Rock climbing is sexy. It’s a fact. Take one look at promotional shots of Sasha DiGuilian or, for the ladies, Mr Sharma, and it’s clear that it is very easy to market the sport as a glamourous pursuit. Great climbers are athletic; lean, strong and tanned from countless hours spent cranking steep overhangs under the Spanish sun. Chicks dig it. A study of over 6000 people revealed that women found climbing to be the sexiest of sports, trumping extreme sports, football and golf (shocking, I know).
If rock is the sexiest form of climbing, then its antithesis is mountaineering. It’s easy to look good with the “sun’s out, guns out” approach of rock climbing. It’s predominantly a warm weather sport and shirts are optional. There is often very little sex appeal in a mountaineer’s build; hulking legs, T-Rex arms and a pale torso which has spent the entirety of the climbing season under the protective bulk of a Wild Things Belay Jacket. The first time you take a shit into a plastic bag in the middle of a blizzard, you realise that you left glamour back at the crag.
Without further ado, I present some of the lesser publicised aspects of mountaineering. Here are 6 things that weren’t in the brochure.
- Wet Boots
Rock climbing usually involves a five minute approach to the crag. Mountaineering often implies a five day approach, if not greater. Whenever below the snow line (and sometimes above), you can bet your bottom dollar that your boots will be wet. I once did a 15 day trip in which my boots were soaked 100% of the time, right from the first hour after wading through a beaver dam.
You can tell the difference between a rookie and an old hand in the way they navigate shallow river crossings. New explorers will attempt to dance their way over a series of precarious rocks, while the more experienced and perhaps jaded accept the inevitability of wet feet and stride in without a moment’s hesitation. They know without doubt that before the day is out, their feet will be wet. It’s not a matter of possibility, it’s a pure metaphysical certainty. Forgoing the traverse over delicate, slippery river rocks is an exercise in risk management. Better wet feet than a broken face or worse.
How do we combat this discomfort and the possibility of serious medical entanglements such as trench foot? Mountaineers always have a set of “sacred socks”, a protected pair that never see the light of day outside of a tent.
- Nutritional Malaise
After slogging through a 24 hour epic in order to avoid yet another Patagonia squall, we were perched at Upper Ledge Camp, just off the Ice Cap. Having left most of our supplies up at the Shark’s Fin, a rock prominence which guards the entrance to the Cap, the topic of food quickly rose. We decided to take a food inventory, after which some of the group maintained that they had “no food”. On closer inspection, it seemed they had enough to make it at least another day.
“But it’s only lentils and rice,” they complained.
“Bon Appetit,” I replied.
Mountaineering teaches you to have a different relationship with food. Eventually, it becomes a simple act of refuelling. For some people, this is hard to handle. Back in the comfort of civilisation, food is such a nuanced issue. It’s social, it’s cultural, it comforts us or entertains us. In the mountains, it is none of these things, and for some people it can be impossible to separate food from these associations. The true mountaineer can survive on nothing but Cheesy Pasta and Snicker’s Bars for weeks on end.
- Dig shifts
We tell people coming onto the Ice Cap trips that they are some of the hardest expeditions in the world. This isn’t bluster or hyperbole. Each person experiences a different challenge. For some, being in such close proximity to strangers for an extended period of time is very difficult. For others, it’s more of a physical challenge.
One thing that nearly everyone finds challenging is the Patagonian weather. Once you’ve survived a storm on the Ice Cap, most other weather phenomena pale in comparison. People come on these trips with this expectation, but it can still be a shock when it actually occurs. If there’s one thing that has taught me about the beauty of a sunny day of rock climbing, it’s the experience of pulling on frozen Gore-Tex at 3 in the morning to spend two hours in a heaving blizzard digging snow out of a trench. It is, as they say, a character building experience.
It takes a special kind of person to actually enjoy this experience. Believe it or not, they are out there. I certainly wouldn’t nominate myself as such an individual. Having said that, I have returned for multiple trips to Patagonia knowing full well the suffering that implied. I guess that takes a certain type of person also.
- I can hear my brain cells dying…
Derek Ager once compared geology to the life of a soldier, saying “It consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror”. This comparison could also be applied to the life of a mountaineer.
It’s not always that inclement weather necessitates dig shifts. Sometimes you might find yourself well below the freezing level with a steady downpour negating any possibility of climbing. We modern humans often have a chronic problem with a lack of stimulation. Without sunlight, we cannot feed our solar panels. Without these, we cannot charge our Ipods, our Kindles and whatnot. Once the batteries on these die, things get desperate; we actually have to start talking to each other.
I once spent 7 days straight in a tent without any form of entertainment except for the man next to me. Others I know have gone even longer. The virtues of a mountaineer should not only be the capacity to deal with boredom, but the ability to spring into action at a moment’s notice should the weather miraculously clear.
- Life as a beast of burden
The gear list for expedition mountaineering is a staggering piece of literature. Once you’ve accounted for personal gear, 5 weeks of food and mountaineering equipment, you’re looking at a prodigious load.
“My pack is heavy,” is not something I want to hear from anyone on the first day, but it often happens. This is when packs are at their lightest. For the first week, we usually carry a minimal amount of gear and food, the remainder being carted in by horses (who incidentally have a limit of 25kg, go figure) or by planes in the instance of Alaska.
We often joke that your pack always weighs a third of your body weight, as this is the (insanely optimistic) limit dictated by Chilean guiding standards. If this is true, most people weigh about 120kg by the end of the trip. You learn to deal with it.
- You don’t always top out
The goal of a climbing expedition is, of course, to climb. Sadly, nature does not often take our best laid plans under consideration. It’s not unheard of to go on a mountaineering expedition without gaining a single summit. Sometimes this is due to atmospheric conditions, sometimes it falls to the lack of cohesion of the group. Either way, people are often disappointed with the result.
This is part of life as a mountaineer. The mountains are fickle mistresses and they won’t drop their petticoats at your say-so. You have to court them, bide your time and treat them with respect. It’s all part and parcel of this strange, and in some ways, pointless game we call mountaineering. Learning how to deal with disappointment is a vital lesson for any aspiring mountaineer. If you’re truly passionate about climbing, you’ll eventually see the journey as more fulfilling than the destination.
For those familiar with the trials and tribulations of a climber, you’ll no doubt identify with some or perhaps all of the above. If you’re an aspiring climber, I hopefully haven’t turned you off mountaineering for good. It’s not my intention to vilify mountaineering in favour of rock climbing or skiing or any number of different outdoor pursuits. The point is that every discipline has their own unique challenges, and how we rise to these challenges fosters inside of us talents that we never knew we had and teaches us about who we are at our very core. Mountaineers are hardy folk. We carry a lot of stuff a long way and we do it with a smile… most of the time. We brave heinous conditions in order to experience something which the many will never have the privilege to do and to explore the remotest corners of our planet. It’s worth the suffering.
I’ll finish by adapting a quote by Hunter S Thompson. Mountaineering is only for those with true grit, and we are chock full of that.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in November 2014