Tuesday, January 31, 2012

'The Path Of Most Resistance' article in Climber magazine

Jono Clarke and Jamie Vinton-Boot paused briefly at their belay. Partway up the west face of Conway Peak, they tried to pick out the line they had decided on the previous day. It was the beginning of August. Fangs of ice, still with an early season sparseness about them, vamped over various gullies and rock faces. The Fox Neve curved away beneath the climbers’ feet, partially hidden by swirls of low cloud. At least it had stopped snowing.

Conway Peak is not one of the big-name mountains in the Southern Alps, but it has been the scene of a number of relatively short but difficult first ascents in recent years. ‘The Vision’, first climbed by Al Uren, was considered the hardest route to date, and given a Mount Cook grade 6+ for its technical difficulty. Uren was forced to aid the crux.
Clarke and Vinton-Boot were also in search of new terrain. The previously unclimbed gully system they had started on at first light tended right, towards the summit ridge. This was the obvious line. Instead, they had decided to veer left towards two steep, discontinuous ice streaks, and some improbable-looking mixed madness between them.
‘We wanted to push ourselves with something challenging,’ Vinton-Boot tells me afterwards. ‘So we had decided to climb towards whatever technical difficulties we could find. It was still a line, but not an obvious one in the tradition sense.’

Clarke and Vinton-Boot are no strangers to difficult terrain. Clarke is in his mid 30s and built like a loose forward. The size of his calves is legend in certain climbing circles. Over the years Clarke has been quietly ticking off the hardest winter routes in the country. Kester Brown, himself no slouch on most climbing terrain, considers Clarke to be, if not THE strongest, than certainly one of the strongest, most technically efficient alpinists to ever climb in our mountains. This is a big call, but Brown has climbed with Clarke a number of times, and has seen him dispatching routes widely considered desperate or test-piece.
There’s one pitch in particular that sticks in Brown’s mind: ‘We were up on Al's route ‘The Vision’, at the crux pitch and it was Jono's turn to lead – thank God! We didn't know it at the time, but the line Al had taken was out to the right, up a crack on a steep slab. Straight above us was a corner that went into a vertical wall and roof/chimney thing. About ten metres up, just above the roof, we could see a bolt that Al had placed. It didn't occur to us that the route went anywhere but up the corner. Jono set off, and after a few metres was in a stance beneath the steep wall. He had found no protection and so was faced with two options: commit to the tapestry of small edges on the otherwise blank rock and hope for the best; or come down. He went up. I edged around the corner to shelter myself from a potential fall. After what seemed an interminably long and tense few minutes, Jono reached the bolt and relative safety.’ Seconding the route, Brown found it ‘desperately hard’, and almost fell a number of times. He still describes that pitch by Clarke ‘as the best lead by a climber that I have ever seen’.

Vinton-Boot is a decade younger than Clarke. Strong, fit and uber motivated, he’s already made his mark with hard bouldering and rock climbing. Now he wants to help raise the standard of difficult alpinism in this country. As a team, Vinton-Boot and Clarke are quite formidable. But even they were feeling tentative as they climbed into some improbable-looking territory on Conway. The crux involved what Vinton-Boot describes as ‘hooking up a diabolical combination of thin, almost vertical ice and tiny cracks in the rock just wide enough to take a pick’. Clarke was on the sharp end and, at one point during the lead, called down that it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in the mountains. ‘Jono’s never usually that animated, so the comment certainly caught my attention,’ Vinton-Boot recalls. ‘But it wasn’t the technical difficulties that have stuck in my mind, more so the attitude we took when we chose our line and then climbed it. I will no longer be blinkered by lines of weakness when I seek new ways to climb mountains. Instead, I will seek lines of most resistance.’

Clarke and Vinton-Boot topped out on the route, which they named ‘Technospectacle’ (IV, AI5, M7). Brown considers ‘Technospectacle’ to be the most technically challenging route done in our higher mountains to date, and it has been given a Mount Cook grade 7, the first winter route with this grade and the first grade 7 without bolts.

Meanwhile down country, Queenstown has fast been turning into the Chamonix of the Southern Hemisphere; or, at the very least, a winter version of Auckland’s Quarry. And, judging by last winter, sustained and technical mixed climbing is taking off.
Daniel Joll has been in the thick of the action. With a strong sense of climbing ethics, not to mention a keen competitive streak and healthy dose of overseas experience, Joll is pushing for mixed grades to keep increasing here. He reckons New Zealand has heaps of suitable terrain, both on the lower and higher mountains. ‘We’re just getting started,’ Joll says. ‘And the key is to take this approach to longer and longer faces. There’s so much potential.’

