Ambition and ethics
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women (Sunday October 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm)

For several years, I’ve visited Professor Paul Strom’s class, The Ethics of Ambition, to talk with the class about ethics and ambition in the climbing community. In the past, I’ve mentioned various ethical dilemmas climbers encounter and we’ve discussed what would be the better, or best thing to do in a given situation.


On this visit, I began with a discussion of ambition. To clarify this concept, I looked up a few definitions:



1. An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power.

2. The object or goal desired:

[Middle English ambicioun, excessive desire for honor, power, or wealth]


and in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary


1.   an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power


and in

an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment:


I like the last definition best, as it includes “the willingness to strive for its attainment.”


Climbers, like other competitive athletes, train hard, sacrificing much, and risking even more, to attain their climbing goals, such as a coveted first ascent of an unclimbed peak.


So where do we encounter ethical dilemmas – training hard and sacrifice are generally considered beneficial. Training hard may cause us to neglect our friends or family, and we may sacrifice time with our family to devote to our training. With young athletes, such as the Olympic gymnasts, track starts, swimmers and many others, where the most competitive athletes seem to be around 16 (supposed) years old, this sacrifice is made as much by the athlete’s parents as the athlete themselves. But with endurance sports, such as mountain climbing, marathons, and the Tour de France, the older athletes perform better. In this case, the competitor’s husbands, wives, or children often share the burden of sacrifice.


One big question arose:


Should women with children be less willing to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks? When Alison Hargraves died on K2, leaving behind two toddlers, the press expressed outrage at her actions. However, when numerous male climbers died on many Himalayan peaks, the press was much less vocal.

Is it less ethical for mothers, than for fathers, to leave their children to climb in the Himalayas?

I don’t think so!


However, I’d like to hear the class’s opinion on this and other questions I posed.








Alpinist resurrected?
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Friday January 23, 2009 at 11:07 am)


Earlier this month, I wrote that Height of Land Publications, publisher of Backcountry Magazine, bought Alpinist.

This week, Dougald MacDonald announced that “Alpinist lives”.

The publisher of Backcountry and Telemark Skier plans to bring back Alpinist as it was, and to honor all subscriptions.

“Alpinist fits perfectly into our family,” says HOL president and publisher Jon Howard. “We feel climbers, mountaineers, and backcountry and freeheel skiers all share the same DNA. It’s, at times, about being bold; at times about being cautious.”

MacDonald  analyzed why Alpinist didn’t survive.

Though considered by many (including Reinhold Messner) to be  the world’s best climbing magazine, readers were unwilling to pay for quality.
“It never attracted nearly enough readers to turn a profit,” said Macdonald. “Climbing and Rock & Ice . . .  deliver . . . what readers and advertisers want to see.”

Backcountry editor Adam “Howie” Howard has asked Christian Beckwith to stay on as Editor.

No word yet as to what they’ll do with the Alpinist Film Festival.
Shortly before they folded, Alpinist asked me to write about a first ascent of the Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks by Alison Sheets, Layton Kor, and myself. I wonder if they’ll resurrect that article?

Fun Climbs Red Rocks
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Saturday January 17, 2009 at 8:23 am)


Fun Climbs  Red Rocks

Sometimes I Google “Fun Climbs” to read reviews or comments about my book, Fun Climbs Colorado. When I recently checked, I found a new “Fun Climbs” – about Red Rocks, Nevada.

Red Rocks offers a wonderful assortment of climbing, from short sport climbs, to medium length moderate routes, to multi-day big wall climbs. Combined that with good weather, beautiful scenery, and pleasant camping, and you’ve got a great vacation and road-trip destination area.

Fun Climbs Red Rocks focuses on moderate routes for climbers who wish to toprope or climb easier routes. It describes thirty-one cragging and toproping locations and twelve multi-pitch routes, including photos for each area plus topos for the longer climbs.

I’m excited to see this book, and hope that more “Fun Climbs” appear. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all …..

Alpinist sold
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Friday January 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm)


Height of Land Publications, the publisher of Backcountry Magazine, bought Alpinist magazine for $71,000 via phone auction.

Alpinist comprised the magazine, Web site (with about 50,000 unique visitors per month) and the Alpinist Film Festival. Despite a passionate fan following, a popular website, and a widely attended and I thought successful film festival, Alpinist remained unprofitable, even after investor Marc Ewing pumped at least $2 million into the magazine.

A former employee took over organizing the remaining tangible assets.

With 50,000 visitors on its web site, I wonder why circulation remained so low? Is it because few wanted to pay the high price of a superb magazine printed on archival quality paper? I know of many readers who borrowed it from a friend or read it at the library. Or is the market so small for alpinism?

Some people have said, “Print media is all but dead.”  If that’s the case, how long will Climbing or Rock and Ice remain viable? Or do Urban Climber and bouldering augur  the future of climbing?

