Forty Pieces of Gear
The 2019 edition of Ascent---compendium of the year’s best writing---is now available! For a preview of what's inside, check out Francis Sanzaro's Editor's Note.
Four hours—that’s how long it took Nick Bullock to lead the first pitch of Bobok (E5), a loose-rock fright fest on the Llyn Peninsular, on the west coast of North Wales. Midway up, and already out of gear, he called down for a second rack. Then he placed all of that. He would place 40 pieces of gear, most of it garbage.
James “Caff” McHaffie rolled a few smokes while on belay to keep busy. He read out loud from the guidebook to pass the time. Caff curiously left out the fact that the route had only two ascents in the past three decades.
I first met Nick at this year’s Ouray Ice Festival. We talked Brexit, POTUS and when an alpinist should go out to pasture. The last one he thinks about a lot, he said. After chatting for an hour, I realized I was envious of the Brit. Who gives a shit about the Piolet d’Or he and Paul Ramsden received for their burly ascent of North Buttress of Nyainqentangla South East (Tibet), or his envy-worthy alpine resume of the world’s finest peaks … or that he survived a grizzly attack. (I bet the bear wasn’t that big anyway.)
All arounders impress me, and they should impress you too. It was all arounders who first inspired me when I was coming up in the ranks as a climber, in the late 1990s. The Huber brothers and Alex Lowe come to mind immediately, masters of all disciplines, virtuosos on all types of terrain. Bullock is, like others featured in this issue, an incredible all arounder, so be sure to check out Bullock’s “Zoning In,” p. 44, to read about his romp on Bobok.
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The all arounder might just be a dying breed in climbing. Or is it? I thought it was—until I started to think of the climbers in this issue of Ascent, a compendium of the year’s best writing. Not many outside of the alpinist’s world would have heard of Jean-Christophe Lafaille, but Michael Wejchert’s profile—“Le Minimaliste,” (p. 56)—of the late French alpinist is going to change that. Lafaille free-soloed 5.13c, had the vision to bolt what is now Biographie (5.15a), and, in 1987, with Christophe Profit, linked the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses in a single push.
In “Soaring Down South” (p. 82), Leo Houlding and two friends redefine all arounder by adding kite surfing to his expedition to Antarctica. Houlding and company kited over 1,000 miles across the Southern Pole, with 400-pound sleds, to climb the Spectre, not repeated since the 1980s. In what could be the last unpublished interview with Dean Potter, “Free Spirit” (p. 12), the Yosemite legend talks about his own multi-sport obsession. Wingsuiting, BASE, slacklining, climbing—Dean did it all. And well.
As for this issue’s more literary contributions, Jeff Long’s “Requiem,” (p. 94), a masterpiece of mountaineering fiction, will have you asking—who exactly is a ghost, and who isn’t? Long’s moody prose on the underworld of death and haunting on the high peaks is an excellent companion to “Hungry Ghosts,” (p. 76), penned by yours truly, a meditation on obsession, native Himalayan spirituality, getting buried alive, and, as the title suggests, ghosts. Lastly, Jeff Jackson skillfully weaves haiku and prose for ac insightful riff on friendship and, what else, climbing: “Birth Stone,” (p. 70).