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Echoes through the Ages

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 86 (Summer 2024), which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the hard copies of Alpinist for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Jim Donini, at age 72, on the route Chasin’ Skirt (5.10+) in Long Canyon, near Moab, Utah. Donini turns 81 this summer and plans to revisit Pakistan. [Photo] Chris Noble

In recent months I’ve had to think a great deal about this magazine’s future, as well as my own. 

There’s no question that print media continues to face a diminishing prominence in today’s fast-paced, ever-expanding digital world, which skews toward instant self-gratification. But the purpose of alpinism is in the opposite direction of immediate satisfaction. The experience requires a necessary journey of time and space that must be approached with no small level of commitment, and success is measured more by what is learned than what is reached. That is why print is the best medium to capture the stories we publish. To read Alpinist is to explore the history and possibilities of our world; it is to consider the range of human struggles and emotions; it is to trace the threads (and ropes) that connect us to nature and each other. It is a physical medium for a physical practice. 

While digging through the Alpinist archive for research related to this issue, I happened upon articles whose words resonated not only with my current situation but with what today’s writers continue to express in different ways. They are reminders that we are not alone, that others have come before and survived whatever we find ourselves facing today. They emphasize greater truths that remain consistent despite all the upheaval we continue to witness in this modern age of technology, climate change and global conflict.

Of course, with all the massive problems facing us, chasing mountain summits amounts to a frivolous hobby in some respects. And there’s no denying that our pursuits even contribute to these problems—through, for example, the fuel and materials consumed by globe-trotting alpinists, and the exploitation of people and the environment to support these travels and supply the gear we use.

But there are beautiful, less tangible qualities that I continue to encounter among our worldwide climbing community. Climbers tend to be more open-minded and accepting of different cultures. Open-mindedness often goes hand in hand with a love of learning and a breadth of knowledge. I’m continually comforted to perceive how universal our core values are as curious lovers of wild places. It seems to me that what many of us seek in life is to test our bodies and spirits to gain new perspectives. Because of that, I feel connected to a population that transcends borders and religions and gives hope to the planet in a variety of ways.

On a personal level, climbing has shown me much about how I react in moments of risk and hardship, where my weaknesses are, and my strengths. I’ve learned that these qualities are not fixed, either. Where once I was bold, strong and ignorant, I’m now more timid, with less muscle, but more savvy in my approach to problems. And I’m constantly reminded of the importance of trusted partners.

Now, at forty-one years old—after years of injuries and declining health, with a steadily increasing sense of responsibility to my family, friends and communities—I’m facing what every adventurous person eventually does if they are lucky enough to survive their youth and grow into the later parts of life. Many of my climbing dreams are likely to remain dreams. My ego quivers to write this. It feels like a death. If it turns out that I’ve peaked, what remains of my climbing career? What reward is left for me that I would continue to invest time, money, blood, sweat and ever more tears?

I noticed a more ancient story begin to emerge, as though one voice were speaking through multiple people across generations.

I recently had a chance to confront those questions on a weekend jaunt to Indian Creek with my wife. Ten years ago, before a broken ankle made crack climbing intolerable for several years, I thought nothing of warming up on a 5.11 before jumping on 5.12 and 5.13 routes. And I could do that for three or four consecutive days. On this trip, my wrist was still sensitive from a December surgery. My skin was soft; my mind and body were feeble. We started on a short 5.9 hand crack: easy enough. But the next climb, a 5.10 corner, felt a wee bit intimidating. Instead of dwelling on my reduced abilities, however, I concentrated on what I knew and loved most: the stillness of the air and the feel of the cold Wingate cracks in the morning shade; discerning the subtle difference of millimeters as fissures tapered or widened; the nuanced friction and shifts in balance that unlocked an easy upward flow as I slotted body parts and cams; committing to insecure moves with calm nerves and an empty mind as I surrendered any worries to trust in the gear and Mandi’s belay. Fun! By the end of the day, I was sending 5.11 without tearing any skin. More importantly, I got to enjoy a day that was both challenging and relaxing in a gorgeous environment with my partner, and to support her learning as well.

By the end of the second day, still without any gobies, I made a worthy flash attempt on a steep off-fingers crack, a 5.12 in my most difficult size range. I climbed better than anticipated and fell near the top. It was only on the toprope lap that my skin finally tore open. Bloodied and exhausted, I felt satisfied for having tried my best. I felt happy, connected to the place and the people around me. All the elements I’ve always loved about climbing were still available to me! 

