains abroad. The Kurobe Traverse was were this climbers practice the essence of Pachinko. “If so, pick a mountain range. Open a map and trace a route, any route. When you do, you might see that we’ve only been playing on a portion of a mountain. The more you think about how to enjoy the mountain fully, the more possibilities you’ll discover” said Katsutaka Yokoyama
Rolando Garibotti was one of the most prolific climbers in Patagonia since the beginning of the 21st century. In this opposite side of the continent, the meteorological conditions are also one of the big handicaps to do activities and because the walls are so vertical and difficult, mountaineers have found an ally in the speed to avoid the risk and the fatigue of spending days and nights in a hammock in the middle of a wall holding the strong winds and storms that characterize the region.
To climb these needles of more than 1,000 and 2,000 vertical meters there is no simple route and from the first ascents in the fifties few were the freeclimbing or solo ascents, because the difficulty involved the use of aid climbing, much slower and laborious. In this context, the solo ascent of Compressor route to Cerro Torre by the Swiss Marco Pedrini in 1985 in only 24 hours to climb and descend the mountain was a leak for his skill and the techniques used. Pedrini, who was only 27, had already demonstrated his level in free climbing for the first time some of the more prestigious routes in the Alps, such as Dru or Pitz Badile, and showed that it was possible to climb quickly and in solitaire in Patagonia, opening a world of new possibilities . Unfortunately one year after his ascent, his body appeared at the foot of the west face of the Dru, probably falling when abseiling down after climbing the American Direct alone.
During the 1990s, these fast ascents saw some slums, such as those of Kammerlander and Müller at Cerro Torre in 17 hours, the solitary ascent of Cristoph Hainz in the original route of Fitz Roy in 9 hours or the Italian duo Simone Moro and Adriano Greco climbing Supercanaleta at the same mountain on a day. In spite of this, this kind of activity came with shocks until the versatile Dean Potter and then Rolo Garibotti and the Canadian and Yosemite climbers began to appear in the middle of 2000 to leave season after season a recital of non-stop ascents, crossings linking peaks and solo climbs.
It was 2008 when the experienced Rolo Garibotti, who had made climbs in record time on the walls of Yosemite and the young Canadian climber Colin Haley, only 24, made the first complete Torre traverse in 4 days. Rolo, introduced the Patagonia climbing to which would be the main actor during the following decade. Haley, capable of climbing on any terrain, rock or ice and feeling comfortable climbing seventh grade with aprox shoes began a series of link-ups and records, both in winter and summer. Every season he went south he made four or five major ascents as the solo at Supercanaleta at Fitz Roy (the second after 2002’ Dean Potter), the first solo at Cerro Standhardt, the California route to Fitz Roy in little more than 10 hours or the solo’s at the punta Heron and Egger, among many others.
Along with another Canadian, Marc-André Leclerc, who following the steps of his compatriot, went by himself to Patagonia when he was just 20 years old to leave a short but intense footprint there. With Haley they did during 2015 the reverse Cerro Torre traverse and the following year, Leclerc makes the bold and difficult first solo and winter climbof the Tower Egger in only 21 hours, among other new routes and solitary ascents.
In 2014 Alex Honnold did not know how to put crampons, in fact he arrived at the foot of Aguja Guillamet with a pair of new automatic crampons, just given by his sponsor. They are going to try along with Tommy Caldwell to make the first crossing of the Fitz Roy. A colossal climb that involves climbing 7 summits with 4000 meters of hight difficulties up to seventh grade, and climbing in snow and ice to access the famous ice mushrooms that cover the peaks. When they arrive at the first ice section, Honnold try to put the crampons without success in his running shoes. Luckily, Rolo and Haley have also come there with the same idea but Rolo is not feeling well and have to turn back, and he give his strap crampons to the Californian.After 5 days of simultaneous climbing they complete for the first time this monumental journey.
Colin Haley persuades Honnold to tackle new challenges in those mountains, forming a very prolific and fast team; with the free climbing capabilities of the two, they can ascend simultaneously without almost belaying themselves and the experience, knowledge and technique of Haley in this alpine terrain brings out the maximum efficiency to link the Cerro Torre traverse and the Wave effect, each in less than one day.
