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Enduring Patagonia

by Gregory Crouch

Random House (2002).

You can buy this excellent book here and visit the author's website here

Chapter 3

Ascents, Descents, Summits, and the Nature of Alpinism

A rhythm of ascent and descent governs the alpine existence. Like swells over a deep ocean, rise follows fall follows rise in majestic procession. Alpine ascents and descents possess a similarly mysterious imperative, for who can fathom the tides that move a man? Ascent and descent, rise and fall, to the uninitiated they seem to trace the endless graph of a sine wave. But the ascents and descents of an alpinist differ from each other in the same way that no two sunrises, nor pair of sunsets, are ever alike.

Generally speaking, ascents and descents can be divided into two broad categories: good and bad. And the distinction has nothing to do with whether or not a summit is reached in between.

A good ascent is a victory. A good ascent can be a summit well-won under a blue sky; or it can be like the fight of an overmatched boxer, whose victory is the courage to step into the ring and struggle on as long as possible. History, however, seldom records such triumphs of heart. Thus it is with an alpinist, whose greatest achievements and most remarkable statements of character are often played out in losing efforts and doomed causes. Failure is part of the game and failure can be magnificent, for it is often harder not to climb a mountain than it is to climb it. At the other end of the failure spectrum are excuses, like cases of the "Torre knee" or the "Fitzroy stomach," two common gripes that appear when the weather improves. Such piddling excuses have little to do with an honest recognition that one is not yet equal to the task, and nothing whatsoever to do with the fever that grabs an aspiring alpinist at the slightest hint of improving weather.

A good ascent is a small party traveling light and fast on a big mountain equipped with the simple tools of the alpine trade: a few ropes, some hardware, crampons and ice axes, a little food and water, clothing, and camping gear. Nothing more, and often less. A good ascent rises to meet a mountain's difficulties. Good ascents are those that are made in "alpine style," without a succession of well-stocked camps and without an excess of fixed ropes to speed progress over a mountain's difficulties, to assist in the ferrying of supplies between camps, or to secure descent. Alpine style ascents are made without the use of guides and support personnel, and they go up and down in one bang.

Bad ascents reduce a mountain's challenge with such techniques, and they are what is called "expedition style" climbs. Mankind's voyages to the moon show that we can overcome any obstacle with vast resource expenditure. There is no need to prove the same point in the mountains. Alpinism is not about just getting to the top of some geographic feature, it's about climbing that feature well. Mountains deserve our best efforts. Otherwise, alpine endeavor degenerates into the squalor of a construction site. What construction there is in alpinism - the construction of an efficient system of protection with rope and hardware - is most elegant when it is a temporary construction soon dismantled by an ascending second. Thus climbers leave little trace as they ascend a great mountain. Done well - with balance, with discipline, courage, skill, mental mastery - a climb becomes an ascent. An alpinist strives to do more, with less, and stands taller by virtue of what he has chosen to do without. Alpinism is one aspect of human endeavor where more, done with more, is definitely less. Bad ascents are the victories of an army, albeit a small one, and a defeat for alpinism. The soul of alpinism is to travel light and fast through a dangerous landscape in pursuit of a personal star. That is ascent.

Like ascents, descents are also characterized as good or bad, but it doesn't take an informed eye to appreciate the difference. More accurately, descents are either controlled or uncontrolled. A controlled descent is survived unscathed; the other kind is not, and death is the ultimate alpine failure.

Although it's easy to comprehend, controlled descent from a big mountain is not easy to execute. In descent we stand with real danger; we are past the engagement of ascent, past the elation of the summit, or both. We are hungry and thirsty and sleep deprived. Often, there is storm. Our margin of safety is thinnest. Woe unto the alpinist who has squandered the last of his strength to get to the top. The reserves needed to get down are an alpinist's bridge to the future. Mountains rarely forgive mistakes made in descent.

Summit moments stand apart. There are few summits in life, and even fewer in the alpine life. But the success of the alpine life isn't measured in summits, and summits aren't the proper place to celebrate a successful ascent, either. A successful ascent should be celebrated in the warmth, comfort, and safety of a bar or tent far from the mountain's dangerous embrace. Not to imply that summits are insignificant, just that they can't be fully appreciated without survival and perspective.

Summits. You want to get there so badly, but once you do, nothing happens. There is no band playing. You climb up and all of a sudden you can see down the other side. But there is no great spiritual revelation that automatically goes along with the view, and a certain part of me even resents the summit. Something truly beautiful - the ascent - is gone forever, past, and can never be recaptured. My Patagonian summit memories aren't the alpine memories that stand tallest for me. My memories of ascent do that; climbing a difficult section of rock or ice, the great peaks around me, my attention laser focused, the issue of the summit in doubt, and the weather on the cusp of a change.

Ironically, these are precisely the moments I try consciously to avoid. If I were more of a man I'd say: give me the wild, insecure moments when fear has the bile up in my throat, when desire sits like a lead weight in my gut, and when the summit is maybe, just maybe within reach. But I don't have the courage to ask for those moments. Each time up I hope, I beg, for an easy climb. I hope to climb and descend without hassle, without fear, without storm. But I know that I am the best man I can ever hope to be in precisely those moments of maximum fear and doubt.

