Robert L. Peters

25 July 2011

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot

12 July 2011

What goes up… must come down.

Zermatt, Switzerland

The first ascent of the iconic Matterhorn (yes, the one on the triangular-shaped Toblerone chocolate package) was made by Edward Whymper, Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, Michel Croz, and the two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder father and son on 14 July 1865. Douglas, Hudson, Hadow and Croz were killed on the descent when Hadow slipped and pulled the other three with him down the north face. Whymper and the Taugwalder guides, who survived, were later accused of having cut the rope below to ensure that they were not dragged down with the others, but the subsequent inquiry found no proof of this and they were acquitted.

The Matterhorn accident was long discussed in the media, in Switzerland and abroad… newspapers all over the world reported the tragedy and no other Alpine event has ever caused more headlines. Read the full background to this memorable event in mountaineering history here.

Matterhorn photo (cropped) by Juan Rubiano; Illustrations of Whymper et al’s ascent and disastrous descent are by Gustave Doré.

“A single slip,
or a single false step,

has been the sole cause
of this frightful calamity.”

—Edward Whymper


4 April 2011

Fred Beckey… coming to town!

Winnipeg, Manitoba

If you’re a climber in or near these parts, mark the evening of 18 April (two weeks from today) to take in a talk by, slide show (yup, the old-fashioned kind) with, and a film about climbing legend Fred Beckey, sponsored by the Manitoba Section of the Alpine Club of Canada. Known variously as “the original dirt-bag climber,” “old man of the mountains,” “the climbing bum’s climbing bum” and a variety of other colourful monikers, Fred Beckey boasts an impressive resume of alpine first ascents second to few—and at the age of 87 (not a typo) he’s still climbing!

The Fred Beckey gig will take place at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre at 340 Provencher Boulevard in Winnipeg (more details still to come). In the meantime, read more about Fred Beckey here; watch a 5-minute film piece that The New York Times featured two years ago here.

Image: a Patagonia climbing poster featuring Fred from a few years back.

28 March 2011

Crossing crevassed terrain…

(even as they recede…)

When traveling across glaciers, it’s obviously best to avoid crevassed areas if at all possible. While skis lessen the possibility of punching through the snow layer in winter (a ski distributes your body weight more broadly than a boot), negotiating snow-bridges and moving safely above the snow- or firn-line* where underlying crevasses can lurk can be harrowing as well.

Photos (from the top): crossing The President Glacier, BC (photo by friend David Cormie); the sphincter-tightening process of negotiating melting snow bridges; belaying my partner Peter Aitchison as he jumps icy streams atop the firn (the water disappeared into bottomless sink-holes here and there with a terrifyingly-deep flushing sound); happily roped-up with colleagues on a Bugaboos ascent; crossing a tricky bit of steep glare-ice using French technique (pied à plat) for good crampon purchase, trying not to think about the long run-out below.

* the firn-line is the highest level to which the fresh snow on a glacier’s surface retreats during the melting season, or the line separating the accumulation area from the ablation area

9 March 2011

The 1972 Chouinard Catalog…


I was delighted to receive a link this week from designer friend/equestrian Christina Weese in Saskatoon—to an online version of the 1972 Chouinard Catalog. As an aging trad climber this really takes me back… legendary climber/mountaineer (and IMAX photographer) David Breashear writes about the influence of this very same 1972 Chouinard catalog on his climbing in his 1999 autobiography, High Exposure.

“Another serious influence on my developing style came via the Chouinard climbing equipment catalogue of 1972, a slender publication with a Chinese landscape painting on the cover. Its author, the revered rock and ice climber Yvon Chouinard, called for “clean” climbing, proposing that climbers disavow pitons and bolts that scarred or otherwise altered rock. Instead, he advocated the use of metal nuts of various shapes and sizes which slotted into cracks without damage to the rock and could be recovered by the second climber on a rope. He reminded readers of the edict of John Muir, the late-nineteenth-century poet-environmentalist: ‘Leave no mark except your shadow.’ This ethic of purism and self-control made a profound impact on the climbing community—and on me as well.”

Images: a few pics from the catalog, including the chapter title for a treatise on clean climbing, a mess of ‘biners, the breakthrough Hexentrics stopper, Yvon’s ironmongery, and a pair of exquisite Annapurna glasses.

26 February 2011

Some sage thoughts… on Alpinism.


The pleasure of risk is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination—in a word, experience. Climbing in particular, is a paradoxically intellectual pastime, but with this difference: you have to think with your body. Every move has to be worked out in terms of playing chess with your body. If I make a mistake the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing, and possibly painful. For a brief period I am directly responsible for my actions. In that beautiful, silent, world of mountains, it seems to me worth a little risk.

—A. Alvarez

Fear… the right and necessary counterweight to that courage which urges men skyward, and protects them from self-destruction.

—Heinrich Harrer

Many years ago, I climbed the mountains, even though it is forbidden. Things are not as they teach us; the world is hollow, and I have touched the sky.

—from Startrek

Short is the little time which remains to thee of life. Live as on a mountain.