The activity of Haley and Marc-André Leclers has also been intense in the Canadian rockies and Alaska, with its characteristic style, climbing often in solitaire and looking for great difficulties always in a single push allowed them to climb light and fast.
Colin Haley had “run” the hardest routes during the last years as if he were in his play yard; the Infinite Supur to the Mt. Foraker in 12 hours and a half. In the few ascents that counted almost all were needed between 8 and 10 days! And the first fast ascent of Steve House and Rolo Garibotti in 2001 in 25 hours would seem slow seeing Haley’s time. In the same style, the northern ridge of Mont Hunter is eaten in less than 8 hours and Cassin ridge at Denali in a bit more than 8 hours.
If we talk about speed climbing we cannot ignore the mecca of this sport, the walls of the Yosemite Valley, in the heart of California, have been the testimony since of climbers running the walls since the first climbers in the sixties came to climb those summits.
During the seventies, a large group of climbers went to the valley to put they tents and live near the walls of El Captain and the Half Dome. It was the years of the sexual revolution, of free love and hallucinogenic drugs, and in this breakup of the concept of welfare society as an absolute goal those young people settled in Yosemite to climb as much as they could, they increase the standards of the aid climbing routes and also start to free climb those large walls. Inside this group of climbers called the “Stonemasters” Jim Bridwell, John Long and Billy Westbay were climbing very strong.
One day while the three were dandy a copy of Mountain Magazine fell into their hands. The front page showing Messner and Habeler dressed in Tyrolean trousers and red wool jerseys posting in front of Eiger north face after they climbed in 10 hours, entitled “The Greatest speed ascent of all time”. Bridwell grabbed it and after watching it briefly said, “It’s time for us to verify … and raise it.”
Few climbing pictures are more famous that the one taken on May 1975 showing Jim, John and Billy posting in colored shirts, hooded trousers and ribbons grabbing long hair in front the impressive wall of 900 meters of El Captain just after the first ascent in a single day for its most famous route, the Nose.
From that moment on, the race was on and almost every year the best climbers of the moment were trying – and attaining – to lower this record. John Bachar, Peter Croft, Dave Shultz, Yuji Hirayama, Huber brothers, Dean Potter, Alex Honnold, and especially the specialist in the so-called speed-climbing Hans Florine (who established 7 new records between 1990 and 2012 with 7 different rope partners, and published 3 books on how to scale The Nose as fast as possible!), among others, have left their marks on this route, increasingly refining the techniques to belay, the equipment to be used, the climbing strategy and the training to cut a few minutes or seconds until Honnold and Caldwell climb it in under two hours in 2018.
One day John Long took with him a young climber to make an easy route, when they headed to the car to grab the rope and carabiners, John asked him if he had ever fallen when climbing that route. The young climber doubted a moment and replied that no, he had never fallen there, and so they climbed it without a rope. This young man was John Bachar who led solo climbing to unimaginable levels during the following decades, and with climbers such as Charlie Fowler, Earl Wiggins or Henry Barber they raised this practice to the most difficult and longest routes.
Solo climbing, coupled with climbing every day those walls and improving the techniques with the ropes, made them able to climb faster every day, and when climbing El Captain in just half-day was nothing more than a training, they began to consider climbing two walls in one day. In 1986, Bachar with his disciple in the freesolo Peter Croft linked El Cap and Half Dome in a single day.
In the mid-nineties a new generation of climbers occupied the place left by the Stonemasters, the so-called Stone Monkeys came to the valley eager to overcome the previous generation and introduce new challenges. Dan Osman climbed many routes alone, often with the chronometer in his hand, he was jumping attached to long ropes from the walls to look for adrenaline or threw himself on a bicycle through the walls of the valley, introducing the serious rope free falling. But who took the activities in the valley (and climbing world) to a hole new level was Dean Potter.
