The ascent of stefan glowacz

This business of meeting your heroes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  I remember bumping into John Cleese on a London street once and finding myself so tongue-tied he must have thought he’d bumped into a Notting Hill Billy.  The bigger the hero, the more intense the giblet shrivelling  fear of appearing the star-struck, dribbling dork.  If I was to write a guest list for a fantasy dinner party, Stefan Glowacz would probably be vying for top billing with the likes of Pete Whillance, Nelson Mandela and Fred Flintoff.  He comes from an era of titans, climbed at the same time as Gullich and Moffatt, was the first climber to on-sight Strawberries and has moved onto expeditions that combine wilderness climbing with mind boggling technicality.  Over-awed, moi?

Glowacz cuts a handsome yet suitably craggy figure, his gaze intense.  His apprenticeship was strictly traditional, “I started hiking with my parents, who moved to south Germany because they loved the mountains so much. Only 10 years old, I wasn’t over keen on the whole hiking thing but it did lead to a key moment.  Walking in the Dolomites, we passed under the
Tre Cime di Lavaredo and I saw climbers for the first time.  I can remember thinking  ‘I really want to do that!’  I had no idea about sport climbing at the time and it was Bonnatti, Cassin and Messner who soon became my idols.  I was also fascinated by the great polar explorers, Scott, Amundsen and particularly Shackleton.  I would read their books under the bedclothes at night by the light of a torch.  I loved the spirit of adventure and saw climbing as my chance to follow in their footsteps.”

As often happens in an interview, I was quickly disarmed by my interviewee.  Far from overawed I now felt complicit, Glowacz’s gimlet gaze drawing me into his world, his passion for climbing positively beguiling.

“I started climbing trad, did the classic apprenticeship, a couple of years of easy routes and then  became aware of sport climbing.  I tried to free many of the routes I’d previously climbed with aid, it gave me a new focus.  Already Gullich and others were putting up hard routes in the Frankenjura and I quickly realised that I was the right size and build for climbing and that I could be good at it.  I didn’t train a lot, I just always climbed better than my friends.  It was easy!”  Glowacz seems cheerfully amazed at his good fortune and what could have sounded brash is rendered utterly charming.

Still fascinated by Shackleton and determined to have his own adventures he nevertheless found himself winning comps, including the first ever in Bardonecchia, and ended up concentrating on sport climbing for a number of years.  Almost by accident Glowacz had turned into a bolt clipper.  This inevitably led to a nomadic lifestyle.

“These days a 9a going up in Spain or France hardly counts as news but back then the hard routes were spread all over the world.  Routes such as Punks In The Gym (an aussie 32 first climbed by Wolfgang Gullich) were so rare, you had to go and do them to prove you were climbing hard.  I found it desperate, very bouldery and on the first attempt I just couldn’t do the moves.
So I thought, OK, I’ll stay here till I do it, which turned out to be 6 or 7 days which was a long time by my standards.  I was trying to lose weight by eating one power bar in the morning and one in the evening, I was so determined to get the second ascent.”

His peripatetic climber’s life is well illustrated by Rocks Around The World, a joint venture with photographer Uli Wiesmeier, packed full of glorious retro-shots of a lycra-clad Glowacz shredding benchmark climbs in the USA, Japan and France.  “In France I repeated Ben Moon’s Agincourt at Buoux, probably the hardest route in the world at the time.  It’s one of the forgotten routes now along with the crag.  It’s a shame, great climbs, great crag and once upon a time, a great scene.  I remember when Ben and Jerry turned up and went along to the Rose and The Vampire and all the climbers moved along with them.  There
was this shocked murmur, ‘This is awesome!  Climbers doing laps of the Rose and the Vampire.’”

On his trip to the UK, Glowacz on-sighted Strawberries, a route that still awaits a British on-sight in spite of the efforts of uber-wads Johnny Woodward and, more recently, Pete Robins.  “I was very fit and I’d been climbing on all sorts of rock and it may have been the best time of my life to try it.  Strawberries was just my kind of climb, very technical, steep but not super overhanging, it was a case of right time, right place.  The day before it had rained but the sun came out and the friction improved.  It wasn’t just the training, the pull-ups and the all round fitness, it was mental strength.  When you’re on a trip like that, you push yourself so hard to reach your limits.”

I’ve seldom seen a man so in love with climbing, the zeal seeps from every pore.  “We need to foster the spirit of climbing, we mustn’t lose sight of the traditions, the ethics, the sense of adventure.  Take the Elbesandstein for example, some of the grade 5’s put up at the turn of the century would horrify many modern climbers because they are so run-out.  Bridging up a chimney towards a distant bolt is not what most climbers are used to.  It makes people realise that climbing is so much more than pulling on small edges.  At its best it’s a combination of both physical and mental skills.  You get the same feeling soloing or doing high-ball boulder problems or hardcore trad routes, you’re 100% focused.”

In 1993, he quit the competition circuit.  Finally Glowacz had the chance to indulge his passion for the kind of adventures that had fascinated him since childhood.  “I had so many ideas, too many for one climbing life.”  Initially he tried to climb all the hardest routes in the alps, and put up what is still regarded as one of the toughest multi-pitch routes in the world, The Emperor’s New Clothes, which included two 8b+ pitches.  That, however, was just the warm up.

