Climbing Life: An Interview with Scott Bennett

Photo Credit: Garrett Grove
Interview with Scott Bennett, 2016 Portland Alpine Fest athlete. With first ascents, from Alaska to the Waddington range, the Cascades to Patagonia, Scott has established himself as one of the most active alpinists of his generation. By Joe Fox.

You said you were climbing yesterday? What was going on? Where were you guys?

Yesterday, I was kind of unintentionally climbing. We went for a ridge run-scramble. My friend, Jon Frederick, and I went up to Red Peak which is in Summit County, kinda near Vale in the mountains of Colorado. And scrambled up the peak, which is I think low 13-er, and tried to traverse this long ridge of towers and buttresses and such, and it was one of the chossiest things either of us has ever been on. Actually Jon grew up in Washington, so he’s climbed a bunch in the Cascades, and he was like this
Photo Credit: Cheyne Lempe
is Cascades-quality choss up here. So, we got pretty scared running around in running shoes for a while. And eventually found a way to bale off it down some gully. We meant to go swing tools for the first time of the season, but it was too hot. It was like 80 degrees in Denver.

Can you pinpoint a moment perhaps in time or in your own thinking about the sport of mountaineering, where you took a conscious step away from being a hobbyist and toward being a true professional, expert, master?

That's a really good question. The question of mentality, of intention with it. The moment for me where I started to think of myself as accomplished, or more capable, as someone who had a unique skill set. It was probably my first trip to Patagonia, which was in January of 2011. I went into that trip and I had never done any first ascents. I had never set foot onto a glacier. I grew up in the Midwest and I learned to climb mostly in Colorado and Utah, in warm dry places. I hadn't really ice climbed at all. But a climbing partner, Blake Harrington, who is another Northwest guy, we rock climbed a bunch in Denver, in Colorado that year, and he suggested we go. And obviously I was pretty intimidated by that idea. But he convinced me it was a good idea and so we went down there. And, I don't know, just right away felt at home there, in those wild big granite mountains, sticking up through the glaciers. The photos had seemed really intimidating, but when we actually got there it just felt like rock climbing, which is what I'd been doing anyway. So that was the moment for me, where I was like, “I'm really comfortable in this environment." And I know not everyone is or can be, so I think I have something unique going for me here that I should really focus on. So that trip was the first of a whole series of more alpine-
Photo Credit: Colin Simon
focused expeditions for me. Going to back to Patagonia the next year, and going to Alaska the next year, going to the Waddington Range in British Columbia. And at that point my climbing really moved away from just going on a road trip to Indian Creek ... which is super fun—I'm going there next week actually—it's something I still love doing. But it's more of a social, recreation thing, and when I think of making progress in my own climbing, it's expeditions, its big trips, it's first ascents, and something with an exploratory element as well. So, yeah, that first trip to Patagonia opened up my eyes, I guess, to the fact that this was possible and that I had a lot of the skills necessary and I had the right kind of desire and boldness to go do those things. That's really when my focus shifted.

On where he learned to climb...

I grew up in Michigan. And I did learn to climb when I was in college in Ohio. I was involved with the outdoor club at my little liberal arts school in rural Ohio. And there wasn't much to do, so I was in the outdoor club, to go on backpacking trips, and we would do weekly trips, also, to a makeshift
Photo Credit: Blake Herrington
climbing tower that this farmer had built in his field, fifteen minutes away from campus. So we would go there every week and climb indoors, in what looked like a silo, it wasn't actually a grain silo, but that's sort of what it looked like. And he had a mix of actual gym handholds, and some were just rocks and pieces of wood that were bolted onto the walls. It wasn't a public gym. The farmer would let us climb there; the guy who owned it, he was also a climber, and he gave us keys for it and let us climb there. And, we'd go in the winter and it wasn't heated. It had a propane heater, but it wouldn't be on. So we'd have to go and start the generator, and start the propane heater, and get the lights turned on and get it heating up, before we could start climbing. So it actually, in hindsight, was good preparation for alpine climbing. Because you would frequently get “the screaming barfies” on your first climb of the day. Because it would just be Ohio in January. It would be freezing.

Wow. The Ohio farmer who converts a grain silo into a climbing gym. Sounds like an interesting character. 

Yeah, totally. Tom is his name. I've been meaning to climb with him again. I know he comes out to Vegas pretty often to climb at Red Rocks. So I'll have to get in touch with him and climb with him now, because it's been, what, 9 years, 10 years since I graduated from college? So I haven't seen him in a while.

So for kind of all four years of college we climbed there, and then my senior year, me and the few other people that were really into climbing, we found a professor that had at one point climbed at The Gunks, and had been a climber in his youth, and still had a trad rack, and we convinced him to take
us out climbing at the New River Gorge. And that was the first time I went outside. And he taught us how to place hexes, and whatever. This was like easy cracks at the New River Gorge. But it really progressed super quickly for me from there. Because this was my last year of college and I was climbing outside for the first time, but then within a couple years, I was climbing, almost full time. I mean I wasn't doing anything else. Working, waiting tables so I could make enough money to pay rent and buy food, and just climbing a 100% of the remainder of the time. I had moved out to Colorado at that point. So the progress came really quickly. In terms of getting out to Yosemite and climbing on El Cap, probably, within a year of first climbing outdoors.