Enthusiastic for climbing, Potter left the university and the east-coast very young to move to the heart of the Yosemite Valley. From the beginning he stood out for his visionary ideas and his fearless ascents. He did the hardest freesolo climbs at the moment, fast ascents in solitaire and incredible link-ups. Only in the 98 and 99 years he set a new speed record at the Half Dome, climbed on the same day Astroman and Blind Faith, both 300 meters and difficulties between 7a and 7a +, he speed climbed Half Dome, this time alone introducing the car-to-car climbing concept there (from the car to return to the car) running to reach the wall, climbing as quickly as possible and climbing down the same route before running again to the car, and with this concept he begins to establish remarkable marks at Royal Arches, Snake Dike or the Diamond wall at Long’s Peak. In the same Long’s Peak, in only 11 hours he climbed 3 routes in free solo. Seeing his speed he wanted to improve what Bachar and Croft had done a decade earlier and link Half Dome and Captain alone in a single day and another day with Tommy O’Neil added to these two walls a third, the Steck-Salathe to the Sentinel to climb the trilogy in less than 24 hours. With O’Neil he set a new speed record of the Nose twice. And he continued performing this amount of activity year after year, leaving sometimes the valley to go to other big walls, such as Patagonia, when in 2002 he climbed Aiguille Poincenot in 25 hours car-to-car, Fitz Roy alone by two different routes at full speed and also the Compressor route in half the time Pedrini had done it and he climb a new route with his partner Steph Davis, the woman who had made the most amount of difficult and long free solos during the last decades.
There was a time when climbing was not enought for him and he wanted to explore the walls from other perspectives becoming a pioneer in the highline, slackline in between tall walls, and BASE jumping, which together with climbing he called his three arts. Potter began to imagine combining these sports. In 2006, Thomas Huber linked the three Cime da Lavaredo in a day climbing difficult routes and using the parachute to go down faster. Few years before, Leo Houlding and Tim Emmert had already begun using this technique, which they baptized as para-alpinism.
In 2008, Dean Potter started using the parachute not only as a downhill took once he reached the summit but as protection means for solo climbing. Climbing very hard and vertical routes, he could climb to his limit without rope and partner and in the event of a fall, turn in the air and open the parachute. Of course during the first hundred meters, he had to avoid falling all because it would not give the parachute the time to open before crashing in the base. Dean climbed Deep Blue Sea (7b +) in Eiger with the parachute in the back, “I’m about to learn to fly.”
If anyone follow and raised Potter steps in Yosemite this was, without any doubt, Alex Honnold. Since appearing in the valley in 2008, he left the whole climbing community scared and admired at the same time with his freesolo climbs, equating the greatest feat of Peter Croff’s solo climbing the Astoman and Rostrum routes and one year after solo climbing for the first time the regular route to in the northwest face of Half Dome, 600 meters high.
But Alex Honnold, known as “No Big Deal”, because he don’t show excitement and importance to the climbs he do, only begun to show his potential. Before climbing the Half Dome he link-up Half Dome, Watkins, and El Capitan, the three longest walls of the valley, in a single day. In the following years he continued with solo and speed ascents, such as the record of The Nose along with the specialist Hans Florine, and then for the fist time under 2 hours with Tommy Caldwell, with who he also free climbed the 3 walls mentioned before in a single day. In 2017 he took the climbing to the future when he free solo the 1000 meters of the Freeride route at El Captain with difficulties close to the eight degree.
2000’s in the Alps and Himalaya
When at was 18 years old, he climbed the north face of the Eiger, Ueli Steck did not know that he would become the best mountaineer of his generation but he was surely starting to build the way to achieve it. He was used from young age to the cold and decomposed rock of this wall. The first day he was going to climb in a crag he was leading, without a harness, only with the rope attached to the waist as in the old days and the family atmosphere was full of sports and competition. All that encouraged him to find himself comfortable alone in the North Faces, and his speed ascents at the difficult alpine climbs gave him the nickname of the Swiss machine.
