This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 248 (February 2018).
In 2004, Graham Zimmerman finished high school in Edmonds, Washington, and went off to college—in New Zealand. Eighteen years old, he was looking only for alpine ice. He spent his college years in both hemispheres, chasing winter.
In a turnaround of the usual progression, as he puts it, “I got into mountaineering and ice and mixed climbing before rock climbing.”
In New Zealand, Zimmerman met a British alpinist Mark Kendrick, who invited him to climb the 2,000-foot South Face of Mount Cook, the tallest peak in the country at 12,218 feet. Although hesitant, Graham was convinced, and in January 2005, in an arduous 20 hours, the two climbed the face via White Dream, with ice up to WI 5.
“I remember it being so intense,” Zimmerman says. “There’s a giant serac right next to you. You’re not threatened by it, but you’re 2,000 feet up a face, climbing this steep waterfall ice.”
They gained the upper ridge, with only 500 feet of easy climbing left. He says, “I remember saying something like, ‘I’m glad we did that, it was awesome. I need to go down, otherwise I am literally going to die.’ He sat me down, gave me some salami and water, made me rest for 10 minutes, and then I felt great and we went on to the summit.”
The climb led the youth toward things he’d daydreamed about but never thought possible: “I realized that climbing harder stuff on bigger mountains was something I could do, and maybe even wanted to do.”
Seven years later, Zimmerman would receive the 2011 New Zealand Alpinist of the Year award for his 4,600-foot route Vitalogy, a behemoth up the Southwest Buttress of Mt. Bradley in the Ruth Gorge of Alaska. Zimmerman, now 31 and based in Bend, Oregon, where he works in geophysics, has authored ascents in the Kyrgyz Pamirs, Patagonia, the Waddington Range of British Columbia, and the Karakoram.
Q&A with Graham Zimmerman
What was your first major new route?
We [Zimmerman and Yewjin Tan, in 2008] went into a zone [in Kyrgyzstan] that hadn’t been visited much. It all came together. I look back on that trip now, and I had been reading a lot of Mark Twight at the time, and we didn’t take anything. [The North Buttress of Kyzyl-Muz] took us three days. I think we had two sleeping bags, five cams, a couple nuts, a single 60-meter rope, and a couple ice screws. I was super fired up at the time, but I look back on it and am so happy the weather didn’t come in, and the descent wasn’t too challenging. Our margins were so slim. I feel like every climb since then has been a kind of response. We cut it way back on that first climb, and I’ve been adding stuff ever since [thinking]: Our packs are still really light, but we should bring the tent—and we should bring two ropes …
What are your primary motivations?
If you’re going to put yourself in a position where you may be in harm’s way, the only reason I want to do that is because it’s something that I really want to do. I want all my decisions and objectives to be things I can come back and tell [my girlfriend] Shannon McDowell were good decisions.I really want to get on top of these mountains, but I also don’t … I think I’m personally more haunted by the things I got away with than the things I let go.
Do you like combining styles on a route?
I do. I see alpine climbing as where we get to put it all together. A route [can involve] ice climbing, mixed climbing, aid climbing. I enjoy getting to apply all the disciplines on one route. It makes these routes in the alpine the ultimate test. Luckily there aren’t boulder problems on these routes very often.
How do you balance safety and ambition?
Being conservative doesn’t always mean not going, it just means thinking harder about what you’re doing. I have strong intentions about climbing for a long time. I’d like to show that if you try hard and make good decisions, you can be successful and survive—and not have a bunch of close calls. Steve Swenson and I were just [on Link Sar] in Pakistan, and we failed. It was totally O.K. I mean, of course we were bummed out, we spent nine weeks in the Karakoram and didn’t get on top of anything, but we made really good decisions about when to go up, when to go down, what to try and what not to try. We got pretty close to climbing an amazing route. It was a totally acceptable outcome.
- Nominated for 2014 Piolet d’Or for FA of the 4,700-foot East Face (V M7 WI4 A1) of Mt. Laurens, Alaska, with Mark Allen.
- FA 5,900-foot Southwest Ridge (VI M6) of K6 West (7,040m), Karakoram, Pakistan, with Scott Bennett, 2015.
- FA 4,600-foot Vitalogy (V WI5,M6+ 5.9 A1), SW Buttress of Mt. Bradley, Ruth Gorge, Alaska, with Mark Allen, 2010.
- FA 1,200-foot Bossanova (IV 5.11+ A2), Aguja Guillaumet, Argentine Patagonia, with Scott Bennett, 2013.
Also read Jimmy Chin: What I’ve Learned