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On becoming an alpinist, a few thoughts

By Tuan

Why and how did you start climbing ?

I lived the first twenty years of my life in Paris. Climbing is not particularly popular (to say the least) in Vietnamese families. As a teenager, I was not particularly interested in any kind of physical activity, although during the winter months I enjoyed skiing (downhill and cross-country). After two years spent studying hard in science, I went for one year in the military. This was the first real break from my city life, and I began to exercice, run and hike. At one point, friends of mine invited me into my first ski-mountaineering trip, which was in the "Trois Cols" tour in the Mont-Blanc range. This was my first experience with the high mountains, and I got hooked. My next moves were to start climbing snow slopes, and the next summer to take a two-week mountaineering course with UCPA, and then participate in the CAF week-end outings.

The mountains were a revelation for me. I was able to find there a lot of things which were quite new: intimate contact with nature and beauty, tremendous non-intellectual challenges, a simple, clean, and purposive life, friendship with people different from me. Nowadays I am sometimes wondering if it is time to move on, especially since some of the magic is gone, but when I remember all of what I got from alpinism, it is difficult not to try to stick to it.

How did you learn ?

As I mentionned, I learned the basics in a two-week mountaineering course. The two other courses that I took were guiding certification, several years latter, and a one week course in ice-climbing with Perroux. I think it is a good idea as a beginner to get some formal instruction, but then you have to start being on your own as soon as possible, taking trips with friends, and starting planning and leading trips. I learned lots of what I know by reading books and articles, talking with other climbers, observing them, but the most important thing was by doing myself. During what I consider to be my learning phase (not that I am not learning anymore, but these days the known outweights the unknown most of the time), I tried to set up for myself progressively more difficult goals, following a well-established pattern of climbs of increasing difficulty, and adding variations like winter climbing, solo climbing, and guiding. During that phase, I was climbing virtually each week-end. It is much easier to do if you live close to the mountains. As long as I managed to get up a climb, I would try to figure out something a bit more challenging to do (not necesseraly technically challenging). I believe that this attitude kept my motivation and my imagination up. At one point, I had accumulated a sufficient amount of experience on relatively hard climbs so that I could not be considered a beginner anymore. This was in 1990 when I soloed the North face of GPA and climbed the Central Pillar of Freney with a friend.

Is this method for anyone ?

Personally, I would think that the method that I mentioned had worked for me, however, there are a couple of problems that I should point out to. As a goal-directed approach, it doesn't concentrate on the consolidation of skills, on the enjoyment, or even on the safety. However, after talking to many guides about their early experiences, I am not sure that there is another way to go if you are eventually to become an autonomous alpinist. Everyone mentioned to me a similar phase where they would go out in the mountains with a limited experience, and try their luck doing "crazy" things. Just make sure that your probability to survive remains high enough. Epics are the best learning experiences if, and only if you survive them.

So what are your recommendations ?

I am not sure that a course focussed on rock climbing would be that useful, apart to learn some technical tricks, that you will get anyway by hanging out often at the cracks. It is an area where there is not much to do besides climbing until a repertory of moves gets wired into your body. It is somewhat a question of ability too. The same could more or less been said of ice-climbing, although the activity is a bit more "intellectual", less instinctive than rock climbing, and requires precise assesssment of conditions to avoid potentially very hazardeous situations. I remember that during the course that I took with Perroux, he didn't actually tell us much, maybe a few general technical remarks per day at most, some days none. Nevertheless, Perroux is a real guru, and has taught ice-climbing to at least two generations of French alpinists, including some of the best. You watch him climb, he encourages you, and inspires you with his phenomenal motivation. The thing that he did for me was to help me break a psychological barrier (vertical ice !). Mountains seem to me to be another matter. There is a lot to be known about them. In my opinion, it is not so much a question of ability that of willpower and experience. Frequent trips to experience a variety of conditions at the same place are particularly good, because having factored out common recurences you can learn to adapt to what is new. I would also recommend concentrating on a favorite area, trying to get to know it inside out by taking many trips, reading the guidebooks, history, and going to a different place from time to time to try to appreciate the differences. Maybe the most important in the mountains is experience. However, my feeling is that you gain more experience on an epic-filled trip than on an totally uneventful trip. There is no substitute for frequent trips. For me, it has been mountains or climbing almost every week-end, during a period of three years. If you are not living near the mountains, you are somewhat out of luck, but there are nevertheless useful things you can do to prepare yourself, like building your endurance (essential), or your strength and rock-climbing skills (which will allow you to do harder routes in the mountains) learning by reading books (extremely useful), maintaining your motivation by talking to people

It is good to climb with a variety of partners. Everyone has his own methods, and you can benefit a lot from seeing how different people do things. It is also a good idea to alternate between partners of various skills. With more experienced partners, you will learn more tricks, but you will also be more dependant on them. With less experienced partners, you will have more responsabilities. It is not that easy to become a leader if you follow all the time, and self-reliance is one of the most important qualities you can have. One important thing to stay motivated is to find yourself a supportive environement, like a group of friends or a club. Even if you cannot do very frequent trips to the mountains, it helps to train, mostly for endurance. Feeling in great shape gives you a lot of confidence. One of your key abilities will be to be able to cope with very long and tiring day, where you have still to deal with the climbing or the descent, in possibly bad conditions (night, storm...), when you just feel like sitting and doing nothing. Develop this ability by trying to push yourself hard. What about the fun ? Well, I am not entirely sure that alpinism is about fun...

Which reading ?

Read a couple of "classic" books to get a feel for what mountaineers do, think, and feel. For instance: M. Herzog's Annapurna, any book by Walter Bonatti (if you can find them), The vertical world of Yosemite edited by Rowell (a collection of historic articles). More recently, Nanga Parbat could be Messner's best book as far as writing is concerned. All 14 Eight-Thousanders is very informative if you can stand his ego. J. Waterman's In the Shadow of Denali if you have some attraction for this mountain, Joe Simpson's Touching the Void. I have seen a book edited/written by Chris Bonington which is about the history of alpinism. It is very important in my opinion to learn about this aspect. Alpinism is an activity deeply rooted in time, with a rich, colorful, and dramatic history. The knowledge of this history gives you more inspiration and helps put everything in perspective. To know about the vast spectrum of modern mountaineering, I am thinking about another book edited by Bonington Heroic Climbs, which illustrates recent trends. Lots of beautiful photos and impressive achievements. Another inspiring book is Himalaya: Alpine Style, completed by Venables.

As far as technical books go, the consensus seems to be Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills for general mountaineering, How to Rock Climb by John Long, and the other titles of the series for rock climbing.

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