Raphael Slawinski is not one to rest on his laurels, or really rest. In 2014, he and his partner Ian Welsted won a Piolet d’Or for their first ascent of 7,040-meter K6 West and were named National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. It was an achievement, the latest in a long list of hard mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies, first ascents of peaks in the Karakoram and the Canadian Rockies, and stout performances on a variety of routes, including a 24-hour round-trip from 14,000 Camp of Denali’s Cassin Ridge.
In early April, Slawinski will take a break from his day job as astronomy and physics professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary and head to Mt. Everest, hoping to put up a new route on the northeast face, ascending from the China side, along with German high-altitude alpinists Daniel Bartsch and David Gottler. We caught him before his trip to ask him a few questions about the climb and his two-decade-plus career in the mountains.
1. Your climbing career has taken you to Asia many times, but always to the Karakoram. What drew your attention to Everest?
I had a practical reason for always going to the Karakoram. As a university professor I have a lot of free time in the summer (the usual climbing season for Pakistan) but not so much in the spring and fall (the season for the Himalaya). And of course after my first trip to the Karakoram in 2005 I fell in love with those wild, jagged mountains. Still, as an aspiring high-altitude alpinist I did want to also see the Himalaya. And speaking of high altitude, I was always curious how I’d perform going really high. The problem was, I had no interest in normal routes on 8000ers. And so, when my friend floated the idea for a new route on Everest, I thought, “Why not?”
2. You live in Calgary and have climbed extensively in the Canadian Rockies. How do you think your home mountain range prepares you for big mountains like Everest, and others in the Karakoram?
A legendary Rockies alpinist from the 1980s, the late Dave Cheesmond, used to say about the range, If you can climb here, you can climb anywhere. There’s truth to that, but it’s not entirely true. I learned a lot in the Rockies: about climbing bad rock and hard ice, about winter, about relying only on my partners and myself in high, wild places. Those are lessons that served me well in the Karakoram, and I hope they’ll help me on Everest, too. But the one thing the Rockies don’t have is altitude. My first couple of trips to Pakistan were a sometimes brutal experience in the realities of trying to function in thin air.
3. You were born in Poland, which has a rich tradition of alpinism, and you now live in the Canadian Rockies, but you learned to climb when you lived in Chicago, is that correct? How did that come about?
Yes, I followed a roundabout path to where I am now. Growing up in Poland (I left with my parents when I was 12) I didn’t climb but certainly knew about climbing, especially of the Himalayan variety. Both my parents used to climb (my 78-year-old father still does) and were part of that community. When we moved to Calgary on the doorstep of the Rockies, my dad started dragging me out backcountry skiing and scrambling and eventually mountaineering. I liked all those things but they didn’t grab me right away. I preferred physics and girls. It wasn’t until I moved to the flatlands of Chicago to go to graduate school that I realized how much the mountains had come to mean to me. With no mountains within a few thousand kilometers, I got into the next best things: first rock climbing and then ice climbing, on small Midwestern crags.
4. What’s your plan for this new route on the northeast face of Everest?
The northeast face strikes me as a good compromise: not as dangerous as the east (Kangshung) face, not as hard as the southwest face, with reasonably quick access from the normal route on the north side. And it has only a single line up it, the 1996 Russian route, with lots of room for more. We have a couple of possibilities in mind, but in the end we’ll make our decision on the spot, once we’ve seen the conditions on the mountain. Equally important, the face is well suited to alpine style, as Barry Blanchard and Mark Twight already showed back in 1988. Style matters a great deal to me. In the words of Alex Macintyre, “The wall was the ambition, the style became the obsession.”
5. Who are your partners for the climb?
Daniel Bartsch and David Gottler, two German alpinists. They both have extensive experience on 8000-meter peaks, and I hope to learn a lot from them. I think we form a strong team, everyone bringing different strengths to the group. And we’re all psyched and committed to give the face a good shot in good style.
6. Everest is having a tough last few years, publicity-wise. What’s the motivation for this project?
In the end we climb for ourselves (what other reason is there to do something as pointless as climbing?). Personally, I’m going to Everest because I want to have a great adventure on an iconic peak and test myself high up. I certainly don’t think that, even if we’re successful, we’re going to change the character of climbing on the highest mountain on earth. All the same, I do hope that we can play a small part in showing that there’s still room for alpinism up there.
7. You’ve said that the proposed route, as far as you know, doesn’t look extremely technical. What do you think the biggest challenges will be?
With the face topping out at the junction of the north and northeast ridges above 8000 metres, it’d better not be too technical! I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it’ll be hard climbing that stops us. If something does, it’ll be a combination of altitude, cold, and exhaustion. Can we move fast enough up the face and up the ridge above, with full alpine packs, to get the route done, but at the same time pace ourselves so we can recover after each big day? It’s the usual dilemma of a big alpine route, with seriously thin air thrown into the mix.
8. You and Ian Welsted won Piolets d’or last year for your climb of K6 West, along with Ueli Steck. Ueli is a full-time professional climber, so climbing is his job. You’re a college professor-albeit one who is also an accomplished alpinist and mixed climber. How do you juggle your passion and your day job, and how do you pick projects each year?
It’s a hard juggling act, and it often feels like I don’t have enough time for each facet of my life: academia, the mountains and, last but definitely not least, my wife. Sometimes it feels that by splitting myself in this way, I don’t live up to my full potential in either physics or climbing. On the other hand, I like the variety the two completely different endeavors bring to my life. In the end I end up periodizing and prioritizing: At times physics takes center stage, at other times it’s climbing.
9. You didn’t start climbing young-you were in your mid-20s when you began. How do you think that’s shaped your career and objectives, as opposed to if you had started as a teenager?
It probably means I’m not as good as I could’ve been if I’d started younger. On the other hand, maybe it’s also kept me from burning out. I’m now in my late 40s and I still have a blast rock and ice climbing – and yes, going on big trips, too. I’ve seen friends dive into climbing at a young age, get really good, but eventually lose interest and move on to other things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, there’s a great deal more to life than climbing. Still, climbing has been a big part of my life for a long time now, and I hope it remains that way. Last winter I climbed Polar Circus, a 700-meter ice route, with my 78-year-old dad. I aspire to that kind of longevity.
10. Who were some of your climbing heroes, when you first started?
One person who immediately comes to mind is George Lowe. Learning to climb in the Rockies, I quickly realized that most of the beautiful, hard routes up Rockies’ north walls were Lowe routes. The fact that he did all that climbing in the Rockies – and in Alaska, Karakoram, and Himalaya as well – while working as a Ph.D. physicist was an obvious inspiration to me. Last year I got to spend a few days in Chamonix skiing and climbing with George. Meeting him in person was a wonderful experience.
11. How do you define adventure?
Solitude: there’s no adventure in a crowd. Uncertainty: if the outcome is predetermined, it’s no longer adventure. Self-reliance: adventure isn’t just about physical effort, it’s also about making one’s own decisions. Risk: I don’t think it’s real adventure if there isn’t an element of danger.
Photos by Gunther Goberl