July 8, 2015

On Being Well Rounded

Recently, I got home from my second expedition up the West Buttress of Denali. Between the two trips I've guided a total of 15 climbers on the mountain. It's a very diverse group, all of these folks had worked hard before and during the expedition and had a strong desire to go to the summit, but that's where their similarities end. Climbers on these expeditions came from different countries, different generations, and even slightly different socioeconomic backgrounds. Perhaps the most striking of their differences was in climbing background.

A sort of a sunset at 14,000 feet. The full moon hangs over Mount Hunter, with Mount Foraker to the right. The classic Sultana Ridge is the sun-shade line on Foraker.
All had some mountaineering experience. Some had some more extensive alpine climbing mileage. A few folks on each trip had done a lot of technical climbing. These difference became glaringly obvious on two of the sections many regard as the cruxes of the expedition: the Fixed Lines above the 14,000 foot camp, and the Autobahn (a section of fixed pickets above the 17,000 foot camp). Both of these sections of the route are steep, and both require the climber to have a basic grasp of moving together as a roped team, and an understanding of how to operate a carabiner. I know this second skill sounds a bit sarcastic, but bear with me because it's not.

Eating salmon with the pick of my ice axe. I forgot my spoon this day.
Denali suitors who had extensive technical climbing experience on rock and ice were comfortable with the steeper terrain of the Fixed Lines and Autobahn. The very act of standing on these slopes did not tire or unnerve them. Their previous climbing experience gave them experiential, not just intellectual, knowledge of how rope systems can add security to steep terrain. Spending time handling ropes and carabiners in a variety of steep rock and ice situations meant that they had a fundamental understanding of how to clip and unclip rope from carabiner. They had no problem doing either with big bulky gloves (or mittens) when they were cold and tired.

Those with less technical experience were nervous on the steeper slopes. They didn't feel comfortable standing upright and sometimes assumed positions that seemed more secure but were more tiring. They didn't feel comfortable resting with their weight on the fixed rope. Clipping and unclipping was difficult and stressful. If the weather was bad and they were tired, all of these things were magnified. It was as if those with less technical experience were given a slightly harder mountain to climb.

Spud and Mike cruising to camp at 17,200. This is one of my favorite sections of the route.
In my time guiding in The Cascades* I worked with many climbers who were not interested in rock climbing at all. Some of them preferred to gut it out on obscure moderate alpine ice climbs that were in less-than-optimal condition rather than choose a classic route that might involve some 4th or low-5th class rock to get to or from the ice. Some thought they were too old to rock climb. Others thought that because they didn't look like Sharma shirtless they had no hope on the rock. Still others scoffed at rock climbing as something that couldn't benefit their mountaineering career in any way.

It might be the great variety of climbing available here in the Eastern Sierra colors my viewpoint on this issue, but it seems to me that having a breadth of experiences is beneficial no matter what part of the climbing buffet is your favorite. Some of the connections are obvious: bouldering can help you deal with powerful or dynamic moves on a sport climb. Sport climbing lets you work on movement skills you can bring to trad routes. Trad skills let you climb big walls and rocky peaks. But the connections could be more subtle. Projecting a boulder problem or sport route can help the mountaineer embrace the process of climbing a big peak and deal with the inevitable occasional setback or failure. The benfits could work the other way too. The experienced alpine climber knows that the summit is a very small part of a much bigger thing, and can bring that knowledge to working a challenging pitch at the crag.

On an expedition the little things can be pretty sweet, like having your name written in Sriracha on a quesadilla.
No matter what your preferred way of engaging with climbing, being well rounded (or even attempting to be) is beneficial. A bigger skill set puts more items on the menu of things you can do. As Josh Wharton said in a climbing video once, "What could be better than climbing? More climbing."

I was going to to mention a bunch of accomplished climbers who were known to be well rounded when a colleague pointed out that I don't need to drop famous names when I guide well rounded climbers all the time. He's right. I don't need to name drop Alex Lowe and Ueli Steck when I personally know Brett and Lee and Clay. I've been lucky to share a rope with climbers who like to eat from every part of the climbing buffet. Next time you find yourself joking that, "sport climbing is neither" remember that it's all just climbing and consider trying something new. You might like it.

"Do not use parking brake on glacier". From the dashboard of the de Havilland Beaver we flew off the glacier in.

*I meet folks who hold these views in The Sierra too, but in much smaller numbers.

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