Friday, November 27, 2009

Inspirational Alpinism

Mountain Face in New Zealand

I don't know about you... but I've always had this infatuation with climbing things. Now, I've never really been a real extreme risk taker, so I'm not one of those "nuts" that want take on ridiculously hard routes and have a high risk factor. But for some reason, people that do take those risks inspire me to want to push myself just a little bit further...

Now, just recently I've been getting to know the world of alpinism/mountaineering, a purist way of tackling routes and mountains. It originated in the Alps (France, Switzerland, Austria & Italy) in the late 1700's and has been transforming ever since into an extreme "sport" (some might call it a lifestyle). The main idea behind alpinism is to take on the mountains in an equitable manner, relaying on skill rather than lots of gear, speed rather than a long siege (Everest style) and climbing in the least damaging manner. Summed up, climbing light, fast and high!

The climber has to have experience in various methods of climbing, be it rock or ice. Knowledge about the proper use of gear is essential since most often it's not the gear that fails you, it's human error, your own lack of ability or experience. This is one of the things that really fascinates me about mountaineering, it's very diverse and tackles
many facets of expertise.

I am by no means an expert on this subject, but having started reading books like "Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills" and "Extreme Alpinism" as well as stories of notable climbers such as Sir Edmund Hillary & Reinhold Messner, it really inspires you!

My first real mountain experience happened in New Zealand not to many months ago (May 2009). I climbed the first mountain Sir Edmund Hillary climbed in Aroaki/Mount Cook National Park, South Island, NZ. It is called Mt. Ollivier and is about 1,933 m (6,340 ft) high. Climbing it with very little mountaineering knowledge, and without the proper gear, ready to take on a mountain peak in the early winter months, some might say it was quite foolish (we were warned about the weather forecast for that day). But my two good friends and I decided to tackle it even though the weather wasn't promising and visibility was low in the higher reaches of the mountain. Climbing, trough sometimes knee to waist deep snow, we made our way up as the weather alternated between blowing snow storms and gaps in the clouds with the sun shining through.

We reached a hut near the top called Mueller Hut (1,800 m). The peak in sight! Earlier we had met a girl from Germany who had followed our tracks and was carrying a trekking pole, something we didn't have and was essential in order to continue the ascent. We stopped in the hut for some food and to regain strength. It was very cold and we had only a few hours left of daylight. We could see the summit and I was eager to "bag a peak" so to speak. But talking with my group and reasoning it through, we would not have enough time to hike through the deep snow to the top and make it back down the mountain before dark. So we turned around without actually reaching the summit.

Even though I did not reach the top of the mountain, I learned a very valuable lesson climbing it. You should always climb according to your ability and skill, making incremental steps as you gain experience. Now technically the climb we did wasn't hard, but we were underprepared and did not understand fully what was needed in those conditions. Also the lesson of humility, knowing when to stop, knowing your limits and when to save the goal of reaching the peak for another day. Many people have had to be rescued or even perished because of their death defying goal of reaching a summit.

The View From Mt. Ollivier with Mt. Cook in the distance

A documentary I was watching really brought this lesson home. Now watching it will either deter you from serious mountaineering or inspire you with a new level of insight, having more respect for the dangers involved. Watch the "Beckoning Silence" here.

Finally... Truly, there are very few instances comparable or as gratifying as sitting on the top of a mountain looking over the beauty of peaks in the distance and the valley below, wondering in amazement at your accomplishment! I know for me, it just takes my breath away!

Be Safe,


All Images are Copyrighted © Friðrik Páll Friðriksson

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