Mark Twight
Interview & Excerpt

Note: The following story was excerpted from Extreme Alpinism, by Mark Twight and James Martin, (Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 1999).

I Was Wrong

As I unzipped my fly and added my biological waste to the rest that had been left on the summit of Mont Blanc, I felt the shame come over me. I had climbed the Aiguille du Midi's North Face, the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, then Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc's "normal routes" in less than 20 hours. But my sense of athletic and spiritual achievement was deadened by having used the cable car to approach the mountains, by letting vanity and my quest for recognition and approval inspire an otherwise illogical "enchainment."
I hadn't done it for me, not 100% anyway - and obviously, since I was having second thoughts, the whole thing had not been difficult enough to wipe away my doubts and introspective tendencies. Visibility extended for about 50 miles and I turned slowly, my vacant gaze pausing in Switzerland, then Italy, and finally France. I could almost see the bus stop 12,685' below me. It was where I wanted to be because that bus would take me home.

"When it broke apart on the 40° slope I was under it and I tumbled a hundred feet with the debris. The first thing I thought as I swam and leaped out of it was that I'd lost my hat, but that paled beside the paralyzing fear of more serious injury..."""

After another five weeks of rest and training I set out again. Leaving the village of Le Tour on foot during the night of February 6th, I hiked to the Aiguille du Chardonnet and climbed its North Face. The climbing was easy and the weather winter-perfect. Descending the South Face of the mountain placed me at the base of the Swiss Route on Les Courtes. The 3000' high "wall" stood between me and my objective for the day. I started up.
Evil, black ice conditions turned what could have been an enjoyable romp into an ugly brawl where I fought for every placement and nothing felt as secure as I would have liked. I'd left the headweights for my ice tools at home to save a crucial eight ounces, but paid the caloric price of at least two extra swings for every placement. "Stupid fool". But it was no surprise to me; I can sabotage myself better than anybody else. I spent just over three hours on the route, as long as it had taken me back in 1984, and that pissed me off because I thought I'd progressed as a climber over the years.
The descent went smoothly once I'd downclimbed an initial arete of brittle blue ice. It was the edge of the world, with the end of the world a miscalculated step away. But I laughed the frightened tension away as I relaxed into the wet snow and a 2000' bumslide down the rest of the South Face. Trevor and Tanya Peterson skied up to meet me at the Couvercle Refuge where they fed me soup and sandwiches. One cup of their Côtes du Rhone sent me into unconsciousness. I weighed myself down with heavy wool blankets and slept the sleep of the penitent.
After a strong cup of instant black coffee, I sprinted away from the hut at 5am, down the Mer de Glace and across the Grand Balcon Nord to the foot of the Chere Couloir on the North Face of the Midi. There was deep snow at the Plan de l'Aiguille so I didn't reach the face until noon, by which time I could see two other parties already high on the route. I sat down in the bergschrund for a rest, some Cytomax and visualization. The climb is 3000' high, all snow and ice with several steep sections, the hardest inclining an honest 80°. With parties on the route, there'd be excellent steps kicked so I planned on a quick ascent. I had to be quick. The 90' high serac guarding the top of the climb is cruelly motivating.
I finished my food and water. After tightening down all the compression straps, my empty pack felt like nothing more than an envelope. I charged up into the gully and kept going until I was done. A Zen trance began at about 180 beats per minute, and I held my pulse
there for the next two and a half hours. I said nothing to the other teams as I passed them, just nodded and moved on. On top, I waded up the "cattle trough", through the skiers headed towards the Vallée Blanche, and into the restaurant in the cable car station. Sunburned and hollowed out, I felt like a zoo exhibit as I sipped my beer, listening to the whispers of the non-climbing tourists.

"I reversed my ice tool to hit the 600 pound chunk of snow with my hammer. I tapped lightly, saw the movement and heard the cosmic voice say, "Got you sucker". And the block fell..."

