Last night was a special night for mountaineering. The annual American Alpine Club (AAC) dinner was held in New York City and Reinhold Messner was the after dinner speaker, no addressing a packed house. Earlier in the day, several discussion panels were held, again to a full room of interested climbers.
I went to bed late last night proud to be a climber and a member of the AAC.
Legends – Old and New
First off was a discussion moderated by Jim Clash, adventure write for Forbes and other magazines plus an adventurer in his own right, with Ueli Steck and Sir Chris Bonington. It was quite the contrast seeing the 80 year-old talking with the 38 year-old Swiss Machine. Clash gently pulled stories from each of them over the hour.
I especially enjoyed the dialog around speed. Of course Steck has the speed record on the Eiger north face, Heckmair route, in 2:47:33 hours, solo in 2008 and another record on Annapurna’s south face in 2013 at 28 hours. Bonington simply smiled when he said it took him, “days.”
Both alpinists agreed that the sport is moving forward with exciting advancements. Steck said “climbing is not a competition.” He went on to acknowledge he cannot do at age 38 what he did at 28, and he was fine with that.
Another excellent exchange was when Steck asked Bonington how he led such disparate personalities on very large and difficult expeditions back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Sir Chris spoke at length on the challenges but summed it up for me by saying a true leader cannot make anyone do something they do not want to do, thus he never asked anyone to something he didn’t already know they wanted to do.
His story about being in Antarctica and summiting Vinson when he was guiding Dick Bass and Frank Wells on their 7 Summits bid was another highlight.
The panel closed with a short discussion on Everest. Bonington said “summiting Everest is a great personal achievement and something to be remembered forever” However, he went on to say, in a very diplomatic manner, that if you are bothered by fixed ropes and crowds, there are thousands of great mountains yet to be climbed, so go out there and find one.
Clash then invited mountaineering living legend Reinhold Messner, who was in the audience, to ask Steck a question. Thus his question on the true reason for the 2013 fight on Everest with the Sherpas. Steck proceeded to take the audience through what had happened without blame or judgment. And never really gave a simple reason. Messner, in his true style, summed it up with a short lecture on crowds, infrastructure and sharing.
These are few one-liners I live Tweeted last night:
- Ueli Steck: “faster climbing is safer, you spend less time on the mountain”
- Chris Bonington “siege climbing was only choice in the 1970s”
- Ueli Steck “if you lose the fear, you die”
- Chris Bonington ” never climb with a fearless person, it will get you killed”
- Chris Bonington “reaching the summit of Vinson was one of my moments”
- Ueli Steck “alpinism is not a competition”
- On why Reinhold Messner is the greatest mountaineer of all time? Ueli “look at what he has achieved, and he is still alive “
This is a recording of the interview graciously provided by mtnmeister.com
I then had the honor of moderating the next panel loaded with Everest notables including: Dave Hahn (15), Melissa Arnot (5), Garrett Madison (6), Phunuru Sherpa (9), Greg Vernovage (1) and Ngima Karma Sherpa (8). 45 Everest summits in all, including mine 🙂
I had 20 questions prepared and got right to it with a question on how the mountain has changed, given climate change. Hahn spoke at length that to the casual eye, it appears the same, but photographic evidence by individuals like David Breashears and his Glacier Works project clearly show the glaciers receding on both sides. Phunura noted the lack of snow above the Balcony as further evidence that Everest is getting more dangerous with rock fall.
Melissa Arnot addressed the dangers in the Khumbu Icefall with her personal philosophy that she goes to Everest with knowledge and acceptance of the risks and that is a personal decision. Hahn, put a fine point on the Icefall by saying “no intelligent person would ever choose that route on purpose.” The audience laughed.
Vernovage noted his hope that there will be two ropes in the Icefall join 2015: an up and down one to speed people through the dangerous areas. Madison noted that the route should be moved more towards the center and away from the hanging serac on the West Shoulder.
With respect to the dangers of the South side versus the North, most of the panel simply acknowledged both sides had risks. Hahn went on to talk about the difficulties of climbing the Steps on the North and how the South lacked these difficulties thus the North was more difficult for some climbers. No one on the panel felt a ladder was needed on the Hillary Step.
Arnot spoke on her team’s first ascent expedition last autumn on some of the newly opened 7000m mountains in Nepal. She noted the remoteness and beauty of the area and that it might be an attraction to climbers wanting to see new areas of Nepal compared to the normal trekking peaks of Island, Mera, etc.
On Sherpa safety, Phunura spoke about training and Vernovage gave a short lecture on how his company only uses trained Sherpas. All acknowledged the Khumbu Climbing Center and their contribution to making Everest safer through training the Sherpas in basic climbing skills.