Alpinist 25 - the Silver Issue
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, utah, Yosemite, Eulogies (Saturday January 3, 2009 at 8:13 am)


And the last issue

Shortly before Christmas, an unknown group bought Alpinist Magazine for $71,000. Originally on the block for as low as $30,000, I’m glad they got this much and hope to see a magazine published again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

However, while everyone still thinks the poor economy may get worse, it may be difficult to find investors to support a new publication.

There’s also the question of business model —Alpinist published a high-quality magazine with few ads, hoping to support it with subscriptions.

Dougald Macdonald, editor of the American Alpine Journal, provides an shrewd analysis of why Alpinist didn’t survive.

Though considered the best climbing magazine in the world, readers were unwilling to pay for that quality.
“It never attracted nearly enough readers to turn a profit,” said Macdonald. “Climbing and Rock & Ice . . .  deliver . . . what readers and advertisers want to see”

“Alpinist executed the limited-advertising, high-subscription-price, “reader supported” business model, it simply didn’t work in the tiny climbing market,” Macdonald concluded.

I’m particularly anxious to see Alpinist or a related magazine resume publication. I wrote a story for issue 25, originally titled “Bev’s and my Grand Adventure”, that appeared as yet another incarnation of “Walls Without Balls.”

The editor asked me to write about Layton Kor, Alison Sheets, and my first ascent on the Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks. I’d started this story when the editor told me that Alpinist would fold..

Perhaps I can write it for the new magazine.


Warren Harding and Yosemite
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Tuesday November 18, 2008 at 4:08 pm)


Harding on El Cap - Alpinist 25

Alpinist’s anniversary issue, #25, features Harding climbing El Capitan on its cover. In a way, these symbolize the ultimate achievements of climbing in the North America for much of the past 50 years. Harding, the ultimate ‘hard man’ and adventurer, was the first to climb El Capitan, Yosemite’s iconic big wall and once the world’s biggest climbable monolith.

Sadly, Harding did not live to see this celebration of his vision and his achievements. Though we had many of the top climbers from the 60s at the Yosemite reunion, the man whose vision drove the first ascent of El Capitan was missing. I’m glad that at least the House of Representatives finally recognized his, and his teammates’, achievement, and that Alpinist chose Harding and El Capitan to grace the cover of their “silver” anniversary issue.


Harding’s book

Unfortunately, Alpinist also bit the dust, part of the detritus resulting from the crash of the stock market, the financial crisis, and the unavailability of money. At least El Cap survived and appears as hale and well as ever —clean granite walls still jutting up toward the sky, dihedrals of all sizes remaining to challenge future generations of climbers. Let’s hope it lasts a while longer —I’ve almost got my son talked into attempting aid climbing!

For those who can find it, read Harding’s hilarious spoof of the climbing culture, adorned with Beryl Knauth’s apropos cartoons.

Warren’s signature,  cover page

Royal Robbins and Yosemite
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Thursday November 13, 2008 at 10:15 am)


Royal Robbins

Royal Robbins completed the first ascent of almost every major cliff in Yosemite —except for El Capitan. In fact, the reason that Warren Harding decided to attempt an ascent of El Cap was because when he and his team arrived in Yosemite to climb their intended goal, Half Dome, Robbins had beaten them to it.

Harding in his typical inexorable style responded, “Well, since Royal beat us to Half Dome, let’s go try El Capitan.”

After Harding got the first ascent of El Cap, Robbins promptly climbed El Cap’s Nose route in 7 days, as compared with Harding’s 47-day siege effort. He then went on to climb a new route on El Capitan, the Salathe Wall (named after John Salathe), followed by the North American Wall (for the silhouette of the grey rock found there). Later he soloed el Cap via the Muir Wall, which goes between the Nose route and the Salathe Wall.

Robbins wrote one of the first  modern books on how to rock climb, Basic Rockcraft, in 1973 and later wrote Advanced Rockcraft. When I started climbing, these two books were the bible of every novice climber I knew.

When I was at the Yosemite reunion, Royal’s photo was in almost every book I owned, since he’d done the first ascents of most significant Valley climbs. As I found book after book with his photo, I asked him to sign yet another autograph, until his wife Liz remarked that I was relentless. I laughed and replied that it was his fault for writing too many books and articles, and doing too many first ascents that were pictured in everyone else’ books. Not a bad legacy!

Pat Ament wrote a biography of Robbins, Spirit of the Age, in 1992, which chronicles Royal’s accomplishments in greater detail.

Authors at the Yosemite reunion
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Wednesday November 12, 2008 at 10:51 am)


Allen Steck, Doug Robinson, Chris Jones

As I walked around the auditorium in Yosemite, meeting climbers many of whom I hadn’t seen since the Camp 4 celebration in 1999, and some of whom I hadn’t seen since the 1970s, I marveled at how many of the people I spoke with had written books, edited magazines, and influenced climbing in the United States over the past 30 to 40 years.

The two most prolific authors present were Royal Robbins and Allen Steck, with Steve Roper, who would have contended for the honor of most guidebooks written, absent from the festivities. I’d brought books I owned to get autographs (while also giving out autographs to others) and the number of climbers that had stories in one of the anthologies continued to amaze me.

