Mal Duff, Scottish winter climbing legend, had reached an impasse. On a new route on Stob Coire nan Lochan, an overhanging recess reared up before him. All had gone well until this moment, but the alcove was grey and mottled and ten meters high, with no climbable features to be seen. What to do? The conditions were typically Scottish: dark clouds like a quilt patterned in teacup bottoms pushed across the sky above, the handles changing with the wind.
It began to rain, a wet, sleety precipitate that, as Duff watched, gathered on the walls around him. The drops started to accumulate—and then, before his very eyes, they began to freeze.
Inspiration formed as quickly as the drops turned to ice. Placing a pick atop one of the frozen drops, Duff transferred the entirety of his weight. The drop held. Barely daring to breathe, he placed his other pick in a similar manner, with the same results. Move by move, he ascended out of the recess, reached the lower-angle snow slope above, then continued to the top for another first ascent.
Total rubbish, right? Of course it is. But Duff, whose legacy of first winter ascents in Scotland was matched only by his ability to spin tales about them, is emblematic of a natural tendency in climbers (and fishermen): storytelling. And with storytelling comes exaggeration.
Most climbers like to talk about their adventures, and most of us like to hear a good climbing tale, too. The motivation to find an audience is as diverse as the reasons we climb, but for a growing number of us it represents an opportunity to make a living doing what we love. When climbers who have interesting stories to tell converge with publications such as this magazine, the result can be a neat symbiosis that provides artistic fodder for our pages, professional livelihood for them and a ready vehicle for sponsors to promote their products. There's only one downside: the undiscerning reader.
Seasoned climbers will peruse this issue of Alpinist with the same healthy level of scrutiny they apply to all climbing literature, for a good reason. Writing can provide a way for authors to make sense of their experiences, and the resulting tales can give readers a means to connect with other people's perspectives. But writing about an incident invariably alters it, and in some cases, the climb can become secondary to the story the narrator weaves.
A Swiss friend had a ready designation for those who build their accomplishments into myths that dwarf the events themselves. Such a person, she said, is an "affabulateur"--one who takes a fact and makes it larger. Because we love to hear affabulation in every medium—among other things, it helps us transcend the mundanity of our own lives—those who have a natural aptitude for storytelling are rewarded with larger audiences than those who don't. The best affabulateurs know this, and when they go on their climbs, they bring along accomplished photographers and/or writers to help present their stories afterwards. Indeed, it is not uncommon today for climbers to have agents managing the resulting stories with sponsors and the media.
At Alpinist, we try to present our stories on three levels: a historical level that archives the facts of past and present climbs; a literary level that connects with readers' humanity; and an aesthetic level that features iconic images we hope will resonate in readers' memories long after they put down an issue. But since we operate on a deadline schedule, there are times when we choose articles because they already have one or more of the elements sketched in. The downside is that occasionally we pass over truly noteworthy climbs in favour of ones that come pre-packaged with photos and a polished tale. Some of our contributors are simply climbers, and the act of getting their stories out there - let alone refining them - is a bother they have no interest in pursuing.
Yannick Graziani and Christian Trommsdorff, who managed the alpine-style ascent of Pumari Chhish South detailed in this issue's Wired, are two such people. Although they've been making alpine-style ascents at high altitudes for nearly a decade, most North Americans will be forgiven for not recognizing their names: self-promotion has not been their priority. Bruce Miller, this issue's Local Hero, is another. Miller's accomplishments rank him as one of America's finest all-rounders, yet his disinclination to play the media and sponsorship game leaves him virtually unknown in his own country. While that status doesn't do his ascents justice, it's probably just the way he likes it.
Our heroes, and the characters we'll continue to try to bring to your attention, are people like these, who treat their climbing as a pastime that informs their decisions back on level ground but that never becomes the sole basis for their identity. Likewise the kinds of stories we'll attempt to select are those that frame climbing not only as a beautiful or an admirable pursuit, but also one that reveals our human strengths and weaknesses with an unflinching honesty. And a sense of humor: affabulation, when it's candidly presented as such, can be a blast as well as a natural inclination. Who among us has never taken a near-miss by a lightning strike or a particularly memorable move above protection up a notch when retelling the tale, particularly after the third or fourth recounting? And who among us does not enjoy hearing such stories, even when we know that, like Duff and his raindrops, the reality itself bears no great resemblance?
Enjoy this issue with a healthy degree of context. We enjoyed making it—but your own adventures, and their affabulation, are up to you.
Note from Jack Geldard - Editor - UKC:
UKClimbing.com share the Alpinist editorial ethos and appreciate the need for the great stories of our climbing world to be passed on. We try to work on a variety of levels, with news, articles and forum discussion. We recognise that the internet is now becoming the place for historical record keeping for the climbing community and we will do our best to present that information in a transparent and accessible way. We're a flowing media - the news goes up quickly, but can also be corrected instantly. We will make mistakes, but with the help of our readers we will correct them. Historically correct climbing information for everyone, and maybe just a little affabulation...
About The Author: Christian Beckwith
Christian Beckwith is the Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist magazine. He began climbing in Wales in 1990. In 1993, he was lured to the Tetons by an article on alpine rock, and has called Jackson home ever since. In 1994 he started a Teton-based climbing 'zine, The Mountain Yodel. He edited The American Alpine Journal from 1996 until 2002, when he left to start Alpinist with Marc Ewing. In 2005, he started The Barry Corbet Film Festival (now The Alpinist Film Festival). Beckwith's climbing has taken him to Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Tibet, Alaska and across Asia and Europe, but these days he feeds the rat most often in the peaks above Jackson Hole.