Jeff Shapiro reflects on wingsuit flight after the death of his friends Sean “Stanley” Leary, Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. See the tribute to the three men in Alpinist 51 (on newsstands now and available online) or read the feature here–Ed.
“It seemed built to perpetuate our dreams”–thus Guido Magnone described the Aiguille du Dru in The West Face. Ian Parnell relives the history of a peak poised between mountaineering fantasies and environmental realities. Royal Robbins, Claude Remy, Andy Parkin and Jerome Sullivan share dispatches from the past to the future.
February 20, 2015: I lay awake in a small cave, high above the Torre Valley in Patagonia. Storms echoed across the giant arena of granite spires, hidden in the night. I listened for avalanches and rockfall, but the deep rumble of rain eclipsed all sound. A cold fog hovered over my face.
One after the other, their toes compress then release from the cliff’s edge. Shoulders hunch forward, chins are tucked in. Toes are pointed. Legs are spread apart, holding their wingsuits open. Streaked granite surrounds them: El Capitan, the 3,000-foot wall they’ve climbed for years, its golden polish framed by ponderosa pines. Rushing air fills their ears. They thread a channel that opens toward the Cathedral Spires across the valley floor. The orange sky feels thick, heavy.
LIKE A LIGHTHOUSE DOMINATING the sea…. The Sea of Ice. The Drus seem to have conquered the Mer de Glace and stilled its waves, until the glacier no longer dares defy their steep mountain walls. Large pale stains, signs of recent rockfall, gleam like salt crystals deposited during some earlier epoch when the Sea of Ice flowed powerful and high, before it began to die down and to draw back, slowly and gently, leaving behind only vile shores of scree. Tourists arrive in uninterrupted floods to view Mont Blanc–merely to find its pallid summit drowned in a mass of satellite peaks, the Dome du Gouter and the Mont Maudit. The Drus, on the other hand, visible from nearly everywhere in the valley, their shape so easy to describe, are unmissable. You might say that a good portion of our planet’s inhabitants has seen them, if only from the seats of cars.
IN 1952 A SPIRE of monolithic granite presented a high challenge to the climbers of the day–a dare that the setting sun outlined each evening, illuminating its burnished slabs with a red flash that no alpinist could ignore. The West Face of the Drus had a reputation for invincibility. “There, in any case, is something that will never be vanquished by man,” declared Pierre Allain, who had observed the 1000-meter wall during his first ascent of the North Face in 1935.
DURING THE 1980S, WHEN I was the editor-in-chief of the French magazine Alpinisme et Randonnee, I spent several days in Grenoble each year for an international trade show. My meetings were exhausting work, happily interrupted by visits with good friends, which allowed me to forget, for an hour or two, everything that the show signified: that the mountains had become a business and that we–the journalists, the guides and the technical consultants–were all part of it.
SEPTEMBER 22, 1871, WAS ONE of those magical autumn days, when your gaze pierces farther than usual across the crystalline air. Mists had already consumed the valleys, obscuring most signs of human presence–apart from the occasional plume of distant smoke that rose straight up.
Fifty issues deep, and we’re still pushing for the infinite summit. The irrepressible Tami Knight directs a romp back through the years, with essays by Christian Beckwith, Leo Houlding, Andrew Burr, Emilie Lee, Majka Burhardt, Andreas Schmidt, Jack Tackle, Barry Blanchard and Kyle Dempster–and imagery from more than a decade in print.