To cap the latest winter season off, Joll and Vinton-Boot combined to climb ‘Under Pressure’ (M8), which is currently the most difficult naturally protected mixed line in New Zealand. Joll almost got the lead ground up first go.
‘The West and South Faces of Single and Double Cone are a good example of the untapped resource for multi-pitch alpine rock, ice and mixed routes that we have,’ Joll explains. ‘What really motivates me about the Remarkables is the easy access and the endless natural lines. It’s both a perfect training ground and a destination in itself.’

Joll cautions those who would underestimate the routes there. ‘To date all the major lines completed on Double Cone have ended up taking 12 to 17 hours to complete,’ he says. ‘The routes are not long by alpine standards and the combined approach and descent in good conditions can usually be done in around three or four hours. But the climbs tend to have sustained and serious pitches.’

So what’s going on here? Is this nothing more than chest-thumping rhetoric from some up and coming wannabes? Or are our technical alpine grades finally taking another leap forward?
I guess my own interest in this was instigated by a self-confessed ‘throwaway line’ from NZAC executive officer Ollie Clifton. In an effort to garner interest for the club’s AGM a few years back, Clifton suggested a discussion on something random, like…say…’the death of New Zealand alpinism’. This created quite a stir. Views bounced back and forth, but the general consensus – especially from some of the older, more established climbers – seemed to be that New Zealand mountaineering had seen its best days. Most of our challenging lines had been done. And of the new routes, none were worthy of the classics. Our current ‘elite’ were climbing well behind the standard of top overseas climbers. It was even suggested that they didn’t have the drive or the ability of past New Zealand alpinists.

Opinions are just that, and I include mine here. So, rather than trying to be definitive, this article is more of a discussion or a hinting of the possibilities ahead. My intention is to approach this in a positive light, rather than to criticise what has or hasn’t, as well as what is or isn’t, occurring.

First of all, it is important to acknowledge what has gone before. I don’t have the room to list all of our past worldly climbing achievements, but the efforts of Ed Hillary, Norman Hardie, Graeme Dingle, Bill Denz and Lydia Bradey to name a few have been well documented. And it’s reasonable to say that, given our small population and geographical isolation, we have punched above our weight at times. In recent years, Kiwi-American Marty Schmidt springs to mind in terms of world class high altitude (+8000m) achievements, as do Karen McNeil, Pat Deavoll and Julie-Ann Clyma on exploratory first ascents of lower altitude peaks. I should also mention that another Kiwi-American, Graham Zimmerman, is taking steps in the right direction with his first ascents in the Alaskan Ranges. But, in terms of recent cutting edge alpinism, there’s probably only Athol Whimp who could be considered of world-class standard. His winning the 1998 Piolet d’Or (the climbing equivalent of winning the Oscar) with Australia’s Andrew Lindblade for the 1997 first ascent of the north face of Thalay Sagar (6904m) in the Indian Himalaya was a stunning achievement. Many highly-fancied international teams had tried, and failed, on the 1500 metre high face, before Whimp and Lindblades’ success second time around.
At the time, respected Australian high altitude climber Tim Macartney-Snape considered the pair to be the leading figures in Australian and New Zealand alpinism, and certainly world class. Interestingly, Macartney-Snape pointed out that Lindblade and Whimp had ‘embraced the essence of climbing in a way that the current generation down here seems to have lost’. But this climb was over a decade ago. Linblade and Whimp are no longer ‘putting it out there’. So what’s happening now? Who’s carrying the mantle? What direction are we heading in? And can we reach those lofty heights again?