My next question is a little bit darker. But I did all the interviews last year for the Alpine Fest as well. And among the folks I interviewed barely a year ago was the late, great Scott Adamson. Scott was a truly brilliant climber and a great friend to the Mazamas who was lost this past season in the mountains of Pakistan. And as I was sitting down to make some new questions for this year and trying to figure out which of the old questions would still work, I felt particularly focused on risk, and in particular the risk of death in alpine climbing. And just the fragility of human life, you know? I still have the audio recording of Scott talking about how he took a 100 foot whipper in the dark and thought he was going to die, you know what I mean? And then he did. And it's just kind of, hard to stomach. And I was just wondering how you regard your own mortality. Do you think about death, since you've taken it to this next level?

Photo Caption: Matt Van Biene
You know, it might be a self-protective thing, but I don't really think about my death in the mountains. I mean, intellectually I know that there are certainly a lot of risks with what we do. But, yeah, the possibility of my own death isn't something I am emotionally connected to. It doesn't seem vivid. I don't have nightmares or anything. But what I do think a lot about is friends dying in the mountains, because that's happened to me. And it sucks. I guess my own safety feels like it's in my control. I mean, obviously, it's not fully in my control. If I'm climbing in the Karakoram underneath a serac, you know? That's an objective hazard. But that's something I can deal with and mitigate. But friends dying ... Kyle and Scott were friends. I didn't climb with either of those guys, but I certainly knew them and respected them. And they were heroes of mine, and friends as well. That's something that I do worry about. And again, I guess maybe from a self-protective standpoint, I think I've intentionally kept my circle of really close climbing partners fairly small. Like I really only do big trips with a handful of people, really two or three actually. And folks that, obviously, whose judgment I trust 100%. So I can feel pretty good about them going out on trips without me, that they're going to come back safely. Because that's the fear that gets to me the most, I think, is having friends leave and not come back. I've been lucky enough, that none of my truly close climbing partners or friends has died in the mountains.

But with Kyle and Scott... I was climbing in the Karakoram last summer, which is going to be subject of the slideshow that I give in Portland, is that trip. And we were climbing at the same time as Kyle and Scott, in a different place, in a different valley, but we were well aware that they were over there and we were thinking about them pretty often. And we did actually find out about Scott's big fall and injury while we were in the mountains, at our base camp. We had a sat phone and we were in contact with friends back in the States and so we found out about it through them. And it really did kind of color our experience for the remainder of our trip. I think it made us more conservative with what we were willing to do, and just a little wearier. It was a strange season last year, I guess this was 2015, because it was quite warm. It was unseasonably warm all summer. The snow was not super well set up. A lot of the ice was coming apart. And I suspect that's what led to their accident last year, the 2015 accident. So those things were in our minds when we were climbing on K6 which was our big objective on that trip.

On big wall speed climbing and it's applications for alpine climbing....

I'll set myself sort of arbitrary goals, whether it's here in Colorado or in Yosemite. Trying to do multiple walls in a short time period or trying to do a specific route really fast. Stuff that can kind of seem silly and arbitrary, but which really forces you to develop a new creative skill set. That you can then apply in the mountains and apply onto bigger routes, where moving fast is necessary to be safe and to actually finish the climb.

Photo Credit: Garrett Grove
There's a local climb here at the wall that's the five pitch route, up the middle of the wall. Its a 5.11, so it's kind of the classic, moderately hard route that people aspire to do. And I've done it a bunch of times, so over the years I've tried to whittle it down to faster and faster and faster. And I'll time it from the base up to the summit, and back down again. And over the course of a couple years, I took my own personal time from over an hour, like an hour and half, down to now less than half an hour. So I took this climb that most parties would approach as a full day climb, and that in the past I'd approach as, at least, two or three hours if you're moving at a normal pace, and just ruthlessly making it more efficient and dialing in your systems, so you can climb it really fast.

Mountaineering legend, Reinhold Messner, has often been quoted comparing mountaineering to a creative pursuit, and the climber to the artist. Does this idea resonate for you at all in your experience?

I mean definitely, this is something that's been said many times, but doing a first ascent, you know, looking up at a wall, and painting in that line in your mind, “we're gonna link this feature with this feature.” I mean it's partially a logical pursuit. “Ok this crack looks good. This crack over here looks good. We're going to avoid that section because it's got rock.” So there is a very analytical side to that. But I do think that there's also an aesthetic sense, “this is where the line should go. This is going to be the most rewarding way that we can get up this mountain.” My friends and I often talk about trying the line of strength of the mountain, the proudest line we can find. That obviously has an implicit aesthetic judgment. Part of the reward of climbing is getting down and then drawing that line onto a photo, and being like, “yeah, that's beautiful. That's something that I created and its beautiful. It's art.”

Get Tickets & More Info at portlandalpinefest.org

Scott Bennett's Portland Alpine Fest Schedule

  • Alpine Fast & Light (Clinic) Nov. 16, 8–11 a.m. at PRG (FULL)
  • Intermediate/Advanced Ice/Mixed Climbing (Clinic) Nov. 16, 1–4 p.m. at the MMC
  • Into the Karakoram (Clinic) Nov. 16, 7 p.m. at the MMC
  • Intro to Ice/Mixed Climbing (Clinic) Nov. 17, 6–9 p.m. at the MMC (FULL)
  • Big Wall Techniques, Nov. 18, 8–11 a.m. at PRG

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