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 . world ski news
01 November 2011 - 12:09
New Tool for Mountain Climbers: A Stopwatch
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MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. A popular route here that includes an ascent of 9,000 feet of rock and ice takes days for most mountain climbers. One man needed only five hours. The face of the 13,000-foot Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, has long presented climbers with one of the most daunting challenges in the world. One man recently conquered it in less than three hours.


Chad Kellogg, at Bear Summit, is among the climbers who reach summits at record speeds. Photo www.chadkellogg.com

From the big walls of Yosemite to the peaks of the Alps, climbers are setting speed records as techniques develop and gear becomes lighter or is left behind in favor of a minimalist approach that leaves little margin for error. Many quick athletes say they are doing what climbers have always done striving to reach the summit a bit faster or with purer style. But as stopwatches become as important as carabiners, others say focusing on speed runs counter to the ethos of climbing.

I dont feel, personally, that setting records and using the routes as tracks to set a new speed record I dont feel that thats important to climbing, said Steve House, an American alpinist known for his fast and light style of carrying the bare essentials on difficult climbs. I feel like thats important to peoples egos, and I feel like thats important to peoples sponsors.

Chad Kellogg, a 40-year-old general contractor from Seattle, rejects such notions.

On a late-summer afternoon, Kellogg, in running shorts and tennis shoes, hurtled up Mount Rainiers steep snowfields, his labored breathing audible for yards. A few casual day hikers gawked.

Kellogg cannot afford to dawdle with passers-by. He is among an elite group of mountain climbers who are not only devising new routes and making first ascents, but also speeding up established routes in stunning times. His accomplishments have been personal quests, he said. He is training for a record ascent of Mount Everest.

I dont really care what anyone else thinks, he said. Ultimately, Im doing this for me.

The number of climbers capable of such record times on the earths vertical planes is quite small, said Steve Swenson, the president of the American Alpine Club, a national climbing organization. Many elite climbers, he said, are not interested in speed records are often reported on an honor system and are hardly official but he understands the draw to push boundaries.

Fifty years ago, adventure in the mountains was more about going places where no one had been, he said. Most of these places have been more thoroughly explored. Maybe adventure gets redefined.

At one vertiginous end of that redefinition are climbers like Alex Honnold, 26, a rising star of the rock climbing scene at Yosemite. He stunned the climbing world last year not only by completing record ascents on the northwest face of Half Dome and the nose of El Capitan in a single day, but also by choosing to use minimal protective gear.

I put more value in difficulty of climbing, said Honnold, who shrugs off the records as a by-product of his climbing style. I think speed is a fun game that you play on the side.

Though he used some gear while setting his Half Dome and El Capitan records, Honnold often climbs as a free soloist, going without a rope, a harness or other safety equipment in favor of the simplicity and commitment of pure climbing.

Ueli Steck, a Swiss mountaineer, has become an Internet sensation because of his record climb up the face of the 13,000-plus-foot Eiger, a classic Alps challenge first climbed in 1938. In 1950 the route was climbed in 18 hours. Steck brought the time down to 2 hours 47 minutes.

A film of his ascent, in which he is often running, has been viewed more than a million and a half times on YouTube. Since then, another Swiss climber, Dani Arnold, has trimmed the Eiger record to 2:28.

But even Steck, the face of speed ascents to many, said too much emphasis on speed for its own sake could be detrimental.

It goes very fast in the wrong direction, he said, and if there are young people, they may do it to get famous and sponsorship. Its dangerous for the sport.

Steck, 35, said he had little desire to set another record on the Eiger. Instead, he has shifted his focus to the peaks of the Himalayas, which are often climbed by large parties reliant on supplemental oxygen canisters and a siege-style of ascent. Emboldened by his experience on the Eiger, Steck made a daring sprint in Tibet this spring on the south face of Shishapangma, the worlds 14th-tallest peak.

I had one and a half days of good weather, he said, referring to the forecast. Normally you wouldnt even try if you have 8,000 meters in your mind. You need at least three days.

Steck bolted up the 26,290-foot mountain in 10 ½ hours, setting a record.

These guys are harnessing their strengths and pushing the limits in areas where they feel most proficient, Kellogg said of Steck and Honnold. So am I.

Kellogg, who once worked as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier, has twice held records for dashes from the mountains parking lot at 5,400 feet to its summit at 14,410 feet and back again. For most climbers, the trip is measured in days, not hours. Kellogg was the first to crack the five-hour mark in 2004, a feat he accomplished in part by trading heavy mountaineering boots and crampons for a pair of Nike track spikes.

Today he says he is not interested in the record for Rainier, which has been whittled to 4 hours 40 minutes. But he often returns to its slopes, which offer nearly 9,000 vertical feet of training for his next goal, a solo speed ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.

In May 2010, Kellogg made his first attempt on Everest but stopped short of the summit, hampered by other climbers on the route and bad weather. His goal is to climb from the mountains base camp to the summit and back via the Southwest Ridge route in less than 30 hours.

Its not that Im a great climber, he said. Its that I want it more than anyone else does, and Im willing to go out there and put in the work, put in the days, to achieve what I think is important.

In 2007, Kelloggs wife, Lara, also a climber, fell to her death on a mountain in Alaska. Three months later he learned he had colon cancer. He was back in the mountains, albeit in a limited way, a month after surgery to remove nine inches of his colon, determined to climb again.

Despite constant setbacks, Ive been very fortunate, he said. Bad things happen but good things happen and come out of it.

Kellogg largely finances his expeditions by working as a general contractor. Although he has a few sponsors, they contribute less than $20,000 annually to his climbing, He saves money by sleeping on friends couches and in his worn Toyota pickup.

If I have been given one gift, its that I can move pretty well in the mountains, he said. So Im not going to squander that. If I need to live in my truck and fund a lot of my trips by swinging a hammer, thats what Im going to do.

To Brent Bishop, a fellow Seattle resident who climbed Everest twice, Kelloggs goal and the shift toward faster ascents might be best compared with Roger Bannisters contribution to running by breaking the four-minute mile.

Everybody wants to do something faster and stronger, Bishop said. They want to look inside and see what theyre capable of. Chad just happens to look inside, and what hes capable of is a lot higher than the rest of us.

By SEAN PATRICK FARRELL
The New York Times
Published: October 15, 2011


 
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