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‘The Old Breed’: A Special Feature from the Film

“We have a rule, climbing in the mountains–you just don’t fall,” says veteran alpinist Mark Richey, “…but you do, sometimes.”

The contradictions inherent in this statement cut to the heart of what hardcore alpine climbing is all about. Alpinists spend a lot of time thinking about the risks they will face, analyzing specific hazards and gaming out myriad scenarios. You tell yourself if you just stick to some basic rules, everything will probably turn out fine. But on every great alpine climb, there comes a point where the rules must be broken–or, at least, bent a bit–to get the job done. Much as we are loath to admit it, intangible elements like determination and luck play as significant a role as physical fitness or savvy decision-making.

In July, 2011, I joined Mark and Steve Swenson on an expedition to the Eastern Karakorum to attempt the first ascent of Saser Kangri II. At 7513 meters above sea level, SKII was the forty-ninth highest summit in the world, and the second highest unclimbed mountain to boot.* Mark was fifty-three years old, and Steve was fifty-seven.

Two weeks before we left, Mark Richey and I spent the weekend rock climbing on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. A casual day at the crag turned serious when a fellow climber who was climbing nearby ran into a bit of bad luck. The resulting rescue was a relatively routine affair, thanks to Cathedral’s urban setting and the well-honed skills of our local volunteer Mountain Rescue Service–but it drove home the seriousness of what we were about to attempt.

“Let’s say that happened at 7000 meters on Saser Kangri II,” Mark hypothesized. “For one man to get another man with a broken leg off the mountain… would be near impossible.”

Mark Richey with John Bouchard on the summit of Shivling (6543m) in 1996. Shivling was first climbed by Georges Bettembourg, Greg Child, Doug Scott and Rick White along the east ridge (VI 5.10 A2, 56 pitches) over 13 days of capsule-style climbing in 1981. Bouchard and Richey cut their time on-route in half by summiting in a single push.

Two months later, Mark, Steve and I stood on top of Saser Kangri II. For my partners, the adventure was the culmination of decades spent exploring high, wild, places. But the summit hadn’t come easy, and as we started the long journey down, Steve was growing dangerously weak. His condition spiraled out of control that night. We all wondered if our luck had run out.

In March, 2012, our climb was honored with the Piolet d’Or, a fancy award given by the Groupe de Haute Montagne for the most significant alpine ascent of the year. (We were one of two teams to receive the award in 2012.) In my mind, the unexpected accolade makes it that much more important that we not forget that we bent a few rules along the way to reach the summit–and things might have turned out very differently.

That said, I’m psyched to formally release The Old Breed on the web this week. This is not your big-budget, commercialized adventure film starring sponsored heroes and superhuman skills and chiseled good looks. This is a boots-on-the-ground, raw look at my partners: two true explorers in an era when everything’s been explored, both fathers and successful businessmen with aging bodies and major appetites for risk.

Click here to rent The Old Breed for two bucks.

*[Saser Kangri II’s shorter west summit was reached decades before Richey, Swenson and Wilkinson’s successful ascent to the east summit in 2011. Read more about the peak’s history and the 2011 climb in our September 15, 2011 NewsWire.–Ed.]