If you are searching for a legendary figure in climbing history, look no further than Stefan Glowacz. A strong mind and a strong will, his gentle manners disguise an untameable and resolute mind, tackling a challenging route on a wall, most probably on a remote corner of the world. Three times winner at the Rock Master in Arco (1987, 1988, 1992) and a highly competitive soul, Stefan gave up competitions to travel far and wide in search of adventure. Among the many expeditions, Baffin Island, Russia, Canada, Venezuela, Oman and Brazil, all conducted by fair means and with one goal in mind: freedom in choosing his destinations and in the approach, be it a kayak to Canada, crossing the Antarctic with a sailing yacht or on a canoe in the Venezuelan jungle. An entrepreneur as well as a climber, Stefan founded Red Chili, a successful and highly esteemed company, together with his friend Uwe Hofstädter, twenty years ago. Where does adventure begin and where does it end for Stefan? How did he develop such a passion for the climbing world and the challenges one may be faced up with? Let’s find out.
It would appear that climbing was an obligation for you at the beginning. How did it all start? Well, my parents were and are proper mountain enthusiasts and moved to the south of Germany because of the mountains you can find there. Both my sister and I were pretty much always strapped to a rucksack and would go on hikes every single week-end in the summer. I cannot recall any seaside holiday, it would always be the mountains. Kids may become fed up with this and stop pursuing mountain activities when they get older, but I was always connected to the mountains. As I found hiking boring, I focused on climbing. I attended an ice-climbing course at first, which I did not enjoy so much, but a year later a rock-climbing course gained my attention. It was exactly what I was looking for and the start of many voyages.
You certainly travelled at length. Your Oman adventure was something quite unique. Yes, I went to Oman with Chris Sharma in 2014. We wanted to climb this cave in Majlis Al Jin. The resort and the project were indeed quite exceptional, which is why I was interested in it. At the beginning, however, the plan seemed undoable, because caves are usually wet with loose rock, but this is a dry chamber, with no water whatsoever: it’s akin to a cathedral. The only way in is via two holes, and hardly any water can sift through, which is why the rock is solid. The first time I went there, its dimensions really struck me: I had never seen something like it in my entire life beforehand. I rappelled down to check the rock conditions and it was very solid, just perfect for climbing, so we set off with the project.
Why Chris Sharma? Had you climbed with him beforehand? No, never, though I had known of him for quite some time. He is one of the few climbers of the “young” generation to have inspired me; he is very creative and always pushes the limits. Other climbers may be stronger than him, but his spirit and approach are captivating. When he started climbing, he was fascinated by my achievements in competitions and so we sort of inspired each other from different points of view.
Will there be more projects with him?I have to say he is so much into sport climbing, but that no longer suites me. I am more focused on expeditions, and Chris does not enjoy suffering for a long time. He is also very busy and wants to set up some business to make a living out of climbing. So we may do something together again, but certainly no expeditions.
March 2013. You climbed Seven Giants in a Siberia expedition. Quite an unusual destination. Red Bull talked to me about this place, as Red Bull Russia wanted to organise a competition or a race there. It felt like it was so far away, so remote and so unbelievably cold that it seemed impossible to be able to do something there, so they let the whole thing drop. But I was still fascinated by it and thought I could go and take a look for myself. I was there in December, but it was too early, with not enough snow and ice to move around safely, then it started to be so cold, with temperatures reaching -50 C and so we decided to quit. We returned three months later and it was much better, with slightly warmer temperatures and enough snow to allow us to move around. I would say that getting there is an adventure in itself. If you look at these icy pillars, they are indeed astonishing, but the climb is not technical, neither difficult, and rather uninteresting. The ambience and the setting, as well as the difficulties in getting there, make this a unique experience.
I’ve heard that the locals criticised you for climbing these pillars. No, that is untrue. They don’t care so much. There is a myth around this area. The older generation believe that there are ghosts in this place and if you venture out, they will get hold of you. They don’t even want to talk about them, but the younger generations are not interested in this at all. The story goes that seven giants once walked across the hill to kill another tribe: one of the members of this tribe was playing the drum, but he was so fascinated by the scenery that he stopped in awe of it. At this moment the giants were transformed into stone. This is one of the seven Russian wonders, so the place is quite renowned among the locals, but they are not so fussed about it at all.
In April 2008 you set off for a trip to Baffin Island, looking for a wall that you were not even sure it existed. It’s fascinating how you decide to embark on such projects: can the expedition itself be more important than the actual goal? I would say that the climbing is only one aspect of expeditions such as this one, and it’s not the most important one. If climbing is my focus, then I devote myself to sport climbing and go to places like Spain, Italy or France for instance. If you are after remote places and walls, other aspects may well overshadow the climbing, for instance where to go, how to find a certain wall with the features we have in mind. Are there the mountains we expect? Will it be possible to set up a very hard climb? There are so many questions that the climbing then takes a minor role when set into the bigger picture of an expedition. I am a really passionate climber and adventurer at the same time: I would say the latter aspect came into being after my competition career finished and I wanted it to have the same standard of the standard I had reached when I was competing. When I go into an expedition the question of how I get to a certain wall – and how I get back to civilisation – acquire the same role as the climbing itself.
