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TNB: The Big Freaking Deal, Ain't Bouldering

By Duane Raleigh

When the British alpinist Jonathan Griffith linked, solo, in winter, in a day, the North Faces of Aiguille Verte, Les Courtes and Les Droites, down climbing two of the faces and skiing off the backside of the third and final climb, most people skipped the news. His linkage made the website, but on a reader-interest of one to 10, it was a snoozing three. Online video reposts of Whippers (spectacular ones, I’ll give them that), a new hard boulder problem and other assorted reports, none of which will go down in the books as especially memorable or important, were more popular.

The North Faces of Les Courtes, Les Droites and Aiguille Verte showing the routes soloed in a day by Jonathan Griffith. Photo courtesy Jonathan Griffith.There isn’t a good rock-climbing comparison to Griffith’s achievement, but the closest is Alex Honnold’s solo link of El Cap, Half Dome and Mount Watkins. That trilogy made the New York Times.

The lack of interest and respect given to Griffith’s achievement reinforces my suspicion that we are growing away from our roots in alpinism—the apples are falling farther than ever from the tree. Climbers suckled by the teat of indoor climbing, which by now are in the majority, can’t relate, and crusty old farts (like me) who ate Starlight and Storm for breakfast are now fortifying themselves with Metamucil. Paradoxically, while alpine climbing is at its apex in history, with blazing solos of the Eiger, Grandes Jorasses, the Innominata on Mont Blanc and a team speed ascent of the Bonatti Direct the North Face of the Matterhorn, public interest in the U.S. is at its nadir.

Griffith’s solo link might not have lit a fire because he flew under the radar himself. He wrote a short piece up for his website, but aside from that there was scant media coverage—Griffith had intended to climb with a partner, but when his bro bailed, Griffith said, "screw it, I’ll solo." It also didn’t help that the North Faces, though large and historical, are relatively unknown to most climbers and those who have heard of them probably dismiss them as moderate snow and ice outings. Even Griffith himself swept his link-up under the rug, saying, “In a way it’s kind of a big day, but in another it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

For perspective, the faces he soloed each involve over 3,000 feet of climbing and are menaced by serious objective hazards that have killed quite a few climbers by now. The three North Walls have been linked before, but only once, in 1986, by the late Jean-Marc Boivin who had pre-placed a paraglider on the summit of the Vert and hang gliders on Les Droites and Les Courtes, and used these for the descents. A few years ago Colin Haley and Niels Nielsen attempted to link the climbs, but fell short. Griffith was the first person to succeed under his own power, and persevered in adverse conditions. On the Legarde on the NE Face of Les Droites, he nearly fell several times, sketching through “bottomless sugar snow” with “balancy moves on precarious feet with no axe placements.”

The physical and psychological endurance necessary to climb so much so quickly is extraordinary and only a few people—for example, Ueli Steck, Dani Arnold and Kilian Jornet—can play at that level. Bouldering and gym climbing breed legions of world-class climbers, and we can relate to them because we can climb on the same things, at a lower level, of course, and listen to the same music. Almost no one can relate to what’s going on in alpinism, we can’t emulate the feats of Griffith and his ilk, and if we try to play their tunes, the next music we hear will be the strumming of harps.

Twenty years from now only a few, if any, climbers will have repeated Griffith’s trilogy, while V15 bouldering will be common. It is easy to ignore what we don’t understand, and it is just as easy to grasp a big number. But, today’s popular news and what we define as “hard,” is not necessarily tomorrow’s history.

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