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TNB: The Philosopher King

By Andrew Bisharat

 WESTERN PUBLICATIONS Association is a group that gives out Maggies, annual awards to magazines for any number of things. One of these things is “Best Column of the Year.” In January, my column, TNB, was entered for this awesome award … an awesome award it promptly lost. I didn’t even make it to the finals.

I know. This is immoral and unfair, but so are many popular ideas—making war for capital gain, demonizing cannabis while endorsing booze and, of course, fixing ropes on alpine climbs.

In fact, if I had to guess, the panel at Western Publications is a team of Republican baby boomers. This is the most diametrically opposed group of humans to myself, known to myself.

For a while, I was unwilling to learn who beat me, though curiosity prevailed, and I discovered that some column about pregnancy won the Maggie.

Not giving the award to me is Bad Style. Western Publications is obviously so out of touch with modern-day TNB that the Best Column of the Year award has become irrelevant. What is the value of an award that doesn’t choose Me, or at least something like Me? Instead, these “judges” (do they even write?) give the award to some hack column about making babies. I could do a better job writing about pregnancy, and I honestly don’t even know what a uterus is.

The future of journalism is at stake. Journalism is in danger of becoming out of line with Me.

Poor France. Ever since people realized they could get more cheese in their mouths on a slice of pizza than a baguette, they stopped believing the French know anything at all. They forgot about Monet and chose Budweiser over Beaujolais.

Even mountain climbers—once proud Francophiles—are taking a figurative piss on anything French, especially a certain award that its benefactors are desperately trying to give away—to anyone, it now seems, who will take it.

Well, that’s the way it seems to me—albeit a loser who never wins anything, but an attentive observer nonetheless of this year’s Piolet d’Or (PDO). In case you missed the mêlée over the 2007 prize for the most significant alpine climb, this year’s victor arrived in Grenoble, France, to accept the Golden Ice Axe. Only instead of accepting it, he did not accept it.

The Slovenian super-alpinist Marko Prezelj, who towed some dude up Chomo Lhari and won the PDO, offered his opinions to the audience at the award ceremony.

“I spoke against this competition,” Prezelj later explained in a letter that appeared on various climbing websites. “I said the trophy is not important to me because the choice of a winner is subjective, like singing and beauty contests.”

The PDO has a long history of controversy—almost always due to the non-quantifiable nature of climbing achievements. Now, the trend is to criticize the PDO for awarding ascents that use a different style than the style Steve House enjoys using to climb mountains.

In 2005, the PDO went to some Russians who climbed the “Wall of Shadows” on Jannu, a face once called “the greatest challenge of the Himalaya.” The Russians used fixed ropes to ascend the 10,000-foot cold, steep wall, and abandoned their cords, portaledges and a bunch of other garbage after reaching the top.

Upon hearing that the Russians won, House exited stage left. It is assumed that he was upset at the panel of judges, who were editors from the French magazine Montagnes, and moneybags from some club called the Groupe de Haute Montagne. House apparently objected that the judges called the Jannu ascent the year’s “most significant” climb.

Some thought the outburst was rude. To quote one source: “The way I was raised, if someone invites you to their house for dinner, and you don’t like the food, you still try to be gracious.” Some thought the judges should’ve awarded House for his solo of one of those “K” peaks, and applauded him (for his solo, not the outburst). Someone on the Internet made up something called the “people’s choice” award, and that House had walked away from France with this “honor.”

Then the whole thing ended, and most climbers around the world stood by their stance of absolutely not giving a shit. A few months later, Steve House and Vince Anderson went on to climb Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face, an impressive ascent that won House his PDO (which he graciously accepted) in 2006, and that we continue to be forced to read about in magazines and catalogues.

And for a moment, all was calm and good … until this year, when Prezelj declined the award and House began criticizing the PDO with renewed fervor.

It seems to me that Prezelj’s basic argument is that it’s impossible (or at least trivial) to declare one climb better than another, that climbing shouldn’t be reduced to competition and that it’s stupid to have winners and losers in a sport with no innings or commercials. “I don’t believe in awards for alpinism, much less trophies or titles presented by the public or the media,” he wrote.

House detailed his criticisms in an open letter to the public posted on in February. Unlike Prezelj, House believes there should be an award: “I think it is good to promote the activities we find fulfilling and virtuous, and awards are one way of doing so.” He also says “alpinism is without a clear voice,” and that “the right type of award might help convey the experience of hard alpinism more clearly.”

