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Inspirations, Part V: The Wisdom of Exploration

Jed Brown on the summit of Mt. Anderson, Antarctica, after the first
ascent, looking east over unclimbed peaks. “This is probably more like the
images that would usually see from me–success on new routes
in Antarctica–but the other images here show it hasn’t always been like
that. However, the reason I’ve been able to do these Antarctic climbs is
because of what I’d done before, and most of those climbs were inspired by
INFO. It may not seem like an obvious path, but my climbing has not been
about obvious paths.” [Photo] Damien Gildea

Many climbers have a favorite mountaineering book or essay. Athletes and guides, those whose lives are so deeply connected to climbing, often have literary obsessions—and everything from a story’s lyricism to its ethical stance has influenced how they approach the sharp end.

We at Alpinist picked a handful of climbers we found inspirational and asked them to share their literary influences. Also check out Vince Anderson’s take on
The Satanic Bible in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature; Kelly Cordes and Masatoshi Kuriaki’s vision of High Alaska in the January 30, 2008 Weekly Feature; Simon Richardson’s chapter on Gervasutti’s Climbs in the February 6, 2008 Weekly Feature and Royal Robbins’s infatuation with High Conquest in the April 2, 2008 Weekly Feature.

Damien Gildea on John Cleare and Mountain INFO

When I wrote The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology in 1998, it was no accident that I started the introduction with a quote from John Cleare’s 1979 book The World Guide to Mountains and Mountaineering. I loved that book then, and I still refer to it now–there’s just so much useful information in it, and it’s the information that I love. The climbing and access information may have changed, but the mountains are still in the same place they were back in ’79.

Few such books have that breadth and depth of coverage, both of the mountains and their climbing history. A number of books try, with colorful and glossy pages, but they’re usually full of rehashed stories and travel photos. Cleare’s book was the real deal. It was written by a climber who actually had been to most of the places, and it was illustrated with unique photos taken while he or friends were there, with maps that showed so much more than just Everest and the 8000ers. No tales of near-death and no pseudo-spiritual psycho-babble. That such a huge task had been done so well made it seem possible that I could hope to document pretty much every climb ever done on a continent—Antarctica—with no previous, real written history of climbing. So that’s what I did, or tried to do. The Chronology was just one result of Cleare’s inspiration. In turn my work led me to seven consecutive seasons of first ascents, new routes and exploratory surveying among the high peaks of Antarctica.

The INFO heading from the September 1994 issue of High magazine,
the home of INFO for most of the 1990s. “The page announces that Andy Parkin and
Francois Marsigny have linked up two dangerous couloirs on the south side
of Cerro Torre, though they did not continue up the Ferrari route to the
summit. Even has a topo. In December 2006 Jed Brown and I were sitting out
some bad weather in Antarctica when he mentioned that his friend Colin was
heading to Patagonia with Kelly Cordes. I said, ‘You know, there’s this
incomplete ice route on Cerro Torre…'” [Photo] Damien Gildea

Here in Australia there’s always been a meager selection of mountaineering literature available, so to some extent I was influenced by what I could get. The large-format books of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, Mountaineer and Himalayan Climber respectively, with all their color photos of big mountains in the Greater Ranges were available and genuinely inspirational. They gave me a sense of the recent history of alpinism and some of the characters, but also a sense of what was out there yet to do. So those books again led me into the information-rich of Cleare’s Encyclopedia, or expedition reports or area profiles.

But the writings of Lindsay Griffin in the INFO section of High magazine, later Climb, and before all that, Mountain (with Ken Wilson, Paul Nunn, Cleare etc.) were for me always the main event, with a strong support act of the Expeditions section of the American Alpine Journal. They were the key to actually doing new things; I wanted a life of going on expeditions to new mountains around the world, not just rock climbing at home or reading other people’s sanitized stories. INFO and the AAJ provided indicators of where to go next without being actual guidebooks. Looking back through old 1980s Mountain INFO you get a sense of how the scene was then—how the Japanese have been the giants of Himalayan climbing. It just seemed normal for expeditions only to try new things, not to repeat something done fifty years ago. Repeats were given a line or two at most. Details were scarce, photos grainy—but how much help do you want? That approach, including only the essential and knowing what to leave out, reflected one of the basic tenets of alpinism. And all without the narrow-minded, style-as-dogma hectoring we get now from wannabe alpine prophets.

Left to right, Mt. Vinson (4892m), Sublime Peak (4865m) and Corbet Peak (4822m)
as seen from the summit of Clinch Peak (4841m) to the southeast, on its
first ascent in December 2004. “One of the great things about INFO is that by reporting new climbs they often have photos of familiar peaks, but from unfamiliar directions. Around 150 people a year now climb Vinson from the other side. No one climbs from this side.”
[Photo] Damien Gildea

Along with the AAJ, INFO has been the historical record of world mountaineering and a path to the future. Messner said something along the lines of, “If you want to know what to do, you need to know what’s been done.” Too many seem to ignore this, as we’ve seen over recent years with people, often “professionals,” claiming first ascents of things climbed years ago or “records” that aren’t. The information is out there; often they’re just too lazy to find it, or maybe it’s more convenient and flattering for them not to look. Sometimes they play at being too cool to worry about statistics and all that armchair stuff, but usually they’re lying, or are just ignorant. Ignorance is stupid, and stupid is only cool in bad movies. Dude Where’s My Crampons!

No one has ever become rich or famous from INFO; it has required constant personal effort on the part of passionate individuals, and to this day it remains under threat from the necessary evils of advertisements and profit margins. But it’s just as threatened by the increasing apathy for new, non-famous mountains that aren’t on some tick-list, or about people who don’t pull V12 or have a personal blog and clothing line. So many climbers don’t care about working out how to climb something new in an interesting area; they just pay someone to help them up something else, something their friends have heard of. But I don’t worry about them much any more. Maybe it’s better this way. Keep the crowds on Everest and off Kanjut Sar. Festoon Ama Dablam with rope, and leave Sani Pakkush alone. Northwest Yunnan? Oh no, there’s nothing good there. The Chapursan? No, Pakistan is dangerous, a terrible place. Best you stay away. I hear Elbrus is real nice.

“A mid-1990s INFO had a photo of the fluted north face of Gangchempo and
reports of illegal Spanish ascents, so I thought I’d have a look. Around
the same time INFO also covered in some detail a solo of the north face of
Langshisha Ri by Slovenian climber Vanja Furlan. For some reason this
really appealed to me much more than a lot of the bigger stuff going on
then, so I figured Langtang was a good place to go. I’d spent several
weeks in the upper Langtang, wading through heavy winter snow, avoiding
avalanches and learning how bad the weather can be down low in the Nepal
pre-monsoon. Finally, I attempted a new route on the north face of Naya
Kanga but gave up around dawn at around 5100m, up to my chest in snow (I’m
6’7″). It was disappointing, but at least on that occasion I’d actually
got up on the route, tried as hard as I could and been beaten by truly bad
conditions. As I turned to descend I saw the rising sun hit the east face
of Langtang Lirung, in this photo. It was more beautiful than I’d realized
and a nice view to finish the climb. In hindsight this trip was very
unsuccessful, but I learned that I personally got a lot more satisfaction
making my own decisions, no matter how uncertain I was at the time that I
was right, and not relying on someone else for my safety. I thought about
some of the other climbers I’d met in Kathmandu and wondered how they were
going. They were on Lhotse and Everest and their big objectives made me
feel like I was wasting my time. It was the first week of May 1996. Days
later I left the valley and on the bus from Dhunche to Kathmandu a copy of
The Rising Nepal reported that Scott Fischer was dead, Rob Hall was
missing and some clients were dead. I didn’t know any of them personally,
and I had no inkling of what would follow those events, but I just felt
happier having done my thing.” [Photo] Damien Gildea

For me part of the real attraction and fun of expedition climbing was seeing a photo somewhere of a mountain you didn’t recognize—”Holy crap, what is that? Look at that couloir!”—working out what it was, where it was, whether or not it had been climbed using INFO and the AAJ, and how you might get there using maps and more mainstream material. Or better yet, finding a map that had high mountains marked on it but no names, in an area that wasn’t already written up somewhere else. You had to cross-reference between a wide selection of materials, often working out for yourself where errors had been made—often only after having been to the place. It was an international quest that brought you into contact with like-minded fanatics. The slow penetration of obscurity was part of the fun as well as the challenge. You had to make it happen. You couldn’t buy it from a brochure. You had to want it.

Things have changed lately, especially with Google Earth, which is both amazing and terrible, plus the digitization of Ms. Hawley into the Himalayan Database, the Alpine Club’s free online Himalayan Index and the more recent archiving of INFO available free online. [Mountain INFOs are available as free downloads from Please support this indispensable resource. –Ed.]

