Throughout his long career he has chosen an extremely rigorous approach to climbing, based on accepting risk as a qualitative component of the experience and not as an inevitable consequence. “Risk has made our game interesting and going beyond the line was part of it, or it would not be called risk. Everyone needs to understand or feel how far they can go, and occasionally some go beyond”. A concept that summarizes the route taken by Heinz Mariacher, undoubtedly one of the most influential climbers of the decade between the 70s and 80s, and whose legacy continues to our day and is still looked at with admiration, at least from those who are knowledgeable enough to be aware of it.
At times controversial for the unconventionality that marked his choices and approach, Heinz Mariacher has maintained the healthy habit of saying what he thinks, clarifying as much and as often as needed. It is no coincidence that at the beginning of this encounter with us from Alpinismi, he had wanted to clarify his point of view by characterizing himself as a non-alpinist. A position that developed from the comparisons and conflicts with the models of European heroic alpinism, with the tradition transmitted, for example, through the mass expeditions against mystified goals, exploited to the point of becoming enemies to be won in the name of country and glory.
Heinz Mariacher took it upon himself to rebel against that overly conservative attitude and systematically impervious to different approaches. And so his experience on Dolomite big walls included raising the bar of difficulty, as long as it were possible to free climb, light and fast, using few safety features, often far from each other or none altogether, in free solo, accepting the unknown that it created. This evolution was not limited to just climbing, whether on big walls or on sport climbing crags, but it also included materials. More specifically the footwear, with the transition from heavy mountain boots to lightweight climbing shoes, the union of rubber and shoe upper, starting with the forerunners of modern climbing shoes, known in fact as ‘Mariacher’.
You have been lucky enough to live during one of the most exciting times of the history of climbing. I specifically do not mean alpinism, but climbing. Could you explain what at the time pushed you towards climbing? I am especially talking about the work you carried out on the great walls of the Dolomites. What were the ‘cultural’, ‘ethical’, or even ‘technical’ or ‘competitive’ principles that you set as the cornerstones of your activity at the time?
I have always been attracted by rock and I never dreamed of hiking on snow to climb the high peaks. In other words: I preferred immediate and direct adventure rather than living it in a slow and distanced manner. On rock, as soon as you are a few metres from the ground you can find yourself fully in adventure. And what’s more you have the allure of the abyss, the air under your feet.
As a kid I used to climb in the gullies near my home, I looked for small walls and boulders in the woods, insignificant but always good to live adventures. In those days climbing, as we know it today, didn’t exist yet and there was only the traditional alpinism with its heroic mentality.
The heroic aspect I liked, I loved the idea of challenging danger, demonstrating courage and going ahead where others didn’t trust themselves to go, but I never liked all that surrounding tradition. I considered tradition something still, leaning towards the past rather than inventing the future. I grew up in the Austrian Tirol, in a very conservative environment and this was for me a real inspiration to become a rebel. As a kid in fact I developed a sort of allergy to conventions and conformism. Climbing was an activity that no one was interested in and for this reason it offered me the freedom to practice it my way and invent it for myself.
Many consider you one of the innovators of your time and beyond. Do you recognize yourself in this role?
I remember the situation at the time when I started climbing in the mountains: large boots, thick socks, knickerbockers, all grey and brown, heavy packs, lots of pegs and etriers. It was easy to innovate! Sport climbing, at one point imported from America, was just the confirmation of a direction we had already taken as the logical evolution of climbing in the Dolomites of the 30s, before the time of aid climbing. The only difference: for us the minimalism in the use of protection was more important than the grade. We were not athletes and we did not consider climbing a sport, but the idea of pure free climbing was the same. After a visit to Yosemite (1980) I got the spirit of researching the highest grade and was among the first in Europe to embrace sport climbing.
Which other climbers around you at the time did you appreciate for their choices, results and approach to climbing?
I have lived in two very different times, one as a young adventurer on the mountains at home and in the Dolomites, and that as a pioneer of sport climbing. During the first period I appreciated those who held on to a purist style, such as my usual partners Reinhard Schiestl and Luggi Rieser (Darshano). There were few of us following a true ethic and one must remember and point out that in the 70s, routes with a lot of aid were considered more “extreme” and had a higher value than free climb routes with few pegs.
