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The Changing Nature of Climbing

The highest recorded temperatures in 250 years closed the Matterhorn
to climbing in July; the permafrost that had held it together for time
immemorial melted, and the resulting rockfall as the mountain
sloughed off its layers made ascent a suicide run. Mt. Blanc was next,
its crevasses yawning, the Mayor of Chamonix issuing an August warning
against ascent by the voie normale, until the mountain guides
stopped booking climbs of the peak by any route. The closures did not
last long–a lot of income rides on the summer months in the climbing
communities of the Alps–but they underscored the ephemeral
nature of our mountain environments, not to mention the decimation
global warming is having on our world. “We have found that the
ground temperature around the Matterhorn has risen considerably over
the past decade,” commented Professor Michael Davis, who happened
to be meeting in Switzerland for a conference organized by the
International Permafrost Association when the Matterhorn was closed.
“The ice that holds mountain slopes and rock faces together is simply
disappearing. At this rate, it will vanish completely with profound consequences.”
Estimates suggested it will take thirty to forty meters of snow
to return the Alps to a state of glaciation they enjoyed one year ago. The
Alps may never recover from the devastations of the summer’s heat.

Closer to home, the heat settled in, unwelcome, unrelenting. July
was the hottest month ever recorded here in Jackson, Wyoming–we
saw sixteen days with temperatures above ninety degrees–and the
Tetons were soon stripped of their usual elegance as the heat desiccated
the land. As I write, in mid-September, snow has returned to the
summits, and the mountains are reclaiming their shimmer. The storms
of autumn are, however, a temporary reprieve from the more permanent
attrition affecting the mountains of the world. Our mountains
are changing. While rock climbers are taking advantage of the new possibilities
the warm temperatures and drier stone provide up high on the
north faces, in most parts of the world the change is for the worse.

We cover the important new routes of the world in our Climbing
Notes, and we’ve come up against the affects of global warming even
here. In July, the Slovenian team of Matevz Kramer, Tadej Zorman and
Matej Mejovsek put up what they thought was a new route on the
northeast face of Yerupaja (6634m) in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash.
Limitless Madness! (VI 5c WI6, 1900m), as they called their effort, was
climbed in a thirty-eight hour push from July 28 to 30. “The first
pitches were mixed climbing, announcing a very delicate ascent,” wrote
Mr. Mejovsek. “The middle of the route surprised us with numerous
seracs [and] the first extreme ice (WI6). The next day the face became
crazy! Rocks from the top were falling down, making it all the more like
a battlefield scene….” Hugging the rock wall to the left to avoid the
rockfall and serac danger, the climbers made it to the top of the east buttress
(ca. 6550m), less than 100 meters shy of the summit, before retreating
in the face of storm and avalanche conditions.

We do research whenever possible on the new routes we report in
these pages, and a quick glance through the journals revealed that the
line claimed by the Slovenians was noteably similar to one climbed by
Paul Dix and Chris Jones in 1968 and Peter Habeler and Reinhold
Messner in 1969. All three lines share 400 meters of climbing at the
base of the face where it bottlenecks into a “V”; higher, Dix and Jones
took a line to the right, Habeler and Messner carried on straight up,
while the Slovenians stayed to the left to avoid the objective hazards.
Though all three parties did indeed climb different parts of the upper
wall, variations on a broad ice face fifty meters away from an established
line are just that: variations. Coupled with the fact that the
Slovenians connected with a line established in 1969 by Austrians Egon
Wurm and Sepp Mayerl before turning back short of the summit, our
research seemed to be done: the team had established a variation, and
we would omit it from our Notes.

But the climatic changes of the last generation have rendered such
matters more complicated. A phone call to Mr. Jones to clarify details
of his 1968 ascent confirmed that he had, indeed, climbed the face, but
he is the first to admit that recent photographs of Yerupaja suggest his
ascent and the Slovenian?s 2003 effort occurred on quite different terrain.
Indeed, Mr. Mejovsek and company climbed 500 meters of technical
terrain up to 5.10a WI5+ simply to reach the start of the northeast
face proper; Mr. Jones remembers “roped glacial climbing that
required some rope maneuvers” thirty years earlier. When we presented
our findings to Mr. Mejovsek, he remained convinced his team had
climbed a new route. The “approach” today involves technical climbing,
and the upper part of the face climbed by Dix-Jones and Habeler-
Messner, threatened by seracs that did not exist a generation ago, is now
only climbable on the extreme left. In other words, the mountain has
changed so much the 2003 team feel they climbed a completely different

There are a couple of points here. The first is that climbers need to do
better research. One good resource is the Himalayan Index
(, which chronicles ascents in the
Greater Ranges and which cites references to the various climbing literature
available. Publications such as this magazine will do what research
they can, but deadlines and sheer volume of climbs put a cap on the
amount of work we can do; we depend on the climbers themselves to
provide accurate context to their climbs. The other point is a far larger
one, and less easily resolved: How do we deal with the changing nature
of the climbing mediums?

There are no established methods in the climbing journals of the world
to handle climatic change and its effects on alpinism. Glaciated snow
routes that thirty years later become overhanging WI6 is one thing, but
the larger issue is, of course, more problematic and more social in nature.
Our environment is changing, and as humans who drive cars, heat
homes, generally consume more than our share of the natural resources,
and vote, we share a responsibility for that change. We cannot simultaneously
extol the virtues of our adventures in the natural realm and
remain ignorant of our effects on its evolution. In our daily lives, and in
the voting booth, we must remember our obligation to protect and preserve
the medium we so deeply enjoy. Great damage has already been
done to the planet, but we have the power to limit the damage in the
years to come. In climbing, we experience nature on its terms, not ours.
Letting these experiences influence our comportment will help to preserve
the climbing life for future generations.

–Christian Beckwith