BD athlete Raphael Slawinski interview and mixed climbing video
Black Diamond athlete Raphael Slawinski is one of Canada’s most accomplished climbers—from ice to rock to mixed funk in the alpine, Raph tackles it all with skill, precision and power. So what makes this Polish-born physics professor tick? Photographer John Dickey spent a weekend with Slawinski, filming him mixed climbing and recording an interview. Below is the transcript of the insightful interview, as well as the video
You speak Polish, right?
RAPH: Yeah, I do.
Are there many people in the Canadian climbing community that speak Polish?
RAPH: Not really, I have some Polish climbing buddies. I don’t know if you know that photo in the most recent BD ice climbing catalog… that photo of me in the cave. The friend who took it is Polish. He’s a good friend of mine, a good climber.
So were you born in Poland?
When did you come to Canada?
RAPH: In ’82.
How old were you?
What brought you to Canada?
RAPH: It was partly political, partly economics. Basically in the late 70’s the whole socialist bloc was sort of falling apart. Solidarity in 1980 kind of brought things to a head. Before then, it was more that stuff was just kind of getting more and more decrepit and more and more hopeless. There were just kind of no prospects. So, my mom came to the US on a sabbatical in the mid 70’s and she loved it, so I think basically from that point on my parents had in mind that they wanted to leave. And so they actually went to North Africa for a couple years on a foreign contract. After that we didn’t come back. Actually, shortly after the crackdown on solidarity…I don’t know if you know your history, but the solidarity movement (in Poland) kind of erupted in the summer of 1980. And then sort of towards the end of 1981, the Polish government cracked down and instituted martial law and you know, protests in the streets and all that. At that point we were outside of the country and my parents actually asked for political asylum in France. So actually we had political refugee status in France.
Because they were working in North Africa?
RAPH: Yeah, so then we were in North Africa for a couple of years then we moved to Paris.
What were they doing in North Africa?
RAPH: Teaching in a university. Basically a lot of these countries sort of import their specialists.
What were they teaching?
RAPH: My mom was a physicist by training and my dad’s a geologist. So I think they were teaching related stuff, but I’d have to ask my dad.
That was one of the other things I wanted to know. Where did all the science come from? But now, it’s obvious, you were raised with it.
RAPH: Yeah, in some ways if I hadn’t gone to university, if I hadn’t gone onto grad school, if I hadn’t gone on to PhD, I would think my parents would seem very disappointed. I don’t think I was pushed into it explicitly, but sometimes the implicit push is a stronger force.
When did the climbing begin? Did I hear your parents climbed?
So you climbed in Poland with them?
RAPH: I didn’t. Well, I left when I was 12. Some people start earlier than that, but I didn’t. But they were both climbers for a long, long time. So it was something that at least I was aware of. I think a lot of people, especially in North America, where climbing is sort of marginal still, don’t even have an awareness of climbing, whereas I think I always had that. I always knew that there was such a thing as climbing. In Poland, the Himalayan stuff was pretty big. It was something that was very much in the public consciousness. Whereas here, again, it’s pretty marginal. But there, some of the names of mountains were pretty big names.
Were they alpinists or rock climbers?
RAPH: I guess a bit of both, although they were climbing in Poland in the 50’s when Stalin was still around. So things were very, very restricted, very closed. So they were restricted to the Polish mountains, which can be pretty cool, but they are small. So I’m not sure you call yourself an alpinist if that’s all you’ve ever done, although a lot of pretty good climbers have come out of those mountains. Some of the winter stuff that gets done there can prepare people for bigger stuff.
So did you start climbing in North Africa or in Canada?
RAPH: In Canada… these are my home mountains.
Did you start with alpine or rock climbing?
RAPH: Actually, I started with mountaineering. The first things I ever did were moderate mountaineering things. Probably the names wouldn’t mean much to you, but some of the taller glaciated peaks around here that have nothing more than 45-degree ice on them, something like that. So I did that before I ever rock climbed or ice climbed.
If you had to pick one type of climbing and that was all you got for the rest of your life, what would it be?
RAPH: Hmm. Probably rock climbing because it’s always the most enjoyable. I’m hoping I don’t have to make the choice. Just when I think of the amount of time I spend, say, big alpine climbing, the number of days I go big alpine climbing, the number of days I go rock climbing, it’s pretty heavily slanted towards rock climbing. So it may not be as meaningful to me, and often times not as memorable. Just thinking in terms of which do I spend most days doing…The amount of time I spend doing any one activity, it’s probably rock climbing. Whether it’s sport climbing, or some bigger routes.
Are your parents still here?
RAPH: My mom passed away last year, my dad’s around. He’s a consultant. He works, I guess, in the industry of geology. That’s obviously a fairly big market. But he’s not a directly patroleum geologist. There’s definitely a market for geologists here. He’s in his 70’s but he still works. He also still climbs. In fact, last week he did Nemesis. So at 73, he’s not doing badly.
Didn’t you say you are going to go up Denali with your dad?
RAPH: Yeah. We’re going to acclimatize on the West Buttress, then do that thing hopefully.
Acclimatize on the West Buttress with your dad. That’s awesome.
RAPH: Yeah, it should be an interesting experience. It could also be one of those times (laughs). You know, but I think he’ll be pretty psyched to get out.
How long have you been vegetarian? What was the impetus? When did it start?
RAPH: It’s been really gradual for me. I’m having actually a hard time putting a day on it, but I got to a point where I wasn’t eating much meat at all. I don’t know, I just started thinking about what was involved, especially in industrial farming. Just thinking of that made me sick. I don’t dislike meat. I’m certainly a carnivore and I like meat.
Do you eat fish?
RAPH: I used to, but a few years ago I stopped that also.
We had breakfast with Steve Swenson this morning (current president of the American Alpine Club). He brought up a Pakistan story and was like, you gotta ask Raph about this trip where we were in Pakistan and this cat, this wild cat kept coming down trying to raid the tent for food, and Raph would get all up in arms that Rasole (the expedition cook) was trying to make a trap for the cat...
RAPH: Yeah, I put out the broken eggs for that cat and Rasole was just shaking his head. That kind of thing is just not in their reference frame. I think they’d probably understand it if I said it was religion, but when I said that it had something to do with animal rights…
So is that why you’re a vegetarian? Is it an animal rights thing?
RAPH: For me it is, yeah. I can be pretty coldly rational.
Coldly rational, that’s interesting.
RAPH: At least I see myself that way, maybe I’m not. You should ask Vera about that.
(Raph brings in his wife, Vera)
RAPH: Would you call me coldly rational?
RAPH: You wouldn’t?
VERA: No, I would call you warmly rational.
RAPH: What the hell’s that?
You’ve made some pretty strong life decisions around the love for animals, you can’t be that cold. Maybe rational, but still warm.
RAPH: Maybe that is the right description.
Warmly rational. Obviously, that’s going to play a lot into your decision making on alpine routes.
RAPH: It definitely does. That’s why yesterday was kind of fun, doing the link up. There was absolutely no thought that went into it. Basically we got up at about two o’clock in the morning and we drove out there. When by five or six o’clock we had decided to pull the plug on the project, we just thought of something to do within the span of about thirty seconds. It was fun to do something kind of un-premeditated. Because usually, for example when we did the Wild Thing, it was quite premeditated. We thought about how we’d do it, and I went on a recon mission to see the bottom pitches, to make sure they were in, what they looked like. Sometimes that can be more typical of me, to be that organized.
I think we're starting to get the picture. The animal-lover, highly calculated, physics professor, climber. I think that’s it, that’s our story. With, of course, some climbing porn laid over that.