Up, up and away
The last time we caught up with professional climber and guide Vince Anderson was shortly after he and fellow climber Steve House were awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or mountaineering award for their alpine-style first ascent in 2005 of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, an 8,126-meter (26,660 feet) peak in northern Pakistan, the ninth-highest peak in the world.
At the time, Anderson was living most of the year in Ridgway, at least when he wasn’t traveling the globe enjoying what he called the “life of a climbing bum.”
He was climbing, or thinking about climbing, or planning future climbs, nearly 24/7, and in the intervals he was guiding and teaching rock, alpine and ice climbing for Skyward Mountaineering, a mountain guiding company in Ridgway owned by Anderson and House.
While it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise to come across Anderson scaling the frozen walls of the Ouray Ice Park (about which he wrote the “Ouray Ice Climbing Guide Book”), today you are just as likely to find him racing his single-speed mountain bike and spending down time with his wife, Colleen, and their 4-month-old son, Maxon.
High-mountain climbing no longer consumes him. Instead, there is the life of a husband and father.
Perhaps it’s because he’s 41 and more centered on where his life is headed.
Perhaps it’s because he’s married, with a compatible, dark-haired wife and a son whose promise is yet to be realized.
Or perhaps it’s because Anderson has found a suitable outlet for the energy, passion and commitment he formerly spent on tackling the world’s highest peaks.
A recent day found Anderson, slim with tight-curled brown hair, shoeless and wearing jeans and a snap-front silver-gray shirt, considering the answer to some of these questions while perched on an exercise ball (“It’s great for my core”) in his office (“The corporate headquarters of Skyward Mountaineering,” he laughed) in the lower level of his home in the Ridges.
Except for a firewood holder formed of retired ice-climbing tools, the well-lit room had a curious lack of climbing paraphernalia.
“Well, there really aren’t that many to see but I do have this gold piton I got when we won the Piolet d’Or,” said Anderson, a bit sheepishly when asked where his awards were stashed. “Steve and I sort of share the Piolet d’Or and he has it this week.”
The two world-class climbers share more than the physical award. The two are alike in sensibility and in their drive to excel in the sport of alpine-style climbing, which entails climbing in the least-intrusive way possible.
Anderson said he first was introduced to the mindset of low-impact alpine climbing when he was attending the University of Colorado and met Ralph Ferrara, who now lives in Moab.
Ferrara, Anderson said, was a mentor who not only taught Anderson how to climb but instilled in him the values and ethics he still carries.
“That’s one of the things — climbing is a game like anything else. Once you get into these sports they all have certain game components and rules,” Anderson said. “A lot of climbers like to think of climbing as a bit anarchistic, where you make your own rules, and there may be a little bit of that, but there are some rules at certain levels and our point of view is that the simpler you make things, the richer the experience.”
House obviously shares similar views.
In a blog article about his climbing career, House talks about his two-year, weather-marred attempts (seven tries over two expeditions) to complete the first solo climb of K7, a 6,934-meter peak in the Charakusa Valley, Karakoram, Pakistan.
“My chosen style, solo, compelled me to carry a minimum of equipment because I was just one man working alone,” House writes. “After each attempt I removed equipment from my kit that I had found unnecessary. On my successful ascent my backpack weighed seven pounds.”
House said it “was the living example of my own maxim: The simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes.”
He mentions he had to suffer a bit because of his minimalist approach “but I was rewarded in having the richest, most meaningful experience that I have had in climbing.”
Anderson said that in recent years he’s found the risk and the suffering less-compelling as before.
On risk: “One of the biggest components (in alpine climbing) is the acceptance of high levels of risk, risk tolerance and then the ability to manage that risk,” Anderson said.
“I still have the ability to manage risk but my tolerance is lower. I’m not sure that is age dependent, but I would suspect that younger men have the highest levels of risk tolerance.”
On risk and being married: “I would say (that) as my risk tolerance went down some other components of my life changed. (Risk tolerance went down) while the willingness to have a lifetime commitment went up.”
He met Colleen, a CPA for Hilltop and former treasurer for the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association, in 2008 while he was exploring land-based ways to build endurance.
“I was looking for a way to train my aerobic capacity and learning that training at lower altitude was the best thing you could do for that,” Anderson said. He looked out a window through which you can almost see the Lunch Loop bike trails. “If you live in Ridgway, the lowest you can get in a day is here.”
He started running the local trails and noticed people on bikes seemed to be having more fun. He obtained a single-speed mountain bike and was riding it here and in Ridgway when some mutual friends introduced him to Colleen.
“So I had chance to go for a ride with her in Ridgway and I’m still riding with her,” Anderson said.
They met just prior to Anderson’s trip to Makalu, where he and Marko Prezelj accomplished the first ascent of then-unclimbed West Face of Makalu II (7,678 meters/25,190 feet).
Colleen said she really didn’t know much about him because at the time she wasn’t paying much attention to mountain climbing.
