Profile 1999Jim Martin wrote this profile for Mountainzone in 1998 or 1999 to help promote Extreme Alpinism. It is short and covers just the necessary. I'd met Jim in Seattle in the early-80s and marveled at how many times he reinvented himself over the years.
When I first saw Mark Twight, he had just started climbing. A skinny, intense kid, he moved easily between rage and humor, contempt and the need to be recognized as superior. He told me about big dreams, which are the only kind worth having. Over the next 15 years he proved that even his dreams were smaller than the spirit he would create.
Mark threw himself into climbing, forging strength, and refining technique, devising systems, taxing his will. Results came quickly. A two hour solo of Slipstream, a 3,000-foot Grade 6 ice climb in the Canadian Rockies, validated his position as a top ice climber. In 1988 he survived The Reality Bath, which he rated as the world's first Grade 7 ice climb. The locals challenged his rating, but the climb has never been repeated.
He spent several seasons in Chamonix, France, the cradle of alpine climbing, where he made his Mark as an extreme alpinist, not an easy thing to do in that jaded mountain burg. He then turned his attention to the Himalaya. Characteristically, Mark chose one of the greatest killers in the range.
Nobody loves Nanga Parbat. Ed Viesturs calls it the hardest of all the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. Even its easiest routes have killed dozens, and the Rupal Face, with 15,000 feet of climbing, is the biggest wall in the world — the equivalent of two-and-a-half Eigers guard the 26,660 foot summit. Without supplementary oxygen, the body wastes away and brain cells die. Twight and three elite Canadian climbers (Barry Blanchard, Kevin Doyle, and Ward Robinson) started up alpine-style, gunning it toward the top. This adventure was to be warm-up for a new route on Everest two months later.
Climbing mostly unroped, they ascended 8,000 feet in two days. In a gully just 1,200 feet short of the summit, "the proverbial shit hit the Himalayan-scale fan." A storm carrying heavy snow blasted the gully with 100 mile-per-hour gusts. Lightning struck the ridge incessantly; thunder "sounded like some muscle-head was tearing phone books apart in front of a rock concert sound system." Avalanches cascaded down the gully, which were the team's signal to get out of the funnel fast. Snow flowed over them in waves. Robinson, already suffering from altitude sickness, showed signs of hypothermia, a drop in body temperature that would soon become irreversible.
As they all hung on by a single suspect ice screw, a monster slide hit, knocking Twight and another climber off their feet. "All of us were hanging on the screw while metric tons of snow pounded us insensitive. Suffocating, I knew if I didn't get my hands on that sling soon I never would," Twight recalled. His flailing hand found the sling and he pulled himself upright. When the avalanches ended an incredible half hour later, they hurried to a sheltered area. Robinson fell and lost consciousness.
Exhausted by the ordeal, Twight dropped the tent. "I won't have to carry that anymore," he thought before digging a snow cave for shelter. Confused by fatigue, Doyle and Blanchard lost the ropes. The storm continued and they recalled Messner's comment — "You can't get off the face in a storm so keep lots of food in the high camps." They were out of food. "Served up death on a plain pewter plate 12,000 feet up the biggest wall in the world without any ropes...I looked into the other three sets of knowing eyes and wondered which of us would survive."
The next morning they started down without much hope. They found a pack from a 1984 Japanese expedition. Three Japanese climbers disappeared in the gully where Twight's team had survived the avalanches. "We knifed it open out of curiosity- it was like a good old family style Christmas when you got every present you ever prayed for..." The pack contained two ropes and dozens of pitons.
"We had just been given the keys to escape hell." Two days later they were down. Twight remembers, "Barry said it was like having sex with death."
After 12 stormy days, the sun appeared and the team smoked up the wall again as if they couldn't recall the torture Nanga Parbat might deliver on short notice. They regained 12,500 feet in two-and-a-half days, pausing at 24,000 feet. A lenticular cloud on the summit presaged another storm so they scooted down in a day, the expedition finished.
In the ensuing years, Mark put up new routes in the Himalaya, the Pamirs and in the Alps. Back in Chamonix, he perfected an ultra light weight style for his successful assaults of the state of the art on "There Goes the Neighborhood" on the Aiguille Sans Nom; "Birthright" on the Grands Charmoz; "Beyond Good and Evil" on the Aiguille des Pelerins; and The Richard Cranium Memorial on Les Droites.
Paring equipment to the minimum meant any miscalculation would likely prove fatal, but light weight translates to speed and concomitant safety. The less time in the noose, the better.
He saved the best for last. Mark and his long-time partner Scott Backes put up Deprivation on Mt. Hunter in the Alaska Range. In just 72 hours they climbed over 6,000 feet of extreme technical ground and then descended the treacherous West Ridge. ("Deprivation" is actually 6,500 feet high, the north buttress itself is 4,000 feet then there's 2,500 feet of easy ground to the summit, the west ridge descent route is five miles long.) The last two pitches featured overhanging ice and rock, drytooling with ice axes on rounded holds, depending on scanty protection and uncertain belays. "Sick" is how Mark sums it up.
Mark demurs when asked if he'll hang it out again. Photography now consumes him and he's attacked it with his usual ferocity. He shoots adventure sports for clothing and equipment manufacturers, employing unconventional angles and disturbing colors and blurs.
The years have burned some of the anger away, but the thirst for intensity still gnaws at him. His confrontational and confessional style blinded many in the climbing community to his accomplishments, but the ordeal on Nanga Parbat ranks with the greatest survival epics, and his hardest climbs remain unrepeated.
There is a small gallery of photos here: