In November 2015, John Frieh participated in the 3rd annual Portland Alpine Festival, offering clinics, seminars, and an evening presentation on climbing in Alaska. Several weeks prior to the festival, Joe Fox interviewed him about his thoughts on climbing and the origins of the Portland Ice Comp.
On the origins of his passion for the outdoors
I definitely grew up in a family that recreated outside. Spent a lot of summers camping. Though I love climbing, I think, at its core, I love being outside. And really there might come a day where climbing is no longer an option or a pursuit, but I don’t ever imagine a day where I won’t be getting outdoors.
My parents stuck me in the Boy Scouts at age twelve in hopes of instilling good moral fiber, I don’t know if that was successful. But during that time I climbed Middle Sister at age fourteen. And it was pretty rad. My experiences in the Boy Scouts allowed me to somehow talk my way into a gear shop job at 16, at a local shop in Eugene. Everyone else who worked there was a student at the University of Oregon, in their outdoor program, so there was always somebody willing to drag me along on the weekends. So I did a lot of climbing. I kinda grew up at Smith Rock. That led to me completing a NOLS course right out of high school.
On his “smash and grab” style of climbing
I only got three weeks of vacation a year at Intel. And, if you flip through any Alaska guide book—I remember I got the red one, the Joe Puryear one that everyone gets, when that came out in what ‘07? I think it was?—I remember buying it, flipping through it and just being depressed because every suggested time was two weeks, suggested time one month. I remember thinking I either have to leave Intel or I’m never going to climb in Alaska.
And then in 2007 Colin Haley, over his spring break, climbed Mt. Huntington. He happened to be up there, he thought he was going to ice climb, and the weather looked good, so he flew into the Central Range. And I was like, if Colin can do it, you know he just happened to be there when the weather got good, why couldn’t I watch the weather from Portland and fly up when the weather got good? And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
On the climb that convinced him to start training
In the Mid-2000s, I was using Jim Nelson’s Selected Climbs in the Cascades, an excellent guide book. I was just going through there and ticking everything off that I could. I would go down the bookmarks, and think “where was the weather good” “what routes are near here that Jim says are good,” I’m going to do one of those.
And there’s one on Mt. Stuart called the “Girth Pillar,” and it’s actually one of the few “true” alpine routes in the Cascades where you actually have to climb up snow and ice, up to water/ice 3 (WI3), to get to the base of this rock climb that’s 9 pitches, up to 5.11 and then you’ve got to scramble to the summit, and then descend the other side. You have to carry over. It’s a pretty committing objective for the Cascades. And we did it. I think we planned on one bivy. We bivvied somewhere on the rock, and then we went up and over the next day. On the way out we were literally two hours to the car, and I remember I was so wrecked I had to lay down and sleep on the trail. And this route was put up in the ‘80s, you know, it was not some cutting edge route. I realized that if I want to do harder routes than this, and maybe do first ascents someday, I need to get my s**t together. Because up to that point, all I really had done was trail run and go to the rock gym, which is, what everybody does in the beginning.
On his long time ties to the Portland Alpine Fest
If you really go back, nine years ago or so, my climbing partner and I, Marcus Donaldson, wanted to find more people to carpool with us to Bozeman, because it’s the closest place to climb ice in the winter that’s “in” all winter. We started talking about having a party, and Marcus was like well you have that woody in your garage, we’ll have a bouldering competition, or something like that. We got to talking and one thing turned into another, and I probably got a little carried away, but I said, “we should just see if the Portland Rock Gym (PRG) will let us do an indoor dry tool comp in their gym.” So we went and saw Gary Rall (owner of PRG), and he’s a really nice guy, but he thought we were crazy when we said we wanted to bring ice tools into his rock gym. But somehow we talked him into doing it. We called it the Portland Ice Festival, and made it a fundraiser to give back to the local community. We had over a hundred people show up! It ended up being one of the biggest days at PRG all year. We raised a bunch of money, and a lot of people who had never even touched ice tools tried it for the first time. So that summer, Gary called me and said, we’re doing it again this year right? And I was like, I guess so.
