Saturday, January 7, 2017

Why We Climb

It was early March 2015. In a month's time I'd be leaving for Tibet to attempt a new route on the north side of Everest. My outings were a blur of runs and weighted hill hikes, with just the occasional long ice or ski day thrown in to keep boredom at bay. When out of the blue a photographer emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in doing a photoshoot for his book project, my initial reaction was to politely decline. With all the training and organizing, not to mention family and work, I had no time to spare for posing. But the photographer's name gave me pause.

When I first got serious about climbing in the early nineties, I'd devour every issue of Climbing magazine as soon as it came out. I was living in Chicago at the time, going to graduate school and acutely missing the Rockies. The bright pages of the magazine were an escape from the grey skies and slushy streets of the big city. Perversely, I'd skim over the images of lycra-clad gymnasts on sunny rock, and instead linger over those of modern knights in Goretex armour going to do battle on vertical walls of ice. The most striking photos of such living legends as Alex Lowe or Mark Twight would be credited to Chris Noble.

I think it was recalling an image of Twight on the Weeping Wall I saw years before I first laid eyes on the real thing that made me change my mind about the photoshoot. After all, how often do we get to replay our youthful dreams? I wrote back to Chris that yes, I'd be keen to get out with him.

The Weeping Wall with Mt. Amery in the distance. Photo: Chris Noble.

Normally I don't especially enjoy ice climbing when temperatures dip below -15 C or so. But all through the exceptionally mild winter of 2015, as I sweated in high-altitude boots up muddy trails, I kept hoping for some real cold to prepare my body for the windswept north flank of Everest. And so for once I was happy when I stepped out of the warm car in the Stanley Headwall parking lot and felt cold air wash over me like a liquid. With the thermometer reading well below -20 C, I'd get in some cold weather training.

In the end I didn't have the worst of it. I stayed warm all day, first lugging a pack of full of climbing gear and static line to the base of the wall, then climbing, rappelling and reclimbing pitches high above the valley floor. Chris, on the other hand, other than short bursts of jumaring, hung on the rope for hours, struggling to keep his hands warm enough to operate the camera. Even though days get longer in March, it was already dark by the time we touched back down on the exposed snow ledge below French Reality.

Yours truly starts up the crux pitch of French Roast, the finish to the rarely formed French Toast on the Stanley Headwall. Photo: Chris Noble.

Wiktor Skupinski, usually the man behind the camera, on this occasion generously agreed to endure a long, chilly belay, while I went up and down, and up again. Photo: Chris Noble.

Thin ice with the occasional bit of rock gear to keep things reasonable. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Chris Noble.

A few days later, Chris interviewed me in the more comfortable confines of my living room. When he mentioned some of the other climbers he'd be profiling in his book on Why We Climb, I experienced a mixture of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was certainly flattered to be included in the same table of contents as some of the most inspiring climbers on the planet. On the other, I couldn't help wondering what I was doing in such company. I'm still not sure. I didn't fool myself I played in the same league as the other people in the book. Still, maybe I could offer some musings on balancing a climbing obsession with a full-time job; and, as I inexorably drew nearer to the half-century mark, on downclimbing gracefully.

"But there will come a point within the next decade or so, when I'll inevitably start down the other side of the hill. And that will be a hard process, because a good part of the appeal of climbing for me is the fact that I can push myself and get better."

Nobody said downclimbing was easy.

The cover of Chis Noble's Why We Climb.

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