Punka BurnIan Parnell wrote this ditty and it was printed in one of the UK climbing magazines. I still smile broadly when I think back to meeting him on the Kahiltna Glacier, where he was then, how far out there he's gone since, and what a great time we had listening to punk rock, old and new.
Ian Parnell profiles one of American climbing's more colorful characters, the influential alpinist Mark Twight.
"Because I know there is consequence, it keeps me honest, it keeps me scared. Because I know I can't get away with slacking off, that the thing which happens after mediocrity is the ground. It's a game. It's a test. It is the way I live my life." Mark Twight
Staring out of the tent at Denali Base Camp I'm watching a strange human drama. Six young men in matching yellow Gore-tex suits covered in sponsorship logos are struggling to stand up on their skis. Two have been dragged sliding down the slope by their ridiculously over-laden sledges, one is still standing but only because his companions have entwined a cats cradle of rope around his legs, another is starring puzzled at the limp end of his rope unable to fathom how to attach himself. I wonder what their sponsors would think. After Denali the team plan to climb Everest. They will not be alone, at least 70 percent of base camp seem to share the same objective and many the same level of skill.
"Americans don't climb at the current world standard in any range because they have no clue what that standard is. Slovenia? What's a Slovenia?" the remark awakens me from the hopelessness outside. "American alpinists are the Jamaican Bobsledders of world mountaineering." I look up to see the accuser smirking through the steam of the boiling stove as he turns up the volume and points the stereo speakers out towards the struggling climbers. Obviously not fans of the "Revolting Cocks" they slip and slid further away. The owner of the offending din is Mark Twight who at AGE 38 is one of Americas most influential but controversial alpinists. We share the tent with fellow American world-class alpinists Scott Backes and Steve House. They've all seen this scene many times from the camp they call "The Ghetto".
Some are offended by Twight's attitude. But take the blue ribbon of climbing; Everest. Twight was there in 1988. He "failed", reaching 27500 feet attempting to simul solo a new route with Barry Blanchard. Neither carried supplementary oxygen of course. Now consider that there will be those at base camp on Denali who will "climb" Everest next year as their third climb in the mountains (after Rainer and Denali). Some will "succeed" as they will pay for guides and Sherpas to break a trail, fix a hand rail of rope, carry their packs and lower the mountain to their level with bottled oxygen.
Remember also that Twight is a Punk. Some may laugh that punk was dead 20 years ago. But the anger and the energy lives on for many. Punk was certainly still burning that day in our cramped tent at Denali base camp.
Growing up in middle class America, life seemed mapped out for the young Twight. "I should have been happy with my future, as most of my peers were. Instead I rebelled because I hated the recipe." An attempt to express that disaffection in a Punk band was short lived but Twight found another outlet in climbing. "It was about as weird a lifestyle as could be found in America. I discovered a discipline in which my individualism did not count against me." Fired by the punk do-it-yourself ethic "I learned, like all those punks who couldn't play an instrument, to reinvent myself.". The result was a skinny brat sporting a mohawk and an attitude. "I chose the meanest looking tools and tried them on the pear tree in the backyard" he remembers. "I ended up with five stitches in my head - but at least it was a start." Some might have been put off but Twight emerged himself in Alpinism. His brash intense approach upset many but he quickly began making waves. He gradually discovered others like Barry Blanchard, Ward Robinson, Jonny Blitz and Kevin Doyle. The music was loud, the haircuts stupid, the gear garish and the climbing hard and as fast as possible. Alpinism was rebellion.
Twight was the mouthpiece for this young generation of ambitious climbers. His writing for the climbing magazines was immediately different than anything else being published. Punk lyrics littered each piece and anger and pain seeped through each word. Fast paced they spelt ENERGY. "I hated the idea that a fellow could write one 400-page book about a single expedition." says Twight "Shit, nothing happens on those trips! Five days of climbing out of 60 spent in Nepal. Like every good punk song, HIS ARTICLE TITLED "Kiss or Kill" was short, spare and packed a whollop." IT covered two new routes and a decent attempt on Nuptse in less than 1500 words. Others carried titles such as "Heaven never laughed" and "I Hurt Therefore I Am.". Soon the letter pages were full of shocked readers. A psychiatrist even wrote diagnosing psychosis and one editor dubbed Twight "America's prime alpinist in agony". For those who skimmed through the pages or didn't share the language of Punk the effect was one of posturing and arrogance.