Before continuing, I feel that I need to do a quick summary. How can the ability of a climber be measured other than through the grade of a particular climb? Accurate grading is sometimes as hit and miss as finding good coffee on the road, but it still provides a measure of difficulty. New Zealand’s grading system (ie. the Mt Cook single number grade) is woefully inadequate. How can a single number represent the relative technical vagaries on rock and ice along with the level of commitment? And then there is this new ‘M’ grade.
Whereas in the past, technical difficulties were generally found on either rock or ice, now they are in the dark art of mixed climbing; which, in my view, has the potential to be the saving grace of New Zealand alpinism. Our mountains aren’t particularly high, ice is becoming increasingly fickle thanks to something called ‘the hothouse effect’, and most of our good rock is ironically – (sic) cruelly – concentrated in an area with our highest rainfall. But, it’s incorrect to think that New Zealand’s mountains aren’t steep enough. If it’s taking 12-17 hours to climb new mixed routes on the Remarkables in winter, and this is being done by climbers experienced in this technical approach overseas, imagine how long it would take to tackle this kind of terrain on, say, the east face of Pope’s Nose? In my view, we’ve only just scratched the surface.
I’d like to point out a specific example: ‘Godzone’ on the north face of Torres Peak was first climbed by Al Uren and Craig Jefferies. 16 pitches long, it was generally accepted at the time as a sustained and challenging line, especially by New Zealand alpine standards, and given a Mount Cook grade 6+. But, after recently climbing with Joll on the Remarkables, Jefferies reckons the crux of ‘Godzone’ is probably about WI4 M4. ‘Al did lead the crux with basically no gear that would have held a fall,’ Jefferies adds. ‘And it did take us three days to climb.’

This observation is not meant to belittle the efforts of Uren and Jefferies in any way, but just to illustrate how much more difficult terrain is now being tackled, and still to be tackled, in our mountains. There is certainly a valid argument that a route on Torres is more committing than anything on the Remarkables or even on Conway. Remoteness adds to the grade, or at least to the level of commitment and fitness required.
A recent comment from Brian Alder further illustrates this point. Alder is recognised as having been on the first ascent of two of our ‘hardest’ alpine routes – ‘Bill and Teds’ Excellent Adventure’ on the south face of La Perouse and ‘F___ the Pope’ on the east face of Pope’s Nose. Referring to these routes, Alder reckons the cruxes were ho harder than WI4, ‘just in a big setting and a long way from home’.
Also, it’s worth noting that difficult mixed climbing is not new to our mountains. But, due to the limitations of the Mount Cook grading system, it was not recognised or graded specifically. Routes attempted by Marty Beare and Matt Evrard in the past are examples of this, but mixed climbing was generally considered as a transition between the ice runnels, or to get somewhere to take the crampons off and climb rock. At any rate, if the likes of Joll, Clarke, Vinton-Boot and others keep applying this technical approach to longer faces, then the results will speak for themselves.

Steve Fortune is a well travelled Kiwi climber whose achievements have largely flown under the radar, especially back here. Fortune has made difficult ascents in Alaska, the European Alps, Central Asia and Scotland. After basing himself out of the United Kingdom for a number of years, Fortune has recently returned home to Christchurch.
Fortune has some interesting perspective to add, especially about any notion that New Zealand’s mountains are inferior: ‘Look at the United Kingdom. It doesn’t have large mountains, but it does have a number of icy, north-facing cliffs. This lends itself not to a mountaineering attitude, but to a cragging one, where challenge is found not by bagging peaks, but by climbing steep technical lines. The same cliffs, and often the same climbs that make difficult summer rock climbs become winter test pieces when covered in snow and rime.’

The craggy mountains of Scotland have long been recognised for churning out world-class mixed climbers, some who have gone on to apply their skills to the world’s hardest mountains. And Fortune reckons that more numbers than ever are getting out into the hills in the UK, with queues on the easy classics, hard classics seeing more repeats, and a focussed group of climbers pushing themselves and each other at the highest level.
Fortune thinks it is useful to compare rock climbing to mixed climbing, and even alpine climbing, standards. ‘Top end rock climbing standards are incredibly high,’ he points out. ‘Intense focus and accessible training venues allow people to put massive amounts of time and effort into improving their rock skills. I am quite mountain focussed, yet I still have had far more pitches of rock, or plastic, pass under my fingertips than pitches of ice or mixed under my tools. This is simply because of the accessibility. Imagine where rock climbing standards would be if all you got done was a few pitches of alpine rock once a month, if you were lucky? Now imagine where we could bring alpine standards if we applied the focus and training ethic we have on rock?’