Glowacz’s ultimate aim was to combine big wall climbing with a logistical challenge, reaching his objective under his own steam without recourse to planes, skidoos or helicopters wherever feasible.  “If possible, I didn’t want to know exactly what the project would be, I wanted to climb mountains with no names.  Reconnaissance would be from photographs or by air.  We’d pick an impressive looking wall and hope that when we got there, we’d find something worth climbing, then get back to civilisation again without outside help.”  He is positively evangelical on this point.  “This will be the future of expedition rock climbing, mirroring high altitude climbing, capsule style.  We must be explorers as well as climbers.”  Such a fundamentalist stance is not without its dangers however.  “We’ve had setbacks, been forced to change plan.  It took three years to climb Cerro Murallon.
The first trip was just to explore the possibilities.  Second attempt got us to within 200 metres of the summit and then we had to fight horrendous storms for four weeks on the way out.  We succeeded on the third trip.  It’s not easy, but it shouldn’t be easy!  We used a sailing boat to reach the Renard Tower through very challenging seas and climbed Against the Wind, 5.12.”

His adventures have since taken him to Baffin Island and Patagonia and he feels that there are a growing number of climbers pushing the boundaries.  He particularly admires Ueli Steck, who has also combined extreme conditions with super hard climbing.  His eyes alight with passion, he stabs his finger.  “It’s the way forward, we need to get back to our roots.  It’s what
fires me up.”

A similar focus saw Glowacz training in a kayak for a year prior to his Baffin Island expedition.  He admits he’s not the world’s strongest paddler and found getting out through a beach break every morning intimidating as, unsurprisingly, was the constant danger of polar bear attack.  Many of his expeditions require new skills.  “For the Baffin trip, we had to learn kite skiing and it’s always exciting learning new tricks.  We had to move at speed to have a realistic chance of getting back to civilisation before the ice pack broke up.”

Thankfully, he’s got to the point when he can realise his dreams.  “What a great life I’ve had as a climber, always in the right place at the right time.”  He’s been blessed with sponsors who believe in his vision.  I ask him if it’s ever felt like a job.  He looks nonplussed for the first time.  “No!  I would stop if that happened.  I even love doing the slide shows and lectures, the trade shows and film festivals, I get to meet so many great people.  It’s not a regular life but I love every minute of it.  As long as it
leads to more climbing, I’m happy.”  He tends to jump from one project to the next, bouldering, tradding or big walling.  “Climbing involves a multiplicity of skills and I finds it difficult to specialise.  I spoke to Ueli Steck recently, he’s so professional,
setting targets with the help of doctors and scientists whereas I’m really not like that.”  The implication is obvious, that if he’d specialised, he could have been even better.  Now, there’s a thought.

The interview takes place immediately prior to Glowacz delivering his Kendal lecture in 2009.  “I saw the Sharma lecture and he’s so psyched, ‘Let’s go bouldering!’,  so enthusiastic.  Climbers like Sharma and Graham boulder hard and are a big inspiration to other climbers but they’re now trying to adapt their bouldering skills to bigger routes full of hard moves, multi pitch really is making a comeback.  Tommy Caldwell has been leading the way for years, hard routes where there is pitch after pitch of 8a followed by 8c+.  It’s incredible.  Climbing is evolving, coming up with new challenges.  If you’re a brilliant boulderer then all you have to do is add a little stamina and anything is possible, hard onsights are becoming common.  Ueli Steck has climbed 8c at altitude.  The target must be to take these abilities into new regions, to new higher altitudes, 8000m plus.  The new generation will always try to find new challenges, a new way to develop climbing.”

The catalogue of dreams has more pages yet.  In the short term he’d like to head to Patagonia and climb Royal Flush, a 5.12 on the east face of Fitzroy which hasn’t been climbed ground up.  Then it’s British Guiana in the spring to climb on Table Mountain.  “Sometime soon, I’d like to try high altitude climbing in Nepal for the first time.  The target I have in mind is 80% rock climbing all being well.  I’m still not big on hiking through snow!”  The evolution continues.

Glowacz in his own

“I’m not a jealous person, but the new generation, Sharma and the rest, they’re just eating up the hardest routes.”

“……climbing is so much more than pulling on small edges.”

“……I wanted to climb mountains with no names.”

Some of
Glowacz’s significant ascents:

1986 – Punks In The Gym 32, Arapiles, Australia.  Second ascent.

1987 – Ninja 8b+, Ogawayama, Japan.  First ascent

1988 – Wet Willy 8b+, Verdon Gorge.  First ascent

1992 – Agincourt 8c, Buoux.

1994 – Des Kaisers Neue Kleider 8b+, The Kaiser Mountains. 8
pitches, 2 of 8b+

1996 – Fitzcarraldo VIII+, 700m, North Pillar of Mount
Harrison Smith, Cirque of the Unclimbables.

1999 – South West Face, VIII+, Cape Renard Tower,

2005 – Vom Winder Verweht (Gone With The Wind) IX/IX+ A2, 27
pitches, North Face of Cerro    Murallon,
Patagonia.  Nominated for the Piolet

One Comment

  1. Hist Accuracy wrote:

    ‘…he’d like to head to Patagonia and climb Royal Flush, a 5.12 on the east face of Fitzroy which hasn’t been climbed ground up.’ See Mike Pennings and Jimmy Haden alpine style ascent, January ’08, ground-up, 48 hrs door-to-door!