Mountaineering has always been a harsh world, traditionalist and of surnames, where the word “change” has been taboo and “ethics” a god that no one had a clear image. A world of strong egos where secrecy was as strong as the fellowship of the “roped party”. It was a world where the projects were going on graves.
But there have always been people willing to share, to be robbed of their ideas and projects, to leave the school books and look around. People without fear of criticism and incomprehension that have evolved the way to go to the mountains. Today they are creating synergies between different mountaineering practices that make evolve the way they move in giant strides.
Imagine if Adam Onda had the endurance of Scott Jurek, Imagine if Bonnati had the ski technique of Anselme Baud. The polyvalence of alpinists is making a new steep on mountains approach. Ueli Steck is well know as a technical alpinist but he is also a great rock climber, a trail running participant and a paraglider. Cristophe Proffit, on side of climbing was doing Pierra Menta’s, Tor de Geants and paragliding, as Simone Moro or Steve House doing skimo and trail races.
Until last decade, with some rare exceptions, an alpinist was an alpinist, a skier was a skier, and a runner was a runner. The preparation, technically and physically was intended to one specific practice, and the gear to. Some practices have been integrated into the world of mountaineering in a more natural way, as for all alpinist is logical that rock climb a 8b in stead of 5 it will be a large advantage on mountaineering it’s not this common for the same persons to think that be able to ski a 5.6 will be a advantage in front of the one who don’t ski, or run a 100km on 6h will have some profit for an alpinist. We are classicist, we like statistics and classifications, put names to thinks (why otherwise naming the routes, the summits?) and we like to make definitions on every practice, so much we like that we have come to forget the tool to turn it into a sport. I will explain myself, ski was a way to transport ourselves on the snow until we ruled and made sports (cross country, alpine ski, ski mountaineering…) and is not anymore a tool but a sport. But if we come to the origins, Imagine that we’re humans and we have tools. Alpinism don’t exist, skiing don’t exist, running don’t exist, ice climbing don’t exist. Only ice axes, skis, running shoes, carabiners exist. Forgot about sports or disciplines, think about tools.
With tools and imagination we can imagine a breakfast at home with our partner at 8am, taking our running shoes and run for 1h until we reach the glacier, put our skis and skin fast to the feet of a great face, climb up, ski down on a narrow couloir and on the glacier and run down to home to have a dinner (or a lunch if we’re on shape) with our partner. If we take the same activity on alpinism way it will be: take the lift to the glacier (or making a walking approach to the hut if we’re not in the alps) the day after walk on the glacier until the feet of the face and climb up. make rappels down, it was a long face so we arrive late on the hut, and the day after we walk down (or take a lift on the alps). If we take on steep ski way: walk up to the hut, sorry, take the lift to the hut. the day after climb up the face, ski down the couloir and sleep on the hut (the last lift was at 15h) and the day after take the lift down. If we take on running way: run up to the glacier. ehem, look the glacier and run down home.
In the most part of the mountains in Europe and America’s the approaches and ascent times to the summits are possible to do in a single day or on a long push time, taking the advantage of each activity, linking summits running, skiing or paragliding. Climbing fast and skiing or running down, enjoying the specificity and adrenaline of each activity, forgetting about which sport I’m practicing, but moving on the mountains with the freedom of abolish the definitions.
Take another steep, we go to Himalayas. Light has been an evolution on hight mountains from the beginnings. In the first expeditions to Himalayas, British explore the areas without cartography, needing extra gear to face the surprises would be found, not knowing how many time could lead the expedition.The better knowledge of the mountains and areas, the cartography and previous expeditions to many areas made a easy estimation of the time and conditions, making easier the choice of the equipment.
