alpinism, revolution and the animal in man
Disobey. Defy. Take your own time. Fly.
|I was a middleclass American with stone-written future. The promises
should have made me happy but society tried to talk me out of being
what I really was. I hated the recipe and refused to be a cog in the
cultural machine. I discovered punk music and climbing at about the
same time. Both called me to rebellion.
Climbing wasn't popular as a casual sport back then. It was so marginal that a strong subculture formed around it. If you didn't climb hard, if you weren't committed, you couldn't join. We ate and drank and breathed for it. There were no rules. No one told us what to do or how to do it. We made it up as we went - the perfect punk method. It was about as weird a lifestyle as could be found in America and neither climbers nor punks counted my individualism against me.
Within the subculture my future was up to me. I could hold on, or let go at any time. Climbing was anarchy, and I an anarchist. I threw off the chains of convention and claimed myself free from them. I didn't know what I was free for. I knew I wanted to be a great climber. I wanted the freedom of spirit I knew would come from being very skilled at my craft, from being comfortable with fear. The mountains could teach me these things. I soloed a lot, risking everything to feel terribly alive. The harder I climbed the darker my musical tastes became. History showed that most alpine climbers die young, which matched my No Future attitude. One way or another, I was headed for the ground. It was a question of time.
Instead of abiding the romantic notion of climbing fostered by the English, I adopted Germanic pessimism, and a fixation on death or disaster. I treated alpinism as a battle fought using courage and a Neitzschean will to power. My heroes were Paul Preuss and Georg Winkler. Winkler, a.k.a. "The Meteor," epitomized the Germanic ideal: he was superhumanly strong, an aesthete, and a loner who used climbing to prove himself, soloing more often than not. I admired the strict ethical ideals that he and Preuss held though both died (young) expressing them. I wanted to learn what was possible for me so I adopted Preuss and Winkler's tactics; cutting away as much advantageous equipment as competence and confidence allowed. I climbed alone in the Cascades, the French Alps and Canadian Rockies, assuming responsibility for both success and failure. I shouted down the climbers who placed great emphasis on success and little on style. They made acquisition rather than experience important and I bucked the trend because a summit reached in questionable style isn't worth shit to me.
I read about the first ascent of the Eiger Nordwand in Heinrich Harrer's book, "The White Spider." I loved the symbolism of the young Germans front-pointing past the step-cutting Austrian team; a brave new world was beckoning and the older one had to die. I didn't want to stagnate by clinging to old ways popular in the USA so I began climbing in the Alps, where alpinism was born, and where the French were busy reinventing it. I evolved at a furious pace. Every major growth was accompanied by tremendous shattering and passing away. The risks and demands of climbing hard in the mountains stripped away my civilized nature. I became an animal, obeying the laws of the pack, and of survival.
Although some believe the unique experience of climbing might provide the means to rise above the law of the jungle, man is an animal first, of the genus homo second. I feel exalted when my animal self howls in its purest form, when I climb for no other reason than the sincere joy I feel while doing so. And I love how my comfort with my animal nature separates me from my fellow man. Up there I'm not necessarily Nietzsche's superman but I excise the disharmony caused by struggling against domestication. I do things of an uncommonly high order. While these may not make me a better man, on the days when my ego soars I feel superior. No wonder it's so hard to fit in when I come down from the mountains.
I struggle for acceptance in society because my climbing experiences encourage a warrior's attitude. Even within the subculture I sense a growing gulf. I use climbing to fight the monotony and alienation of industrialized life, and to validate myself. The ruthless scrutiny of the mountains keeps me from believing in capacities I don't possess. In another age, I'd use combat as the auditor to prove myself to myself. Peace leaves certain men unfulfilled - if this weren't so, they would not challenge themselves with life-threatening activities to help determine their identity during peacetime - and for some, climbing takes the place of battle. My struggle is the same that's been waged since the beginning of consciousness in man, since blood-soaked hunters came back to the cave and tried to settle in to "normal," tribal life. Following victory in war, the horseman has trouble relinquishing the reins and those on foot are uncomfortable with the evident disparity of power.
Many alpinists have been misunderstood, Walter Bonatti among them. As a climber he was cold and calculating, determined and patient. An extraordinarily intelligent man, he was calm under stress, and a perfectionist who was always dissatisfied. The media put him on a pedestal, apart from other alpinists. Granted, he was better than most, but his goal was provocation not superiority. He hoped his words and actions would propel fellow climbers to overcome their own best efforts. He believed the heroes of the day were "against rather than for this flat, tired, consumptive world," that they "turned their back on it," preferring to risk death "in order to escape into the pure solitude of a mountain, an ocean, a desert." To Bonatti, decadent society, "where nothing is fixed or defined," deprived men of the standards they might otherwise measure themselves against. The lack of authentic values in the modern world disturbed him.
My world is decades older than Bonatti's. Messner came, fought the good fight (against the use of "unfair means") and retired. He inspired many but his ethics were too strict for the perpetually evolving world of climbing. Today, what he believed right is considered wrong by some or at least open to question. Rucksacks full of techno-courage are commonplace. Ethics are, at best ephemeral, at worst, convenience. Man's mutable rules make it difficult for the modern climber to define him or herself. As Messner discovered, it takes a good deal of talent to maintain strict ethics. His great ability dictated a Spartan code others found unreasonable. Although I hold certain ideals sacred - I won't place bolts or siege a route - and I try to accomplish my goals without tarnishing them, I know what kind of pressure will make me crack. Under a constant threat, ideals weaken as will and muscles flag. I learned that I'll trade away an ethical stance in order to survive. I know how much it takes to bend me and wish that others could resist as long. I use alpinism to explore chaos and I don't always like the personal shortcomings I find within.
When I communicate my uncertainty and fear, and efforts to overcome self-imposed limitations, people often misunderstand. They ask why I write about such painful experiences or why I chose them at all. I understand that their climbing reality is different from mine. Perhaps it's a hobby rather than a lifestyle, maybe without the risk or lethality that I know. No doubt, without the emptiness left by accidents that killed many of my friends and partners. On one hand, the critics and I are human, and similar, so we should be able to communicate. On the other hand, I've seen "attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion," and if they haven't experienced the same thing our eyes can never meet. They can't walk in my shoes and I'll never walk in theirs without remembering what I've seen.
I began climbing mountains in anti-Establishment outrage. But Establishment is chameleon and today I consider certain climbing styles, attitudes, and ethical positions wicked enough to raise a standard against. Ever a punk, I treat Alpine Style as rebellion: against an acquisitive climbing culture, against collectors for whom a summit or rating supersedes experience itself. I fight a status quo that allows participants to settle for less. I despise the attitude, rarely the individual. I'm not talking about something new. And I'm not suggesting that my way is the right way for anyone else. I'm simply burning the minimalist torch great men like Winkler, Buhl, Messner and Chouinard carried before. Their shoulders were big and strong. Maybe the modern world doesn't have room for them but it will be a sad day when alpinism becomes homogenized, when adventure is a commodity, and when demands for political tact drown out the rebel yell of the man on horseback.
Mark Twight 2001