Ueli began his fruitful alpinist career in his home mountain Eiger, with the opening of new high-difficulty routes and then the Himalayas, but immediately stood out for his solo and fast ascents. Along with Stephan Sigrist, he linked the north faces of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in 25 hours and in 2007 he made his first record on Eiger north face, becoming the first to climb in less than 4 hours. Seeing this not as an achievement but realizing his limitations, he begun to train in a scientific way, surrounded by a team with a trainer, a nutritionist, a psych and training hard – very hard – putting the same hours that the world of cross-country ski best athletes. The following year he came back to Eiger to climb in 2 hours 47 minutes. That same winter he broke the records on the north faces of Matterhorn in less than 2 hours and the Grandes Jorasses, climbing the Colton McIntyre in 2 hours 21 minutes. Both were his first climb at those faces.
Seeing how he was able to climb these walls at very high speed and his ability to train and the least important capacity to take risks “to walk life in a comfortable path is not still my goal”, he transported his learnings in the Himalayas where he climbed alone some big and difficult faces such as Cholatse and Tawoche and later Sishapangma south face in only 10 hours and a half.
During 2013 fall he was on the South side of the Annapurna. It was the third time that he was trying this face. In 2007, during a solo attempt, a stone fell and left him unconscious, falling 200 meters, aware of the good luck he had but without limiting his goals, the following year he returned with a companion, Simon Anthanmatten, But they had to abandon their attempt to try to rescue a mountaineer in problems in a tent on an a ridge over 7000 meters. In this desperate rescue attempt, Ueli managed to reach the tent but could not do anything to save a deteriorated Iñaki Ochoa de Olza.
Precisely during the previous years the Basques Iñaki Ochoa de Olza together with Jorge Egocheaga had made some of the fastest ascents to the Asian giants. In 2004 at Cho Oyu in just over 11 hours, in 2006 at Manaslu and in 2007 the Dhaulagiri also non-stop. After the death of Iñaki, Jorge Egocheaga continued to carry out activities, which without seeking a media echo, took him to full speed at the summits, the Broad Peak and Ama Dablam in a few hours of ascent or Aconcagua in Argentina, where he established two climbing records in the years 2006 and 2011.
Returning to Ueli, 2013’ fall he wanted to try again that face where Lucas and Bohigas had written the beginnings of the difficulty alpine style in Himalaya and where climbers such as McIntyre and Pierre Béhin had lost their lives. This time he returns to try to finish the route where Pierre Béghin lost his life and Jean Cristophe Lafaille starred in a desperate descent from the face with little equipment. He was accompanied by the Canadian Don Bowie and Tenji Sherpa, both strong and fast with whom Ueli went up Everest the previous year. Finally, seeing the doubts of his colleagues, Ueli decides to climb alone, with a small backpack with some clothes and a short rope, he begins to climb in the morning. Upon arriving the night, he found the most technical part of the route, the visibility was good and taking advantage of the fact that with the cold of the night the snow was more solid and it was less danger of rock and snow falling he climbed the difficulties until reaching the top at two in the morning, without pausing, he began to go down following his path and 28 hours after leaving he returned back to the camp. Ueli declared that it had been near its limit in this ascent. because “there is a time that you only think about moving forward, and it is a one-way path, there is death at the end of this path, and it is not easy to digest, but this time I agreed to go very far, I even accepted to die “
Having taken the style that applied to the Alps on the toughest walls of the Himalayas, they did not stop Steck that he continued with numerous link ups in the Alps, and increasingly seeking how to improve his capabilities began to practice other sports such as trail running or paragliding, opening new ideas to go to the mountains.
In 2015 he beat again the record at Eiger, which swiss Dani Arnold was then holding, to leave it in 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Dani Arnold has also been one of the climbers who has been exploring the limits of difficulty and speed in the mountains. If in 2011 he lowered Steck’s time in Eiger, he did the same in Matterhorn in one hour three quarters in 2015. Arnold has also made the last years ascents in record time in rock walls of great difficulty like his free solos in the Trieste Tower, 600 meters of 7a + in little more than an hour or the classic Cassin way to the Pitz Badile of 800 Sixth grade meters in only 52 minutes, equaling Carlos Suárez’s time, some speed ice climbing routes of 7th degree and the Walker route at Grandes Jorasses in an incredible time of 2h 4 minutes.
