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Paul Manksy climbing Chamonix Mont Blanc
Paul Manksy climbing Chamonix Mont Blanc in France.

The Making of a Mountain Climber

By Elz Cuya with Paul Manksy

Chamonix French Alps mountain climber.
Chamonix French Alps. Mountain Capital of the World.

I remember the first time I went mountain hiking. My junior high school Social Studies teacher would take the graduating eighth-grade class to Mt. Diablo at the close of every school year. When I reached the top of the mountain, my “boyfriend” David Bergstrom (I never bothered to tell him he was my boyfriend), told me he didn’t like me. His best friend then proceeded to squirt the contents of his water bottle at me. Six miles up, six miles down, at least that many days of sore calves and a broken heart. That would be the last time I would ever have anything to do with a mountain.

That was over ten years ago. But, around that same time, a guy named Paul Mansky was in the French Alps in a town called Chamonix. Immediately, he was captivated by the beauty and wonder of the mountains. And how could he not be? Chamonix is the mountain capital of the world, a narrow glaciated valley flanked by the famous Aiguilles. As he rode the telepherique (aerial tramway) high above the white terrain, he was amazed at how the people down below looked like tiny ants crawling up walls of ice. It was at that moment that Paul decided to become a mountain climber.

Five years passed before he took his first step towards that end. In 1993 (while I was still bitter about David Bergstrom), Paul was again in the town that fueled his desire to climb. One early morning, Paul, along with two other inexperienced tourists and a guide, rode a gondola to the top of Aiguille du Midi where the guide showed them how to wear their equipment, attach their crampons and tie the ropes. As the name suggests, the three novices stood on a sharp needle of rock and ice, a 5,000-foot drop to the left and a 2,000-foot drop to the right. Then, with almost no preparation at all, the guide exclaimed, “Let’s go!” And they went.

You’re on top of the world, vast views and vistas in every direction. 5,000 feet down to the floor of the valley. You can see in all directions, perfect blue sky, the wind blowing… 

Make no mistake, this was no bunny slope. “It was terrifying…the exposure was phenomenal, such a sheer, long drop,” Paul remembers, “You’re in a place where if you fall, you’re toast.” With the four of them tied together, they climbed, learning valuable lessons about footwork and technique and, at the same time, enjoying hours of remarkable scenery. “Vast, huge space. You have no idea of the size of things until you see a person standing on a mountain and then you realize just how big the mountain is. And the clouds were just beautiful, swirling. It was absolutely stunning.”

For Paul, mountaineering was a chance to enjoy the beauty of nature and the wonder of the earth, on a “religious” scale. And there were other rewards. “There’s nothing like working to your limit… going out to do something really difficult, and then accomplishing it.” And it’s fun, too. “It’s like you’re a kid on a jungle gym, only you’re on much grander territory.” And let’s not forget the physical gains. “Hiking and preparing to hike gets you in excellent shape, and you’re actually getting somewhere, not like the gym where you’re on a treadmill going absolutely nowhere.”

Guarding the van against porcupines
The climbers will be gone a long time, so they use chicken wire and rope to guard their van against porcupines.

Speaking of the gym, in 1997 I started working out regularly. During one of my first workouts, I attempted to lift my own weight just once on the pull-up bar. I couldn’t do it. Not a single pull-up. I tried and tried until I noticed someone watching. Then it dawned on me. If I was ever on a mountain, and I fell with nothing holding me but my fingers gripping feverishly to a piece of rock, I wouldn’t be able to save myself. Again I came to the conclusion I’d already made in eighth grade: I would never be a mountain climber.

But for Paul, 1997 proved to be a spectacular year for his mountaineering endeavors. He took the American Alpine Institute’s 12-day Introduction to Mountaineering course in the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State. “It was the best of times and the worst of times. I learned a phenomenal amount, tackled some huge challenges, went to some stunningly beautiful places, and got in the best shape that I’d been in for many years.”

Rain brought in the biggest challenges. “The first three days were fairly miserable. We were camped on a remote mountain and it was absolutely pouring rain the whole time.” Then after a week of clear weather, it rained again. “On the very last night, it poured. We were all wet and camped on a glacier at about 7,500 feet, so it was pretty scary. And the descent in the rain the next day was no fun.”

It was a time of tough love for Paul. The mountaineering course forced him to face the truth of his relative inexperience, yet strengthened him for an even greater challenge that lay ahead. That challenge came this summer when Paul visited the Canadian Rockies.

Ha Ling Peak Alberta Canada covered in snow and fog.
Ha Ling Peak, Alberta Canada.

