The North Face of Edith Cavell as seen from the summit ridge on my descent
"Lap the classics. Thats all we do these days man!" Alik exclaimed as I held the car to the road. Alik was talking about how the 'golden age' of climbing in the Canadian rockies had passed, and how modern day climbers generally only repeat those legendary routes.
I took the other side of the argument. "Yeah, that is true but we do push harder and faster now don't you think?"
"Faster, but definitely not harder!" Alik countered. "Now Its all about the car to car times and the insta-twit-your-faceoff bullshit."
A few weeks prior to this conversation, I had soloed the North Face of Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park. The face rises for 5000ft from the parking lot to the summit. It was first climbed 56 years ago by Fred Becky and Yvon Chouinard in 1961. Then, six years later, Royal Robbins repeated their North Face route and, like me, did it solo (albeit not free-solo). Robbins spent seven days on the loose and exposed face. At the time it was one of the boldest solos in the range. Unlike Robbins, I climbed it in snowy conditions and took eight hours instead of seven days - an example of the argument I was making with Alik. But that was all I had to show for 50 years of progression in climbing... Talk about lapping the classics!
So I lapped a classic, but was there something missing from this experience? Maybe, but It wasn't for lack of adventure. I committed fully, taking no rope or topo. The route was very snowy, making easy ledge systems more time intensive than I had expected. I paused to pull the notorious overhang, and scratched my way through, digging for tool placements. My calves burned as I climbed the upper snowfield. I basked in the sun when I pulled over the summit lip (I love that about topping a north face - out of the shadow and into the light). I also got completely lost on the descent. It was a truly fantastic and fun day. But yes, upon thought, there was something missing.
Selfie video of the terrain through a fun section on the N. Face of Cavell
Soon after our conversation, I climbed the Andromeda Strain with Nik Miriyashi. We climbed in in the sub-optimal conditions of a blizzard. We could hardly open our eyes the whole day it was so windy, I got the barflies at least 5 times, and the spindrift was relentless. It was still pretty cruisy though. Despite having to navigate the inside of a pingpong ball on the descent, we were back within the same day, high-fiving and saying goodbye. I hopped in my car, sped through the storm and was warm in bed beside my girlfriend in to time at all. Somehow I still felt as though I hadn't gotten the 'full' experience.
Nik climbing through the chimney on the A-Strain
So now I sit and think about what separates my experiences on those awesome routes with what I imagine the first ascensionists experienced on those same routes years earlier. Clearly the fact that they were the first to do the route makes a difference. Heading into the unknown always feels more committing and yields a greater reward. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities. Belief in oneself is the first step toward success. To place yourself in the face of something that you may not be able to achieve and give it maximum effort is always rewarding for ones self confidence.
There is also the fact that they were out there for that much longer. You're required to become entirely comfortable with your surroundings. The process of sleeping in these harsh places results in a deeper connection with the environment than if you jog in, rip up a line, jog back, and 'drop a gram' when you get home. When you bivy you spend more time on steep terrain getting comfortable with the exposure and isolation. Truly connecting with these environments is very powerful and the more we expose ourselves, the more we gain.
Then there is the suffering. A little bit of suffering is common in alpine climbing and also part of the reason why I love it so much. Overnighting and carrying more stuff into the mountains inevitably means a little more suffering than day tripping. Suffering often goes hand in hand with picking a challenging goal and a little suffering is good for the soul. When you get back form an adventure where you've suffered, smiles are brighter, beer tastes better, and sleep is deeper. Ones perspective on life shifts ever so slightly and we feel a sense of gratitude for what we have and for the small things in life. I find that this sense of gratitude is an essential component of our happiness.
Settling in to our environment on Chacraraju in Peru
So then there's several amazing factors that I think they experienced that we often do not today, at least rarely in one adventure. We venture less into the unknown, we connect less with our surroundings, and we like to be cozy. It is easy to fall into the habit of staying within ones comfort zone. Defining our objectives with the intention of breaking this habit will not only be more beneficial for the individual, but also allow us to push the boundaries of climbing further. They could also inspire us to be more imaginative with our objectives and be true explorers of the vertical world!
Obviously we can all achieve this in different ways, and do not necessarily need to new route on the North face of Kitchener to do so. The best sport climbers acheice it, as do the best monks, and the best painters. I do think that its important to strive for these things in our climbing. My experiences on both Edith Cavell and Andromeda lacked them to some extent. I'm stoked that Alik fired up that conversation. It made me question what I look for in my climbing objectives in a new way. In my case, It made me want to put our modern equipment to good use and climb hard lines on big faces, even if that does mean several days in miserable cold. There's lots of fruit left to pick in the Rockies if you're willing to do that!
The North Face of Kitchener