Josh Wharton: Fatherhood and Alpinism
This past summer, I traveled to Peru to attempt the southeast face of Jirishanca with two Czech friends. Although not the highest peak in Peru, it’s certainly amongst the steepest and most impressive. The face is a jaw dropper; a steep wall of grey limestone giving way to massive ice daggers and overhanging ice roofs, capped by wildly fluted snow arêtes. It is the epitome of hard alpinism.
All photos: Courtesy Josh Wharton
Despite many attempts, only two teams have summited from the southeast, and only one route has been climbed in the modern, more difficult “climate change” era of Peruvian climbing. But these aspects were not the most interesting part of my trip. My journey to Jirishanca was instead most significant because it was my first long alpine climbing trip since the birth of my daughter, Hera, in January of 2014.
As a new father, and professional climber, I’m often asked how my approach to climbing has changed since Hera’s birth. To be honest, I find the question a bit annoying. It implies that my approach to climbing before Hera’s birth was reckless, and that as a father my approach should change. I generally respond somewhat sheepishly “Not much,” I say. My trips have gotten shorter, and my focus has sharpened.” These aren’t particularly compelling answers, but they are the truth.
When I was younger I was certainly a bold climber, but I had much less experience, and I wasn’t nearly as good technically. Decisions to turn around, or not start at all due to objective dangers and circumstances, were much more difficult to make without a large breadth of experience. I also often climbed much closer to my technical limit on unprotected terrain. Looking back, there are certainly some climbs I would now consider reckless, but as I’ve aged, things have changed. Experience, and increased strength and skill, have morphed recklessness into calculated risk. Deciding that a route has too many objective dangers to justify doing it is now easier, and my ability to objectively analyze real danger versus perceived danger has improved. Making a decision about pushing into unprotected terrain, or bailing, is generally much more straightforward.
It’s also critical to point out that people generally assume that alpine climbing is a continuous series of near-death experiences. While I’ll admit that alpine climbing is certainly not as safe as sport climbing, it’s not a reckless activity either. Alpine climbing is a very calculated activity, with many of it’s finest practitioners often verging on “nerdy” in their attention to detail. Most days, alpine climbing is relatively safe, with the occasional moment of very real danger. Not all that different from trad climbing, or bouldering.
That said, I don’t fool myself. Climbing is not golf. I accept that there are risks involved. You can die, and I’ve lost friends in the mountains. But to me the risks are worth it. Climbing is something I love deeply, and find incredibly rewarding. I’ve been doing it so long that it is intricately woven into my very being. Yes, I take risks far less often than when I was younger, and I do so in an increasingly calculated way. However, that change has come with age, skill and perspective, not with fatherhood.
What has changed with Hera’s arrival is my willingness to be away from home for long periods of time. Before her birth, I would go on many long trips, sometimes up to 12 weeks, and I spent much of that time with very limited communication to home. Now, with Hera growing so fast, and my wife Erinn and me so involved in her life, I just don’t want to be gone quite so much. This is the crux; balancing the pull of the mountains and family and giving both my absolute best. I’m sure everyone with multiple passions or a demanding job can relate.
So what about Jirishanca? Sadly, we didn’t reach the summit, but despite that, it was an incredible trip. I was blown away by the beauty of the remote Huayhuash range, and we experienced everything I hoped for in a good alpine climbing trip; adventure, quiet time in the hills with good friends and challenging, technical climbing. We turned around a few pitches from the summit at a section of double-corniced ridge made of notoriously unstable Peruvian sugar snow. It was late in the day and snowing, limiting visibility and the possibility of looking for an alternate route. It wasn't fun to turn around, but it wasn’t a hard decision either.