Paul spent much of the early summer preparing for his Canadian climb at nearby Mt. Tamalpais, San Francisco’s famed Twin Peaks and, of course, the home of my fondest adolescent memory, Mt. Diablo. Clearly, this obsession with hiking pushed him to do some extraordinary things. On the weekends, and even on an occasional weekday after a full day of work, Paul would return home, fill his backpack with heavy objects and scale a local mountain in order to get in shape and to simulate the experience of climbing with several days’ worth of equipment and food. “I’d fill my pack with whatever I could find in my apartment, barbells, old jeans, towels, whatever.”

I, on the other hand, spent the summer dodging a guy I knew from junior college. Like Paul, he was also into hiking and would periodically ask me to join him on his excursions. For me, the notion of a hiking date was horrifying. I could hardly walk the gradual incline of San Francisco’s California Street without getting severely winded, much less spend an entire day climbing even greater heights, along with the expectation of providing the necessary requirements of a date: entertaining conversation and looking pretty. The thought of being on a date, unable to breathe (thus, unable to speak), and all sweaty (not very pretty), was ultimately unappealing. I then reconfirmed my stand that I would never be a mountain climber.

But Paul’s undying passion for mountain climbing was as strong as my conviction not to do it, and that finally brought him to Canada, where he stayed in Banff. There, the mountains are so breathtaking and the hikes so inspiring, it is believed that thousands of people take low-paying jobs just to live there. And Paul understood why.

He spent the first week sport-climbing to get in shape, sharpen his skills and to get used to the high altitudes. After a week of practice hikes and climbs, Paul hired a guide and trekked to the Bugaboos. “There’s nothing like the Bugaboos in all of North America,” Paul said. “It’s a mountain range of high glacial plains, with huge rock towers sticking out towards the sky.”

Paul and his guide, Mike, hiked up 3,000 twisting, steep, strenuous feet. But that only got them to the base of the glacier. Then, with their ice axes and crampons, they gallantly ascended another 2,000 feet. But that only got them to the base of the rock tower. It would still be an overwhelming additional 1,000 feet before they reached the top of the mountain. But as they approached the rock, Mike didn’t think Paul was ready for such a climb. So for the remainder of his trip, Mike took Paul to less difficult peaks to practice skill climbing.

Paul Mansky Bugaboos
Paul Mansky and his guide take a break in the Bugaboos Mountains.

Although Paul was satisfied with his Canadian adventure, he did feel a bit frustrated. Weather conditions didn’t allow for some of the climbs he set out to do and time restraints were limiting. Because of this, Paul decided to return to Canada only two weeks later for Labor Day weekend. He wanted to climb some more. “I felt like I was in really good shape, my skills were really starting to look good and I knew that once I started working at the job again, I would lose a lot of what I had just gained. So I went back.”

With that, he found himself climbing Ha Ling Peak. Local legend describes this mountain as so difficult to climb that men once bet money on the claim that no one could surmount it. But a Chinese railroad worker named Ha Ling took the wager of fifty dollars and began his ascent. When Ha Ling reached the top, he built a rock pile to prove that he had succeeded. But from the bottom of the mountain, no one could see his self-made structure. So, for the same fifty dollars, the unstoppable Ha Ling climbed the mountain yet again, and this time made his construction even larger. The mountain now carries its name to honor him.

Just as Ha Ling had to return to the mountain to prove himself, so did Paul. And well he did. Over Labor Day weekend, Paul conquered Ha Ling Peak. It involved an hour-and-a-half hike, then a three-hour, twelve-pitch climb. By far, Ha Ling was Paul’s biggest and most impressive accomplishment. And, better still, Paul noticed the ease of his climb brought on by his fast-improving skill level. As he climbed Ha Ling, Paul was altogether present with his strength and power. “You’re on top of the world,” Paul recalled his moment at the summit. “Vast views and vistas in every direction. 5,000 feet down to the floor of the valley. You can see in all directions, perfect blue sky, the wind blowing… “

As I listened to Paul tell the story of his journey, his love for mountaineering became very clear to me. The excitement in his voice and eyes, his enthusiasm in retelling every detail of his trip, his unmistakable eagerness in emailing snapshots of his trip to me. It was like listening to a thrilled child talking about his first trip to Disneyland. But beyond that, Paul’s adventure proved to be an exploration within himself, a test of his own limits, a trip into the realm of self-discovery.

It certainly made me realize that I’m missing out on a whole lot by refusing to mountain climb. Perhaps I should find that old college friend who was hounding me last summer and see if he still wants to go hiking with me. Or, better yet, maybe I should ask Paul if I can join him the next time he hikes up that mountain that’s so dear to me, Mt. Diablo.

Paul Mansky on top of Ha Ling Peak
Paul Mansky on top of Ha Ling Peak

Additional Sources

Hempstead, Andrew. Alberta and the Northwest Territories Handbook. (Moon Publications, 1999).

Reifsnyder, William E., and Marylou Reifsnyder. Adventuring the Alps. (Sierra Club Books, 1999).

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