Some years back I had a minor revelation. I was on the campus of an American college to take part in a “Simulation European Union”: a network of European and American universities brought a couple of hundred students together for a few days to play the role of someone in the EU decision making structures; be that an MEP, a commissioner, a lobbyist, or a government minister. The idea was everyone would learn about how the EU really worked. What I mainly learnt was that American beer is as bad as everybody says, that American food is very cheap and plentiful, and where the best nightspots were in the town. Oh yes, and one other thing: that I'm European.
Identity is often defined in opposition – I know I'm a Midlander mainly because I know I'm not a Southerner or a Northerner, just don't press me too hard on what it actually means beyond that. Although I had actually been living in another European country for a couple of years before going on that trip to the US, it wasn't until I was there that I felt European – a sudden and clear realisation that I understood the Germans, Dutch and Finnish guys we were out drinking with better than the Americans. If I can get a bit sociological for a minute, this has got to be from the intangibles of social, cultural and political life – certain ways of seeing the world, expectations of how we and others should act. I have European sensibilities, I just didn't realise it until being exposed to American ones in the company of fellow Europeans. This is not to say that one is better than the other, or that I don't like Americans (actually, I disproportionately do). It's just that there is a difference.
By this point you are almost certainly asking what has this to do with climbing magazines? So here is my point: Vertical aims to be the first European climbing magazine – the same magazine just in four different languages; un magasin pour l'union européenne perhaps? Can it work? Is there enough of a 'we' feeling generated by a European climbing community? Superficially it would seem not. The ethics and historically defined cultures are too diverse. To many British eyes, the grid bolted polished limestone of popular cliffs in France or Spain look simply sterile, devoid of real 'lines'. The climbs that do exist are only recognisable by a line of steel drilled into the rock. Whilst to climbers in those countries, the sight of a helmeted Brit – often with numerous years of experience – shuffling around, clanking with gear, on ten metre high outcrops, on routes that would hardly merit a grade across Le Manche (what is V.Diff in French grading then?) must look bizarre. But these formalised sub-genres, with their own rules and unique ethics, all stem from one joint beginning – mountaineering, and this is Vertical's forte.
But mountains don't mean easy routes – the front cover that proclaims “Big walls: Extreme climbing... Supersized” and “Ines Papert climbs 8b... on Cima Grande!” sets the scene. Inside we are regaled with details of global, state-of-the-art alpine climbing such as Papert's amazing ascent but also many more; like Robert Jasper's new route on the North Face of the Eiger – numerous pitches in the 7a to 7c+ range on questionable and damp rock and that still requires a full set of trad gear. These kind of ascents get only cursory attention in British magazines unless a British climber is involved. This is not a criticism of British magazines, that is how the sport, and the magazines that feed off it, has developed. But it does suggest that there is a place for a regional or even a global magazine. The elites of each country will always know who the 'competition' is, but it is nice for the rest of us to know what is going on beyond our respective national scenes. The British can be a bit self-congratulatory over our trad ethics (ignoring that the same tradition remains important not only across much of the rest of the English-speaking world, but also in other parts of Europe such as Scandinavia), but what the October/November edition of Vertical shows is how strong trad climbing remains elsewhere in the mountains of Europe. In particular, Josune Bereziartu's account of a summer of weekends spent climbing in the spectacular Ordesa Gorge in the Pyrenees stands out; including the first free ascent of Divina Comedia, where Bereziartu onsighed the crux pitch at 7c, high on the route, on trad gear. I don't know what E-grade that would work out at, but it's going to be a big one.
The focus of at least this edition of the magazine is unashamedly Alpine. Perhaps those of us reading Vertical on the periphery of Europe can wonder will they ever mention us? But if the Alps are the spine of Europe, they are the natural focus for a trans-European climbing community: you are as likely to meet a German as you are a Brit, or a Greek, or a Swede on the slopes of Mont Blanc. This is not to say other areas are ignored; there are articles about climbing in Alaska and great photos of big routes from all around the world. Having climbed in the region myself this summer, I was particular pleased to see a full page picture of Didier Berthod, the global crack master from Switzerland, on his amazing free ascent of the Blåmann Wall near Tromso in Arctic Norway. The front cover is a likewise dramatic shot of another Swiss climber, Giovanni Quirici, trying to redpoint an 8a pitch on the Nameless Tower of Trango in Pakistan.
The magazine lacks some of the features that we have grown used to in the British mags; no gear reviews, no training article and none of the gossipy local news. This may be considered a strength or weakness depending on what you are looking for. The translations into English are generally good - clearly done by native speakers who are very comfortable with climbing terminology. They do still have a slight air of difference about them though, something that I know is hard for even the most talented of translators to completely dispel. Perhaps this is actually not a bad thing and we will see over the coming years if there are national styles to climbing writing as well as simply to climbing itself. Americans climbers don't write like British mountaineers do even though we share a common language, so therefore it is not surprising if a Basque climber, and a woman at that, writes with a different 'feel' to what you get used to reading English language magazines.
Vertical will not be for everyone, if you don't travel much for your climbing – or at least don't intend to – it might not appeal. The same could be said for those who aren't interested in at least long, multi-pitch rock routes even if they don't indulge in the colder aspects of mountaineering. But for those who want to know what else is going on out there – and particularly for those who after a glass or two of a good red wine start to feel quite, well, 'European' – it is a good read.
Toby Archer, based in Finland, works as a researcher specialising in terrorism and political Islam for an international affairs think-tank. "Climbing keeps me from getting too depressed by these sort of things." He blogs about both at Light from the North. He is part of the UKClimbing.com Gear Review Team.