We did it for seven years. I would hassle the local shops for donations, I’d hassle my contacts, people I know that worked at different companies, and every year it would be crazy. Every year I’d be say this is the last one because it was just Marcus and I doing it, and I was getting burnt out. Then Lee Davis, Mazamas Executive Director, approached me and asked what I thought about the Mazamas helping out, and taking it over? I told him that as long as they stayed true to why we organized it in the first place, which was to get the community together, hopefully get them excited about ice climbing, and raise some money for local organizations, then fine with me. So I handed it off. The Mazamas obviously have a lot more resources at their disposal than I do, and they’ve incorporated the the Ice Fest into the Alpine Festival, and now it’s this giant week-long celebration. They’re doing more with it than I ever could, and it’s just great to see.
|Jim wearing a Balti hat, 1978.|
Photo: Dianne Roberts collection (used
with permission from the photographer)
On November 21, 2015 Jim Whittaker spoke at The Summit during the 3rd annual Portland Alpine Fest. Several weeks prior, Joe Fox had the opportunity to interview Jim and learn more about his incredible life.
I was hoping you could talk a little bit about where your passion for the mountains and adventure came from originally when you were younger?
I tell a story about my brother and I. We were identical twins, ten minutes apart, very competitive. We’d be wrestling in the house, when we were just young, playing, and scuffling. And our mother would say just go outside and play and we would go outside. And when you’re outside you’re in the trees, and clouds, and sky, and if there’s a beach nearby, you walk to the beach. So, my introduction to the world of nature was outside in vacant lots in Seattle where I grew up. There were beaches we could walk to. We’re lucky here in the Northwest that nature is pretty close, and that’s how I was first introduced to it.
My first climbing was on smaller peaks, very close to Seattle that you could just hike up. I was in the Boy Scouts, and I began to do a little bit more technical stuff then I had a chance to join the Seattle Mountaineers as a junior which had really good people, who knew how to climb. They were my mentors. Then we did Olympus, we did Glacier Peak, and then we began to do all the other major peaks. I was lucky to be guiding on Mt. Rainier, climbs up to the summit, through college, so that was my best climbing experience, where I really learned a lot about mountaineering.
You were only 24 years old when Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay made the first ascent of Everest. A decade later you became the first American to do it and it gives you a perspective on the world of alpine climbing that’s far removed from what most of us today grew up understanding about mountaineering. What is it about mountaineering that makes it a competitive pursuit, in your view?
|Jim Whittaker on the summit of Mt. Everest.|
Photo: Whittaker family collection.
Used with permission.
That resonates with me quite a bit. I think that’s the way I feel about it too. So then what did motivate you to climb Everest in those early days?
Well, we were over on the mountain and we had been invited to go over and climb it and I was a climber and I had guided on Rainier, so I knew quite a bit about it. I felt the need, because we were halfway around the world, to climb it, because we were there, and because IT was there. Then Jake, a member of our team, was killed in the ice fall. That made it even more of something that we should accomplish because, at that point, it would have been such a waste to have lost Jake and not have achieved our goal. I felt, was pretty important to reach the summit. At the same time, I’ve been turned back on a lot of other mountains and wisely so, because to reach the summit is optional, to get down is mandatory.
|Climbers descend from the 1975 Camp I with a sled full of|
oxygen cylinders to be cached for a later expedition.
Photo: Dianne Roberts collection (used
with permission from the photographer)
You go up there to climb and to see what you can do, and you test yourself in that manner, but it’s all about rational testing. I used to speed climb up Rainier to see if my party would be the first to get up, and do stuff like that. It’s just human nature to do something the best you can. And to be as good at it as you can.
As you know, the Mazamas have a long history of leading climbs and expeditions.Our members take this role of leadership seriously and there is a great depth of experience and specialized training that leaders are required to have. I know you’ve spent a lifetime being a climb leader, essentially. What have you taken away from such a broad depth of experience as a leader? What advice can you offer to our younger members who are just starting to lead climbs?
