Steve House’s mantra is: “the simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes.” As an Alpine-style climber, this means taking only what you need on a climb, and leaving nothing behind.
Labeled as one of the greatest climbers of his generation and winner of many awards and accolades, it is fair to say that he’s seen it all. But it took a life-threatening injury in 2010 for him to realize just how little he had truly achieved on the greater scale of things. Since then, the 45-year-old has been using his time to give back to the community that has given him so much over years.
Here, he talks to us about the importance of respecting the environment and trying to make the world a better place through his mentor program and much more.
THE RED BULLETIN: What’s so great about Alpine-style climbing?
STEVE HOUSE: It really is as simple as going with a partner, a bit of equipment, the clothing you’re wearing and a snack in your backpack and having an adventure. It can be a very intimate and personal experience.
What makes it so different from other types of climbing?
Some of the sports, like pure sports climbing, require a lot of preparation: you need to clean the rock, put in the bolts for protection and so on, which is very different to what we do, which was originally called the clean climbing movement. Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, was among the front-runners in this clean climbing movement back in the 60s and it started as an attempt to move away from using a lot of pitons, because they were damaging the rocks. Every time you place one it breaks a bit of the rock, and people were putting them in the same places. Do this hundreds and thousands of times and you’re going to have a lasting negative affect. I like to think that we’ve continued that ethic of trying to go into the mountains and climb walls, and then leave it unchanged.
Did protecting the environment play a part in the decision to climb the way you do, or was it purely the aesthetic beauty of the climbing?
I think it was a bit of both. We were definitely aware of the effect we were having on the environment, and you know, the environment is why we were there in the first place, so we didn’t want to destroy it.
And when you think of the bigger picture it leads you to thinking about our place in the world and how we should interact with our environment and how we should conduct ourselves.
How bad of an effect on the environment is climbing actually having? Are there places you can’t climb anymore?
Well, I’m very biased, and I personally think that climbing is very easy on the environment, but what I do notice – especially in popular places – is that the vegetation has taken a hit from the base camps and the trails. But in the bigger picture, I don’t think that is too much of a problem. The plants and grass will grow back if we stop going there. It’s not permanent change; we’re not causing climate change that is irreversible. The other thing you start to see more of these days, especially on the popular mountains like Everest, Cho Oyu and some of the others in the Himalayas, is that you see a lot of trash.
Why do you think that is?
Firstly, I want to make it clear that it has been a lot worse than what it is now. In the beginning, when people first climbed these summits, they felt like they were on the moon, it was so far from reality that their mentality was, ‘ah, what’s a few ropes left here, or a tent there because nobody is here to see it.’ But then more and more people climbed these places and saw that others had left their stuff there, so they left theirs too and it just kind of snowballed. At some point you just have to say: “enough is enough, we need to stop this.”
So what’s being done?
It’s taking a generational change I think. What you need to understand is that a lot of the Himalayan expeditions rely on local help: a cook in the base camp, porters etc. Even alpine style climbers rely on help to get to their base camp. These places are often one or two weeks away from the nearest road, so you need people to carry supplies, get you to the base camp etc. And in those early expeditions, the climbers taught the locals this throwaway culture and way of thinking, so now we actually have to change this mentality that we taught them. It’s getting better, but it is going to take some time.
Have you ever had to shake your head at the conditions you’ve witnessed on a mountain?
Absolutely, again, it’s these popular climbs in the Himalayas like Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, Everest and the trekking routes etc. They really are a tragedy of their own success. There are 1000’s of people now at Everest base camp every six months, every cycle. And I mean, these are very fragile alpine environments that aren’t built to handle that many people. And that’s something the governments need to think a little bit more about. Of course, they want people to come and they want tourism, but at some point people are going to stop coming if it really isn’t nice up there.
It also seems to be becoming more and more accessible to the public, and a lot more commercial. How do you feel about this?
Well, I’m a climber and I think it’s the coolest sport there is, so it would be quite hypocritical for me to say that people should not do it or have the same chances I have had!
But what has changed, and one of the reasons why it is becoming more popular is the climbing gym, it’s now very easy to learn to climb, because there is a climbing hall in almost every city of size. People try it, and they love it and they get the bug too, and they want to try new places. We didn’t have that when I was a kid, so it’s changed how people come into the sport.
Before, people used to go to the mountains first, by going hiking, skiing, trekking, and then they would get into climbing. Now people are coming in from things like bouldering, which is physically the most challenging part of climbing and then they go into the mountains. What we did was go into the mountains to enjoy the sunrise, see the wildflowers and feel the elements around us – so we were already in tune with environment, and then we started to learn how to climb. We already had an appreciation for the environment before we started. Now, if you go to a climbing hall, it’s just another form of entertainment, or it’s one of your workouts for the week. And so if these people – who don’t know anything about the environment or even think about it – take their “exercise” outside, then they are probably not initially thinking about the impact they’re having on their eco-system.
It’s my job, as a climbing ambassador, to make people appreciate the beauty of what they’re doing a lot more. I want to assimilate them into our culture and community and remind them that this is a fragile environment.
On your website it says: The simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes. Can you elaborate on this?
