The Piolets d’Or have come and gone, and with them the usual flurry of congratulations and admiration for outstanding achievements. Ceremonies in Courmayeur and Chamonix brought a festive touch to both towns, along with eminent mountaineers who could catch up with colleagues, speak to journalists, and illustrate their deeds.
I have always been fascinated by Alaska. The “50th state”, so far up on the top left-hand corner of North America, distant, isolated and secluded. Why do people go there? And more so, why do they go back, time and again? I was keen to find out.
Nominated for the Piolets d’Or for their new route on the north-east buttress of Mount Laurens (V A1 AI4 M7, 3052 m, south-west fork of Lacuna Glacier, south of Foraker), undertaken in May 2013 in over 67 hours, Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman fell in love with this state and would do anything to convey their zeal.
Here is a brief encounter with two talented, well-respected, and sensitive mountaineers.
Graham, you were born in New Zealand, and you Mark in the USA. How did you meet?Graham: When I was 16, living in the US, my parents sent me on a climbing course, to make sure I was going to learn the proper way, and Mark happened to be teaching that course. That’s how we met. We climbed together for a while, then I went back to NZ. I eventually came back to the US, to various states on the West Coast, and then Mark and I started climbing together again in Alaska. We have a similar foundation in climbing and we are good friends, so we get along really well.
Mark: Well, it’s an absolutely breath-taking mountain range. It’s also an Arctic range, not because it’s set above the Arctic Circle, but because of its geographic location and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and in view of its latitude, it is an incredibly glaciated terrain. So although its elevation does not match places like the Karakorum or the Himalaya, for instance, it equals them in glaciation. You find lower elevation peaks, which feature ice formations, and steep fluted bases not found anywhere else. The amount of valley glaciers you can travel on seems to be never-ending. Most of the range is good, with sound granite attracting people from all over the world, eager to attack this type of rock, which takes protections well and yields good climbing. All in all a fabulous mountain range, made even more unique by the amount of snow that can come at any one given time and can pin you down. Many climbers have lost their lives to this, maybe not having enough fuel to survive a ten-day storm. We’ve certainly had our fair share of foul weather up there, but that’s part of the game.
Why did you name the east face of Mont Laurens “The Mastodon”?
Mark: Graham and I tend to choose a lot of peaks for their aesthetic nature and like to personify mountains. We can have a wild imagination when it comes to these things. We were in the area in 2011, climbing the first ascent of Voyager Peak (3,657 m.). We were in the north-west fork in the Lacuna glacier. It was a four-day trip to get to the base of that peak and from the summit we noticed Mount Laurens. At the time we didn’t know its name. We were able to witness the light at different times of the day, to understand the complexity of this face and it just looked like this giant elephant mask, hence the nickname referring to this big beastly prehistoric animal.
You had a very adventurous approach during this expedition. Can you tell us a little about it?
Graham: Yes, this goes back to your question regarding what makes Alaska special. One of its predominant features is its deep wilderness. Alaska is simply a vast wilderness of tundra, mountains, glaciers, giant rivers, and it is not vastly populated at all. Having an enormous glaciated mountain range in the middle of all this means you feel a real sense of wilderness, venture into places where people don’t usually go, or in some cases have never been. So we found this corner in the Alaska Range with this enticing object and had to figure out how to get there. We talked to our friend Paul Roderick, one of the pilots in Talkeetna, the town you fly out from to get to the range, and together we found a landing strip which would allow us to get as close to the face as possible. This was 17 km from where we wanted to set up base camp. He dropped us there, we left some equipment and then started skiing towards the face. It took us two days to get to base camp, close to the face. We spent three weeks there, during that time we made two attempts and the final third, where we succeeded.
You said this ascent hasn’t had so much resonance in the US. Were you surprised to receive the nomination for the Piolets d’Or?
Mark: Well, I think we had some resonance in the small circles of climbing and alpinism communities. Many people were excited for us in the US, they knew what it meant to be nominated. We had already done similar trips to this one: two years prior we walked into the north-west fork of the Lacuna glacier It was a similar style of ascent and people realised that long approaches did not discourage mountaineers from climbing in the Alaska Range. Our efforts were understood, Alpinist and Climbing talked about it, also a local magazine called Scree, run by Steve Grund in Anchorage. So in those circles we obtained resounding support, but it’s fair to say that climbing does not receive so much attention in the US, so we were happy with what we obtained in terms of press coverage.
