Portrait of Raphael Slawinski

Raphael's love affair with the mountains started with downhill skiing, first in the Tatra Mountains in Poland and later in the Canadian Rockies. Gradually skiing gave way to the less scripted adventures of mountaineering. Sometime after he started climbing, Raphael discovered he had a facility for ice climbing – or maybe it was just that he was more willing to suffer than other, more reasonable people. Looking to have even more fun with ice tools, Raphael was fortunate to get into mixed climbing just as that previously obscure activity was undergoing a real revolution. However, after a few years’ fascination with technical difficulty, he found a renewed passion for the mountains. Around the same time, Raphael started venturing beyond the Canadian Rockies, first to Alaska and then to the Karakoram. In the high mountains of Pakistan he discovered a whole new side to alpinism – that of hard climbing at high altitudes. This discovery didn’t mean he gave up other forms of climbing, but it’s made the entire experience even richer. Raphael hopes to keep pushing himself and having fun, from the boulders to the Himalaya, for many years to come.

Hometown: Calgary, Alberta, Canada (but born in Warsaw, Poland)

Height: 6'

When did you first start climbing?

Starting in the mid-1980s I’d go scramble, walk around on glaciers and bag peaks in the Canadian Rockies, just west of Calgary, Alberta, where I was living and going to high school and then university. However, I didn’t get into rock and ice climbing until the early 1990s, when I moved to Chicago to do graduate studies in physics. Living in the Midwest I missed the mountains, and as the next best thing I took up rock climbing at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, and ice climbing at Starved Rock, Illinois.

What do you most enjoy about your sport?

I enjoy the variety, the adventure and the friendships. To me, climbing is so much more than a sport. I can go pull on plastic in the gym or spend two months breathing thin air in the Karakoram, and both are climbing. However, it’s the element of adventure that distinguishes climbing from more conventional pursuits. I love the single-minded focus I get from wild moves in wild places. And sharing that kind of intensity with a good friend makes the experience even more memorable.

How do you define success?

In the short term success might be defined by how others see us, and our accomplishments, but it’s a shallow kind of success. Ultimately, to me, success means living up to my ideals. This can mean many things. Summitting a big peak. Getting up a hard route. Climbing in good style. Coming back from the mountains unscathed. Coming back friends. Climbing for myself, not for others’ accolades.

What are you most proud of, either in life, your sport or both?

My daily balancing act between my profession as a physics professor and my passion for climbing is a source of both pride and frustration. Frustration, because sometimes I feel like I’m not fully committing to, and as a result not living up to my potential in either pursuit. Pride, because ultimately I enjoy each of these sides of my life, and it would be a poorer existence if I gave either one up.

Who are your heroes?

Almost from when I first started climbing, I’ve idolized George Lowe. You only have to flip through the alpine climbing guidebook for the Canadian Rockies to see the mark he’s left on the range. His routes on the dark north faces of Alberta, Geikie, North Twin and many others were uncompromisingly direct and ahead of their time. The fact that he climbed at the highest standards in North America while working as a Ph.D. physicist made him an obvious role model for me.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by people like the late Guy Lacelle, who climbed just about every winter day, simply because he loved it so much. I miss our long days on ice together. I see the same kind of childlike enjoyment of our sport in Steve Swenson, who introduced me to the great peaks of the Karakoram, and in my father, who first took me to the mountains and who still climbs in his late seventies. I hope I’ll have as much fun climbing as they’re having in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time.

What are your hobbies outside of your sport?

My work at the university and my passion for (not to say obsession with) climbing leaves little time for other pursuits. Having said that, I enjoy spending time with Zev and Ziggy, my hairless cats.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

A good dessert! I keep searching for the perfect tiramisu.

What are your hidden talents?

I’m not sure I have enough talents to keep them hidden. I suppose a trait of mine that might not be immediately obvious is perseverance. I can be very stubborn. This goat-like character trait can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from holding on forever on a climb, to returning time and again to a project, to dreaming up and then making an expedition to the Himalaya happen.

Tell us about your most favorite place in the world:

I’ve been on many trips to Alaska and the Karakoram. I love both places: the endless white expanses of Alaska and the jagged granite peaks of the Karakoram. However, in the end, I always return to the Canadian Rockies. There are great adventures to be had here, summer and winter, but sometimes just hearing the rush of the wind through the pines brings a lump to my throat. These mountains are my spiritual home.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Probably my earliest aspiration was to be a train engineer. As a kid, I was fascinated with trains. Later, in my tweens, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. Too bad I wasn’t very good at the game.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been scared:

There have been so many, how do I choose just one? I’ve had my share of close calls in the mountains, but fortunately they haven’t cost me much more than a broken tooth. Most of the time things happened too quickly to feel afraid, like the time my tools ripped through the slush that passed for ice on Shooting Gallery on Mt. Andromeda and I took a factor-two fall onto the belay. However, on a few occasions I did have time to experience that primal fear that squeezes your chest like a vice. I felt that kind of fear a few years ago when, while approaching a winter alpine route, the slope around me settled with a hollow whoomph, then started moving as one solid mass before breaking up into a torrent of snow.

Describe your perfect day:

A cool, early-spring day in the Canadian Rockies. A flawless blue sky over mountains still draped in white. A strip of grey ice tucked into the back of a corner. Climbing that’s hard but still doable. Chopping through the cornice guarding the summit and emerging from blue shade into yellow evening light.

How would your friends describe you?

Reserved, not to say secretive when it comes to new projects. However, I also hope they’d say generous and genuine.