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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Hard Core

Three cheers for Stefan Glowacz and Robert Jasper, who are headed back to the icecap in Patagonia for a third straight year of battle on Murallón. This isolated 9,285-foot peak was first climbed in 1984 by an Italian team, and Glowacz and Jasper, along with Klaus Fengler, made the probable third ascent, via a new route on the North Pillar, in 2003. Last year they returned to attempt a route on the extremely steep North Face, climbing 21 pitches (17 of them free, at up to 5.12c) before storms drove them down from just below the top. Now they’re headed back to try to clean up the route and make the summit. Any attempt on Murallón is a massive undertaking, with a brutal approach and storms sweeping nearly continuously across the icecap.

I remember the pictures of Glowacz when he was a top sport climber and early World Cup competitor, with day-glo tights and a shoulder-length Peter Frampton ’do. He’s still got the hair, but in recent years he has focused on long, desperate free climbs in the Alps and expeditions to some of the world’s remotest rock faces. Jasper is one of the Alps’ best young climbers, equally capable on 5.14 rock climbs, extreme sport-mixed routes and alpine faces—he has climbed the Eiger’s North Face more than a dozen times, for one. These guys know how to suffer.

All this makes me ponder the old question of why so few American climbers combine world-class rock climbing and alpine skills. I can’t name one 5.14 climber in the U.S. who also does serious mountain routes (not counting alpine rock climbs or big walls). To be sure, there are plenty of American alpinists who crank 5.13 (something I’ll never do, in case anyone’s wondering where I’m coming from), but no one near the top of both games. Perhaps it has something to do with topography. In Ways to the Sky Andy Selters argues that what makes American climbing unique is its wilderness aspect. There are no cable cars to the high peaks like there are in Europe; you have to commit serious time to climb even moderate peaks in the Lower 48. As a result, climbers tend to grow up either spending time in the mountains or spending time at the gym, boulders or crags, but rarely both, at least at a high level. Even for those who want to cross over, it’s just much harder to go sport climbing one day and alpine climbing the next than it is in Europe—no wonder climbers here specialize.

Still, I wonder if there will come a day when some future pundit will paraphrase Yvon Chouinard’s famous essay in the 1963 American Alpine Journal and write, “American climbing gyms have become be the training ground for a new generation of super-alpinists who are venturing forth to the high mountains of the world to free climb the most aesthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth.” Maybe it will never happen. But wouldn't it be cool if it did?

The photos above (and lots more) can be seen at Glowacz' website and Jasper's website.

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