Gaurishankar, Nepal. April 2011. This was the first time you tackled complex projects at altitude. I had always been looking for interesting projects in the Himalayas. All the mountains I knew did look appealing, but I found all the red tape regarding permits, agencies and so on just too exhausting. I go to the mountains because I want to be free and make my own decisions, though that is not possible under these circumstances. I did not warm too much to the way climbing was conducted down there.
So how come Gaurishankar? Well, at one point I thought I had to give it a go, as opposed to just be an outside observer. At 7134m, Gaurishankar may not be the highest mountain in the area, but the wall we had intended to climb, the south face, with its 1800m length, was very challenging. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, and not the easiest if it’s your first Himalayan expedition. I guess that’s why I was so nervous at the beginning.
You haven’t always succeeded the first time you attempted a mountain, for instance in Roraima Tepuis in Venezuela or in Patagonia, but this time you did not feel like going back. Why? Altitude was difficult to come to terms with, I felt a lot of pressure, and realised that climbing a wall like that would entail six days to reach the top and three to come down. All in all you would spend a week on the face. Any minor glitch could prove fatal, and I do not want to risk my life for things like this any longer. Perhaps age and experience teach me this; I believe that life is too beautiful to risk throwing it away on a wall. I came to realise this while I was there.
You often talk about red tape and how stressful that is, in particular regarding permits to go to a certain place. Mountaineers sometimes have to refocus because their permits for a specific goal have been denied. How would you react, were this the case? I need to be attracted to a mountain, and cannot switch this enthusiasm at the drop of a hat, as you are sometimes forced to do with permit allocations. When I organise an expedition, I want to go where nobody cares about what I do. I set off and a couple of weeks later I go back to civilisation. That’s freedom in my terms. It happened that we would walk for days before we could see the face of the mountain we had come to climb: if you move forward and never sleep in the same camp, then suddenly your target appears and it’s a marvellous experience. You have to try and build a relationship with the mountain you are courting, and if I don’t feel this connection, I cannot climb it.
What role do your sponsors have in your choice of place? I have complete freedom in this and were they to guide me in my choices, I simply would not accept it, as it would mean it’s not the right partner for me. For this reason I founded Red Chili twenty years ago. I did not want to be obliged to follow rules, but be free to set my own. I wanted to have something in the background, which would financially support me.
Had you envisaged it would become such a big company? Do you still have an active part in this? Well, I am not simply the co-founder. My friend Uwe and I we have a 50/50 ownership. He oversees the daily business, but strategic decisions are taken together. At the company grew bigger, it meant I had to invest more and more in it, and I enjoy this fully. It’s akin to an expedition. We started it, in fact, thinking that nobody better than climbers could set up something like this, as it is part of our DNA. When we climbed in Yosemite, we felt the need to climb with sensible shoes, for ours were just terrible, and we came up with our own products. We tried to get all the necessary information to set up a company, what our competitors were doing, R&D and so on; it was just so exciting, exactly like a proper adventure. And it’s still the case now. If I reach the stage I cannot climb anymore, then I would put all my energy into this. I was lucky enough to lead an independent life, just the way I wanted to, so anything that comes now is a gift.
Do you ever think about your competition days? After Tupilak, we adopted an overland approach and it was the first one carried out by fair means. We realised that was exactly the way we wanted our expeditions to be led, so we carried on that way for all our other projects and searched for new ideas, for instance Greenland with canoes, a sailing boat to Antarctica and so on.
You make it sound smooth and easy, but you’ve certainly encountered glitches and problems. Of course, these projects are all tough and hard. I would sometimes wonder “why am I dong this?”, but then you know that you always have to suffer in an expedition, if you want to test your limits. There is no playing around with it.
You were nominated for the Piolets d’Or in 2005 for your route on Cerro Murallon in Patagonia, together with Robert Jasper. What role does this prize play for you? Well, I am not bothered by it all. You should not search for your goals with the idea that maybe you’ll be nominated for a Piolets d’Or, so this award adds a touch of competition to the mountaineering world, where there should not be. When Robert and I were nominated, I told him that, were we to win the award, we would not go on stage and we would not accept it. We wanted to make a clear statement. I think this prize is a farce; it is not possible to judge achievements in mountaineering, as there are so many different components, such as creativity, performance, risk and so on. Adventure races and climbing, ski touring or trail competitions exist for that purpose.
You have just come back from Baffin Island, after your third expedition there. What difference was there this time and why did you go back? Baffin is a magical place for adventure and big wall climbing. The conditions are harsh and logistics can be a real challenge. Our expedition was conceived to be ‘by fair means”, but carrying all the necessary gear for a big wall first ascent was challenging.
… Stay tuned for more!!
All pictures cop. Stefan Glowacz, unless otherwise stated.