A summit ends all that. A summit takes the song of ascent out of my veins. On a summit we stop, do some sightseeing, share some water and food if we've got any, then go down. My secret desire has never been to stay on the summit forever. My secret desire is to be locked forever onto the cutting edge of an ascent.

Alpinism is so simple: dream about the mountain, go to the mountain, see the mountain, go up the mountain, come back down the mountain, go home. So simple, yet so extraordinarily complex.

The Alps are the birthplace of the sport, and in the old days climbing was all about reaching summits. But the modern climbing world has splintered into many different specialties and subspecialties. There are rock climbers who never get cold and big wall climbers who scale cliffs that take days to surmount. There are ice climbers and sport climbers, aid climbers, peak baggers, free climbers, soloists, and competition climbers. There are climbers who never venture more than a few hundred feet - horizontally or vertically - from their cars, and there are climbers who do little besides talk. All, in their own ways, are climbers.

Alpinists are the all-'rounders of the climbing game for alpinism is not a specialist's endeavor. Alpinists must cultivate a working knowledge of all facets of climbing, and the alpinist's is a long apprenticeship. It takes years to acquire these skills. Most of the rewards of climbing - in coin or in glory - go to the kings and queens of each particular specialty. The alpinist is the jack-of-all-trades, master of none, and tangible rewards elude him. And that is a good thing, because the extreme danger of alpinism makes the quest for coin and glory a zero sum game. Those who climb for the wrong reasons, or chose to press on for the wrong reasons, or select objectives for the wrong reasons, are very, very likely to end up dead.

Grades and numbers measure the progress and relative abilities of the specialists, and the numbers lend themselves to public appreciation and comparison. The hardest this, the most extreme that. There is some truth in such statistics, but they tell a soulless story. There are few relevant quanta in alpinism.

Modern alpinists play out their game on steep mountains. Difficulty interests the alpinist, who doesn't necessarily seek the easiest way to the top. An alpinist cuts the cord with the safety and security of the world below and ascends into the unknown, sometimes literally on an unclimbed route, or, more often, figuratively as one begins an inner exploration. The game is at its best when both occur. Doubt is crucial to alpinism and an ascent lacks a cutting edge if its outcome is certain from the beginning. There is little honor in certain success, but there is much to be gained from a probable failure. Facing doubt, and its companion, fear, an alpinist ascends.

It may come as a surprise to learn that falling isn't the greatest danger for an alpinist. Each individual climber has control of that, and he or she can always retreat if faced with a section of climbing that is too difficult. Climbing is a control sport, and the greatest dangers are the "objective dangers" that we cannot control: weather, falling objects, and, to a lesser degree, descent. Bad weather can freeze us to death, blow us away, cause build ups of ice and snow that can avalanche, or make us so damn uncomfortable that it fuels a stupid decision that starts a lethal chain of mistakes. Strangely, weather that's too good can kill us as well, for an extended good spell with warm temperatures will melt the ice bonds that fix much loose rock in place. When the bonds break those loose rocks fall. Intuition culled from long experience is the card we play against the things we cannot control, and the best alpinists I know trust their gut feelings.
A combination of beautiful summit and beautiful line lures an alpinist to a given mountain, and such beauty eludes statistical definition. Beautiful summits come to fine points and the lines that rise to those tops can be obvious features - like a huge ridge or a soaring buttress or a white-gray sheet of steep ice that clings to an entire face - that draw the eye (practiced alpine eye or otherwise) from miles around, or a line can be a link up of discontinuous cracks and ephemeral ice smears, subtle features that only experience can thread up a mountain. The best lines are steep, beautiful, difficult, relatively unmenaced by the threat of falling debris, and an alpinist will travel to the other side of the world and walk a month to attempt a line that has caught his fancy.

There is no single, ultimate alpine venture. For me, there will be no crowning triumph, no final victory, no perfect summit. I do not expect to glimpse the holy city at the end of my climb. I am not a paradise person. There is nothing I want there. Warm sun, shade, a full belly, and cool waters serve only to spark dreams of new mountains. I cannot abide the thought of a flat existence. Some self-knowledge is all that we can hope for from life, and it is no small thing. Whatever small measures of it I've accumulated have come from the mountains.
Fear and infinite natural power are our adversaries, hope and will our strongest arms, and endurance our only glory. Alpine beauty is deceptive - it's ruthless painful war up there. I do not know if climbing makes me a better man. I have no certain evidence, but I hold fast to the hope that it does, and in the name of that hope I have abandoned much of everyman's existence.

Mountains aren't worth dying for, but they are worth risking dying for. Make no mistake, my alpine goal is to die in bed, old, laughing and smiling and talking trash with my last breath, having lived a lifetime of good ascents and controlled descents, perhaps peppered with a few more summits, perhaps not, before I undertake that final, inevitable expedition. I hope I find mountains there, too.

Special thanks to the author for letting us reprint this chapter here.

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