Steve House is a professional climber and a mountain guide.
How would you explain the Fast & Light philosophy in one sentence?
Up and down the mountain, 100% reliant on (nearly) continuous movement for survival, security and success.
Who inspired or mentored you to go in this style?
It was/is part of the culture of alpinism where I first practiced alpinism, Slovenia. When I was a student there in 1988/89 I started alpinism through a club, and there it was considered the best style to start early and finish very late than it was to take the weight and trouble of making a bivouac. Also I think this is the way their mountains are, they are the right size and layout for this kind of climbing.
What are the plus and cons for you?
I think that once you possess three things:
1) the technical skill for the climbing you envision,
2) the physical fitness for long-duration continuous movement,
3) and, most importantly, the experience and good judgement to know which objectives are challenging but still possible, in which conditions, for you and your partner(s).
If these three conditions are in alignment, then there are only pluses. I believe that if you have the right level of those three things, even the risk is much lower since you are exposed to objective hazards for much less time.
To me it is the interplay of all these things that makes it so interesting.
I will admit that I also very much enjoy climbing more slowly, with bivouacs. I like living on the mountain for many days. It changes me as a person to be out for so long, working and solving and climbing problems while living close to the edge of survival in terms of the basic requirements of food, water, and sleep. I do feel that this is more dangerous, by nature, because you are exposed to the objective risks and risk of storms for much longer. And over many days the fatigue wears you down much more and it becomes much harder to make difficult strategic decisions. It is a little bit of a different problem and challenge, but I also like it.
What does an ascent in fast & light style make you feel compared to traditional style?
It makes me feel the most free, compared to a traditional alpine style. But it also makes me tired in a different way. I find single-push/night-naked climbing more stressful, and more intense, precisely because there is no margin for error in terms of mis-judment. You’re 100% committed because you must go up and over to be safe. So there is a pressure, especially in the early parts of the climb, before a rhythm is established, and a pace that you know will put you on the top of the mountain at the right time. When we would be on climbs where we got to a point where we knew we were in over our heads, we called it “failing upwards”. Failing because we had mis-judged the climb and/or ourselves. Upwards because it was easier to continue to the top than to descend.
Do you remember the first climb on F&L?
The first time I didn’t really know what I was doing, because I was young and with a group of 3 more experienced alpinists. It was February, 1989. We four slept a few hours at the base of the Triglav North Face, then the next day we climbed the 1,100-meter high route called the Long German Route (Dolgo Nemško Smer) in one very long day. Later, when I started my first climbs in Alaska it seemed quite natural to take this attitude to the routes there since there is no darkness during the main climbing season. Though I will admit that in my first few years of climbing in Alaska my technical skill and judgement were not sufficiently developed to actually climb any routes. At that point in my life as an alpinist, survival itself was a success.
Your best climb/s in fast & light style?
Since I did almost all of my climbs in this way, it is hard to pick one or two. My K7 solo in 2004 is for sure one of my most cherished climbing experiences. The Slovak Direct in a 60-hour push in 2001 was a very deep experience. That is one case where after about 48 hours, we were ‘failing upwards’. In many ways this climb showed me what I was capable of and I think this climb is most responsible for everything I did in the Himalaya afterwards. There were some climbs in the Alps that I did alone which were quite good memories for me, especially because the climbing in Chamonix-area is so perfect for climbing alone and in a fast-and-light style. The memories of these ascents are dominated by feelings of peace and the flow of movement. This is much harder to have when you are climbing a first ascent because you have no information about the route up and (usually) the route down. So it is much more stressful on a new route, and simply a different kind of fun.