I tried to dig deep on one area of having Western Operators be more transparent in reporting climbing deaths during an expedition. Madison agreed it would be useful to evaluate operators, but had never had a death on any of his expeditions.
Coming back to the dangers in the Icefall, I explored the need to have “luxuries” at Camp 2 in the Western Cwm. The premise is by reducing the loads carried by the Sherpas through the Icefall, the Sherpas would be put at lower risk. Madison said that having more and more equipment at Camp 2, including items such as heaters, was a result of increased competition amongst the operators. Most of the panel thought the amount of large tents and some optional items could be cut back.
We covered a lot more and it was all captured on video by Ben Schenck at MtnMeister.com He will post it on the site on February 9th.
This is a recording of the panel graciously provided by mtnmeister.com
The last speaker during the day was Sasha Digiulian, age 22, who is truly a rock star. She did a short slide show on some of her amazing climbs of routes well in the 5.13 and 5.14 range. She continues to climb while pursuing a degree at Columbia University.
She was refreshingly humble, yet candid with her opinions on challenges, protecting the planet and respect for other climbers.
This is a recording of the presentation graciously provided by mtnmeister.com
The AAC’s annual dinner is a formal affair with coats and ties for men, and dresses for the ladies. Over 500 people gathered at a Park Avenue address to bid on a silent auction and then enjoy an outstanding meal. The dinner has two objectives: 1) raise money for the AAC’s many causes and projects and 2) to honor achievements over the past year, or longer.
Adidas was the main sponsor leveraging their of Five Ten climbing shoes in 2011 to the climbing community.
Phil Powers, Executive Director, was the master of ceremonies and kicked off the evening with several honors including noting Jed Williamson for his years of editorial service for the seminal publication Accidents in North America. Next was Jeff Lowe for excellence in alpine literature, Kim Schmirz received an award for outstanding climbing achievement, Cody Smith for exemplary service to the AAC, Sasha DiGiulian for outstanding achievement by a young climber, Ken Yager for outstanding service in mountain conservation
The highlight of the evening this far was the President’s Gold Award to Fred Beckey – only the 4th time this award has been presented in the Club’s century old history.
Then Powers brought Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson onto stage to present them with lifetime honorary memberships to the AAC for their incredible achievement of climbing the Dawn Wall on El Cap this month. All 500 audience members stood on their feet to acknowledge this amazing climb.
Then the live part of the auction started with a long handled wooden ice axe going for $20,000. The key was that Reinhold Messner was going to sign it for the er in person that night – pretty cool.
Other items auctioned and raising tens of thousand of dollars were getaway trips by Thompson Safaris, Silver Oaks Winery, Dwarikas and Asian Trekking.
A special ask was to raise money to open an AAC campground in the nearby Gunks. Thousands more was raised to finish this $2.3 million project by the AAC.
Around 10:15, Powers returned to the stage to introduce Sir Chris Bonington who went on to introduce Reinhold Messner.
Messier, 70 years young, took the stage to a standing ovation. With his hair in full wave, he spoke with ease and confidence. He started with a picture of K2, saying it was the most beautiful mountain in the world.
More thoughts on some of his climbs, as he spoke in detail on the need for planning with his climbs and that by going fast, alpine style, he was able to finance his climbs for under $10,000 on the lower of the 8000m peaks due to needing less equipment.
But for the large ones like Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, a more traditional approach was sometimes needed. He spoke of trouble getting sponsors early on, and raising money. Something everyone in the audience could relate to.
But as he spoke about his solo climb of Everest without supplemental oxygen, the audience settled in for a . He talked about as the higher he went, the slower he moved. He spoke of hallucinations, falling into a crevasse with no way to climb out, of going higher by instinct, of never feeling like he wanted to stop.
He talked about failure, that he “learned to fail”. He was knocked down many times but kept getting back up. That he loved the adventure, the unknown and that “When you face life and death danger and survive, you are reborn.”
He left the mountains to talk about his polar adventures – equally impressive as his climbs.
Finally he spoke of his five museums about climbing. One in a restored castle in South Tyrol, Northern Italy. He said he has more plans for his museums. In the introduction Bonington said of the museums, they have no “screens”, only climbing tools and pictures – it makes one think.
I listened to Messner with total admiration. He acknowledged that his feats were a progression, ever struggling to test himself and the limits. He was humble yet proud, confident. His view on today’s climbing was obvious as he acknowledged the “young climbers” siting a front row table – Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson – both in their 30’s.
After about an hour, Messner wrapped it up, spryly stepped off stage as Phil Powers thanked everyone and said see you next year in Washington DC, hopefully.
This event is an annual highlight for me. I attended last year in Denver where Yvon Chouinard was the dinner speaker – equally impressive.
Belonging to the AAC is not just about a club, it is about supporting the sport I love, meeting people I would never meet, re-connecting with friends and sharing dreams.
Memories are Everything