Arrogant, the young Twight almost certainly was but behind the words were real action. Success in the Candian Rockies led to the Himalaya and a new route on the North West Ridge of Kantega (6779m) partnered by an equally ambitious Alison Hargreaves. Trips to the Soviet Union led to the first telemark descent of Pik Fourth (6300m) and a solo ascent of the 3200m Czech route on Pik Kommunism (7495m). The failures were even more impressive. Two attempts with Jeff Lowe on the South East Spur of Nuptse (7850m) were a big learning step but the real test was to come on an alpine push on the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat (8125m).
15000 feet high the Rupal Face is the worlds biggest and a deathtrap in less than perfect weather. Twight together with Canadians Barry Blanchard, Ward Robinson and Kevin Doyle had pushed up to within 400m of the summit carrying two ropes, TWO TENTS and nothing else between them, when the storm came. The avalanches began immediately, exhausted by their speed ascent and with Ward Robinson slipping into altitude sickness, the team fought to descend. By 10PM the storm and altitude began to take control from the climbers. At 24,000 feet Blanchard and Doyle mis-communicated through the wind and both of them let go of their only ropes. As if that wasn't bad enough Twight dropped HIS AND BLANCHARD'S tent. Twight remembers each climber silently looking into each others eyes, the team was "Dead in a hole, I didn't want to die like that, but I was in no position to choose." The next day the storm continued but they forced themselves to continue also, soloing down side by side. A 1000 feet lower they found a faded rucksack. "We cut it open without expectation - idle curiosity." recalls Twight "First sixty pitons spilled out, then a dozen ice screws. At the bottom Barry found two new fifty meter ropes. It was Bastille Day and we'd just escaped the guillotine."
Any true Punk challenges everything, particularly their own lives. Needing to push himself further he took the difficult decision to move to Chamonix. "In the 80s the French took the lead. The routes they chose and the style they did them in affected all of us." He also wanted to surround himself with like-minded people who didn't demand justification for his lifestyle. "The French understood that a man may assume responsibility for his own life, that taking risks was necessary behavior for some, and the mountains are a beautiful place to do it." However Twight didn't find the hotbed of activity he expected. "I became incensed at the posing and complacency. It's one of the greatest ranges in the world and the locals sit on their asses waiting for perfect conditions to coincide with the cable cars being open." There were advantages though he remembers, "It was easy to steal their coveted routes; all I had to do was walk."
And walk he did. September 1993 and the telepheriques were closed down but the mountains in great nick the routes waiting to be put up. But no one was interested so Twight called in home support and days later Scott Backes flew over from the States. It was worth the plane fare as the pair climbed "Birthright" on the Grands Charmoz and "There Goes the Neighborhood" on the Aigulle Sans Nom within two weeks. Both are hardcore EDs, thin ice and bad pro but also beautiful ephemeral natural lines within view of town. Today they are The modern thin ice test-pieces in the range. Often talked about but hardly ever repeated.
After returning to the States he tried to retire in 1996 taking up practical pistol competition but it couldn't match the mountains. "There's no one shooting back, that would make it more interesting," laughs Twight. Within 18 months he was back. Taking the lessons learnt from his time alongside the top French alpinists he began to push his alpinism even further towards the extremes of lightweight ascent. American alpinists are best known for their big wall climbing, even Alex Lowe, an alpine hare, was recognized primarily in the US for his 30 days spent on Trango Tower. Twight's approach is very different. "I think it important to burn the minimalist torch" he explains. "Technology and success are seductive. The summit casts a long shadow across a climber's ethics when success is paramount to his sponsors, to his own livelihood."