An expatriate British author and climber, Chris Jones, wrote Climbing in North America. While no other climbers wrote stories for this book, he included photos of many of them on their finest routes or first ascents, which of course needed an autograph! Then I had Dan Duane’s El Capitan, with many exceptional photos of the celebrities present, who could now immortalize their presence in my book.

My finest collection was all issues of the long out-of-print Ascent, the premier journal of its time, edited by Roper and Steck. I’d just picked these up at my mother’s house, where they formed part of my late father’s library.
“Where did you get these?”  Steck asked, surprised, as he signed them. “They’re in perfect condition—obviously part of someone’s library!” He graciously signed all issues of these, as well as my copy of “Fifty Classic Climbs in North America”.

Other authors present included Doug Robinson, Beryl Knauth (illustrator of Downward Bound with Warren Harding), and El Cap speed record holder Hans Florine. I traded books with Hans and hope that it’ll make me a faster climber!

Climbing, ethics, and ambition
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Sunday October 12, 2008 at 10:37 am)

For the past several years, Dr. Paul Strom invited me to speak to his class, the Ethics of Ambition.

I’ve spoken to the class about ethical dilemmas arising from the risk involved in climbing. This week, I met with the class after seeing Joe Simpson’s film, ‘The Beckoning Silence’.  Simpson struggled with some of the same issues: how can we justify spending so much time and energy in an activity which has little benefit to the world and may even kill us along the way?
Climbing differs from other endeavors, such as competing in the Olympics, the Tour de France, or World Cup ski racing primarily in the higher degree of risk. All these sports require that the participants leave their families for months. Riders in the Tour de France often move to Europe months before the race to train on the course. Lance Armstrong moved to Spain for long time periods in order to ride the key alpine passes until he knew the road perfectly.
Ambition demands a great deal of time and energy and generally entails neglecting other people and activities.
But most other activities don’t entail as great a risk of death. Few Olympic athletes die in competition; only rarely do ski racers and bike racers crash and die during competition.
Climbers die much more frequently, often leaving behind a spouse and several children.

About 74 of K2’s 280 summiteers died – or 26 per cent of those who reached the top died on the descent. The death ratio for two other 8,000-meter peaks, Nanga Parbat and Annapurna, is 28 per cent and 40 per cent.

My questions are:
Is this justifiable risk?
Is there an ethical question in order to be this ambitious?
For myself, I gave up ice climbing and Himalayan expeditions after
I had a son (and took a bad fall on Shishapangma). But then, I wasn’t a professional climber dependent on fame and sponsorship for my income. I could afford the choice to be safe. Many professional climbers don’t feel they can afford that choice.

Alpinist Film Festival
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography (Saturday October 11, 2008 at 10:43 am)


On October 8 we attended the Alpinist Film Festival at the Boulder Theater.

The festival opened with an excerpt from the movie, ‘Mountain Town: The Grasshopper’, a ski film starring Chris Davenport and the telemarker, Nick Devore, on ski descents of Colorado 14ers.

Next, the “Great White Fright’ follows two climbers on their ascent of the White Cliffs of Dover, chalk cliffs climbed with ice axe and crampons. The method of climbing this rock says it all – ice tools to chop holds in the rock give a good feeling for the soft and impermanent substrate. Sliding Liberia, a combination of surf movie and documentary, told the story of traveling through this war-torn African country and the people they meet.

The Beckoning Silence’ provided the evening’s highlight. Starring Joe Simpson, it tells the story of Toni Kurz and his climbing partners, who in 1936 attempted the unclimbed north face of the Eiger. Simpson recalls his own battle to survive ( also in his book Touching the Void) as he climbs along Toni Kurz’s route on the Eiger, showing the viewers where the climbers bivouacked and salient details, such as the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the White Spider, and the ice fields.
As Simpson recalls his demons and tells of his fall, which resulted in his climbing partner cutting the rope to save himself, we see Toni in the film forced to cut the rope to let his already-dead climbing partner fall thousands of feet to the valley below.
Tristan said, “That’s the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen.”
The scene of Kurz hanging on the rope and cutting loose his partner, and Simpson reminiscing of when his partner cut him loose to fall 150 feet into a crevasse brought up memories of my climb in Yosemite, when my partner fell 150 to hang below me.
I was able to escape the belay and climb up about 100 feet to where his rope looped around a tree, leaving him hanging in space about 70 feet below me. I talked to Chris for hours, encouraging him to try to climb up to the ledge only 10 feet above him. Helpless, I tried to help pull up my 6’5”, 125-pound injured friend to the ledge, but could not. Helpless, I watched as he went into convulsions and died. I thought I’d mostly recovered from the trauma of this 2003 accident, but watching Simpson talk of his fall and miraculous survival, and how he felt in unfair that he survived, while Toni Kurz did not, made me physically ill.
It’s a very powerful movie, but perhaps not one for climbers who have survived serious accidents.

Sports Blog Top Sites