The art of getting high and returning to tell the story

The art of getting high and returning to tell the story

An Alpine Climbing Guide for 21 years, I’ve been fortunate to travel the world in the quest for the perfect climb, mountain culture and scenery. Climbers often ask where I’d recommend they invest their time, the answer is easy: Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.

No other place offers such a range of stunning and climbable ice covered peaks, virgin rock faces and established big-wall classics, and bouldering. Combined with ease of access and a mountain culture among the most hospitable, Peru is easily my favorite destination.

To arrive in Huaraz, often called the Chamonix of S.A., is to walk into a landscape that offers more than mountain adventures. It is time spent with the locals: guides, porters, cooks, arriero’s, restaurant and shop keepers, and the very genial populace that gives Huaraz its charm.

We want to return to this magical place time and time again and managing the rewards of climbing versus the risks are essential. If we die a premature death due to a lapse of judgment, the mountains rarely grant second chances. We need to make the best decisions possible in these potentially very dangerous mountains.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There are only three true sports: mountain climbing, bull fighting, and auto racing, everything else is a game”. It is the nature of this most dangerous sport; mountain climbing, that keeps us coming back again and again, to wrestle with the risks of climbing.

As a professional risk manager in my work as a guide, it is the dynamic nature of these glaciated peaks that bring a few very important points to mind..
Safety is Success

The glaciers and icefalls are constantly changing and therefore a route that was decided upon while in one’s hometown, or even in Huaraz could turn out to be a bad idea based on high avalanche danger from fresh snow slabs or active seracs in icefalls.

In avalanche education courses, one of the more important methods instructors emphasize is to go into each mountain environment with multiple plans: that each plan offers a less risky or more appropriate option. When we have only one plan, we will continue upward despite overwhelming odds or extreme danger. Giving ourselves secondary options is a key to survival as it allows us the flexibility to change.

These types of dynamic avalanche, ice, and even rockfall dangers can change overnight. Hoping for the best is not an approach for a climber who hopes to have a long career (and life) and our ability to adapt and potentially turn back defines our skills.

Some might claim, «Summit or die, either way I win.» It is these climbers that usually get both results in quick order.An example of the safer approach comes from the original 1978 American attempt on the 2,600 meter long North Ridge of Latok, Himalayas. Jeff Lowe, George Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini climbed more than 100 pitches of this imposing ridge in Pakistan before Jeff’s altitude sickness forced them to retreat just 120m below the 7150m summit. They had been on the ridge for 26 days, after completing 2500 meters of hard climbing. Today, none of them has any regress because they understand that safety is success: Their decision saved their lives.

Many of the best alpinists have turned back from their objectives. Steve House’s attempt on the foreboding North Face of Mt. Robson in Canada is a prime example. After completing dozens of difficult pitches and completing one of the hardest WI-7 leads of his career, Steve dropped a stove part meaning his team could not produce the water and needed nourishment needed to safely complete their new route. They made a difficult retreat from high on the wall, only to return a year later to complete it.

Compare these two stories with the results of going for it against all odds, Touching the Void style, and the intelligent alpinist should realize that retreat at the right moment is an enabler. It seems unlikely that any mountain climber in that moment of realizing they have made a big mistake has not regretted their course of action, especially when their decision results in serious injures or the demise of their partners or selves.
Taking care of the Mountains is Good Karma.

No matter what the climber’s religious beliefs might be, most can agree that ‘what comes around, goes around’ and that we owe it to ourselves, each other, and especially the Pachamama (mother earth) to treat the mountain environment with the ultimate respect.

The Cordillera Blanca is too quickly becoming ruined due to thoughtless actions by too many supposed mountain lovers who too easily overlook the impact that they have on the once pristine environments. It is a smart decision to approach this art of mountain climbing with a respect and admiration when one does everything in their power to respect and take care of all of that which we have travelled so far to visit.

Opening our minds to the effects of our actions (or non-actions) and finding ways to give back is part of our own self-preservation. We are all equally affected by these environments and it is upon us to find the balance of purposeful play combined with responsible action.

What can we do? Pick up all of our and other’s trash. Work with the locals to find ways to decrease our impact through the creation of communal bathrooms and similar projects. Use minimum impact camping techniques .The trout population is quickly becoming decimated in many areas and so restrictions on fishing should be proposed. Climbers can pick-up their wands, fixed ropes, feces, and dispose of these items properly rather than thinking that ‘we are not at home, so we can do as we please’. Freedom is a two-way street, and what goes around, will surely come around.

By: Eli Helmuth.
IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide based out of Estes Park, Colorado who likes climbing on rocks big and small and any mountain that’s snow covered for at least part of the year.