When we saw Ueli Steck climbing Annapurna south face on a single push from the base camp, we are opening a new chapter of the history of mountaineering. The technical capacities of exceptionally gifted alpinists made possible assents as Ueli’s Annapurna. Mesner makes the first ascents on Alpine style on 8000m on the 70’s, on 1984, Wielicki becomes the 1st human to climb a 8000’ on a day on Broad Peak, 8047m in 16 h up and 6h down. Troillet and Loretan takes the speed on a technical route as Horbein in Everest, on early 90’s Tomo Cesen make incredible fast ascents on really technical walls. and in 2004 Steve House makes a solo speed ascent at K7 opening a new route (M6+, 6b, 80%) on 41h. And today Ueli Steck is continuing this way. All them have in common a very hight technical abilities on rock and ice climbing with a great endurance capacities, a huge amount of training on very different activities to to cope with ease in alpine terrain. All this ascents are possible because this guys can climb on hard without a tremor in hight altitude, abolishing the infrastructures between the base camp and the summit: no more fixed ropes, no more intermediate camps, less food, less gaz, les… just a light backpack with the progression gear and a lot of skills!
What’s next? is the abolition of all the infrastructures in between “home” and the beginning of all this previous fast-light-supertechnical ascents. Start with the elimination of the base camp, no big tents, no cookers, no porters with hundred of kilos of food and equipment. Just exporting the light ascent not from the BC but from home. Today is possible to do a hight summit with a 40L backpack from home. In Nepal, the last lodges on the mountains are not farther than 2h for a fit person from the places where alpinists makes the base camps, making more confortable and lighter the full expedition. On other countries (Pakistan, Tibet) where is less lodges is just a logistic calcul: How far is the last village to the feet of the mountain? How many energy I need? How long I can run (or ski) every day? For exemple, if the summit is 150km far from the last village, we can start doing 50km per day, with a light backpack (progression gear + small tent + sleeping bag + jet boil + food x day) on a “alpine style” strategy not just for the mountain face but for all the expedition time.
and you will ask me, why that? Why to be hungry, to be tired and to have not a base camp with a wifi connection to follow the Facebook updates? Is not just light on the backpack, is also light on the wallet. A “normal” expedition to a 8000’ peak can cost between 50 to 80.000$. Plane 800$, Visa 50$,
Yaks 150$ each/day, Porters 75$ each/day, Satphone in BC 2000$, Fixed ropes 3000$, Base Camp tents, cookers… 12000$, oxygen 1000$… Take the plane, Count 10$ per food per day (on lodges or dry food) and go.
Is not to be fast to be fast, to be light to be light, to be strong to be strong, is not do alpinism to be an alpinist, do skiing to be a skier or running to be a runner. Is to use all that to be on the mountains. To be free, on the mountains.
Thank you Kilian, this really is a great post. Your “tool” thinking is brilliant, and I think you nailed it with people’s inability to think outside of these “activity boxes”.
I stopped mountaineering a few years ago because it entailed all this heavy gear and logistics, and instead hiking fast, trail running or even nordic skiing was simpler, with more freedom. You’re inspiring me to get back into the high mountain, but perhaps with different objectives.
The crux is obviously skill. Taking the example you mention, even if you are able to run uphill to the glacier with skis, crampons and ice axe on your back, you still have to know how to cross the glacier without rope and then go higher with little protection.
So perhaps we’ll just see a widening gap between ultra-fit, ultra-trained pro athletes like yourself, and the weekend warriors like myself? That will be interesting to see, as is the fact that Salomon is investing in this new approach.
It you want people to embrace this approach, I think you should show that it can be applied also for “normal people” on only slightly technical routes.
By the way, as a photographer I chose the “lightweight” path a long time ago with photo gear. And seeing how much you like quality photography, I would highly recommend you check the Pentax/Ricoh GR to replace your DSLR on some outings without compromising significantly on quality — I’m sure your friends at Pentax will gladly send you one. I used to carry a DSLR with a single focal lens, not anymore.
Anyway, thanks again for the post, and I hope to see you again in Tromsø next summer. Have fun in Argentina!