Meet the PAFletes: Alan Rousseau

Before Alan Rousseau disappeared into the mountains for a month-long trip, he was kind enough to spend a few precious minutes in Ladakh responding to some questions via email. Our exchange is below:

First, you were given the 2013 Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award. Please explain what that award is and how it came to influence your climbing.

The Lyman Spitzer award was the old name for the AAC cutting edge award. This is a grant that funds climbers for expeditions that are attempting to push the modern standard in alpine climbing. In 2013 Tino Villaneuva and I received this grant to try the west face of Tengi Ragi Tau in the Rolwaling valley of Nepal. This is a huge fin-like mountain that is nearly 7000 meters tall. We walked below it the year before while nabbing the first ascent of Langmoche Ri (6611m) in a seven day push from the village of Na. Getting the grant made it possible for us to return to the Rolwaling. It was our first experience trying to solve a puzzle of this scale. We were turned around real high up on the face, about 1000 feet below the summit. We could not find a spot to sleep without subjecting ourselves to serious objective hazards. We rappelled 6,000 feet in 8 hours to get off the face only leaving 40 feet of cord and a few stoppers. After this experience I took a couple years off from climbing in Asia, not because it was a bad experience, but because I saw the gap in where my climbing was, and where I wanted it to be to set myself up for success on these big committing
features. Last year in 2017, Tino and I returned to the Himalayas and completed the first peak ascent of Rungafarka (6495m) via the 50-pitch north ridge (VI M6 A0 WI4+).

Second, you were given the 2018 AAC Cutting Edge Award. Please explain what that award is and how that also influenced your climbing.

It’s a bit too early to say how it influenced my climbing as I am in India now about to head on the expedition we received the funding for. It feels like we are in a good place, after our success last year, we are hoping to apply a similar formula to the objective this year. For me getting a grant is a big motivator. I know lots of other people applied, and it makes me want to do everything in my power to be as ready as possible for the objective. I don’t want to feel like I wasted an opportunity.

Third, as someone who is clearly at the front of the pack in terms of changing climbing, where do you see the new frontiers of climbing being?

This is an interesting question largely because I don’t see the climbing I’m doing as changing the sport. I have always aspired to be a well-rounded technical climber, to apply a diversity of skills into completing large alpine objectives. As a result I’m not leading the sport in any single technical aspect. My hardest redpoints are 5.13 and M10. I see kids warming up on these grades! My only reasons for success have been 1) I try really hard, and 2) mentally I have been able to climb near my limit in the alpine. I’m just taking a relatively moderate skill set and applying it to big terrain.

Perhaps that means I’m one of the people changing the modern culture of alpinism. However, I see the future of alpinism in the climbing gym. When I see a 15-year-old kid tie in, casually talk about who has a crush on who, while floating 5.13, it makes me think there will be very little aid climbing done in the future. The hardest traditional ground up routes completed in the alpine from a technical standpoint are easy for most adept young guns. With a reduction in aid comes a faster ascent. The end result is a bigger route completed with a smaller kit required.

Fourth, as climbing is moving forward into new ways of thinking about what climbing could become, in your mind, is there any danger that we are losing something, maybe a connection to the past? In your own experiences, what is that link between the past and the future of climbing?

On this I have somewhat of a limited perspective. I’m 32 years old and my introduction to climbing was only 15 years ago. I don’t think there is much of a danger in losing the past. I think there will always be respect and intrigue for what each generation accomplished with the equipment available at the time. Skill sets will evolve, equipment will adapt, but at the end of the day the goal remains unchanged: climb the hardest thing you can and get down safe. As long as people remember what was done to get the sport to where it is today, I believe the connection to the past will remain strong.

Fifth, talk a little about the role that technology impacts your climbing. With the advent of social media, the proliferation of beta, and the continual evolution of the equipment itself, what do you see to be the general trajectory of the sport?

Even when I started climbing, I didn’t think technology (other than equipment changing) would play much of a role in climbing. I think the online information sharing is incredibly valuable to the progression of our sport: conditions updates, access issues, new route development, better directions, rack recommendations. I think they are all great. The end result is we all climb more. I know for myself I find enough adventure on route. I don’t need to get lost on the approach and descent to get my fill of uncertainty for the day.

Social media is another facet of this realm. A lot of info sharing does happen here as well. As does a spread of stoke and stories (I swear more people like ice climbing in July than January). Stories of climbing have always been told, in one form or another. I hope as social media’s presence continues to shape modern society, climbers continue to tell stories with an emphasis on authenticity, and not ‘how should I frame this to get the most likes’. I think social media presents a very interesting example of intrinsic motivations pitted against the human desire for peer validation.

Finally, talk about your process. How do you work to create a consistent evolution for your climbing such that it is always progressive.

I think I’ve always been good at setting goals and finding out what work I need to do to obtain them.

The first time I remember doing this, I wanted to run a sub-seven-minute mile while I was seven years old. I remember my dad working with me on pacing, logging laps on the track, eventually hitting a 6:55 and being totally stoked. I think that has stuck with me. The work you put in is what you get out. I approach my climbing goals with this same mentality, although breaking down an unclimbed face in the Himalayas is a bit more complicated than calculating split times in a mile. I also get bored when things feel stagnant, or like I’m at a plateau. I think this has motivated me to keep pushing my limits, as well as exploring new styles of climbing.

Now, some really “important” questions

Tacos or burritos. Which one do you prefer and why?
Burritos. When it comes to food and drinks, I have always been a quantity over quality kind of guy.

Head to toe or head to head sleeping in a tent and why?
Head to head. My feet smell waaay too bad.

Name a totally bone-headed mistake you made when climbing. Can you laugh about it now?

When I was 19, I climbed Mt. Hood. I forgot my sleeping bag in the car, and at the first break managed to drop my puffy jacket after putting it in a compression sack. It flew down the mountain.

That was a cold trip for me. And yes I can laugh about that as well as just about every other “bonehead” move I did at that time.

Knickers. They’re old school. Some have tried to bring them back? Defend them or ridicule them!

They seem pretty silly to me. Maybe if I were “Portland hip” and could grow a sweet moustache, I would embrace them!

Are you stoked? Head on over to portlandalpinefest.org to get tickets to see Alan at The Summit on Nov. 16 at the Melody Center, and/or check out his clinics & seminars.

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