Frustration and failure–how I often felt in the mid-1990s–this
time on Bubuliomoting (6000m), Hunza, Pakistan, 1995. [Photo] Damien Gildea

Now mountains have nowhere to hide. The diffusion of knowledge over the last ten years via the internet has changed the expedition mountaineering scene quite a bit, helped largely by the opening of China and her associated ranges. Now there’s so much info on the web, so many photos and so much faster communication that it is all much easier. But still fun. Of course the web is largely unedited and full of misleading “information,” lists and claims, but INFO and the AAJ are actually edited by knowledgeable people with significant experience and resources, so they’re something of a clearinghouse for all the crap. They occasionally make mistakes, of course, but compared to the sheer amount of information pouring in, the quality they turn is impressive.

A distant view of the unclimbed Yashkuk peaks from the moraine of the
Yashkuk Yaz Glacier, south of the Chapursan Valley. “I visited the
Chapursan after my attempt on Passu Sar, looking for something different.
The valley has a 70km long jeep road that leads from the Karakoram Highway
almost to the border of the Afghan Pamir, but had been closed to
foreigners until 1999. I visited in July 2001, appreciating the relatively
unknown peaks and wondering what the future held for the inhabitants of
such a beautiful, unsullied valley. Not two months later this area was
closed off after the September 11 terrorist attacks, being so close to the
border. Climbers have returned to make a few ascents since, but no summits
of the main range have been reached from this side.” [Photo] Damien Gildea

But is INFO “literary”? I don’t care, though I recall that art is about knowing what to leave out. OK, so on a more literary level, Victor Saunders’ two books Elusive Summits and No Place To Fall were both pretty influential on me—and not just because in Australian bookstores there were bulk copies of them piled in the $5 remainders bin at a time when I had no money. They were well-written, proper books, not the pretend books of collected magazine articles that publishers love now. They were real expeditions involving laid-back, slightly quirky guys doing hard new routes in lesser-known areas, always with an almost overdone self-deprecating humor. And, quite frequently, those expeditions failed. Unfortunately they probably made me a bit too OK with failing, and it’s taken me a while to work past that, though at least I’m still alive to know it. But when the climbing world of the early 1990s was about to slide into Everest hype and guided internet heroes, you had the understated account of Fowler and Saunders launching up the Golden Pillar of Spantik, one of the most stunning lines on the planet, or the still-unclimbed 3000m high Hidden Pillar of Ultar. Right now there’s only a handful of people climbing like that at the hard end, or better—Graziani and Trommsdorff, Prezelj and some other Slovenians. Then there’s some dedicated and successful exploratory guys like Chkhetiani, Ioffe, Djuliy, Normand, a few Kiwis and Brits. You won’t see them pimping a booth at the outdoor trade show, but they all read INFO.

Everyone else is just walking in the ashes of someone else’s fire.

–Damien Gildea, Australia

Damien is Alpinist’s Antarctica Correspondent.

The sacred peak of the unclimbed Kawa Karpo or Meili Xueshan (6770m) at dawn, viewed from the summit of an unnamed peak above the Baimang Pass. The peak has been attempted about six times and remains unclimbed; when a joint Chinese-Japanese team attempted the peak, a massive avalanche killed seventeen members of the team–one of the worst life-taking incidents in mountaineering history. “When I first went to northwest Yunnan in 1998 the nearby town of Deqen had just been put on the open list for foreigners, and you could only view these peaks from across the Mekong River. When I returned in 2002 there was a backpacker’s lodge and glacier tours. I was first drawn to this part of Asia by random photos seen in an old Himalayan Journal and by brief notes in a mid-1980s INFO. I originally went to explore the then-unfrequented Konkaling Range in western Sichuan but saw a photo of Kawa Karpo in Kunming and changed direction.” [Photo] Damien Gildea

The north face of Shispar (7611m), rising more than 3000 meters above the Passu
Glacier. “In 2001 I visited the area to attempt Passu Sar (7478m) but found
it dangerously out of condition. Looming above us all the time was
Shispar, a peak I’d also seen a lot from the south when I attempted
Bubliomotin in 1995 and 1996. Shispar has only had two ascents, both from
the east, reaching the summit up slopes behind the left skyline. Under new
regulations the peak fee is only US$400 and you no longer need a Liason
Officer here, plus it’s only two days walk from the highway. Pakistan’s
Karakoram is full of these little-known giants, and you won’t see many
photos of such peaks unless you read INFO.” [Photo] Damien Gildea