Graham: Climbing is seen as a cultural activity in the States. It stems from the Yosemite region and now things are improving, it’s becoming a more respected activity, but clearly other big sports take on a predominant role in the press. We are not affected by this at all. We are part of a very close-knit community and we enjoy what we do.
Clearly, being nominated felt affirming, and it also means that we get exposed to the press, we talk to journalist, but we clearly did not have the Piolet in mind when we set off for our adventure!
No, I don’t think you did. It would be impossible to carry on fighting and enduring terrible conditions, if you knew you were doing it just to obtain an award. We set ourselves goals because we like the challenge, or we want to test ourselves, not to obtain a trophy. I am sure most climbers and mountaineers can agree with this.
Mark: I honestly don’t know how you would or could be climbing just to obtain an achievement. It seems like an interesting, but odd issue to me.
Yes, there are controversies within the mountaineering communities, as well. Marko Prezelj, who won the Piolets d’Or twice [rejected in 2007], says himself that it is impossible to choose one among all the ascents within a year.
Mark: I spoke with Vince Anderson about that. [He as awarded the Piolets d’Or with Steve House in 2005, for their route up the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat]. He touched on what Marko had said and that was a time when you made the presentation yourself. They have changed that since Marko’s feedback, who thought it was a story-telling competition. Nowadays we give all the data to the committee and they then can make their own assessments. Colin Hailey also said he prefers this format, as it solves many potential issues.
Graham: I think that saying that people climb with this achievement in mind would suggest that climbing is competitive. And it is not. We both agree that climbing is extremely subjective. There are some amazing ascents here that have not made it in the finalists, but one may argue they should have, so potentially we could go on forever discussing about it.
Mark: All the ascents that happened in Alaska this year were exceptional, so to say that ours was the best of all would be inaccurate.
I think that this is a celebration of Alpinism, and the Piolets choose few instances of the many achieved, giving ideas of what they want future Alpinism to pursue.
Mark, you earn your living as a mountain guide. Are these expeditions your passion?
Mark: Sure. I guide around 200 days a year ice climbing, rock climbing, doing avalanche courses, ski-touring. I guide in Europe, but clearly I tend to spend most of my time in the North Cascades (Washington State), in Colorado, in Alaska. I spent nine years guiding in Alaska, but I never did a personal trip. I must have done twelve expeditions there, before doing my own climbing, and that was frustrating. I could not express myself in this beautiful range, so I did a four-week expedition in the Ruth Gorge. These peaks have seen many ascents, but with them I was able to cut my teeth in the area and realised that I really wanted to pursue alpinism and tackle steeper faces, as well as technical climbing and a good level of commitment. Alpinism and personal climbing is my passion and it helps me staying motivated to be with my clients.
Graham, what do you do when you are not climbing?
Graham: I work as a geologist and as a climbing ambassador, so clearly I climb a lot during the year. I am also a member of the Alpine Club and work with them a lot.
Your rope-party seems to be very strong. How many expeditions do you do every year and what are your future projects?
Mark: Yes, we get on very well and of course we do discuss from time to time, but then we just try and deal with any problem, which may occur.
Graham: I am going to Alaska in two week’s time and Mark will be there at the beginning of June. I will be in the Revelation Range.
Is Alaska your second home?
Mark: Well, maybe defining it “second home” would be exaggerated, but we have certainly built up a strong community up there, which makes everything easier and smoother.
Graham: We often go back to try and assess the region, discover new routes, ,,,
Mark: there is so much terrain, still to be discovered. It is very exciting to go there, a very wild, still undeveloped land where the mind can roam free and new itineraries can be forged.
You can find the video of the nominated ascent here https://vimeo.com/88943148#at=0
Graham is sponsored by Julbo, Petzl, Outdoor Research, Boreal, Cilogear.
Mark is sponsored by Outdoor Research, Julbo, Feathered Friends, Birdwhere.
More details on Graham http://www.grahamzimmerman.com
The American Alpine Club http://www.americanalpineclub.org
The Alpine Club http://www.alpine-club.org.uk