I spent the night on a concrete floor above the furnace room - it's the warmest place in the cable car station. My wife brought me up some pasta, cheese sandwiches and moral support. But despite all the comfort, I slept badly and dreamed that something would go wrong. Normally I listen to the voices and rhythms inside me and obey them without question. I believe religiously in my own predilection for success or failure on any given day, and if I don't feel 100% "on", I do not go. But that day I disobeyed the muse. I wanted to traverse the entire Mont Blanc Massif, I'd done half of it and figured it was too much of an investment to walk away from. I laced up my boots and started jogging across the perfectly frozen Vallée Blanche.
The arguments continued inside of me but I ignored the noise. I broke a ski pole and ripped my gaiters with a crampon - all signs that something wasn't right. At the bergschrund below the Col de la Fourche, I knew something was very wrong. I'd crossed it the week before on my way to the East Face of Mont Maudit with my wife. We'd bridged across the crevasse on a huge block, but the block had detached from the upper lip and teetered menacingly, waiting.
I traversed beneath it, searching for another option. Curiosity got the
better of me, though, and I reversed my ice tool to hit the 600 pound chunk of snow with
my hammer. I tapped lightly, saw the movement and heard the cosmic voice say, "Got you
sucker."" And the block fell.

"My jaw was dislocated and the ice tool had gone through my cheek. There was blood everywhere...""

When it broke apart on the 40° slope I was under it and I tumbled a hundred feet with the debris. The first thing I thought as I swam and leaped out of it was that I'd lost my hat, but that paled beside the paralyzing fear of more serious injury and not being able to breathe. Mowed down by Lyle Alzado. My jaw was dislocated and the ice tool had gone through my cheek. There was blood everywhere, staining the snow a vitamin-rich red. I wedged two fingers behind my lower teeth and yanked my jaw forward. The pain was unbearable. When I came to I was lying in the snow. I walked my fingers up the right side of my chest and when I got to the squishy section I figured I'd broken some ribs. At least none were sticking through the skin. Completely high on adrenaline, I tore at my pack, digging for the walkie talkie. When I realized that it had been broken in the fall, that the hospital was more than a helicopter ride away, I hung my head and started limping back the way I came.
As I staggered up the arete back to the cable car station the crowds of skiers parted before me. I felt like Mohammed. My yellow pullover was saturated with blood and people wanted to get as far away from me as they could. Bernard Prudhomme, president  of the Chamonix Guides Bureau said, "It looks as though you've had a very fine adventure Mark." I had no words with which to answer. They didn't charge me for the ride down and as I walked along the Rue Paccard on my way to the hospital I heard the screech of tires. Marile Walch called out demanding to know what had happened. As we raced down the one way streets, I told her the story and asked her to call my wife. In the Emergency Room I waited over an hour for treatment. I didn't care because I knew things weren't going to get any worse.
In the treatment room the doctors all sat around joking. They were climbers and relished stitching me up rather than consoling all the skiers who'd skied into rocks or sprained their knees that day. We talked about conditions, one of them had climbed the North Face of Les Droites the week before. They thought the weather would hold for awhile, but not long enough for me to recover and go out again. I was pronounced cut, bruised, broken and very, very lucky. Nothing too serious though. Dr Cadot figured I'd be able to laugh within a week and climb again after six - "If you want to, that is."
But to admit the truth, after having broken all my own rules, the same rules that had kept me alive through a lot of years of dangerous climbs, I didn't know if I was ready for more climbing. What I really needed was a long, hot bath.

Mark Twight, Author

Mark Twight Question & Answer

Extreme Alpinism

Since the early 1980s Mark Twight has proven himself to be one of America's top alpinists. While probably best known for his controversial and confrontational writings in climbing journals, his routes are among the most difficult ever attempted. Many of his climbs have never been repeated or repeated only in much easier conditions. Even his failures, such as the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat and the North Face of Everest, rank among the great epics in mountaineering history.
Twight approaches climbing as a means of self-expression and transformation. With obsessive focus and will, he examined every facet of climbing and recreated himself to prepare for such climbs as "Deprivation" on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter in the Alaska Range (a 43-hour sprint) and 1988's Reality Bath, which Twight rated as the hardest waterfall climb in Canada. Some locals immediately downrated it despite the fact that it was never repeated.
With the publication of his new book Extreme Alpinism (Mountaineers, Seattle 1999) Twight presents a cohesive and comprehensive account of his career, philosophy, and techniques.
In a recent interview, Twight expanded on some of the ideas he presented in his book:

Why did you decide to write Extreme Alpinism?