I remember leading 80 to 90 climbers up Mt. Baker a couple of times. That was when we didn’t limit the number of climbers that went up. There would be a huge chain of people that would head up Mt. Baker, and then we began to limit the number of people on Rainier.
When you lead you need to, of course, know the mountain, know the route, know yourself, but the thing that I felt was important is you need to know the client, you need to know the people that you’re leading. And so we’d take people up that had never climbed before. Climbing Rainier, as you know, you go to Camp Muir and it’s just a walk to that point and it gives you a chance to measure the people that you’re with. Their stamina and what kind of shape they’re in. But it also gives you a chance to understand their mentality and why they’re climbing. And that was the good part of leading—you learn a lot about the people.
Jim teaching “John John” the snowplow, in front of the
Roundhouse at Sun Valley; (L to R) Jim with Jacqueline,
Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr., about 1966.
Photo: Whittaker family collection/Look Magazine.
Then as I guided, I realized that you had better know a lot about these people because the people you’re climbing with can kill you. You are roped up to people who have never climbed before, if you’re guiding. It’s important that they know you’ve got to have good communication, that they do what you say, that you’re prepared for a backup in case something goes wrong and. When you’re leading, one of the most important things is to listen to your clients or your partners, whoever it may be, and to try and figure out if they’re on the same agenda as you are.
Leading climbs is difficult. Leading expeditions is very difficult because people have their own ideas. It’s hard to hold everybody together when things are going to hell and it looks like you’re not going to get the mountain and other people want the chance to try. It’s a very complicated issue.
On superstitions in climbing…
You do get superstitious, there is no question about it. If something works you’ll take it with you the next time. I’ve taken the same poetry book up on Everest and K2.
You say you’ve taken the same poetry book up there? What book is that?
Oh it’s just a book by Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.
A lot of the time you are trapped and up in the tent in a storm and you want to read stuff. If you’ve read a book a few times you’ve sort of gotten the message, but if there is a whole book of poems you can begin to memorize the poems, and so that’s kind of fun. You can spend time memorizing poems and doing stuff like that, so I found poetry to be an interesting read. You know you get trapped for five days in a storm up on a mountain and you’ll end up reading the labels on your coat and the food labels on the packages. You’re desperate to read something.
On the magic of the mountains…
When you come off the mountain after a climb you’ve learned so much, not just about yourself, but about the natural world. But also, if you live long enough then you can reflect on some of the magic that’s out there and you can begin to think that every day is a gift. I’ve lived long enough to believe that every day is a gift and still an adventure ... life is a mystery. There’s a lot we don’t know and it’s fun to explore and find out as much as we can.
You’ve become something of a legend in the world of American mountaineering yourself, Jim. I’m sure you’ve given numerous talks and presentations. Do you set goals for yourself in these talks? Is there something you want to impress upon the folks who are going to be there to hear you speak this month at The Summit during the Portland Alpine Fest?
What I hope to impress is that there should be an effort to get people outside, to get them out into nature. If we can get them into nature and they learn about it then they’ll love it. If they love it then they’ll take care of it, and if they take care of it they’ll pass it on to their children. So, that’s my goal now when I talk to most people, is to emphasize how lucky we are to know nature and how we should make it a point that there is no child left inside. We gotta get them out and then maybe we can save the planet. Then maybe we can recognize that there is global warming. We can recognize that we do need clean air and we do have a right to clean water and so forth.
We’ve learned slowly about the environment. When we first started to climb there was wasn’t hardly anyone out there climbing. You began to get up on top of the peaks and you’d have your lunch sack and your orange peels and your can of juice, then you lift up a rock to hide this stuff under. Then, you find out that the next time you were up there, you lift up a rock and hell there is already so much garbage under it that you can hardly hide your stuff under it. Then, that’s when at REI we started to do these different programs. In 1955, we said, “hey if you pack it in, you gotta pack it out.” And so we began to do different things like that. But, we were dumb to start with. I can remember throwing juice cans off the cliff to hear the noise as it went down. And we used to cut switchbacks and then the switchbacks would erode and ruin the trail and so then we learned not to cut switchbacks. Then we began doing clean ups. We used to float tin cans out and sink them in this clear alpine lake and I took a Governor from the State of Washington out to clean up one of those lakes back in the early 60’s. It’s an educational process and we’re smarter than we were a hundred years ago and I think the newer generation is smarter than we were. There are still things that we can do to continue to make life pleasant for our children and their children.
|Photo: Fred Marmsater|
In November 2015, Dawn Glanc traveled to Portland to be a part of the 3rd annual Portland Alpine Festival. Dawn taught clinics, gave a breathtaking presentation on climbing in Iceland, and even participate in the Portland Ice Comp. Several weeks prior to the festival, Joe Fox interviewed her to learn more about her climbing career.What you think of the trend towards competition as a mode for climbers? Do you feel a sense of competition with others to do things first, or faster?
Well, I’m no longer one of the few women out there doing big things. There are a lot of women who have come on the scene lately. And I feel like there is some urgency on some of the things I want to do now. Of course I want to climb things before other people. That’s my goal. There’s a little bit of urgency with that. But luckily we’re all good enough friends, and we all talk to each other. So, if anything, it just stokes you up.
If you had to put a number on it, the amount of ladies out there doing mixed climbing at your level, how small of a group are we talking about?
Can you talk a little bit about your new business venture? It’s not called “Chicks with Picks” anymore is it?
It’s called “Chicks Climbing and Skiing” because we do more than just ice climbing. We do rock climbing, ice climbs, and skiing.
You ladies bought the company from Kim Reynolds? And it seems like Kim was running it by herself for a while. Now it’s shifted to this cooperative crew of women. Is that correct?
Correct. We are called the “Pentagon of Power.” Colin Haley gave us that name.
Can you talk a little bit about being a business owner and what you hope to bring to this project?
Being a business owner is a ton of work, but the reward always comes when we actually run the clinic and we just see how stoked these ladies are. That’s what feeds us. That’s what feeds this whole company. And that’s why we bought this company because we didn’t want that avenue for ladies to go away. If we’re not there, then where do they go for this advanced instruction? Where do they go for these kinds of trips?
Is there something that separates folks that climb at a high level from other people?
I think that the sacrifice that some people are willing to make is greater. Because I’m 40 now, and I think about all of the time that I’ve been climbing. And you know, in my 20’s and 30’s, I wouldn’t have come to your birthday party. I probably would have missed your wedding. I would have missed any family function I needed to, in order to go climbing. I didn’t have a real job. It was paycheck to paycheck, guiding day to guiding day, with huge chunks of time where there’s no money coming in. Living in my van, with my dog—that’s a lot of sacrifice that some people just aren’t willing to make. I definitely know that there was a time in my life, when I was just so completely self-absorbed, and it was all about climbing. It was all for climbing.
There definitely was this wake up moment that recently happened—my parents were in a bad motorcycle accident, and some other things have befallen us too. I’ve realized that I’m losing this precious time with people, because I had to be tied into a rope. That was more important to me than being tied to my family, if you will. It was a real eye-opener that I’ve got to start thinking of other people. I can’t just be completely self-absorbed my whole life.
Can you talk a little bit about the fitness element, the training? What do you do to be in top form for these big climbs, when you are tackling M11 & M12?
I spend a lot of time in the weight room. I spend 3 to 4 days a week in the weight room. I’ve been lifting weights since I was 13. But I’ve been following my own program now for about 5 years, and I see huge results. I have a few exercises that are very climber specific, and they are specific to the moves that I’m trying to make. In general, it’s just an overall fitness plan, that includes weight lifting, and doing some aerobic activity a couple days a week, and also climbing as much as I can.
Dawn is about to begin filming a new documentary about the rise of mixed climbing by women in North America. It will be titled “Mixtress.” It’s a story that’s never been told about one of the most exciting new chapters in climbing history. Look for more info and a Kickstarter campaign soon!