I’ve been on almost every kind of climb, from big groups to solo trips, and I realized that the ones that had the biggest impact on me, that I treasured the most were the ones when it was just me and another person, when we took exactly what we needed and nothing else and we immersed ourselves in that environment and experience. And in this day and age, with everything and everyone being connected, I think people kind of forget how beautiful it is to be disconnected. It’s almost meditative in a way. And you feel a little bit changed when you come back to the “real world”. And I think that is the real point of climbing – to affect a change yourself. If you don’t come back feeling like a different person then maybe something wasn’t quite right. Climbing is transformational, and I think the best way to really have that experience is to just keep it simple.
What lessons have you learned from climbing that can be used in everyday life?
In a nutshell – Everything (laughs). One thing which you probably wouldn’t expect is organization. You know, if you’re going on a month-long expedition then you better make sure you’re organized! And you can carry those skills into everyday life. I’ve written three books and I’m working on a 4th, and it wasn’t difficult to organize those projects as it was no different to preparing a climbing expedition. You just start making a schedule and a list and try to work your way through it. Climbing also teaches you how to deal with failure and to not give up, you might come to a dead end, but there is always a solution, maybe you need to turn back and find another route, but that just makes you stronger. That’s the way expedition climbing is, things happen and you deal with it.
Has climbing changed the way you look at life?
Absolutely. I had a really bad accident in 2010 where I was almost killed.
Lessons that can be learned from climbing
- … to appreciate the beauty of what you are doing
- … organization skills
- … how to deal with failure and to not give up
- … it makes you realize how fragile everything is
- … and how important it is to live in the moment
I had to wait for the rescue team for about two hours, and afterwards the doctors said that if I had stayed out there for two more hours then I would have died. I was conscious the whole time and I remember everything, and while I was waiting a lot of things went through my mind. I was 39 at the time and I remember thinking that if I die today, then I’m happy with the climbing I have done, I haven’t achieved everything but I’ve achieved a lot. But I also realized that I had missed out on so much more. I had never had a family, I hadn’t contributed enough to my community. And I said to myself that if I survive – which wasn’t certain – that I would change the way I live. I now have a young family, I’m doing Alpine Mentors and much more, and it really feels good to take those lessons and actually do something with it. Losing friends or having an accident yourself really makes you realize how fragile life is. We’re not here forever.
And so what makes you want to go back to the mountain after you’ve seen these things, after it has changed you in the way it has?
When we lose people, It’s almost always a conflict inside as to whether we go back or not. And some people don’t go back, and that’s fine. I’ve been through this lots of times, and at some point I had to come to the realisation that climbing is so much a part of who I am: the movement of climbing, and the experience is how I deal with the pain of losing people. I need the mountain to process. I know I will always climb, and I think I am experienced enough to know when to dial the risk up or down. Rock climbing is quite safe, and it is getting safer. Alpine climbing, climbing technical peaks, is risky, and always will be.
Did your accident change how much risk you take?
Definitely. I don’t climb without ropes anymore for sure. I did that, it had a place at the time.
You’re adage is ‘the burnt hand teaches the best.’ what would you say is the worst ‘burn’ you’ve received?
My accident in 2010 was definitely the worst burn I’ve ever had, it’s had the biggest affect on my life. I’m about 95% the same as before my injury now, but I’m still 5% not the same. From an athletic stand point and a climbing perspective, I’d been working a decade to get to the level I was at the time, and I’m never going to be at that level ever again. It’s just physically not possible. I can get close, but I’ll never hit that level of athleticism again. And at some point you have to accept that, I’m in my forties and that’s the reality of it. You can choose to let that get you down, or you can find a way to participate in a different way.
You mentioned you love climbing because you get better as you get older.
It’s a technique sport, the more you learn the better you get.
And how do you make the sure the body keeps up with the mind?
I think the training and conditioning becomes habit, and part of who you are. If you have that constant fitness and way of life, then it’s not that difficult. What’s really difficult is to get fit when you’re not fit at all. It takes a long time and it’s a big effort. I have a lot of respect for people who come to climbing that are not fit and then spend a few years getting that basic level, because it is not easy. It’s much easier to maintain a level. It wasn’t easy to come back after my accident, but now it’s just a habit to maintain this level – it’s part of my life.
Aside from climbing yourself and being an ambassador, you run the non-profit program Alpine Mentors to encourage young climbers to climb in a low-impact style. What’s the first piece of advice you give to them?
The first lesson I kind of force on them is to create an intellectual framework for their climbing. People come to me because they want to get the most out of their climbing, and they are alpinists. Alpinism is a little bit like the decathlon of climbing, you need to be able to do all forms of climbing relatively well: ice climbing, rock climbing, you need to know about snow, weather conditions, there’s a lot of intellectual knowledge you need to have aside from the physical aspect of climbing. So I make them identify what they are good at and not good at, and make them develop a plan to improve what they are not good at. Whether it be improving their ice climbing technique or taking an avalanche safety course– they need to be all-rounders by the time they finish our program. A lot of people think they are just going to climb a lot of hard routes when they come to Alpine Mentors and they think they are going to get better, when the reality is, I make them do a lot of easy routes, but in disciplines that they are not good at. And in the end they are much more complete.