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."
"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.
"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
the perfectly frozen Vallée Blanche.
"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
and when I got to the squishy section I figured I'd broken some ribs. At least
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
more than a helicopter ride away, I hung my head and started limping back the
way I came.
Mark Twight, Author
Mark Twight Question & Answer
Since the early 1980s Mark Twight has proven himself to be one of America's
alpinists. While probably best known for his controversial and confrontational
climbing journals, his routes are among the most difficult ever attempted. Many
climbs have never been repeated or repeated only in much easier conditions. Even
failures, such as the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat and the North Face of Everest,
among the great epics in mountaineering history.
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.
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.
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff