Alex Huber on Pan Aroma and more
Climbandmore: You started thinking about the big roof on the north face of Cima Ovest for the first time when you made a free ascent of the Swiss-Italian route in 1994. Was it your first climb on the Tre Cime?
Alex Huber: No, when I was really young, at the age of 15, or maybe even 14, I climbed the Spigolo Giallo on Cima Picolla and the classic Comici route on Cima Grande. But then I’d never come back to the Tre Cime until I climbed the Swiss-Italian route.
Talking about alpine climbing - you grew up in a different environment, I mean the type of rock – in the Berchtesgaden Alps and in the Wilder Kaiser. What did you find so fascinating about the Tre Cime? For example your brother, who certainly shares the love of climbing on El Cap with you, doesn’t seem to be so in love with the Tre Cime…
They are simply so steep and still climbable… I think you can’t imagine any other kind of rock which is so featured that you can climb such overhanging faces. The exposure is just tremendous. I have never seen such exposure on any other face in the entire world.
You already have so many memories from the Tre Cime – Bellavista in winter and free, Hasse-Brandler solo, now Pan Aroma… Which of these experiences would you call the most intensive?
Undoubtedly the most intensive one was definitely the free solo of Hasse-Brandler. Because it’s just different. When it’s a free ascent, you have to work for a longer time, it’s harder to predict things, you have to face big difficulties, but it’s still about: am I going to finish the climb tonight if I start now? When you’re doing free solo, it’s about: I’m going to do it or I’ll be dead.
Why did you choose Hasse-Brandler for free solo? You could find many other alpine routes of this kind – with similar length and difficulty?
Of course I could find a wall which would be closer to my home, for example in the Berchtesgaden Alps, which would make the whole thing easier. But I wanted to do it on a face which is absolutely exposed, because I think the steeper the wall, the more impressive a free solo ascent is.
You have always been very strict when it came to climbing ethics and you expressed your opinions very clearly – like in the case of the Logical Progression route on El Gigante. Now you’ve experienced this kind of devastation of your own route - Bellavista. Was it the first time that your own route became subject to this kind of act? What were your feelings?
Yes, it definitely was the first time. One thing was changing the protection - somebody put there so many pitons and connected them by slings and ropes, that he created a real via ferrata. On the crux pitch there was no climbing anymore. I really do not understand it, that for someone who wants to free climb a route, it’s necessary to equip it in such a way that there is no climbing anymore – even less than on a sport climbing route. Another thing, which is even worse, I mean MUCH WORSE, is changing the features of the rock. Because it cannot be reversed. You can’t make it natural again. Protection is removable but the nature of the rock is something unique. As soon as you start changing it, it’s shit. My understanding of climbing is to see a natural obstacle, just take on the challenge and climb it. If you fail to do it - try again, try to get better or leave it for others.
Do you know who it was? I don’t want you to say it, but I’m just curious if you know or suspect? Or can this kind of act stay secret?
The thing is that it’s hard to prove anything, therefore I can’t say that it was this or that person. I got the name of the person who may have done it, but I don’t know this person. Obviously it was not a super strong climber, but he was really focused on doing it, did everything to make it possible, but he actually wasn’t able to do it. It was obviously in 2005. The worst thing is that this climber just left everything as it was; he left the route, which other climbers expected to be a challenge, looking like a via ferrata.
Let’s talk about Pan Aroma. How would you compare the character of climbing (of course I’m not talking about protection, but the moves etc) on the two hard pitches of Pan Aroma with these on Bellavista?
Pan Aroma is simply steeper. In terms of protection it’s different, like you said, because it’s equipped with bolts. As I’ve found out it’s hard for people to accept the challenge, so I did it in a different style, placing bolts, and I only hope that people will accept it. The bolts are sometimes quite far apart from each other, so it is a pretty demanding climb. Of course nothing more than a big whipper can happen, but it’s quite demanding psychologically. So I do hope that people accept that the bolts are in place and don’t place any additional gear and do not try to change the route anymore with cleaning and stuff like that. I hope they accept the route as it is. It’s a crazy overhanging climb… I’ve never seen even a sport climb which would be so overhanging.
You graded Pan Aroma 8c. I wonder what your rock climbing level at the moment is. You’ll be 40 soon, so you might have already noticed a little loss of power? Am I right?
At home I can still make first ascents of 8c routes after three-four days of working on the route. Of course I’m not the kind of climber who does 8c in the third go, but my on-sight level is something like 8a+, it depends on the kind of route. If I spent a lot of time on it, I’d still be able to do 8c+. Generally it depends a lot what I’m focused on at the moment. If I could spend the whole year sport climbing, I feel I could still do 9a. But, sure, it’s harder than it was 10 years ago.
And how much training do you need now to maintain this level of climbing?
Actually I don’t really train anymore, I only go sport climbing. Because one of the really important things which change with the age is motivation. I’m still really super motivated for sport climbing, I love it, I enjoy it… But I’m absolutely not motivated to train indoor anymore. I just like going outdoors and I training on natural rock.
You mentioned filming your ascent of Pan Aroma. Does it mean that in the future we’ll be able to watch a movie of this ascent during your slideshows?
Yes, at the slideshows, and maybe there will be a little movie like I did from some of my climbs in the past. But it’s not going to be a cinema movie like the one we did on the Nose. It was fun, a good experience, but it’s over. I still like climbing much more than being part of a big movie.
From Michi Meisl, who took pictures of you on Pan Aroma, we got also some impressive pictures from your another new route called Desperate Reality. Especially the crack in the ceiling looks very impressive. Can you say something more about this ascent and the route itself?
That roof, that crack was something so extraordinary that it was the reason we wanted to climb that not super huge, but nice face. A friend of mine discovered this crack and as he was not a real expert in crack climbing, he showed me this piece and tried to convince me to take a look at it. That’s what I did. It was such a beautiful splitter crack in a ceiling, in smooth rock, and it is all in limestone. I’ve never seen anything like that before.
What were the difficulties and the character of the climb?
The five initial pitches offer climbing up to 7b, but there is very little protection, on each pitch there is just one bolt, so the runouts are really big and you can take huge whippers. Then it all ends with the crucial sixth pitch, which is a 6-metre roof with a finger crack. I’d really prefer to give it a Yosemite grade. In the Valley it would be a 5.13c crack, so it’s really one of the hardest cracks in the world. But you know - it’s crack climbing, so it’s hard to grade this crux.
But it’s limestone, so can you compare it to the cracks in the Yosemite granite?
It’s exactly the same! Just a different kind of rock. But it feels precisely the same, because it’s a real splitter crack. Actually, the real crux is placing protection. Because it’s really hard to hang on just one hand for the time which you need to place a cam.
Now you’re leaving for Yosemite to try to beat the speed record on the Nose once more. Did you have any special training here in Europe for this kind of climbing?
No, because you can only train when you are there, where you can find this ultralong finger crack climbing. You have to get used to this again and again. Of course we’re experienced and know what to do, but I think we need about two-three weeks to be in shape enough to do it again. So we are planning three weeks of training, and when we feel ready, we’ll make two or three attempts.
So good luck with the climb! And just the last word - please tell me something about the book about you which is to be published soon.
It’s a really complete book about me and what happened in my life. There is also much more than in the other books before about what’s going on in my mind. Not only direclty when I’m climbing or when I’m in the mountains, but what I think about life general in and how climbing is involved in it.