In the second period there are many who deserve to be named, from my limited point of view I have always admired the elegance of Berhault and Edlinger, the strength of Güllich, the particular spirit of the Americans, such as Kauk and Bachar, and then the British with their dedication without compromises, like Fawcett, Moffat and others.
Despite the routes you have opened, the repetitions, the innovation that willingly or unwillingly you have brought to the way of living adventure in the mountains, you define yourself as a non-alpinist. Could you explain what it means?
It means that I don’t want to be considered an “alpinist” ever since I realised that this word represented everything I had rebelled against when I was young. Alpinism was the old mentality, climbing with aids, the direct routes with hundreds of pegs and etriers, glorified heroism, conquest by any means. Alpinism on the Eight-Thousanders, the expeditions with a militaristic regime, pure materialism in the name of country!
Alpinism, once born as an adventure for few individuals, today has become a mass movement and for many an opportunity to feel great without doing anything special. Alpinism today is a cult and a cliché, a weird expression of an old mentality in modern reality.
So tell me, is it ethics that influenced your style, or the style influenced the ethics? Don’t tell me the two have remained independent.
This is a tough question. I would say the style. As a young climber I had read few books or articles that could influence my choices. I didn’t feel the need to project myself towards the past, and I found it more fun to take on the rock with the free spirit of a naïve beginner. But I had been impressed by the mentality of Preuss, Rebitsch and Messner.
Let’s look at your life today, divided between climbing and working at Scarpa. How did the idea of climbing shoes take root? May I define you as the ‘father’ of modern day climbing footwear?
The interest for the shoes came out of need. There were no shoes on the market that were well researched, especially for climbing on mountain big walls. The EB were the best for performance, but at the cost of unbearable suffering!
The word “father” seems to be a little exaggerated, but I don’t think there is anyone else who has worked in this field for so long and, I believe I may add, with similar success. I must also stress the importance of finding a context that can carry out the ideas and production on a large scale of the highest quality. At SCARPA I have found the ideal situation to realise a line of extraordinary shoes.
But how did it all begin? Why did you start making shoes?
It had been pure chance: one day I met Alessandro Grillo in Finale Ligure. After climbing he invited me over to his house where he introduced me to his work on a shoe he had been developing with Patrick Berhault for the brand San Marco. It was an interesting project, a real alternative to the EB. He gave me a few prototypes and so I got a little involved, learning important notions on the shoe-lasts and other things. With this opportunity I would like to officially thank Alessandro.
These shoes are today an indispensable tool for all climbers, including professionals of the competitive circuits who are getting ready to enter the Olympics. What do you think of admitting sport climbing among the Olympic sports?
I think it is the fatal blow to the original spirit of climbing.
Don’t you believe it might prove to be a divide in the history of climbing? On the one hand the world of walls, of alpinism, and on the other sport oriented towards pure performance?
The world of competitions has already been created, it already exists, the Olympics are just the final confirmation. The world of climbing has changed entirely, increasingly competitive, there is no longer a ‘relaxed’ approach, no longer the desire to retire to a quiet place, of living a parallel life when climbing. Today climbing is a sport like many others, it is increasingly losing those aspects which made it something particular. This mentality has infiltrated everything, even alpinism. Obviously I am talking about the situation in general, and I would like to remind that there has to be conformism for anti-conformism to exist. There is always freedom of choice.
What do you think of competitions in climbing?
I don’t want to give the impression of being against races, on the contrary it is the opposite. I am absolutely in favour and I often follow competitions via livestream. I have great respect for young climbers who accept this challenge, just as I have great respect for who stands out in crags, something which is now difficult considering the high level of common weekend climbers.
On the other hand, I have never liked so-called “professional alpinism” because it is a very dubious way of comparing oneself with others. Think of the absurd fact that is now a normal habit to announce new records even before leaving the house! In the foreground there is always the prospect of selling the feat as something important, and the importance is defined by the very same protagonists. It all works thanks to the background of the history of alpinism and a public always oriented towards the past.
In alpinism I always liked the idea of spontaneous performances, not planned. I believe that competition should be confined to the world of races, with judges and rules, not in alpinism.
