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Between safety and boldness

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 81, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 81 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Reinhold Messner holds the Maestri bolts from Cerro Torre that were given to him in Aspen, Colorado, on November 23, 2022. [Photo] Derek Franz

Reinhold Messner holds the Maestri bolts from Cerro Torre that were given to him in Aspen, Colorado, on November 23, 2022. [Photo] Derek Franz

“Today’s climber…carries his courage in his rucksack.” –Reinhold Messner, “Murder of the Impossible,” 1971

CLIMBING, ESPECIALLY ALPINISM, is full of duality, encompassing a range of contradictory values. Be bold, embrace the unknown–but don’t be reckless and expose yourself to more risk than is strictly necessary. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do–but don’t be the idiot who ignores sound advice. Climbers celebrate the innovations and counterculture of rule breakers, yet generation after generation there are plenty of us who comment about all kinds of rules that climbers should observe. There is a continual tightrope walk between the opposing values of safety and boldness, and the search for optimal balance between the two has always shaped the evolution of our pastime. Questions that seem to have been settled at various times in the past reemerge. There is now a fast-growing population of climbers, with increasing numbers of them going into the mountains strong from gym training but short on outdoor experience. The mindset in which people approach the wild places is changing, and the duality of our values is becoming more pronounced.

Of course with more climbers there are more accidents. More instances are occurring in which an accident happens on a historically bold but easy climb and then some clamor to make the route safer while others wish to maintain the character of a classic route. Sometimes hardware is added, only to be removed later, and it goes back and forth indefinitely to the detriment of the rock. Some ask, “Why does the route have to conform to the style of the people who want to climb it, rather than the other way around?” To which others respond, “If this route is the site of so many accidents, why not make it safer?” Is it senseless not to add infrastructure to facilitate safer passage for more people? What is lost when popular routes are sanitized from risk? Where is the balance? I think it resides in the ways we learn and teach, and in a return to building self-reliance instead of reliance on gear and technology.

ON NOVEMBER 23, 2022, I attended a lecture by Reinhold Messner at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium. Just before he went on stage, Julie Kennedy presented him with a few bolts that her late son, Hayden, and Jason Kruk had chopped from Cesare Maestri’s Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in 2012. The seventy-eight-year-old legend beamed with glee, jangling the bolts on his finger as he greeted the audience. The look on his face said much, as though his smile was the final word on a long argument.

In 1970 Maestri had placed those very bolts along with hundreds of others with a gas-powered air compressor straight up the middle of the headwall of the Patagonian tower. He also left the compressor bolted to the wall near his highpoint. The following year, Messner wrote “The Murder of the Impossible,” decrying the use of equipment-laden sieges to overcome any obstacles. “‘Impossible’: it doesn’t exist anymore. The dragon is dead, poisoned,” he wrote.

Now, just two rows away from me, Messner emphasized the same points he had made over fifty years ago. “If we destroy the impossible, alpinism is gone.”

Throughout the lecture, he elaborated on the value of embracing risk:

Mountains are great teachers, and they give us the possibility to learn about ourselves…. It’s not important to go to the summits; it’s not important to achieve some record. It’s much more important to join the mountains and learn from them…. We go where we should not go…. In doing it we learn that we can reinvent our possibilities in life…. We go where we could die…. [Traditional mountaineering is] only an art because death is a possibility. If I exclude death in my climbs…going on artificial walls…it’s a different thing. It’s great climbing indoors…but it’s not traditional mountaineering. Traditional mountaineering means to go into wilderness and… test…if you are able to survive….

If we lose the culture of traditional mountaineering, we lose for young people the possibility to learn, to cope with nature…. All enthusiastic mountaineers…climbers…nature people–they should know the history of adventuring; they should know the philosophy behind [it].

What I hear Messner saying is that by embracing mortal risk we are drawn deeper into the natural world and thus a better understanding of ourselves. “The art of not dying” translates to the art of understanding the environment as well as yourself; having a keen awareness of what is happening around you, and what you can and can’t do with the tools you can carry. The greatest artist is the person who can navigate nature’s challenges with little more than the clothes on their body.

