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Raphael Slawinski: The (Really) Good Doctor

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Inner Ranges is published by Rocky Mountain Books.

Inner Ranges brings together an enlightening and entertaining selection of mountain writing by one of Canada’s most respected adventure journalists and thinkers, Geoff Powter.

This collection of original and previously published pieces includes provocative editorial and opinion work about the state of adventure, personal tales from a life of exploration and risk-taking, some touches of humor, and award-winning profiles of some of Canada’s mountaineering greats. Stories include conversations with and profiles of alpine personalities such as Barry Blanchard, Sonnie Trotter, Lena Rowat, Raphael Slawinski (story below), David Jones and many more.

Enjoy the Powter’s piece, “The (Really) Good Doctor,” about Slawinski, below, which appears in Inner Ranges (RMB 2018).

There are times, rare times, when watching a truly talented climber move through a truly difficult climb can feel like watching a magic act, but with an added hook. When the magician swallows the sword, say, or pulls the rhinoceros out of his top hat, you feel like you’re seeing something impossible—a trick in itself—but when the good climber ascends, the real illusion is the way he can make a fiendish line appear completely possible. You might see him twisting and contorting through obviously unforgiving terrain, hanging off ludicrously small edges or the thinnest breaths of ice, and common sense tells you it must be hard, but the fluid grace of the best climbers can convince you that you could step right up and mimic their lead. But it’s not a conviction that lasts long, and testing it can be hilariously humbling.

I got suckered that way a few years ago when I first saw Raphael Slawinski climb. On a happily mild December day, I wandered into Haffner Creek, the playground of mixed climbs just a few kilometres outside of Banff. The short walk and the perfect temperatures seemed to have drawn every climber in a hundred-mile radius to the short test pieces of the meandering
canyon. By the time my partner and I joined the crowd, though, most people’s attention seemed to be focused on one climber navigating a steep grey wall by drytooling a line of improbable holds capped by a roof of ice near the mouth of the canyon.

Drytooling is the bastard child of climbing, a sometimes-awkward mating of the mediums, techniques and tools of rock and ice. The drytooler gears up for ice, then most of the time climbs everything but. Though the sport began as a contrivance to gain access to incomplete ice climbs, modern drytooling routes are often nearly entirely rock, permitting steeper and more strenuous climbs than pure ice can offer. The greater challenge of the mixed medium is pretty immediately visible. The drytooler’s axe tips teeter on tiny edges of rock, and his crampons, which would have been dependable in ice, hook, skitter and skritch on the stone of sometimes absurdly overhanging walls. Lesser talents can make the mechanics of drytooling look awkward and terribly insecure—picture, say, Edward Scissorhands at a urinal—but the masters of the game like Slawinski seem to be able to conjure up precision, balance and even strength out of thin air.

When I sat down to watch Raphael, he was 30 feet up the wall, and was splayed out so far—one axe perched on a nubbin by his left shoulder, a crampon point hooked high to his right, his second axe held at the limits of his fingertips, reaching for a better purchase—that he seemed to have unhinged his joints. Then he arced his hips down and right, and so fully weighted an improbable new axe placement that someone in the crowd blurted out, “Man, that edge must be way better than it looks.”

That was the moment that magicians call “the prestige,” right there. The suspension of disbelief that insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the climb was possible after all. Almost immediately, out loud, people started contemplating trying the line themselves, me included. The hardest bit was obviously over; Raph danced up the rest of the route, dispatched
the ice roof as though it were little more than an annoyance and lowered off, laughing at some comment his partner made. I resolved then to give the line a go. It didn’t matter that the climb was graded amongst the world’s most difficult, or that Slawinski had a growing reputation as the real deal. He’d made it look so easy that solving the climb had to be just a matter of patient work, even for me.

Nonsense. When I came back to the climb, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out even the first move off the ground. Couldn’t set an axe tip anywhere; couldn’t find an edge that would allow me to lift even one foot. The holds that Slawinski had danced on seemed nothing more than shadows, and, like everyone else that afternoon, I soon resigned without a fight and walked away in puzzlement.

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