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Fear Itself

I was scared. Andy and I had run up Garnet Canyon at dawn, intending to solo the North Ridge of the Middle Teton and continue along the southern half of the Grand Traverse. The North Ridge is not a difficult climb, but the last time I had been on it, I was warmed up, having already been moving all day, and the route was bathed in August sunshine. I remembered white granite, blocky steps, satisfying jams. Now, I was stiff from the hike, the route was sheathed in shadow, and instead of white, blocky granite everything felt loose and dark and frigid. The icy holds were elusive with gloves on, numbingly cold without. And there was the small matter of Dartmouth Basin, some 2,000 feet below.

I perched beneath a small roof and waited for Andy to draw closer. We had climbed past rap stations that made me wonder what I had been thinking the last time I’d been on the route: this wasn’t fun, it was just dangerous. As Andy moved out left onto steeper ground I watched his feet draw even with my eyes, considering, as they rose out of sight, what I would be climbing in a moment, and why his breathing had gone noticeably shallow.

Fear is central to climbing. When it is objective and informed, it can keep us alive. After all, climbing is dangerous; embarking on certain routes under the wrong conditions can yield disastrous results. To make good decisions, climbers, like all people, need good information. With it we can manage our fear rationally. And that is important, given the nature of the pursuit. Understanding our fear–gauging it and choosing when to heed it and when to shove it aside–is thus integral to climbing, but lately, at least in the United States, fear management has taken on new dimensions.

Of particular note in this issue are trips to Pakistan by two strong American teams. Doug Chabot, Jeff Hollenbaugh, Steve House, Bruce Miller and Steve Swenson, accompanied by Marko Prezelj from Slovenia, made their way this summer to the Charakusa Region, and later Nanga Parbat, with notable results (see the cover of this issue, and the accompanying note on Pages 93-94). Josh Wharton and his partner Kelly Cordes traveled to the Karakoram’s Great Trango Tower in June, where they made the first ascent of the longest rock climb in the world (“The Unveiling,” Pages 46-53). As impressive as their accomplishments were, what is remarkable is that these Americans went to Pakistan at all.

Pakistan is an American ally in the “war on terror,” but the last few years have not been easy for the country. Fears of terrorism, sometimes leveraged into larger, and largely inaccurate, fears of Islam in general, have affected the perception of Pakistan in America, including climbers’ perceptions. Pakistan has never been the easiest, or least expensive, country to visit; before 2003 all mountains higher than 6000 meters in Pakistan required a peak fee, and regulations stipulated the inclusion of a Liaison Officer (LO), whose outfitting and provisioning could turn into a logistical nightmare. The Ministry of Tourism was a bureaucratic labyrinth worthy of Kafka. Though the country features such fantastic peaks as the Ogre, Nameless Tower and K2, climbers needed to be prepared for certain financial and emotional challenges if they visited.

This changed in 2003, when in an attempt to attract more tourism, Pakistan dropped peak fees and LO requirements for peaks lower than 6500 meters, streamlined the bureaucratic process and reduced the fees for peaks higher than 6500 meters by fifty percent. Suddenly, some of its most inspirational objectives were within the reach–at least financially–of normal climbers. The tactics worked: in 2004, European, Russian and Asian teams all took advantage of the lower fees to explore one of the world’s great climbing ranges. K2, for which the permit fee for a team of seven was reduced to $6,000, saw its busiest season ever, with nearly seventy climbers reaching the top (the total number of people who had summited before this season was around 180).
But where were the Americans? Besides the two groups mentioned above, we could find word of less than half a dozen other climbers from the U.S. who ventured to Pakistan in 2004.

“Certainly there are places in Pakistan I would not want to go as an American,” says Steve House. “However, the areas climbers and trekkers visit–the capital city of Islamabad, Skardu, maybe Gilgit–are very safe, in my opinion…. I traveled alone through the northern areas of Pakistan quite a lot these past two years and never felt the least bit frightened or threatened. And it is interesting to note that visits from climbers and trekkers of European origin are back to their pre-9/11 levels.”

Kelly Cordes had similar experiences. “We named our new route [on Great Trango Tower] the Azeem Ridge. Azeem is an Urdu word meaning great, in terms of size but more importantly as a greeting of fondness and respect between friends. In a word, it describes our feelings about the wonderful people we met in the northern areas of Pakistan. The widespread, sweeping nature of fear and propaganda back home is absurd and carries an ugliness disturbingly similar to racism in its de facto portrayal of all people in one entire region of the world as ‘bad.'”

To us, the experiences of the American teams in Pakistan are important, because only firsthand knowledge of a place, a people, a culture can dispel the ignorance that is a natural bedfellow of fear. People around the world are generally good; it’s the politicians we need to regard with a healthy degree of suspicion–especially in a presidential election year.

By the time this issue goes to press the next administration of the United States will have been determined (barring, of course, a repeat of the 2000 election). With it, perhaps, will come a new collective perspective on foreign lands and their people. Let us hope it evolves beyond the politics of fear–far too pervasive today–that leave us in a state of national trepidation, afraid of everyone beyond our borders. Yes, certain fears are justified, and caution can indeed save us the pain of naivete; but as climbers, we know that we cannot make good decisions without accurate information. Personally, I prefer my fear the old-fashioned way: straight up, without the spin.

–Christian Beckwith