American Alpine Journal Gems from 2010
Climbing reports come in all forms. Some basic, simply giving the key details of a climb. Some tell a story, sometimes understated and sometimes overstated, sometimes hilarious and outrageous. And occasionally we stumble upon absolutely beautiful stories.
I’m mostly talking about reports we receive for the American Alpine Journal, which is a yearly tome reporting the big new routes worldwide. It’s been published annually since 1929, and, for the last 10 years, I’ve been one of the editors. We strive for first-hand accounts from the climbers themselves, which generally makes for honest and authentic reporting.
Again, it’s almost all big new routes – you won’t find reports from cragging or from tourists getting dragged up Everest. The reports range from major climbs that everyone knows about, to the less-technical but way remote and exploratory, to plenty of super badass climbs that went otherwise unreported (side note: in case you didn’t already know, there are a ton of low-key, under-the-radar, hard-men and -women out there).
I’ve read thousands of reports in the last 10 years, and every year I make mental notes of my favorites. We on the editorial staff (all two-to-four of us, depending on the year…) call these “AAJ Gems.” They’re some of the best reports anywhere, I think, some of the best storytelling and best writing, often written by people you’ve never heard of.
My vote for Gem of the year in the AAJ 2010 (which just came out and was recently mailed to AAC members and contributors) goes to someone many of us already know from the film 180 South: Jeff Johnson.
[Top right: The 2010 AAJ. Photo: Kelly Cordes. Right: Jeff Johnson, courtesy Woodshed Films]
He works for Patagonia, but that has nothing to do with my informal nomination (no corruption, I’m not running for governor of Illinois…). He writes beautifully about a first ascent in remote Chilean Patagonia, with a couple of great climbing partners.
Cerro Kristine, first ascent. For ten years Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins had been eyeing what they called “Cerro Geezer”—an unnamed, unclimbed ca 7,500' mountain a few kilometers west of Cerro Jeinimeni. The peak is the highest in a small range on the northern margin of Chilean Patagonia’s Chacabuco Valley, a crucial habitat area that Kristine Tompkins’ (Doug’s wife’s) Conservacion Patagonica purchased as the centerpiece of the future Patagonia National Park.
Yvon and Doug decided to give it a go the year before, but they were immediately thwarted by technical difficulties. Ten steps into the long approach Yvon’s 30-year-old mountain boots shattered. Maybe this year, Yvon said, Cerro Geezer will finally give way to a geriatric ascent. I was honored by their invitation to tag along. Yvon was 69 and Doug 65. I realized this could be their last first together.
It took a day to get to high camp. We drove from Maillin Grande, on the north side of the Jeinemeni Reserve, up the Rio Furioso road to the abandoned mine, entered Conservacion Patagonica land near the top of the road, unlocked the gate, and continued into the reserve. We then walked east across the tops of a small range of low peaks. Our planned route rose in the distance, up the west ridge and trending north as it twisted toward the summit. On a wide, slightly sloping ridge next to a glacier at 3,000', tucked under a windbreak we made from rocks, we traded stories over dinner. I asked Yvon what he wanted to call the route if we got up it.
“Nothing,” he said, “Just climb it…and walk away.”
The next morning we arrived at the upper reaches of the glacier just as the sun glanced around the northern flanks. The last section had near-vertical ice, above the glacier, and brought us to the base of some technical rock. I had brought a rope and a small rack, and asked Yvon if we should rope up.
“Every man for himself!” he said with a hearty laugh and took off up the rock.
Doug was already up there, free-soloing an exposed slab that led to the upper ridgeline. I followed.
Early afternoon we reached the shoulder that led to the summit. Just below the summit blocks Doug stopped and stepped aside. In his typical gentlemanly fashion, he gestured for me to pass.
“Here you go,” he said, knowing that I’d never made a first ascent. “It’s all yours.”
I stopped, Yvon standing behind me.
“Go ahead,” said Yvon. “Go for it.”
I looked up at the virgin peak, the clear blue sky, and the vast wilderness of mountains and glaciers and rivers that surrounded it. We were three insignificant souls on the precipice of wonder.
Doug and Yvon have been friends for over 40 years. They had eyed this mountain for ten years, and they had already failed once. There was no way I was going to do this. With due respect I said, “It’s yours Doug. You go.”
The three of us stood on the summit in the afternoon of March 7, 2008. It was dead quiet while we took in the panorama. Wondering if they were serious about “Cerro Geezer,” I turned to Doug and asked what he wanted to name it.
Doug looked out over the world and trailed off a bit in thought. Then he said quietly, “Cerro Kristine. Cerro Kristine. I think she would like that.”
A few days later the three of us sat near Rio Chacabuco, sipping maté beneath the shade of poplar trees.
“How do you two do it?” I asked Doug and Yvon. “Most people when they get older tend to get more conservative in their political ideals, as if all that radical stuff was just a phase they went through as young adults. And most people your age aren’t climbing mountains.”
There was a long pause, as with all questions I had asked them. Then Doug said, “Don’t hang out with old people.”
The two of them began to laugh. Then Yvon, slapping his knee chimed in, “Always make sure you are the oldest person in the room.”
Far in the distance, below a mass of cotton-ball clouds stood Cerro Kristine, resplendent in the setting sun.
- Jeff Johnson
[Top: Cerro Kristine, near Chilean Patagonia’s wild Chacabuco Valley. Photo: Jeff Johnson. Above, right: Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard starting up the route. Photo: Jeff Johnson]