Twight instead pares his equipment to a minimum, usually no tent is taken and sometimes no sleeping bag even. There's not much sleeping going on anyway. Rather him and his partners opt for continuous movement with ascents ideally in a single push. So why drop all the safety lines of traditional mountaineering? "I am psychologically predisposed to it. I have the Will to go on when others might retreat," he explains. "And my brain can make my body do it for at least 60 hours non-stop. Maybe more." There is more to it though. "Climbing used to be counter-cultural. The parts of it involving great risk still are." he explains "Where others are trying to collect high numbers on sport routes or high summits by any means, the few alpine purists are searching for a particular psychological experience, regardless of the summit, the difficulty or the mainstream. In a sense, Alpine Style is rebellion against an acquisitive climbing culture that is full of "collectors." Climbing by fair means is a Luddite philosophy that has no place in the modern, "fast food" style of climbing we are becoming accustomed to."
Twight is well aware of the risks this style involves "Obviously, this type of evolution is setting the stage for another generation of carnage. Someone, somewhere will finally learn the answer to "how light is too light?". He feels he is slowing down these days. "I believe that there are only so many intense routes inside a man, only so much luck available. In Cham I climbed a lot. Now, I get out once or twice a year. I don't waste time on little things here in the Rockies, I go to Alaska, Bolivia (for fun) or to the Alps."
If Twight is slowing down he showed little sign of taking his foot off the pedal this summer in Alaska. A week after our meeting in base camp Twight together with House and Backes made one of the most extraordinary ascents seen in American mountaineering. That their climb was a repeat ascent, the accolade might surprise some but this was not about "conquering" as section of mountain the new ground was in the minds of the mountaineers. Their ascent of the Czech Direct, the hardest route on Denali's enormous South Face, was a display of style pushed to the limit. The three climbers took 2 stove, a rack and ropes between them. No tent, no sleeping bag and no margin for error. The trio had bided their time, unlike the hordes on the West Buttress they needed ideal conditions, but when the time was right sped their way up overhanging ice, unprotected E1 in crampons and wove their way round huge hanging seracs such as the infamous "Big Bertha". The first ascensionists fixed ropes and took 11 days, Twight and team took two and a half days! That's continuous climbing for 60 hours non-stop.
Steve House, recognized as the greatest alpine talent in America claimed, "It was my first world class route. I don't know if I have another one in me." Twight says, "It was terrifying to realize at hour-48 that we were 5000' up Denali, with 4000' left to climb, that the stoves were out of gas and our jackets - our only 'bivy gear' - weren't really warm enough."
Twight says the Czech Direct was a career highlight then he pauses and grinning adds "Maybe?" He's off to Alaska again to the Ruth Gorge in search of Autumn ice. He's still raving, kicking against mediocrity. The Punk still burns. "I've a vested interest in causing minds to open, in causing change. I'm not as angry as I was in the old days, but I am still intolerant of empty words and arrogant about taking action. Put up or shut up."
Top five favorite routes
"There is no order - just disorder!" Mark Twight
1) "The Reality Bath" (600m, 6+, VII) on the White Pyramid in the Canadian Rockies, February 1988 with Randy Rackliff. Seracs calved twice and missed us by less than 30m. But because we called it a VII the rabidly provincial Canadians were pissed. Francois Damilano was angry too because he'd had a good season in Canada and got out-shined in his own country when Vertical called "The Reality Bath" "the hardest route in the world." Equal opportunity offensiveness, my favorite.
2) "Slipstream" (925m, 4+, VI) on the East Face of Snowdome, Canadian Rockies, February 1988. Randy Rackliff and I simul-soloed it. I sped up in 2hrs 4min, Randy in 3hrs 20min. A great, short day out.
3) "There Goes the Neighborhood" (1000m, ED+ - 90+ ice, 5.9. A3) on the Aiguille Sans Nom, Chamonix with Scott Backes. One of my better efforts at pissing off the French. I like the fact that three of my new routes in Cham are visible from town. Scott and I walked up from the valley as it was late in the season, a fucking great adventure for the Alps. The climbing was good, thin and scary.
4) "Deprivation" (2000m, ED+, 90°, mixed) on the North Buttress of Mt Hunter, Alaska with Scott Backes in 72hrs roundtrip. It opened our eyes. We cut it fine for the period, though we've carried less since. I think this was a big psychological step, which is far more interesting than the actual climbing.
5) "Czech Direct" (2650m, ED and then some, 90°+, UIAA V+) on Denali with Scott Backes and Steve House in 60hrs non-stop. A career high-point. Maybe?