I agree with Messner that risk and commitment are necessary to attain what I seek most in climbing: an exploration of my inner character in pursuit of a place that takes all my courage and ability to reach, summit or not, and ultimately coming home with a broadened perspective. Survival hinges on how well I can synchronize with nature–to know by feel and sound if my axe has tapped into reliable ice; to read snow conditions; to intuit the best holds in the rock and avoid those likely to break off under my weight; to sense the building storm and escape before it arrives; to know what I can climb safely without protection. This is the art that Messner was talking about.

Derek Franz scrambling, ca. 1990. [Photo] Derek Franz

Derek Franz scrambling, ca. 1990. [Photo] Franz family collection

CONVERSELY, SPORT CLIMBING is done in a fairly controlled setting. It provides a way to more safely test our limits, learn new techniques and build strength, all of which are helpful for an alpinist. But aspiring alpinists also need to have routes that test the mind, and that’s where bold easy routes play an important role. If we negate the commitment that some of these classics demand, we lose stairsteps that have given previous generations a curriculum for reaching the highest mountains.

It used to be that climbers learned control on easy routes before building strength and testing themselves gymnastically. Now, more often than not, new climbers learn in the gym before going outside. When they do go outside, they have a couple of things working against them, which I witness often: they are strong enough from gym training that spending lots of time on easy, low-angle routes is not very appealing; and the gym/sport culture indoctrinates a “project” mindset in which a climber often expects to hang on the rope to decipher and practice the moves before linking all of them together. Sure, you might redpoint 5.12, but can you onsight 5.10 if your life depended on it? Can you keep your cool when there is no possibility to hang on the rope and figure out a sequence?

Many people may never care to test themselves in this way, but that doesn’t give them the right to insist that all routes conform to their tastes. If they desire to climb those other routes, they can learn quite safely if they are willing to invest the time.

My path to technical climbing started with hiking peaks and scrambling. That taught me the fundamentals of moving over rugged terrain and how to self-regulate my energy, deal with inclement weather, etc. After I took a class in a gym at age eleven, the focus remained on the basics when I returned outside; I did many, many easy routes while learning how to build anchors and place protection. I learned how to route find and when to back off. I couldn’t send an overhanging 5.9 jug route in the gym, but I could down climb 5.6 without much worry. For many years I wasn’t able to send harder than 5.11+ but I was onsight free soloing 5.10. The instincts I gained in that first decade continue to give me freedom to explore unknown terrain with a sense of safety because I know my abilities and understand the forces of nature. This is not to say I haven’t had close calls and been lucky at times. But the general learning curve twenty-five years ago was geared more toward survival in the mountains than sending a hard boulder or sport route.

Frankly I perceive a growing attitude that treats crags like Disneyland, as though all our gear will protect us from ourselves, and I worry about the increasing lack of judgment that I see each year almost everywhere I go.

Looking down at Mandi Franz at the belay. [Photo] Derek Franz

Looking down at Mandi Franz at the belay. [Photo] Derek Franz

LAST JULY MY WIFE and I climbed a three-pitch 5.9- on a granite slab in the Colorado high country near our home. A modern, friendly route, it has a bolt every six to ten feet (except for a short, crisp crack that accepts a few cams) and the belay/rappel stations are conveniently placed so that only a sixty-meter rope is needed to descend. For several exciting moves, I relied on pure friction, with nothing but my balance and sticky-rubber soles earning upward progress along the arete, high above the trees. And yet I was rarely ever more than a few feet away from a beefy, stainless steel bolt. It is about as safe as climbing can get while still supplying some exhilaration. Mandi and I kept a steady but leisurely pace and were back on the ground less than three hours after leaving the car.

We napped in a shady alcove and waited for the sun to move off a steeper face with harder routes around the corner. Later, as we were packing up our bags at the end of the day, we heard some strange commotion. Upon hiking down and rounding the bend to the base of the slab, I beheld a spectacle I’d never witnessed in nearly thirty years of climbing.

The first thing I saw was the belayer, a man who looked to be in his twenties or early thirties, standing a good fifteen feet from the base of the cliff with slack rope lying on the ground. I heard grunting and my eyes darted up the line to a man of similar age, who was wearing an enormous backpack and wielding an eight-foot, telescoping stick clip. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized he was clipped in directly to a bolt at his waist while trying to secure the rope to the next bolt above him.