Continuing the family traditions, Hervé Barmasse, climbed the four ridges of Matterhorn in 17 hours, as did his father Marco during the eighties, but this time during the winter. Also following the family footsteps Tom Ballard, son of Alison Hargreaves, climbed the six great faces of the Alps for the first time in one winter season, all in very rapid times. Climbing and link-ups that he already had in the veins from their first Eiger still in the warmth of Alison’s belly.
If during the 1990s the Skyrunners Meraldi and Burnod were running the highest tops of each continent without looking for the difficulty, but the speed in the 2000s was an Austrian and a North American who took over. Chad Kellogg applied the discipline and training he knew about his adolescence as a member of the American luge team, being the first person to climb Mount Rainier in less than 5 hours and also to climb Denali in less than 24 hours. After that he tried three times to beat the Everest Everest record between 2010 and 2013 without getting it.
The Austrian Cristian Stangl, climb Everest it with a time of 16 hours and 43 minutes from the advanced base camp in the north side in 2006. During the following years, he climbed the highest peaks of each of the 7 continents trying to set a record time. Climbing, in addition to Everest, the summits of Aconcagua, Denali, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Mont Vinson and the Carstensz Pyramid. He then competed with Hans Kammerlander as the first person to climb the 2nd highest mountains on the 7 continents, reaching it in 2013 and a few months later he closed the circle, culminating in the the 3rd higher Seven Summit’s.
In this quest of speed at the 7 summits the Ecuadorian Karl Egloff has been the strongest one, setting records at Kilimanjaro, Elbrus and Aconcagua.
The ascent record of Elbrus is hold by the Polish Andrzej Bargiel, who coming from competing in the world cup of ski mountaineering began to make rapid ascents to high mountains. Establishing a 29-day record completing the 5 summits of the Snow Leopard and skiing in record times 8000-meter summits such as Manaslu, Shishapangma and Broad Peak, and became the first person to ski down K2.
Kilian Jornet, from a skimountaineering and trail running background did some fast ascents, in 2013 beating Bruno Brunod Matterhorn’s record in 2h52minutes and Mont Blanc from Chamonix in 4h47 minutes. One year before he link Courmayeur and Chamonix via Innominatta in 8h 42 minutes and the year after he ski up and down Denali in 11 hours. In 2017 he climbed Everest in a single push of 26h 30 from Rombuck and 5 days after another time in 17h from the advanced base camp.
Although in this history of speed and mountain women have performed fewer leading activities, there has always been that they have dared in this way: If in the eighties and nineties, Catherine Destivelle or Alison Hargreaves were pioneers between men, in the 2000s, we can not forget Steph Davis with her solos on large walls such as Diamond at Long’s Peak. Or the Frenchman Elisabeth Revol, who after years of competing in AdventureRaids, stepped up in the mountaineering linking in 2008 the two summits of the Gaserbrums in only 52 hours and in 16 days she added the Broad Peak, Before beginning to climb the Himalaya giants in winter.
If in the last years Ueli Steck had reached the limits of the speed and imagination of Mountaineering and Himalayas and Alex Honnold, those of rock climbing and Colin Haley those of link-ups, younger generations continue to dream and come up very well prepared. Climbers like Sindre Saether capable of climbing 9th grade and freeclimbing routes of 1200 meters of decomposed rock on the eight degree in the Trollwall or the Pakistani towers and running on sixth grade routes, or Michi Wohleben, who in the dolomites and the Alps is linking peaks climbing, running and paragliding. Or François Cazzanelli and Andreas Steindl who hold numerous records in Matterhorn such as the link-up of the 4 ridges up and down in 16 hours. Or dozens of teens who, from very young age, climb eight degree, ski down the steepest slopes and run long distances. Is them who will continue to write this story, maybe they will not go up to Mont Ventoux to contemplate, and the discovery will be sought in the difficulty, the chronometer or linking peaks or climbing them in a more minimalist way than those who did before them, but in a way, they will continue to be looking for the same thing that carried Petrarca up to that summit.
Amazing work. 5 stars