Monday, 25 April 2011

Knocking off The Eiger before Lunch!

Time it seems waits for no man, a turn of phrase maybe but in the past couple of weeks this has appeared particularly true in the world of alpinism. On 18th April Ulei Steck soloed the 2000m south face of Shishapangma one of the worlds 14 eight thousand meter peaks in 10:50hr from bergshrund to summit. Thats not just fast, that's superhuman.

Steck well known for rapid solo ascents had previously made headlines by putting up a series of remarkably fast times on the classic hard routes in the Alps including the 1800m north face of the Eiger in 2:47; a time almost unbelievable for mere mortals who normally take two days to climb the face. Stecks time shocked many in the climbing world about what was possible and last week jaws were again on the floor as Swiss alpinist Dani Arnold rocked up the Eiger in a mind boggling 2:28. Seeing the news on UKC my first reaction was to stare at my computer for a good few minutes slightly incredulous.

There are already debates as to the relative merits of Steck's and Arnolds ascents; Arnold used fixed ropes on a number of sections most notably the Hinterstoisser Traverse Steck did not. In my view this makes the ascents difficult to compare but actually this argument is really a matter of semantics and misses the larger point which is that both times are phenomenal achievements that in terms of physical performance rank along side any performance by any athlete in any sport.

The alpinist/climber as an athlete is a relatively new idea, the top climbers in all fields now have access to world class sports science, training, nutrition. Sure aplinists have made a living from guiding for centuries, but they did exactly that; made a living from guiding. It is only recently that the outdoor industry has grown to such an extent that the very top alpinists can become professional sportsmen able to devote substantial time to training for personal performance rather than dragging punters like me up the Frendo Spur.

What we are seeing here is the inevitable corollary of these improvements, finally coupling the natural talent of a great climber with the physical performance of a world class athlete. The same thing that has caused the explosion in standards we are currently seeing in sports climbing and bouldering. What these ascents are not however is the dawn of a golden age of alpinism.

Firstly there are the routes, the 1938 route on the Eiger is over seventy years old; although hard and with all that history as the "Mordwand (Death Wall)" it is in no way cutting edge in terms of technicality. Both Steck and Arnold are hugely talented climbers comforatble on much more technical ground. The terrain is also familiar, both climbers will have climbed the route many times negating route finding problems, and despite the fact that faces will always be different every time you climb them will have the most if not all of the moves on the climb wired. Yes there is the self control and exposure but lets be realistic climbers do not solo something if they think the are going to fall off!

Steck's route on Shishapangma, photo U. Steck.

The line Steck took on Shishapangma is different, the route was apparently the 1982 British   Route which in terms of technical difficulty is not in the same league as the Eiger; if it was 4000m lower in the Alps I could probably get up it (albeit not in 10:50 hours). I'm basing this rather sweeping prediction on Steck's own comments: "I promised my wife not to do any solos anymore. But this is not really a solo. In this area a roped party would not really belay." . The challenge here is more obviously purely physical, asking the body to work at 100% performance in the low oxygen, and bitterly cold altitude of the ubiquitous "Death Zone".

Secondly I guess the crux for me is there little in the way of exploration and the unknown in either of these ascents, they are routed in the physical performance of the body rather than the exploratory ethos of alpinism of going somewhere new and unexplored. So however impressive I hope this is not the future for our sport.

So where do we look for the new golden age of alpinism? In my opinion the first winter ascent of Gasherbarum II by an international team, and Andy Parkins solo of a new route on Dingjung Ri both occurring earlier in the year, or Steck's own  Piolet d'Or winning alpine-style first ascent of the north face of Teng Kang Poche in 2008 are more important achievements as far as the future of alpinism goes. Combining both physical performance with a healthy dose of exploration and the unknown.

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