By this time the rock had been baking in the sun for most of the day. All of us were visibly sweating. My first thought–after confirming the climber was safe–was that I felt sorry for him.

“You have the leader carrying a heavy pack while slab climbing in the sun?” I commented to no one in particular, trying to give the guys a playful hint that their strategy was a wee bit off.

“Yeah, we got everything we need!” the belayer chimed in. “Two liters of water for each of us, extra shoes and layers–we’re ready for anything.”

I observed the leader’s shoes sliding down the hot, smooth granite. He waved the stick clip overhead, straining to reach his target, periodically losing his balance and having to reset. His thirty-five-liter backpack was stuffed full. Two water bottles were in the side pockets and a pair of shoes dangled from the back.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You got enough to bivy up there if you want.”

“We watched all the instructional YouTube videos we could find and finally decided we were ready to give it a try!” the belayer said, grinning as he paid out more rope.

The leader was struggling at a spot where the bolts were a little bit farther apart. Since he was essentially using each bolt for direct aid, he was laser-focused on the shimmering line of hardware dotting a path up the slab. What he was not seeing was the ledge to his right that gained an easy ramp that led back left to the bolt he was trying to reach. It was a section where most climbers would hardly have to touch their hands to the rock if following the line of weakness. I felt compelled to offer another hint.

“If it helps,” I said, “the bolts are in a straight line but the climbing zigzags between them, and you can count on having a good clipping stance at each one.”

“Thanks!” he said, now seeing the big ledge and the ramp.

Mandi and I bid them good luck and continued down the hill. The pair clearly had much to learn, but they were not in any immediate danger that we could see–though all the shenanigans created more variables for something to go wrong–nor were they in anyone’s way, so we said no more. They had at least picked an ideal route for their chosen style. Better to let them have their adventure and learning experience, in this case.

They did seem to be enjoying themselves, and I had to give them a nod for embracing what for them was a true adventure. They found an objective that inspired them to face their fears and had enough faith in themselves to go have a look. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. At some point the only way to find out exactly how much you know is to cast off and see how far you can go, each step taken with the faith that you will know enough to come back safe. Isn’t that the soul of alpinism?

Yet I couldn’t help feeling they were missing the point. By the way the leader was behaving, he was there to climb the bolts, not the rock. His not seeing the ledge and ramp until I pointed them out showed a basic lack of awareness. And without their stick clip they would not have been up there that day–the cheater stick eliminated their impossible.

There are plenty of routes in plenty of places to gain the requisite skills to climb that friendly route competently. Wouldn’t that be more fun in the long run anyway? One or two more weekends on single-pitch routes, a little more diligence reading manuals or searching online (or paying for a guide), and the men could have styled the climb.

I recognize that I am also sometimes guilty of overreaching. In 2021 I was rope soloing in Yosemite. I was fatigued mentally and physically from weeks in the Valley, and in my heart I did not feel ready to cast off on Zodiac, but my time was limited and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity. Midway up the first pitch, I was sitting on what seemed like a secure cam, diddling with my rack, when there was a sickening Pop! and I fell for about fifteen feet. My surprised scream got the attention of another climber, who came running up to inspect the scene. He called me out for being lazy with my ground anchor. I’d tied my rope around a big boulder that wobbled a tad (but obviously did the job), but in my haste to leave the ground I had neglected to tie off some of the bolts near the start, which would’ve been an easy and smart bit of insurance. I’m grateful to the guy, because as the day wore on, I caught myself making other small mistakes. I finally had to acknowledge that I wasn’t ready, no matter how much I wanted to be. I bailed, but it remains a memorable learning experience and I’m excited to return at some point.

As Messner says in My Life at the Limit: “It is through failure that we experience our limitations. And it is for this reason that failure is a more powerful experience than success. When you get to the summit, all that means is that you’ve climbed the mountain, nothing more. By achieving your objective, the objective ceases to exist.”

At the packed Paepcke Auditorium, he emphasized that these challenges are accessible to anyone: “We all are able to overcome the difficulties, the danger, if we learn in small, small steps.”

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 81, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 81 for all the goodness!–Ed.]