What Makes It Special

(After spending seven weeks in Alaska on an 'unsuccessful' alpine climbing trip, I wrote this on our flight home. As we flew over the ice caps of Greenland, I considered what alpine climbing meant to me, and what made it special. This writing might be eccentric, but it struck a chord.)


 A winter ascent of the Walker Spur, Grandes Jorasses, with Pete Graham.

Alpine climbing is special: it's adventurous. Unknown.

Alpinism is starting in the dead of night, following the white light of hope from your headtorch. It's filling your lungs with cold air, wondering where each breath will take you. 

It's the views of nobody else in sight, of chasing the sunset. It's the burning of all energy, the combination of partnership. The sum of everything.

It's starting at the bottom of the mountain with just your partner and your rucksack, and climbing to the top in a single push.

The House/Anderson on Mt. Alberta with Uisdean Hawthorn.

What does alpine climbing mean to me? I consider it to be one of the most adventurous and challenging types of climbing. Success - in conventional terms (reaching the summit) - is not guaranteed. The experience certainly is.

I like that it pares down everything to the essential - style, partnership and equipment. Cutting the labels out of jackets does nothing for my weight, but does everything for my mind. 

I like that it takes me to some of the most beautiful places in the world. I can appreciate the views, and it makes me grateful of home. 

It means I have to try harder than I want. I have to face my demons and explore fear. Being shit-scared above 'junk pro' certainly focusses the mind.

Alpine climbing rides on high consequences. If you mess up, it doesn't usually end well. Hemingway said, 'there are only three real sports: motor car racing, bull fighting and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.' I wouldn't agree that mountaineering or even climbing is a sport, but I think I understand his point. The stakes are high. 

With only a partner and a rucksack, you can't afford the luxury of big sleeping bags, or waiting out a week-long storm whilst on route. 

And this is what makes alpinism special. If it was easy, it wouldn't be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. If I knew when the weather would be good, I'd only travel to the mountains for those moments. If I knew success was guaranteed, I wouldn't bother trying. 

If I knew it would cost me thousands of pounds, weeks of waiting, years of training and endless hours of pain, exhaustion and suffering, would I do it? Of course I would. To have the ultimate experience and adventure is beyond measure. 

Uisdean Hawthorn on the Moonflower, Begguya/Mt. Hunter, Alaska.

During nearly seven weeks in the Alaskan mountains this May/June, Uisdean and I experienced very few good weather windows in which to climb. A couple of days in early May, then the next window was late June. 

In the last five weeks, there wasn't a single good opportunity to climb our planned objective - or at least we thought so. Chantel and Gilbert, and Rob and Raph all agreed. Uisdean and I, too - we all bailed. 

I certainly don't have as much alpine experience as others, and these are only my poetic notions from the window seat of an international flight. I consider the style in which I climb to be important, and hold alpine climbing as the benchmark.

I have bailed, failed, fallen off, burnt out, been scared, focussed on the ground and wasted many opportunities. I've lost racks-worth of gear, and abseiled off single wires again and again (why do I always lose size 5s?). But, equally, I've shared some of my richest life experiences with good friends in the mountains.

Like Scottish winter climbing, alpinism is something to be protected and cherished. We could bring it down to our level with artificial aids (ropes, oxygen, bolts and so on), but the challenge is worth preserving. The unique, special and pure nature of the activity is what draws me to it, time and time again.

Pete Graham tops out after a winter ascent of the Walker Spur, Grandes Jorasses.