A shaft of light from the projector cut the dark room. Marko, glasses glinting, paused in his story. Dust particles floated slowly through the beam, spinning and falling, but we took no notice. All we saw was a single photo glimmering on the screen: a climber in the mountains, a ribbon of steep ice, and a large backpack. Just one of Marko’s many climbs; it looked hard and committing.
Marko spoke. ‘One of the most important things to remember, is that style matters.’
I agreed with Marko: the way we climb is as important as what we climb. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realise there’s more to climbing than simply reaching a summit or topping out a route. Climbing is more than just a physical act or mental fight. Style is all we have. Otherwise, why not just take a helicopter to the top?
Marko continued his presentation. ‘After Just Do It, I was injured, so I went alpine climbing,’ he said with a smile. Marko embodied style throughout his climbing and encouraged us to always aim high.
‘Style matters because you’re trying to meet the challenge in the best possible way,’ he said. ‘Onsight and free is the fairest. Style reflects you, and shows you aimed for the ideal – even if you didn’t make it.’ This struck a chord with me, and I thought about my own pursuit of style…
In rock climbing, the cleanest style is obviously onsight; preferably near your limit, on a classic route and with a good battle to the top. The experience is raw, the result uncertain. To accept beta, to top rope, or to reduce the challenge of the route is a lesser style. The result might be a quicker ascent, or an easier experience, but it can almost feel like cheating.
Alpinism is a search for the purest style in the mountains: no fixed ropes, no oxygen, no assistance. I relate to Marko’s ‘style’ statement most when alpine climbing. I’m drawn to alpinism because it’s a culmination of all my skills and knowledge. Anything less would not be enough: I want a challenge which pushes back, which forces me to draw on my experience. I cherish the adventure in climbing.
I also like aesthetics, so striking, beautiful mountains draw me in. I find satisfaction in climbing a thousand metres of ice, snow and rock over many days. Just look at Mt. Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, Mt. Jezebel in Alaska, or Aiguille du Fou in the Alps. I felt the fear before climbing these picturesque mountains, but thanks to strong partners, we always aimed for a free ascent – even if we didn’t succeed!
Of course, the longer and more sustained the route, the more enjoyable the game becomes. But also, the more important it is to choose wisely: up or down? The higher we climb, the greater the consequences – and the easier it is to opt for a lesser style. Once we passed the crux of Divine Providence on the Grand Pilier d’Angle, it was much more logical to continue upwards than to consider bailing down, for example.
Style is embodied in adventure of the unknown. A guaranteed route in the mountains holds no appeal. For me, alpinism is starting in the dead of night, following the white light of hope from your headlamp. It’s filling your lungs with cold air, wondering where each breath will take you. It’s the crunch of granite crystals beneath your rock shoes and the uncertainty as the axe strikes.
The greater the unknown in alpine climbing, the greater the chance of failure (the concept of failure, in itself, is incorrect. We can learn from every outcome). But the greater the potential reward. Remember the feelings of satisfaction, relief and pride after a hard-won onsight? I felt electric for days after my first hard trad onsight. I floated on a steady buzz, contented, even though I can only remember a few of the moves from Surgical Lust (a climb on Scimitar Ridge). A few years before, I was tempted to headpoint a route of this E7 grade, but now I’m glad I saved it for the onsight.
These are the rewards we should aim for as we pursue the ephemeral ‘perfect style.’ We should look for the views with nobody else in sight, and chase the blood-red sunset. We should remember the silence as darkness settles, and the comfort of a star-lit sky. But it isn’t always easy; the remoteness of the Karakoram Himalaya certainly made me question my motives, my style and my tolerance of fear.
I like that the best style in alpine climbing is to pare down everything to the essential – equipment, mind, partnership. Cutting the labels out of jackets does nothing for the weight of my pack, but does everything for my mind. And I like that the best style requires the burning of all energy, the combination of psyche… it’s the sum of everything.
Aiming for the best style in climbing means I have to try harder than I want. I have to face my demons and explore fear. Being shit-scared above ‘junk pro’ certainly focuses my attention. Even whilst Scottish winter climbing, I’ve found myself going far beyond my comfort zone and silently praying my picks would hold. Beinn Eighe’s frozen quartzite walls are a cocktail of tempting lines and thin hooks, which lure me in before sending shivers down my spine – and not just from the cold.
Fellow British climber Uisdean Hawthorn and I recently named our new route in Alaska “Fun or Fear” because we regularly experienced both these emotions.
Style translates to life, too. If you opt for the guaranteed tick or pull on gear when the going gets tough, you change the challenge. Do you take the easy way in life?
But of course, I’ve bailed, failed, fallen off, burnt out, been scared, focused on the ground and wasted many opportunities. I’ve lost racks-worth of gear, and abseiled off single wires again and again (why do I always lose size 5s?). Young and less experienced, I didn’t take many of the leads on the Gabarrou-Silvy on the Aiguille Sans Nom with Calum and John – even though they offered. I’ve shouted “take!” and dropped a rope down projects I should’ve saved for the onsight. And now I bitterly regret it.
But, equally, I’ve pushed on into the night. My partners and I have weathered the storm, hungry and smiling. I’ve shared some of my richest life experiences with good friends in the mountains and now, every time I tie in, I remember the question – or the challenge: in what style can I do this?
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Tom Livingstone