Back at my desk, sifting through the Alpinist archive, rereading those stories by different people from different times and places, I noticed a more ancient story begin to emerge, as though one voice were speaking through multiple people across generations. Here is what I saw: 

It’s not that I came to Patagonia, and then I did a climb. It’s more that Patagonia had the time to arrive in me, and then I did a climb….

As I learned to approach a climb for the climb itself, my definition of success changed from “reaching the summit” to “enjoying the moment.” I began to yearn for experiences instead of achievements….

I found myself experiencing a place in a new way, immersing myself in the landscape as the colors of the rolling hills transformed with each season….

I’ve long felt inspired by the philosophy of Catalan climber Sílvia Vidal, who has soloed many remote big walls, sometimes forgoing any contact with other people for more than thirty days. Her climbs aren’t a performance in search of recognition but an inner journey, a way to find out about life….

 “Maybe you were lucky,” [Rolando Garibotti] said [after the climb], “but you made your own luck…. You stayed here in Patagonia. You made sure that you were ready physically, but above all mentally. And all along, you kept an inquisitive state of mind, facing each obstacle not as a problem, but as part of the experience.” 

—Seán Villanueva O’Driscoll,
“The Moon Walk,” Alpinist 75 (2021)

“What’s interesting is that this mountain awakening allowed me later to feel something similar under ordinary circumstances: when I’m in my garden or when I’m just looking into another person’s eyes….”

—Voytek Kurtyka, “The View from the Wall,” Alpinist 43 (2013)

I’ve sometimes had this feeling of great surrender, a breathtaking impression of unity with everything around me: with the space, the light, that soaring…. In the context of mountaineering, it’s related to everything around me, radiating outward—in a way, to nowhere. This feeling was devoid of its object, a kind of “radiating nothing.” So those moments widened the sphere of that precious emotion, as if I were regaining a precious lost link. I believe I felt closer to that “starry fate.” What’s interesting is that this mountain awakening allowed me later to feel something similar under ordinary circumstances: when I’m in my garden or when I’m just looking into another person’s eyes….

The touch of warm stone, the feel of mountain space—that’s enough for me. The mountains are my breath.

—Voytek Kurtyka, “The View from the Wall,” Alpinist 43 (2013), from an interview by Zbyszek Skierski, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft and Ola Hudowska

“Experiences of love, compassion, generosity, humility, or the simple appreciation of our earth’s plants, animals and wild places, might be missed as easily as a shooting star when you blink….” 

—Alan Kearney, “Life on Top,” Alpinist 22 (2007–2008)

At the notch 1,000 feet from the summit, we were greeted by a Polish party sieging a route up the northwest side. Their photographer, Michael Kochanczak, asked, “Have you eat any breakfast?”

“No, we haven’t eaten anything since yesterday,” I replied.

“Here is cornmeal. You eat—we have plenty.”

As he handed me a steaming bowl, his toes stuck out of moth-eaten boots.

The Poles’ generosity gave us the energy we needed to tackle the final wall. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, both for them and for nature, which allowed us to stand atop such a sublime formation. My heart rate had slowed, and even the tension of anticipating a big descent was absent. The entire experience felt like the antithesis of my life on the ground. 

Back home, that summit wholeness quickly faded….

[I pondered] the parts of life that get overlooked when you’re consumed by an obsession. Experiences of love, compassion, generosity, humility, or the simple appreciation of our earth’s plants, animals and wild places, might be missed as easily as a shooting star when you blink…. 

I’d spent some money on a therapist over the divorce, and he’d told me, “Climbing is just a way of coping for you.” Upon returning to town, I paid him another ninety-five dollars and related to him my night out alone: how serene I’d felt at my bivy beneath the stars, gazing up at the dark peak ahead.

There was a long interval in which neither of us spoke and then he said, “So this was a spiritual experience for you?”

I had never heard anyone imply that my adventures were somehow related to the creator. Was all of this some quest for transcendence or just an escape—and how could it help me deal with the realities of two people’s lives torn apart?…

And as many fish go back to the waters where their lives began, I realized that even as I went forward after new peaks, I had been, each time, swimming back upstream. I could’ve told the therapist then: this isn’t a way of coping. This isn’t an escape. This is my way of life.

—Alan Kearney, “Life on Top,”
Alpinist 22 (2007–2008)

For me, climbing and sharing these stories are simply my way of life. I don’t know what the future holds, but as long as I’m here, I don’t know what else to do but continue swimming upstream.