If I give myself the liberty to assume what he means (which I will), the “right type” of award is something that recognizes light, fast, single-push alpine-style ascents of dangerous, committing routes on big mountains.

He also criticizes journalists. To wit: “Journalists often do not have the experience to understand what hard alpinism is really like ... When you talk about a climb, like my ascent of the Rupal Face in 2005, for example, I honestly believe there are only 50 people in the world that understand what we did. Truly understand. And not one of those people is a journalist.”

I have a few things to say about this statement, and unlike House on K7, I’m not alone. Many alpinists I’ve spoken with shook their heads after reading House’s public letter, though no one wishes to publicly speak out against alpine-climbing’s Philosopher King.

Lately, all we hear, in magazines and elsewhere, is that style is the most important thing in climbing. Style, however, is not ethics (which are important), though the alpine elite has used the two words interchangeably in recent years. According to one friend who sees the world with enviable clarity, good ethics can be narrowed down to “a pretty simple list: don’t leave trash, don’t lie and be nice to people, especially the ones you exploit for labor en route to your selfish climb.”

Style, on the other hand, is neither good nor bad—it’s just the way you chose to climb … and as long as you don’t leave trash, one team’s choice of style does not affect anyone else (for the record, I think awarding the Jannu ascent is wrong for that reason) and it certainly has no bearing on “progressing the sport.” It’s now popular to wax on about how light-and-fast, committing, single-push alpine-style, will lead to progress.

Progress, progress, progress.

These catchwords have assumed greater meaning than simple adjectives that describe one of the many styles of climbing open to the intrepid individual. They now represent a climber’s worth. But I don’t know anyone who started climbing better because the Rupal Face, Realization or anything else was sent. And it’s not because “journalists” haven’t properly explained it, either.

“Progress” is an intangible idea, like heaven—something fabricated to justify righteous actions and to instill believers with purpose. Over-touting alpine-style as the only way climbing will ever achieve this so-called progress is, in some ways, detrimental. If the next generation of mountaineers measures its achievements solely by one narrow view of what climbing ought to be, then it’s their loss. Narrow-mindedness is common in every discipline. Aid climbing is boring. Fixed ropes are wrong. Mixed climbing is gay. Bouldering blows. Sport climbing sucks. Pretty soon, we’ll all be so afraid of actually going climbing that we’ll end up spending all our time at home making shit up on Or has that already happened?

“I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard of somebody with no experience come up to Alaska and talk about how they want to ‘single-push’ something,” said one source. “And what happens? Frequently they get their asses kicked.”

Take bivying on a mountain, for example. Taking your time to enjoy moving up a rad peak is cool—and not only that, but elemental to the learning process—even if it is now popular to call this type of ascent bad style. I have a hunch House would agree. During a descent of some peak, on a starlit night, one of his climbing partners told me that he suggested that he and House bivy, just for the hell of it.

“Normally,” House said jokingly, according to his partner, “stopping would be out of the question. But this will be cool.” So they stayed.

That’s the stuff that I think should be awarded ... or, at least reported by journalists more often.

A very long time ago, there was a person who saw a friend in pain and about to die, and spontaneously decided to take a knife, cut him or her open and fix whatever was wrong. I often imagine what this person was like: the first surgeon ever. He acted without consideration of what others thought was good or bad, completely immune to societal judgments. A total badass.

I’ve always been fascinated by people like my fantasy surgeon, those who see problems and create their own solutions, especially in climbing. Warren Harding saw El Cap and decided that he would figure out how to climb it no matter what anyone else said, even if it took him two years and dozens of fixed ropes. Some might say his style was “bad.” I might argue it was good, but actually, it was neither—it was merely his solution to a problem that no other person was drunk enough to try.

Of course, I doubt that Steve House climbs just to win awards, so I find it bizarre that he’s spent so much effort criticizing what a few French people consider simply a nice gesture. Not that I care: I merely hope the next generation of alpinists and climbers don’t simply chug this Style Kool-Aid, but try a sip of it, and every other flavor, too. There’s no reason to ostracize a beer drinker at a wine party when everyone is supposedly there to have fun.

And even though people will continue writing about such unenlightening topics as pregnancy, I am pretty certain that I will continue writing about whatever it is that interests me, even if it’s never published, never lauded and never understood by more than 50 people in the world. Acting otherwise, to me, is bad style.


Andrew Bisharat would rather win a PDO than a Maggie any day.

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