“But I think he already was making that transition (from climbing to biking,) she said. “He said the risks and the time away weren’t worth it.”
Anderson said he’s found biking challenges him as much as mountain climbing without the risk of injury.
“It’s just as hard, in fact it’s harder, physically,” he said. “Because you can’t push your body that hard in the mountains.”
When bike racing, Anderson can push himself to and over his limit, knowing if he collapses on the trail he can just get up and go on.
But when tackling high peaks, “you need enough reserves to finish the job,” he explained. “Even if something happens on the race course and you run out of energy there, you don’t have to worry.
“You get more small injuries from biking, but running out of energy in the mountains may kill you.”
He laughed at the comparison.
“The funny thing is all my climbing friends think mountain biking is crazy and dangerous.”
He seems certain that had he started bike racing earlier, it and not climbing might have been his life’s passion.
“I think I do well at it for a couple of reasons,” he offered. “I’ve always had good endurance and aerobics, and I have a pretty good threshold for pain. So for me, (bike racing) is perfect because I can go quite hard and not worry.”
While Anderson stays in touch with the world of alpine climbing through his many friends and by way of his blog and website, he says he doesn’t feel he’s missing anything by staying at lower elevations.
But would he take on a major mountain expedition if it were offered?
He pondered the question for only a few moments.
“I don’t have the hunger I once did, and I’m pretty happy with what I have done, so I would have to say no right now,” he said.
In part, it’s because the way he and House climb, ascending the highest peaks with the barest of essentials, takes a toll on time, energy and the human body.
A trip to climb in the Pakistan Himalayas may chew up two months, including travel, acclimatization and the rigors of climbing.
“I think that when I was up there the last time, the discomforts of the elements and being gone that long from my family was hard,” he said. “To do things in the style we like to do, you need a lot of time and now I want to spend more time with my family.”
He also has a 5-year-old son, Chente, from a previous marriage. Chente lives in Ridgway with his mother. Anderson said he and his older son are quite close.
Although Anderson’s main focus is elsewhere, he’s not completely out of alpine-style mountaineering.
Recently, he and House, whom Anderson first met while the two were guiding on Denali in Alaska, started their Alpine Mentors program as a way of sharing their immense knowledge of alpine-style mountaineering.
The two-year program includes instruction in rock and ice climbing and an extended expedition in a lightweight, low-impact style.
“The ideal client would be a young climber with some mountain climbing, and some rock and ice climbing experience,” Anderson said.
It’s modeled roughly after the European young-alpinist programs, where older, experienced climbers teach younger climbers.
The idea for Alpine Mentors came to fruition in 2010 while House was recovering from near-fatal injuries received in an 80-foot fall while climbing in the Canadian Rockies.
“At home, I pondered the fact that I had not been wishing I had done more climbing but rather I was repentant that I had not done more for my tribe,” House writes on the Alpine Mentors website. “Alpine Mentors is born from my wish to give back to climbing, to provide for today’s climbing youth a resource I did not have.”
Both Anderson and House are members of the American Mountain Guides Association, whose education programs meet international standards.
The climate of mountaineering has changed and Anderson sees a disturbing interest in what’s termed “peak-bagging,” using fully supported and very expensive expeditions to climb the highest mountains by the easiest routes.
“There is a lot of cachet in going up the highest ones, but I don’t see much interest in doing hard routes on high peaks,” he said. “Especially in the last five or six years and certainly not by young Americans.”
In 2007 Anderson used his blog to rail against a Russian expedition up the West Face of K2, the world’s second-highest peak at 28,251 feet.
The 18-member Russian group took a somewhat old-fashioned, siege-style approach, establishing seven camps and fixing ropes to aid climbers nearly the entire way.
Anderson called their method “an agent of death to modern alpinism.”
His remarks created quite a bit of conversation.
“Yeah, I’m pretty vocal when it comes to climbing style, and there’s a certain group of Russians with whom I don’t particularly see eye to eye on that subject,” he said with a tight smile.
To Anderson, one of the beauties, as well as the beast, of alpine climbing is there are no guarantees of success, if you equate success only with standing atop the summit.
Using artificial aids, including fixed ropes, bottled oxygen and a large support team, isn’t always bad, but many cases it’s a means to overcome lack of experience and skill, Anderson said.
“Look at John Otto,” Anderson said. “He went up Independence Monument and today he might have done it differently other than drilling the holes and putting in the pipes, but he was the first one up there and he didn’t know how else to do it. Kudos for him for getting up there.”
But climbing techniques have changed and today you don’t see climbers using drills, placing bolts and hoisting themselves up Independence Monument.
“My point of view is that you earn the right to reach these heights if you practice learning the skills and the trade,” he said. “And at some point in time you may or may not have the skills to do so by fair means.”
That not everyone can attain the expertise to reach high peaks is part of the attraction of spending years in testing yourself, he said.
“I find it perfectly acceptable that there are certain places on the planet that not everybody is able to access,” he said. “There is some undeniable beauty to inaccessibility and remoteness.”