Each month through to September, we will be asking one of our Pro-Team judges from this year’s #MEclimbing competition to share a photo that symbolises a significant moment to them from their climbing journey so far. This month is the turn of Tom Livingstone, who ruminates on his recent Slovak direct attempt with fellow judge, Uisdean Hawthorn, weather windows, and how sometimes persistence simply isn’t enough in the world of alpine climbing.
Words by Tom Livingstone
Tom Livingstone has a penchant for trad, winter and alpine climbing. He’s psyched for big and inspiring mountain routes around the world, and devotes himself entirely to this way of life. He treasures the raw emotions at the end of a hard onsight, the pain of the hot aches and the flash of magic as the sun sets in the mountains.
By now, Uisdean and I know the score. Alpine climbing is where it’s at. The mountains are a playground, and where I feel at home. Crampons are toes, axes are extensions of hands.
We also know the chance of succeeding in the mountains is slim. Although you can chose to place bolts, fix ropes, change the challenge, this style isn’t for us. We know good weather is rare, and storms are common. But this is what makes the reward so much sweeter and the experience richer.
Alpine climbing gives you that buzz. Not the instant hit at the end of a long run-out, but a more soulful, contented, exhausted feeling. It’s what keeps me going back for more, but I often need several beers and some rest beforehand!
We were in Alaska for seven weeks this May and June this year, but temperatures remained ‘fresh’ (read -40 deg. C). The winds ripped over the summit continuously, and life above 14,000 ft was a real struggle. People were evacuated with frostbite.
We also knew our objective – the Slovak Direct on the South face of Denali – was one of the most committing alpine routes we’d ever been on. From about halfway, the only option is to go up and over the top of the highest mountain in North America.
Sure, storms happen all the time in other mountain ranges. But in Alaska, they seem to happen with a particular ferocity and length. We endured a week-long period of freezing temperatures in early June, with strong winds and several feet of snowfall. We watched a lot of movies. Our patience was tested.
In the Canadian Rockies last autumn, our persistence had been rewarded when we made the third ascent of the House/Anderson route on Mt. Alberta. Our second attempt, with much better conditions and weather, only came after a long period of waiting and brewing. I wonder if it took that first attempt to see how much we wanted the route?
When we tried the Slovak Direct, it was in a non-existent weather window. It had been consistently inconsistent for a while, and the end of trip was approaching faster than I’d have liked. I could dress up the weather, but you’ll get the picture if I just say, ‘it was really shit.’
We started up the route, soloing the first 1000 ft, before roping up for a pitch of M5. At the belay I met Chantel and Gilbert, two American climbers who’d started a few days earlier. They were bailing from a ways up the face, having received an updated forecast. Uisdean and I sighed, talked a few words, then stood in silence. We know when to push it, and when we’re going too far. We know when the weather’s bad, and the odds are stacked high against us. We threw the ropes and began to rappel.
In the month after our trip, I felt two main emotions: a sadness and bitterness about the lack of ‘success.’ But I also felt a comfort that we’d made the right decision, and a knowledge that sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose. Eventually, the second emotion became stronger, and I knew it was correct.
I think this is what makes the difference. Alpine climbing sometimes chews you up, spits you out and leaves you without a route. Success is never guaranteed, only an adventure. If you’re in it for the long run, climbing a route doesn’t matter – it’s part of the experience and makes you better for the next time. You can’t win all the time; that’s the way it goes in the hills.
I know our trip to Alaska was enjoyable, regardless of routes climbed. We paid our money and took our chances. We had fun, and we’ll be back for more.
Inspired by Tom Livingstone’s story? It’s time to share your own. Throughout Summer 2017, we are asking you to share your #MEclimbing stories on Instagram as part of our #MEclimbing competition for a chance to win some great Mountain Equipment gear, as well as a custom one-to-one rock tuition session at Plas y Brenin.
To enter, simply tag #MEclimbing in your Instagram photo.