Given that every sport, every professional activity, or cultural movement are subject to changes over time determined by the evolution of the context in which they are carried out, or by the available technology, do you believe that cutting-edge Alpinism today keeps placing research and innovation at the top of its priorities? In what does alpinism today surpass, or lags behind, the non-alpinism you practiced in your time?
“Cutting-edge alpinism” is a strange expression with different definitions: that of journalists and sponsors, that of alpinists as a community, and that of single individuals. True research and innovation always come from the latter, but they are not always automatically recognised by the others. The question is mainly what do we mean with “cutting-edge alpinism”? For most people it refers to the most published and sponsored one and the opinion of insiders bears little importance.
In practice, these days everyone seems to feel the great need of communicating live any trip to the mountains. The mountain is no longer considered a chance for detachment, but on the contrary an opportunity to be seen and become news. In this desperate rush for social recognition, research and innovation have little importance.
“Non-alpinism” is marked by the freedom of not having to be liked by anyone and for this reason it is pure and authentic. “Non-alpinism” has no importance for the rest of the world.
From what I had gathered during our first brief encounter, you see a limit in the logic of sponsors which is almost imposed on the (top-level) alpinist and therefore the evolutionary curve of alpinism is at risk of going along this direction. Could you tell us what you think about this?
One thing must be made clear: sponsors have no fault. The problem lies with the alpinists who move according to the requests rather than being innovative. Alpinism should only be important for ourselves, it has value for who practices it with pure passion and personal goals. “Professional” alpinism often carries with it the air of being “built for sale”, and loses authenticity and spontaneity. I don’t mean to say that all “professionals” produce their feats only according to the sponsors criteria, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are also the “non-professionals” who accomplish extraordinary feats and remain “under the radar” of media and the public.
Apart from all this, if we are being honest, selling oneself as a mountain hero has become almost ridiculous in times when life seems to have little value, where people blow themselves up in name of a god or an ideology. There a millions who suffer hunger and are fleeing misery and the constant danger of being killed. How can we still admire someone who suffers the crisis of wealth and goes off to Himalaya to do extreme tourism, perfectly equipped, with fixed ropes, assisted by Sherpa and followed via livestream by the whole world?
Are there still non-alpinists today who in your view have decided to move against the tide? Could you name a few?
These are difficult times, anything anyone invents soon becomes a trend. Who has ideas and a special talent doesn’t stay alone for long, because the type of respect that prevented mediocre climbers from following those at the top no longer exists. The limited clarity in styles makes it now easily possible. To answer your question, if there are still people going against the trend, I would say yes, there are. There are still and there will always be those who can live without an action camera and social media. Naming them would be a contradiction and not in their interest.
The last question is once again about you, and goes back a few years. At one point of your experience, if I’m not mistaken, you decided to abandon walls, to leave non-alpinism entirely in order to descend in altitude to dedicate yourself to sport climbing. What were the reasons behind this choice? Were you satisfied? Had you perhaps lost motivations? Or you realised that your ideal non-alpinism would be impossible?
It wasn’t so much a decision, rather a change of interest. I never decided not to do routes in mountains again, I just prioritized something that attracted me more at the time.
Of course, there was something to do also with motivation. On the Marmolada I had various projects taken away, with the help of artificial aids and the use of bolts, when I wanted to take it on with a purer style giving maximum value to free climbing. In that situation it was easy to find more stimulus in sport climbing where everyone was following the same concept. Since the beginning I liked the clarity of style which had never existed in the mountains and still doesn’t exist. I think it could be said that my ideal is impossible as long as alpinists won’t get rid of traditional concepts.
You claim that one of the most important components of your climbing on big walls has been risk. You say that on multiple occasions you have gone beyond the line that usually stops other climbers. Is there an event in particular which, looking back, you think you really dared too much? When?
I have a simple answer: leaving without a rope for a big wall always carries the possibility of not coming back alive! When I was young I climbed a lot alone and I almost always found myself in situations beyond the “line”. My solo climbs have nothing to do with today’s solo climbs where risk is always rigorously calculated. I didn’t use to prepare in any particular way and the vast majority of my solo climbs were on unknown routes. They had always been spontaneous actions and I always considered them a very personal thing. I never thought they would interest anyone else other than myself.