By Mountain Hardwear athlete Freddie Wilkinson
“We have a rule, climbing in the mountains – you just don’t fall,” says veteran alpinist Mark Richey, “…but you do, sometimes.”
The contradictions inherent in this statement cut to the heart of what hardcore alpine climbing is all about. Alpinists spend a lot of time thinking about the risks they will face, analyzing specific hazards and gaming out myriad scenarios. You tell yourself if you just stick to some basic rules, everything will probably turn out fine. But on every great alpine climb, there comes a point where the rules must be broken – or, at least, bent a bit – to get the job done. Much as we are loath to admit it, intangible elements like determination and luck play as significant a role as physical fitness or savvy decision-making.
But on every great alpine climb, there comes a point where the rules must be broken – or, at least, bent a bit – to get the job done.
In July, 2011, I joined Mark and Steve Swenson on an expedition to the Eastern Karakorum to attempt the first ascent of Saser Kangri II. At 7513 meters above sea level, SKII was the forty-ninth highest summit in the world, and the second highest unclimbed mountain to boot. Mark was fifty-three years old, and Steve was fifty-seven.
Two weeks before we left, Mark Richey and I spent the weekend rock climbing on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. A casual day at the crag turned serious when a fellow climber who was climbing nearby ran into a bit of bad luck. The resulting rescue was a relatively routine affair, thanks to Cathedral’s urban setting and the well-honed skills of our local volunteer Mountain Rescue Service – but it drove home the seriousness of what we were about to attempt.
“Let’s say that happened at 7,000 meters on Saser Kangri II,” Mark hypothesized. “For one man to get another man with a broken leg off the mountain… would be near impossible.”
Two months later, Mark, Steve, and I stood on top of Saser Kangri II. For my partners, the adventure was the culmination of decades spent exploring high, wild, places. But the summit hadn’t come easy, and, as we started the long journey down, Steve was growing dangerously weak. As his condition spiraled out of control that night, we all wondered if our luck had run out.
As his condition spiraled out of control that night, we all wondered if our luck had run out.
In March, 2012, our climb was honored with the Piolet d’Or, a fancy award given by the Groupe de Haute Montagne for the most significant alpine ascent of the year. (We were one of two teams to receive the award in 2012.) In my mind, the unexpected accolade makes it that much more important that we not forget that we bent a few rules along the way to reach the summit – and things might have turned out very differently.
That said, I’m psyched to formally release The Old Breed on the web this week. This is not your big-budget, commercialized adventure film starring sponsored heroes and superhuman skills and chiseled good looks. This is a boots-on-the-ground, raw look at my partners: two true explorers in an era when everything’s been explored, both fathers and successful businessmen with aging bodies and major appetites for risk.
The Old Breed is now available on vimeo for $2, less than one beer at the bar or that grande cappacino at Starbucks.
There’s more. To complete the story, we’re releasing a four minute scene that was deleted from the longer film. “Training Day” documents one of the East Coast’s greatest rock climbs, the Prow on Cathedral Ledge, until things take an unexpected turn. Lastly, you can read my long-form account of our expedition, originally published in Rock and Ice magazine, here.
Massive thanks go to my film partner, Rufus Lusk, and the team at Cowboy Bear Ninja Productions, as well as our sponsors: Mountain Hardwear, The American Alpine Club, Clifbar, Rock and Ice, and Petzl.
May our story inspire others, and may we all learn something from it, too.
Watch The Old Breed.