—Marcus Aurelius, (Meditations)

If the conquest of a great peak brings moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach, it also presents great dangers. It is not the goal of grand alpinism to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs. On this proud and beautiful mountain we have lived hours of fraternal, warm and exalting nobility. Here for a few days we have ceased to be slaves and have really been men. It is hard to return to servitude.

—Lionel Terray

I hope I die before I get old.

—The Who


18 January 2011

Like the good man said…


This is not unlike traditional, bottom-up, first-ascent climbing… you rack up and then start up what you hope will be a fruitful line leading to the summit, no beta, no guarantee. On a good day, those bold initial moves pay off…

2 January 2011

Baby… it's cold ouside.


Thanks to climber friend Toni Wilson for the fitting quotable…

28 December 2010

Climbing on the shoulders… of legends.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Several Native American legends exist regarding the origin of Devils Tower. One of the most popular involves seven young Kiowa girls who are chased by giant bears. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit caused the rock to rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower). When the seven girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.

In another version of the legend (depicted in the painting above), a group of Natives are chased by a giant magic bear. Again, the Great Spirit raises them up on a rock tower where they are able to fight back and defeat the bear as it tries unsuccessfully to climb the tower—no explanation of how the bear loses its long tail… (it’s also worth noting that the bear shown in the image above is about 100 times actual size, while the warriors on top are about 10 x actual size).*

Devils Tower (Mato Tipila in Lakota, which means “Great Bear Lodge,” though named by surveyors after another Native name, “The Bad God’s Tower”) is a monolithic igneous intrusion located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, rising dramatically 1,267 feet (386 m) above the surrounding terrain with a summit 5,112 feet (1,558 m) above sea level. A most improbable mountain comprised of sharp, near-vertical cliffs with regular furrows, it sticks up like some giant, prehistoric tree-stump. Devils Tower was the first declared United States National Monument, established in 1906 by president Theodore Roosevelt. Stephen Spielberg used it as a backdrop to his 1977 blockbuster movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (remember the mashed potato carving?). Yearly, some 400,000 tourists come to gawk at its unusual shape, and it is still a favorite “test-piece” for trad rock climbers (statistically, about 1% of visitors are climbers).

Most of the evidence suggests that the strangely-shaped mountain is a laccolith, an intrusion of hot magma from deep within the earth that never reaches the surface. It pushes up a bulge of sedimentary rock but without forming a caldera or crater (as a volcano would have). As the molten rock cools and the soft sedimentary rock of the bulge is worn away, the harder igneous rock is exposed (in the case of Devils Tower this would have resulted in the top of the tower becoming visible between one and two million years ago… with continuous erosion ever since). As the hot rock cooled, eight-sided vertical columns formed. As these columns continued to cool they shrank and pulled away from each other, making the furrow marks that run vertically down the tower from the top. The tower’s rock is phonolite porphyry, a gray or greenish igneous rock with crystals of feldspar embedded within it.

I’ve had the pleasure (and great privilege, I would say) of climbing Devils Tower several times over the years. Although forced off the tower just several pitches up by an afternoon lightning storm on my first attempt, I was able to lead the Durrance Route (one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America) the next day—including the famous “jump traverse” which involves an airy leap across a gap between two columns nearly 200 meters above terra firma. On a later trip, I climbed the classic Wiessner Route (led by good friend Gregor Brandt, with his lovely partner Janice Liwanag seconding, and me cleaning). The top of the tower is about the size of a soccer pitch, and as the sun goes down you can watch a rapidly-elongating shadow race out across the surrounding terrain—truly magical.

*Note that Devils Tower is sacred to several Native American Plains tribes, including the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Kiowa. In response to a concern about climbing the monument being considered a desecration, a compromise was reached in recent years involving a voluntary climbing ban during the month of June, when the tribes are conducting ceremonies around the monument. Most climbers honor this ban and voluntarily choose not to climb the Tower during the month of June.

The image at the top is by an unknown artist. The image below is a photograph taken in 1900 by Nathaniel H. Darton of the U.S. Geological Survey (the broken column which constitutes the first pitch of the Durrance Route lies along the left edge of the shadow vertically dissecting the tower).



19 December 2010

I’m dreaming of…The Bugaboos.

Purcell Mountains, British Columbia

Just confirmed—in a little over seven months I’ll be back in one of my favorite alpine places, The Bugaboos—on a week-long climbing trip with a dozen or so long-time friends from our local chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada. We’ll be using the Conrad Kain hut as a luxurious base camp (after a 3.5 km slog [700 m vertical gain] from the trail-head) offering propane powered lamps and stove-top, and as of late, hydro-electric power (from continual glacial run-off) for lights, heating and even hot water.

The Bugaboos’ awe-inspiring mountain and glacier terrain draws climbers from around the world to its airy, glacier-sculpted granite spires (many of them over 3,000 meters in elevation). On three previous trips there I’ve met enthusiastic alpinists from Europe, Asia, South America, and Oceania… along with lots of Canucks and Yanks of course.

It’s time for me to get back into shape…

(photos above are all from Wikipedia)

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