I realized the shelves were full of books on mountaineering but none reflected the way people actually climbed on the world's hardest routes. The slow and steady approach is fine on a low altitude volcano or a moderate alpine climb, but it will guarantee failure or worse on a harsh Alaskan wall. Furthermore, I saw little or no appreciation for the kind of mental and physical preparation many alpinists employ before attempting a big peak. So I decided to give an account of my approach. I think most of the best climbers will recognize the validity of most of what I say, even though we may disagree on particulars.

You seem to harp on mental preparation throughout the book.

That is the heart of hard climbing. All the physical training in the world won't help at all if you can't deal with psychological challenges such as fear and various forms of suffering, or if you carry too much tension into situations where relaxation is essential.

And it's possible to train for those things?

Absolutely. You can bumble your way toward creating the kind of character you need or you can force yourself to confront your weaknesses and do it in a way that won't kill you as you learn. I took many of my ideas from the martial arts but there are other ways to approach it. The important thing is to recognize that personal transformation is essential and to find a way to accomplish it.

You advocate two physical training cycles each year. Why only two?

Climbing a big hard peak is a debilitating experience. You must be at your physical peak. But the body can only recover from a genuinely difficult climb and then build back up to optimum performance about twice a year. In the book I prescribe a training cycle that builds a foundation of power and then ramps up endurance, both aerobic and muscular.
Just before leaving for the climb, you must taper a bit, giving the body a chance to replenish all its reserves before the big push. It's a tricky business and I'm still learning how my body responds to the stress of both climbing and training.

You have some unusual ideas on clothing and equipment. For example, you have no use for waterproof/breathable fabrics or the whole idea of layering your clothes.

In cold conditions when you are working hard, standard shell fabrics don't breathe well enough so lots of moisture builds up inside them. On the other hand, the insulation materials breathe too well so the accumulated moisture evaporates rapidly once you stop moving, causing radical cooling. As for layering, trying to wear just the right amount to stay comfortable during each specific level of activity takes too much time, and on a severe alpine climb, speed is key. When climbing, I prefer to wear a very light set up: synthetic long underwear covered by a light, very breathable shell. In some conditions I'll wear a semi-permeable vapor barrier close to my skin to slow down evaporative loss. When I stop I pull out a synthetic fill belay jacket (and pants, too, in very cold conditions) and put it on over the shell. I used this system on Hunter to good effect. It's lighter and way faster than layering. You could object that rain would defeat the system, but if it's raining, the rocks are falling and it's time to get the hell off the hill.

You have a reputation of an intolerant and elitist climber. Do you think that's fair?

Sure. However, I'm intolerant of posers, not of those who differ in their preferences. If someone wants to pull an M-7 (hard mixed climbing, demanding the use of dry tooling) with bolts every five feet, great. I hope they have the experience they are looking for. But if they try to pass roadside gymnastics off as equivalent to hard alpinism, I'll call bullshit.
It's the difference between ballet and war. One takes merely physical skill to accomplish and can be done relatively quickly. The other requires a careful synthesis of physical and psychological capacity, and many, diverse skills in the toolbox. It can last for hours or days. Maintaining the efficiency of both mind and body for such duration increases the overall difficulty. It's like comparing the drive-up window at McDonald's to hunting down and killing an animal, butchering it, and cooking it up into a multi-course meal. One is quite obviously not synonymous with the other.
I climb for my own reasons, for the way the experience changes me. If someone has a problem with me or my style, I couldn't care less. Each individual can pursue any path he wants. Let's just be honest about what we do.

Peter Potterfield, Staff


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