[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]
WHAT IS “STATE OF THE ART” in alpinism? Can you improve in such a deeply personal pursuit? Of course, some of us still want to climb the biggest, most impressive faces on the world’s highest peaks. But nowadays, we often focus on the details, comparing what was done in the past with the advancements of modern equipment, technology and thinking. Progression can take many forms, such as establishing new routes (following an older sense of alpinism) to climbing existing routes with more “sporting” methods–or fusing both approaches. Some aim to climb every pitch onsight, and if they fall short of this ideal, then at least free and clean. Others measure ascents by the hours required and the tactics used: Did you wallow through untracked snow on a Himalayan peak or had other teams already broken trail?
To assess alpinism’s current position and trajectory, we often compare our experiences to those of our predecessors and our contemporaries. But it doesn’t make sense to quantify the value of mountain routes, and it can seem artificial, at times, to assign any kind of clear hierarchy to them. Fleeting ice and snow conditions sculpt climbs into new shapes. The changing patterns of storms, the crumbling of rock or snow and the vagaries of a climber’s mind alter the experiences. And since alpinism is a form of creativity and art, its forms of expression will always shift according to the vision of each participant–and its tales will remain subject to the interpretation of readers. As Voytek Kurtyka once wrote about his ascent of the Shining Wall on Gasherbrum IV, “Some declared it the climb of the century. But did anyone repeat GIV to confirm our illusion of it? Besides, does it make sense to declare a poem the poem of the century?”
Because of my background as a traditional climber, I prefer not to place or clip bolts in the mountains. And because of my motivation and optimism, I want to climb as much as possible. One pitch gives satisfaction, but what about two, or ten? For me, the most exciting form of alpinism is to push the essence of the activity both harder (in terms of difficulty) and higher (in terms of altitude). Imagine a demanding route in the Alps–comprising all the disciplines of rock, ice and mixed–and then elevate it to 7500 meters.
In 2019, my search for technical high-altitude climbs culminated in a new route that Ally Swinton and I established on 6872-meter Koyo Zom in Pakistan, climbing steep ice in crampons and hard trad in rock shoes. I felt as if we’d taken the challenges of Gogarth (a Welsh crag known for adventurous routes, with cracked quartzite cliffs above a crashing ocean) and Scottish winter climbing (storm-battered, frosted crags where even three pitches can take a full day) and transposed them onto a big peak of fissured granite that rises from a glacier’s frozen waves.
Others share this vision. In 2017 French alpinists Benjamin Guigonnet, Helias Millerioux and Frederic Degoulet threaded a clever and direct line up an enormous, 2000-meter-plus-high wall on Nuptse in Nepal, surmounting steep ice to an altitude above 7000 meters. I consider their ascent to be a nod toward the future.
In terms of style, however, many of the most impressive feats were already done back in the 1980s, when alpinists such as Voytek Kurtyka and Erhard Loretan free soloed routes on 8000-meter peaks in astonishingly fast times. Often, they climbed through the night, without bringing any bivouac equipment. Since then, there have been few practitioners of this “Night Naked” approach. Some of the more high-profile solitary high-altitude ascents remain controversial because of questions of proof. Overall, while modern climbers continue to advance technical difficulties, the truly adventurous aspect of alpinism seems to be diminishing. No longer will most teams travel on foot for weeks to access hidden valleys or mythical peaks. Satellite imagery, global telecommunications and helicopters have meant that climbers feel more and more connected and less and less “out there.”
For me, climbing high and free preserves a continuum of the past. It carries the motivation of the earliest alpinists to reach the summits. While it improves on the grades, it also maintains a sense of style and ethics. I still believe, at its core, alpinism is about engaging with the unknown and meeting the inherent demands of a wild peak. “One of the greatest challenges of mountaineering,” as the Canadian alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc once wrote, “is in dealing with the natural obstacles the mountain provides.” To me, falling on a pitch or resorting to aid means that I’ve been found wanting. Free climbing shows that I have the skills to flow upward.
This is also where I’d like to go in the future: the sun arcing overhead in a bright sky, the thin air heaving through my lungs as my partner and I approach 7000 meters on a wall so steep the snow barely settles on it. I’m drawn to routes that make me marvel at their improbability–ones with features that are present “just enough” to allow passage, like a single ribbon of ice or a dark line of a crack, and where any snowdrifts we clear along the way simply float and fall, unhindered, to a glacier, 1000 meters below.
–Tom Livingstone, a British alpinist, received a Piolet d’Or in 2019 for an ascent of Latok I from the north side with Slovenians Ales Cesen and Luka Strazar.
[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]