Interview with South Tyrolean mountain guide Christoph Hainz, one of the most talented mountaineers and climbers in the world.
Christoph Hainz, you have been climbing for 35 years, you started at 20. What have you learned ?
I learned a lot and every mistake taught me something. I must admit that the first 5 years were the most dangerous. I could have died two or three times. I also fell once 45 meters from Pisciadù: the rope stopped me 3 meters from the ground. If that last peg hadn’t been there, my adventures would have ended before they even began.
So what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
That mistakes happen in the mountains. Accidents are due to natural causes or human error, for example because you are too slow. But one day, an old guide told me: if you get caught in a storm in the mountains, you’ve miscalculated something… I’ve never forgotten those words and that’s why I I’ve only ever been stuck in a thunderstorm twice in the mountains.
So how do you avoid thunderstorms in the mountains?
You have to make the right choice, choose the right course, the right length, the right mountain. Always watch the weather forecast, don’t rely on a single forecast. Nobody knows exactly when a thunderstorm will arrive, so go early or try to climb quickly. This is the first rule. The other is the choice of equipment: what is needed for a classic route, or a difficult route, for a traditional or modern climb, always varies… and you always have to have the right equipment for what you wants to do in the mountains. You need to have the right backpack to be fast, because a heavy backpack will tire you out and slow you down. For me speed is synonymous with safety in the mountains. Maybe not always, but often.
When was the first time you asked yourself: Am I a mountaineer?
On my first ascent of the Eiger north face via the Route Heckmair, with a bivouac in 1989. We didn’t know much about the conditions, our progress was slow and so we bivouaced above the Spider. It was very cold and we only had one sleeping bag for the two of us, we used our ropes as sleeping mats and had practically nothing to eat, because we thought “we can climb the Eiger in a day , it’s not such a colossal undertaking…”. Luckily it didn’t get any colder and we weren’t hurt, otherwise things could have turned out very differently. We finished the next day…
When did you realize you were a good mountaineer?
I realized that I was a good mountaineer when I was 45, 50 even, thinking back to the routes I had set up in the 1990s and which have not yet been repeated. Now, looking back, I can say I was a pretty good climber back then, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.
What routes are you referring to? Can you give us examples?
Hexenbeisser to Cima Dodici. Zauberlehrling (Apprendista Stgone) to Cima Scotoni. Kein Rest from Sehnsucht to Punta Tissi (Civetta). I have done the first ascent of all these routes with different partners and they are very rarely repeated.
Why do you think they hardly ever repeat themselves?
Because they’re dangerous…it’s as simple as that.
Is the Route Hexenbeisser on Cima Dodici still unreleased?
Yes, I still remember when we told the hut keeper that we intended to climb a new route to the north face. He immediately told his friends in the local dialect of Val Pusteria: “They will come back immediately.” But we didn’t. We made a bivouac (in a homemade tent) and the next day we resumed climbing and reached the summit. That very evening, I still remember it like it was yesterday, there was an incredible storm… If we had started a day later, I wouldn’t be here to tell you this story. This is how mountains are.
Was it worth taking all those risks?
I feel that I risk a lot less now, it must be said… but I still like to climb hard.
What did the profession of mountain guide teach you?
I go to the mountains in two different ways. The first as an extreme mountaineer and the second as a High Mountain Guide. These are two approaches that have nothing to do with each other, or rather have very little in common. Because as a mountain guide you have to take care of your clients and their safety, you have to risk as little as possible and logically you can’t be very fast. Often you have to calculate the safety margin much more carefully than you would with a friend or climbing partner as good as you. These two approaches are very different from each other.
Shivling North Pillar, the new route you established with Hans Kammerlander in 1993. What do you remember from it?
It’s a climb that means a lot to me. We formed a very good partnership because Hans had a huge experience at high altitude and I was very good at climbing. At one point we had a little discussion, Hans wanted us to place a pressure bolt, I said no. To be honest, we took huge risks. And you know, if something happens to a face like that, no one will come to help you. There is no doubt in my mind that we continued uphill because I thought to myself: Hans is the “old man” with a lot of Himalayan experience under his belt. As he thought: Christoph is the youngster, he’s a good climber and if he says we don’t need to bail out, then we’ll keep going. So without saying anything to each other, we continued to the top.
How come you didn’t keep climbing the Himalayas, with the 8000ers?
After this expedition, I could certainly have continued, but the Himalayas did not interest me. We have very beautiful mountains here, like the Dolomites in my backyard. You are at home and can climb walls a thousand meters high, some even higher. We have everything we could wish for. Those who want to climb the Himalayas and do it, do the right thing. But I’ve always been more drawn to virgin rock faces, like Ulamertorsuaq in Greenland where in 1996 I made the first ascent of Profile Sud-Tiroler. It’s a completely different ball game.
Has mountaineering changed?
I think it has changed a lot. There are so many different disciplines now and it has to be said that to become famous, young climbers (all extremely strong) no longer need to climb the most difficult routes on the north face of the Cime Grande of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites, or Mont Blanc for that matter. They can even become famous just by sport climbing or even just indoor climbing.
Have you ever wanted to be famous?
Yes, at that time (in the 90s, editor’s note) I wanted to become famous, but now it doesn’t interest me at all, now I’m just who I am.
And who are you?
I am someone who loves the mountains and climbing, but I also like to live life in general. It’s not like I’m on a diet because of the mountains, that I don’t have a glass or two of red wine… For me, the love of the mountains, mountaineering and life in general must go hand in hand.
You told us about your first time on the Eiger North Face in 1989. In 2003, you achieved a record ascent on this same Eiger North Face, in just 4 and a half hours… which of the two did you prefer?
In fact, if I have to choose an ascent of the Eiger, the most beautiful is Magic Mushroom, the new route that I established with Roger Schäli, because it’s really a nice climb: the rock is excellent and I really like the line that goes straight up on this fantastic rocky mushroom. The classic Route Heckmair it’s something else, there you have to be more mountainous on Magic Mushroom you have to be more of a climber. They are two very different things.
Do you like today’s mountaineering?
Mountaineering always follows its own paths. What I feel like I can say is that young people today don’t want to take risks as big as us, but want to climb very hard with a greater margin of safety. And that’s good because mountaineering needs to evolve with the times, it needs to move forward. Obviously, young people have to be better than those who came before them, otherwise we are all doing something wrong!
What makes you happy in the mountains?
I’m happy on the mountain when I’m at the top with a client or my girlfriend or someone else and I see their eyes shining brightly. That’s when I realize that I just gave them something that others can’t give. Something different, something special.
Interview with Vinicio Stefanello
CHRISTOPH HAINZ IN ARCO DI TRENTO, ITALY ON JUNE 2, 2017
On Friday June 2, 2017 at 9:00 p.m. at Caffé Trentino in Arco, an evening of discussion with Christoph Hainz entitled Born to Climb. The evening will be moderated by Vinicio Stefanello editor-in-chief of PlanetMountain.com
Info: hainzintour.salewa.com and www.salewa.com