Pushing the Boundaries

15th Jan 2015

There are certain ground breaking ascents that have become legendary in the climbing world.  Whether it was Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler summiting Everest for the first time without supplementary oxygen in 1978 or Alex Megos making the first onsight of a Spanish 9a rock climb in 2013 – there is a rich history of pushing the boundaries in all aspects of the sport.  At the time of Messner and Habeler’s ascent news of their ascent spread gradually but of course we now live in a world where, with the arrival of the internet, mobile communications and social media, news travels fast.
Of course there are still climbers that choose to attempt some of their climbs without sharing too much information until they have completed it and sometimes these ascents can be amongst the most amazing of all.  In 2005 Steve House and Vince Anderson headed to Pakistan to attempt the enormous Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat.  It was a staggering achievement and I, like many in the climbing world, was keen for details as soon as they returned.  The ascent has now been written about at length and documented by House in his book ‘Beyond the Mountain’.  We’ve even been able to watch videos of what equipment the climbers carried – but the news was only available retrospectively.  
Another example of an ‘under the radar’ ascent would be Ueli Steck’s 2013 success on the South Face of Annapurna.  Steck climbed the mountain before many people were even aware he was trying and it was a simple text message from the bottom of the mountain that revealed his success and safe return to base camp.  Since then Ueli has also commented at length on his climb but he again kept us waiting.
In contrast to the Nanga Parbat and Annapurna ascents we are starting to see climbs that are at the other extreme of information sharing.  When I turned on the BBC news earlier I was amazed that I could find out the latest about another ground breaking climb.  This evening Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of Yosemite’s mighty Dawn Wall and, since they started the climb on December 27th, we have been able to follow them every step of the way.  We could join them for interviews in their portaledges’s, watch them while they completed the most challenging pitches, see them jumaring, eating, resting, chatting and falling.  The climbers and photographers have been updating Facebook and Twitter, Caldwell’s wife regularly updated their blog and there have been numerous interviews ‘live from the wall’.  The Dawn Wall Project has ushered in a whole new level of climbing voyeurism.
I’m not complaining of course.  Like many others I have been completely addicted by Tommy and Kevin’s ascent.  Each evening over the last few weeks I’ve checked in to see what progress they had made and I have been excited both by what they were doing and by the prospect of them completing their project.  It has also been exciting to see climbing, for this period at least, being soaked up by the main stream media and dished out to so many millions of people.  
Despite the different approach to news sharing and the nature of their climb, I can see plenty of similarities between the Dawn Wall project, Nanga Parbat and Annapurna.  Caldwell and Jorgeson have been working on this project for many years and their successful ascent is the culmination of all that dedication.  In the same way Steck had tried Annapurna 3 times before and spent a huge amount of time physically preparing for his attempt while House had been high on Nanga Parbat before but was forced to descend with severe altitude sickness.  Challenges of this magnitude need that level of commitment.
Caldwell and Jorgeson were greeted at the top of El Capitan by a host of reporters, family and friends and I am sure, as I write this, that they’ll be basking in the knowledge that they have achieved their goal.  For the rest of us we’ll undoubtedly see plenty of footage of all aspects of their climb in every media form over the coming days.
One interesting consideration, though, is how this ascent may affect Kevin and Tommy in the longer term.  Having devoted a huge amount of their time to reaching this goal it may be another challenge for them to come to terms with it being over.  After completing Nanga Parbat House struggled for some time and in an interview with the Guardian he commented on having to battle many dark days.  “I have more perspective these days but I still go back and forth with it," he said. "Part of me wants to get on with the next thing and part of me wants to step back and say, 'That's it, that's the most committing climb I'll ever do.' But the ambitious little elf in me isn't dead yet."  For Steck there was a realisation that he needed to refocus his energies because he knew he would be unlikely to survive more climbs at the level of Annapurna.  In an interview with the Daily Star he observed that, “For me, this kind of climb and style was something I should do just once in a lifetime.  If you keep trying routes like this, you are going to die.  If you ask me, I took too much risk.”
So, I hope Kevin and Tommy are currently enjoying a few beers in the company of their loved ones and the rosy glow of a mission completed.  I also hope that, given some time, they will focus on a new project to avoid any post project blues.  When they do, the new age of immediate media sharing will ensure we can follow them every step of the way.  I can’t wait.  Here’s to all those inspiring us from the cutting edge.
Posted by Paul