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Light and fast alpine mountaineering with Midge Cross

Midge Cross

Scott Johnston’s Personal Philosophy on Light and Fast Alpine Climbing
During Midge’s talk to Cascades Mountaineers last Wednesday night Bob asked her opinion about the light and fast vs. heavy and slow modes for climbing alpine peaks. She gave a short answer that her preference was to go light and fast. It is hard to give a very meaningful and short answer to this question. Since I have been largely responsible for Midge adopting this principle in her climbing and I have spent 20 some years thinking about it I would like to take this opportunity to present my philosophy on the subject. 

I had the misfortune to begin my climbing career without any guidance what so ever. My buddy and I learned literally through the school of hard knocks for the first couple of years before hooking up with “real climbers” in my home town of Boulder, Colorado. Adolescent enthusiasm and pride coupled with a large dose of luck allowed me to live and learn through those first several hazardous years. I was the kind of kid that people shake their heads at when encountering them on a climb. I do not recommend this method to anyone now but I would not trade it for anything. In the ensuing years my philosophy on climbing has been shaped by the experiences of seeing friends and myself succeed and fail (sometimes with fatal results) in the mountains. I have evolved a personal philosophy that works for me in the situations that I allow myself to get into. It is not a philosophy that works universally in every situation for me, nor is it necessarily adaptable to all climbers. It just represents my view.

I am a strong proponent of going light and fast in the mountains and I have been asked about this topic on several occasions. It is too easy to make sweeping generalizations such as: Walter Bonnati, Reinhold Messner, Alex Lowe, etc. all go light and fast and therefore it must be best. Or on the other hand it is wrong to say you must be prepared for every contingency so you had better add that fourth pair of dry socks to the pack. The obvious trade offs are that the light and fast (LF) method yields a lighter load and presumably a faster climb whereas the method which I will call heavy and slow (HS) will allow the climber to cope with more unexpected situations. To many this HS style seems the obvious choice from the safety standpoint. One need only crack open a few issues of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” to see all the ill equipped and ill prepared climbers who died on their climb. Unfortunately we can’t see as easily the statistics for the over prepared climbers who also got in trouble, as these are lumped in with the first group. 

I think most would agree that speed in the mountains equates with safety. Two friends of mine, Anatoli Boukreev and Kevin Cooney, climbed Mt. Everest without supplementary oxygen in 1991. They went from the south col to the summit and back in about 8 hours without undue drama because they were well prepared physically, mentally and technically. As most of us are now painfully aware of the Everest fiasco in 1996, it makes a good study. Most of the climbers who were on the way to the top that day could have avoided the storm if they had not been so slow. The storm bound climbers were out for over 15 hours before the storm hit. I submit that essentially most of these folks were not prepared physically or technically to be where they were despite all the lightweight gear in the world. Kevin and Anatoli limited their exposure to the mountain to the bare minimum even though they had cut their equipment safety margin very thin. To speed their ascent and cut down on weight they wore Nike javelin spikes on their feet with supergators duct taped over them all the way to 23,000 where they had stashed their double boots.

I once had a friend named Shirley who, by most standards, was a very safe climber. She was an instructor with the Colorado Mountain Club’s mountaineering school. She always seemed to have the 10 essentials plus some in her rucksack. Shirley was slow. I mean really slow. There is a popular 3 pitch 5.5 route in Eldorado Springs canyon just south of Boulder. One summer day Shirley led 2 students up that climb. By dark she was not back at the parking lot. The climbing community was small in Boulder in the 70s and everyone knew everyone. Someone came into the parking lot saying they had seen Shirley just getting the to top in the dark. We all knew of her legendary preparedness so we went home to our beds knowing that she might spend an uncomfortable night but be would be down in the morning. That is exactly what happened and in the morning Shirley came into the mountaineering store I worked in to proudly tell the tale of her being so well prepared that she even had a bivy tent on the climb so the three of them spent a pretty comfortable night. Shirley didn’t understand that one of the reasons she was so slow was due to her leading with a 25-lb. pack. She had this type of experience repeatedly on climbs and always pulled through largely because she always had a lot of stuff in her pack, which seemed to substitute for good judgment. Shirley died on Mt Rainier in July of 1978 in a big storm when she and her partner were moving slowly and decided to bivy. The storm did not abate for 2 days and they died of exposure. No amount of gear could make up for their slow speed or poor judgment not to turn around.

In deciding how much to carry in your pack you must first be able to accurately assess your abilities to deal with what lies ahead. No amount of reading or studying can substitute for experience and trial and error. Nothing is a better teacher than shivering on a cold bivy ledge all night because you either forgot something or made a wrong choice during the day’s climb. The most important advice I can give to fledgling LF climbers is that the Fast part has to come before the Light part. A miserable trip can easily be had by using the Light and Slow method. To gain the speed necessary may take years of training and experience to develop the fitness, judgment, and technical prowess. I recommend testing your LF method on trips that are well within your ability first. You will no doubt find, as I have that you get rebuffed with some regularity as you try harder climbs. This turn back ethic has saved me on several occasions. If you do not have that extra margin of safety in your pack you are less likely to exceed your personal abilities. Remember; the mountain will still be there another day and you can’t come back to climb it if you’re dead.
--Scott Johnston, December 1998


Read more about the loss of Shirli Voight

We received an email from Suzanne Bogeberg who lives in Denver Colorado, the home town, 30 years ago, of Scott Johnston and Shirli Voight. Scott notes in his writing above that Shirli was know to be a "safe climber" and an instructor in the Colorado Mountain Club's mountaineering school. --Robert Speik

Susan wrote: "Scott Johnston, in reference to your personal philosophy on light and fast alpine wrote 10 years ago...Shirli, died on Mt. Rainier in July of 1978 and this was very sad. In kindness and respect to the memory of Shirli, perhaps you should have written that it was thought that her climbing partner, Guerimo, had sustained injuries and perhaps
Shirli stayed to his aid and lost her own life staying by his side. I never met her, however was told by many of her friends and husband that she was a very smart, brave, and caring woman. (I will be hiking Mt. Blanc next month and just happened upon the website. Thank you for listening.)" --Suzanne Bogeberg

I wrote: Hello Suzanne, I am the webmaster for Thank you for your message. I am unable to reach Scott Johnston, however I will post your comment about Shirli Voight on the web page he wrote. I was able to find the actual Accidents in North American Mountaineering Report on pages 50-51 of the 1979 edition. I will post both comments on the page in the next few days. --Bob Speik

Accidents in North American Mountaineering
Bad Weather Exposure
Washington, Mt. Rainier

"On September 8, Shirli Voight (30) of Denver and Guillermo Mendoza (28) of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, were found buried in the snow about 13,300 feet near Mt. Rainier National Park's Disappointment Cleaver climbing route.

"It didn't appear they were caught in an avalanche," said Larry Henderson, a Mt. Rainier National Park Spokesman. "It looks like it was just the weather. We've had several days of very bad weather." There was no immediate indication the climbers had pitched camp or attempted to take shelter. They apparently attempted to continue on through cold, punishing weather instead of holing up against a snowstorm that descended on them.

Other climbers saw the pair at the 12,500 foot level and advised them not to proceed because of bad weather conditions. Voight was director of the Colorado Mountaineering Club Mountaineering School; Mendoza was a student in Denver and a climbing instructor for the Mexican Mountaineering school."



Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated


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