The terrain in New Zealand means most climbers will quickly develop general mountain skills. But, due to access and weather, it can be hard to get a depth of experience on more technical terrain. Fortune believes that the new climbers coming through are on the right track. ‘A renewed focus on
developing technical skills on accessible and less weather dependent mixed crags, such as the Remarkables, in combination with developing all-round mountain skills will allow the big and hard mixed lines of the future to be tackled,’ he says. ‘Climbing in Scotland did not just give me a greater experience in climbing on mixed or thinly iced terrain. It opened my eyes to what is possible.’
Brown agrees with Fortune. ‘Climbers are becoming more training specific,’ he says. ‘And when this is added to better equipment and a change in perception about what makes a challenging climb, it becomes apparent that advances are being made here in New Zealand.’
Brown reckons that the change in attitude has in part been brought back by Kiwis like Fortune climbing overseas. ‘In terms of our approach and attitude towards technical winter and alpine climbing and training, we weren’t going in the same direction as Europe and America. But that’s starting to change.’
Jefferies says that he can ‘see the trap oldies make’ when they talk of alpinism. ‘They have based their observations on past knowledge of skills and techniques and the cultural environment of their active climbing career. I fell into this for a time. It took a serious dose of mixed climbing, technical ice and bouldering to get my head around the idea that this developing skill set can and will be applied to the high mountain routes.’

Matt Evrard has been pulling hard on rock and ice for a number of years. He has climbed with legends and newbies, and is well considered on the direction of New Zealand climbing: ‘It seems outrageous now that Dingle and Jones were the first people to climb all six north faces in Europe in a season. New Zealand alpinism really was booming on the world stage in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. So what happened? It seems the “decline” in New Zealand alpine climbing standards was basically because we just didn’t keep up! As international standards rose, ours stagnated. Initially, I thought our Alps were to blame. They lend themselves to a very 80’s style of alpinism that isn’t very technically demanding. I still think this is to blame in part. Also the access in New Zealand is a nightmare. Who wants to walk for 3 days to get 2 pitches of steep climbing on the south face if Hicks. In Europe, there would be a road and village up every valley and heaps of technical test pieces to hone your skills on. For these reasons I think we have been slow to adopt modern alpinism in the New Zealand Alps.’
Evrard recognises that, despite these limitations, our latest crop of alpinists is managing to adopt more modern techniques. ‘The modern mixed routes are very technically demanding and often bold,’ he says. ‘I have no doubt that the current climbers have the skills to easily despatch the old test pieces. I guess they think why bother.’

So what does it take to succeed internationally at this level? What’s the difference between climbing M8 on the Remarkables and climbing the north face of Thalay Sagar? According to Evrard, the difference is a ‘burning desire in your guts’ to achieve. ‘Top mountaineering is bloody hard,’ he says. ‘Athol reckons Himalayan climbing is 90% determination. Just look at the top climbers of the past. They were all intensely driven. What would you do when you’re five days out with four days food, the weather is dodgy, you are scared and tired and you know you could be back in your tent at base camp by evening and having a foot rub by your partner? Do you push on or go down?’

So where to from here? A recent article in the Climber on our last unclimbed challenges is a start. ‘Maybe the direct on Popes Nose,’ Brown suggests. ‘From seeing the photos and talking to the guys who climbed it, the direct would be a good challenge. It looks pretty steep. Maybe a portaledge will be needed. But if and when it is climbed, then a definitive statement will have been made. And the commitment level will be huge.’
But Brown is quick to point out that what Clarke, Vinton-Boot and Joll are climbing right now is worthy in its own right. ‘Let the doubters go and repeat their routes and see for themselves,’ he says. ‘Or, failing that, if you want to know what M7 feels like, go and climb ‘Grey Power’ at Wye Creek, and then imagine climbing it 4 pitches up with no bolts! That’s the crux pitch of Technospectacle.’

Meanwhile, in Queenstown, Joll is keen to increase the numbers of those following in the footsteps. He has organised a Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival for August 2012, seeing it as an opportunity for this country’s top alpine climbers to come together in friendly competition and pass on their knowledge with some general climbing tips and instruction. Joll reckons the festival is a good way to further improve standards. ‘There’s still plenty of hard terrain left on the Remarkables,’ he says. ‘With so much potential for difficult naturally protected mixed lines in the M8 to M10 range, the development is sure to be fast paced.’ Joll is busy organising prizes for the top climbs done over the weekend, and the festival promises to be an interesting and informative get-together. Check out the website: www.iceandmixedfestival.co.nz for more details.

So, the final question: Do the climbers of today have the ‘mongrel’ to step up onto the world stage?
‘I don’t know,’ Evrard says. ‘They do have the technical prowess and they are pushing the limits where the previous generation left off. But succeeding on international test pieces is different.’
For myself, I feel that the signs are positive. No one has taken up the mantle left vacant by Athol Whimp, but the potential is there. Our guys are heading in the right direction. If they keep focussed on improving, and looking for bigger stages which inevitably means climbing overseas, the rest will take care of itself.

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