An interesting transition is taking place in New Zealand alpine climbing currently. We are in the process of a generational change.
Like a small wave lapping at your ankles, the next generation often arrives relatively unnoticed. As the years pass, the wave grows stronger, before you know it a large breaker simply pushes past you and there you have it, here they are.
In my mind a generation in alpine climbing runs in ten year cycles. Usually from the large pool of people who start off alpine climbing in their twenties, a small core remains through their thirties advancing their skills and usually completing some of their best ascents during those years. Its not always the case, but usually in NZ by the time most mountaineers reach their forties and fifties the majority have slowed down or quit. It’s a fairly natural cycle with the younger generations bringing new levels of skill and motivation. This is especially the case for active older climbers who get to share in that enthusiasm, learn new skills, techniques and often join in on a few of the trips.
Below I'm going to use two examples that say strongly to me the next generation has arrived and is thriving.
I first felt the push of a new generation four years ago, watching Alastair McDowell and Rose Pearson through my binoculars as they spent five days on the first ascent of the West Ridge of Taulliraju in Peru. A rather ground breaking ascent for a young team on a route that had been looked at, tried and (by some) deemed too hard or dangerous. In fact it was neither, they pushed through the difficult terrain to complete one of the best first ascents by a Kiwi team of that decade. This month Al and Rose seemed to generate some debate once again in the kiwi climbing community by taking a day off work and climbing Mt Cook town to town in less than 24 hours. Two excellent climbers, highly skilled, highly motivated enjoying great conditions on a nice day out. It can be easy to forget, or simply not to know, what goes before a quick ascent like that.
By way of example. In the last 12 months alone Rose established a new route on the Shelia Face of Mt Cook, made the second ascent of Pilgrim, perhaps the hardest line on Mt Cook, won or placed in the top three for multiple ultra marathons including 2nd place in the NZ trail running championships, and to top it all off 3 days after day tripping Mt Cook ran the female course record at St James Stampede 50km race. Then you take a look at a tiny cross section of what Al got up to in the last 12 months. Climbed the Nose on El Capitan in a causal 10 hours, Free Rider on El Capitan in a day leading all but one of the pitches, redpointed mixed routes up to M10, ran Mt Blanc town to town in 8.50, the same week running town to town on the Matterhorn and the Barrhorn. This was a bit like the week surrounding the one day ascent of Mt Cook, where he also ran the length of the Tararuas (6800 vertical meters and 80km), then climbed Cook, following it up that weekend with a 5th place overall in the St James Stampede. To top that small cross section of their year off both of these climbers also climb to a high standard on ice, rock and mixed terrain! Personally I find it an inspiration to see young climbers coming through and pushing past the generations that went before them. Im yet to see a more experienced well rounded pair of climbers emerge from NZ in quite some time. It will be interesting to see in the coming years where that level of fitness and commitment takes them. I think Rose summed it up well when she told me the nice thing about climbing Cook and then racing 4 days later was that the day after the race her legs still felt fine. A strong base for future big routes.
Expedition climbing is nothing new, Kiwis have been doing it for years. There was a period however during the mid to late '90s and early 2000s where we simply didn’t do much of it. I was stoked to see Petrouchka Steiner-Grierson winning the annual Expedition Climbers Club grant for her trip to Baffin Island. Pet has pulled together over 10 young climbers from NZ to head off in June on what will be one of the largest expedition of young climbers to depart NZ in several years. This is another quiet wave of Kiwi mountaineers quietly starting out many of their first real expedition. This wave didn’t happen overnight climbers: like Pet and those leaving with her have been active around the world for several years now, refining their trade in Yosemite, Europe, NZ and the Rockies.
It took us, the generation who came before Pet, several years to establish the ECC Expedition fund and get it to a point where it could provide some support to annual expedition. This year's grant of $8000 won’t do much to offset the costs of their trip to Baffin but it’s through these younger climbers' participation in events like the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival that this kind of grant is possible. It is also the reason why these grants grow in size every year. It’s heart warming to see the younger generations simply putting actions ahead of words. Volunteering their time and energy to create a real climbing community. Climbers like Pet who have been climbing and skiing around the world for several years now will be the leaders of the generation that follows them. They get involved, make an effort and leave a positive mark on the people around them.
In addition to the Baffin expedition we also have 7 climbers from NZ and Australia heading to India in April to attempt various routes based around the North Face and West Ridge of Changabang. It has taken over 10 years' of work to build the partnerships that make up this expedition team. This trip represents the work that my generation of climbers has been building towards for quite some time. The outcome of the trip is irrelevant. The success comes from the fact that we have been building those friendships and climbing partnerships for a long time and the success of the trip is simply the fact that we are able to bring together 7 of the best alpine climbers from NZ and Australia who all have climbed extensively together over many previous trips for a substantial alpine objective.
This year in addition to the above we have multiple Kiwis heading off to North America for ice climbing trips, Yosemite trips and climbs in the European Alps.
My final observation on the generational change is that a younger generation coming through does not take anything away from what went before them. There is no reason to fear the change of techniques and the advancement of the sport. I am yet to observe an older climber who did not benefit from spending time or climbing with a young motivated alpinist. Long may this positive trend continue.
People reading this might also enjoy Al's article on mountain running found here.