In self-isolation for over two weeks now, it is strange to remember what I was doing exactly one month ago. Monday morning, 5 A.M. We had just woken up from a cold night in the winter hut of the Refuge d’Alpe de Villar d’Arène in the French Alps. A last cup of tea, a final glance at our map, I quickly stuffed some remaining gear in my pack.
Time to go. Looking forward to our climbing and skiing goal for the day, we not at all anticipated the worldwide crisis that already loomed over our heads at that moment. We could have known: Italy was already on the verge of lockdown. But in that small cabin in that beautiful white valley, we thought only of what was right ahead (a snow couloir and a ski descent), and what drove us in the long term (our expedition in 2021). Looking back, it proved a great mindset: to get through the unsettling times we are in now, it is best to focus on long-term goals by taking day-to-day steps.
The trip we were on, a few weeks ago, was one of the winter training stages of the coaching trajectory of the Dutch Expedition Academy I am part of. An initiative of the national climbing association NKBV, we are a group of 9 young alpinists ambitious to go on self-supported expeditions in the Greater Ranges of the world. To work towards this goal in two-and-a-half years, we have a full programme and are supported by several coaches: skilled alpinists who have been on multiple expeditions themselves, a mountain guide and a group coach. Our team of climbers, all under 30 years old, is mixed (6 men, 3 women) and has varied experience and skill, although all of us have several years of alpine climbing behind us. Although we still have to decide on a definite destination, we are preparing ourselves for a technical climbing expedition, which will take place in 2021.
Happy crew in France! (Photo: Bas Visscher)
The only team photo we have, so far. At the Don Whillans Memorial Hut in the Peak District, October 2019
But when exactly are you ready for an expedition? And what’s a good climber? I asked myself these questions a couple of times over the past year. I really like Jim Perrin’s description of Don Whillans, one of the most notable and accomplished mountaineers in British history: ‘He’s a pragmatic pocket Hercules with a dismissive wit and a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done approach, behind which are concealed the skills of a master of his own craft.’ A great target to aim for, I would say, provided ‘he’ may be substituted for ‘she’.
In their notorious Training for the New Alpinism, Steve House and Scott Johnston drew up a more concrete list of attributes that they think make a great alpinist. It includes things as being a ‘good all-round technical climber, skilled in ice and mixed climbing’, having ‘very good cardiovascular fitness’, having ‘good mountain-sense, knowledge of the weather, avalanche hazards, geology, glaciology’ and ‘good route-finding skills’. It also cites characteristics such as perseverance, discipline, patience and ‘high tolerance for suffering’. Lower on the list, but probably just as important, House and Johnston noted soft skills, such as having the ability ‘to form partnerships and contribute to a small team’, being able ‘to plan for medium- and long-term goals’, and being ‘a good learner’.
Some of these attributes are characteristics or ambitions you probably just need to have. Johnston is right in saying you can’t coach desire. On the other hand, though, most things on the list are learnable skills that are never perfected, but can always be improved through effort and experience. They are development goals that get you closer to your climbing goals. So I think that as long as we are all highly motivated and committed, we primarily have to focus on our individual and collective learning process during the Expedition Academy programme.
Definitely something to learn: dry tooling. Jeffrey trying out his tools in Cervières. (Photo: Bas Visscher)
One of my first really steep ice climbs: following the beautiful crux length in Sombre Héros, Ceillac. (Photo: Anniek Verschuur)
Dennis at the start of a great WI4 in Cervières. (Photo: Bas Visscher)
‘Focus on the process’, I realize how vague that sounds. How do you know what you have to do, each day, to take a step in the right direction towards a big goal? To make the process more concrete and break it up into clear steps, we made personal development plans that covered all aspects on House and Johnston’s list, and added team building and expedition planning skills. These personal plans allow us to reflect on our learning process better by scoring, at set intervals and for specific attributes, where we are and what still needs work
For example, motivation and discipline have never been my problem, and mentally I feel relatively strong at the moment, but my experience in ice- and mixed climbing is little, so I knew I had to prioritize that this winter. Where I might have given myself a bit more credit in rock, I graded my climbing skills in winter conditions a 1 out of 5. A lot of room for improvement.
To work on that, prior to going to the French Alps a month ago, I set up a list of concrete, attainable goals for the week that would help me improve. It said: ‘build experience lead climbing steep ice’, ‘do a multipitch ice climb’, ‘learn to tour ski’, ‘learn about ice conditions’ and ‘practice using avalanche safety set’. At the end of the week, I had ticked off nearly everything on my list, and could clearly monitor these improvements in my long-term plan.
Keeping a list of small sub-goals makes it easy to quickly progress and keep track of what you’ve done. In one week in France, I tried steep ice climbs in Ceillac (Sombre Héros) and Cervières (Ancrage de Dent and Le Tube), I stood on touring skies for the first time and made my way down from Pic W de Chamoissière (probably falling over 30 times, but hey), our guide Boris Textor taught me how to read ice fall conditions, and we practiced reading the terrain on avalanche danger.
First time on touring skies! High on my to-learn-list. (Photo: Bas Visscher)
Dennis leading Ancrage de Dent at Cervières. (Photo: Bas Visscher)
Supported by our coaches, the idea is that we evaluate and update our personal plans throughout the programme and use it to keep track of clear goals during our training weeks. The current crisis with the Covid-19 virus rapidly spreading over the world and causing severe disruption nearly everywhere is a good reminder, however, that things do not always go as planned. Like everyone who is now forced to stay at home, we had to cancel our climbing trip to Chamonix in April. Yet however disappointing that may be, it also provides us with an opportunity to reassess how we approach our long-term goal with our day-to-day actions. My plan of climbing a long alpine route in winter conditions has to wait until next year, but there is still so much to learn for me that will also help me prepare for our expedition. I do not have to sit still, even in self-isolation. I can run, I can work on rope techniques, I can dive into the science behind avalanches, and best of all: I can spend a whole lot of time researching the greatest expedition destinations of the world and discover, with the team, where we want to go.
House and Johnston listed being ‘a good learner’ as one of the key characteristics any great alpinist should have. Maybe that is true now more than ever. And perhaps we should add to their list the skill to adapt to rough circumstances – this is the moment to work on it.