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Athletes & Explorers

Jun 13, 2018

Hansjörg Auer: No Turning Back

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WRITTEN BY

livellozero.net

This interview initially featured on Livellozero.net in Italian.

“There is only one person you will have to bear for the rest of your life: yourself. That’s why being alone is so difficult. Even in the mountains, and not just because of safety. Being alone strips you naked, it makes you understand who you are, what is your value, the things that matter in life”.

HANSJÖRG AUER

H I G H L I G H T S :

Free Solo Ascents: Tempi Moderni (6c/ 800 m), Fish (7b+/ 850 m), Locker vom Hocker (7a/ 350 m), Bayrischer Traum (7a/ 400 m) and Mephisto (6c+/400m), Dolomites Crossover (3 big walls | 2 flights | 1 day | no rope) in 2016

First Ascents: Bruderliebe (8b/800m) and First Free Ascent of L’ultimo dei Paracadutisti (8b+/ 650 m) on Marmolada Southwestface

First Ascent of Kunyang Chhish East (7400 m) via the 2700 m high Southwestface.

First Ascent of Gimmigela East (7005m) Northface.

 


Hansjörg Auer has been climbing since he was twelve years old. In 2007, the young and virtually unknown math and sports teacher free soloed the 37-pitch route Via Attraverso il Pesce on the Marmolada South Wall, and overnight became the shooting star of the climbing scene. In the last ten years Hansjörg has put together an impressive number of first and free solo ascents around the globe, from Dolomiti home walls to Karakorum and Siberia. We reached him in Umhausen, in his native Austria to talk about the past, present and future of his activity on the proudest walls of the globe.

Hansjörg Auer portrait by Mati

L0: You have previously said that since your childhood you have always been good at being alone. We all know how a childhood can deeply influence our later behaviour as adults. Do you think that your quests for solo ascents is an attempt to recreate the feelings you had as a child?

Definitely. I kind of had a hard time as a child. Not at home, on our farm, more in school. I never got the feedback I would have needed. I guess that’s why I flew into the sport/mountains and started doing things, which I knew I was good at. And, somehow, I always felt happy when I was alone. Waiting for friends to come with me, waiting for their schedule to fit in, was never what I did. If nobody had the time or the psyche to come along, then I preferred to go by myself. And my parents were happy to see that. They never pushed me or my brother, but also they never stopped us from doing things and being out in the wild.

 

L0: You decided to go for the free solo of Weg durch den Fish when you felt that you were ready. How can one possibly be “ready” for something like that? Is there some kind of a mental process or set of stages that you need to go through, or do you simply just wake up one fine morning, and you are suddenly sure that in that exact moment you will be able to complete your project?
Free Solo climbing is all about finding the right moment. It’s not about a special training or preparation. Of course you need to be physically fit, but you can’t train to become a free solo climber. Being patient and waiting for the right moment to come is the crux. And, in my case, that moment always arrives all of a sudden. Before that happens, I keep thinking and focusing on the project for many weeks, but then the now it’s time moment comes pretty suddenly, without warning and in a somewhat unexpected way.

Free soloing “Via Attraverso il Pesce“, Marmolada – ph.credits Heiko Wilhelm

L0: From bold free solos, on big rock walls, like Marmolada you seem now to be shifting your interest towards mixed climbing ascents, in winter or the Himalayas…
I think the life of a climber is always about shifting motivations. When you’re younger it’s more about what, where and how hard you climb. But, in my case, this is now changing a little bit. For me nowadays the most important thing is with whom I climb. A few years ago it happened that I had been more focused on free solo climbs on big rock walls like Marmolada. And also the interest of the journalists and of the climbing world regarding my activity was pretty much the same. But, even then, first of all I have always been a mountaineer and therefore mountaineering is nothing new for me. Nowadays I feel more free and able to consider the many different possibilities that the mountain have to offer and to pick up only the projects, which motivate me the most, be it rock climbing, mixed climbing or whatever other style in between.

 

L0: Annapurna III south ridge: After these past few months, can you tell us more about the November 2017 failed attempt? Do you plan to go there and try again?
This project is no longer relevant to me. We had some internal problems and controversies within the team last year, but I don’t want to comment on this in a more specific way. That was basically the reason why we didn’t even go to Annapurna base camp, having climbed Ama Dablam to acclimatise. I’m still planning to go to Karakorum in the Summer of 2018 with Alex Blümel. We will try for another great project, a 7000m peak. Wild, long and in alpine style.

Gimmigela East – ph.credits Elias Holzknecht

L0: Motivation vs Expectation: the desire to push the limit is probably difficult to manage. Do you ever feel that you are caught between your personal ambitions, and the expectations of what people / media / journalists might expect from you?
That’s a very good question. I would say that some years ago I was probably caught in the mechanism you are referring to, but not anymore. As you get older, you generally get much more relaxed about what other people are thinking, saying and expecting from you.
Sure, social media and “the business side“ of my climbing is part of my life too. I like to take care of that aspect of my activity as well, but for me it is absolutely not the main priority. That’s also why I enjoy so many low budget trips and expeditions, without too many other people or cameras involved. My focus is currently much more on the mountain and on the project, and that’s what it’s all about. Business-wise I prefer to drive on a normal road in my authentic style, rather than on the highway, in a car steered and driven by somebody else.

 

L0: What have you learned from your climbing activity after all these years?
The most important thing is to feel satisfied, and to be able to achieve this feeling not only when you are climbing, when you have just realised your greatest project or when times are good. To succeed in this, I think you should consider climbing and mountaineering not as the most important thing in your life. For me being in the mountains, being creative, pushing hard is my life. But I always try (at least try) to remember that there are many other different things in life too.
L0: Alpinism is sometimes either considered a super specialised activity, for a select few. In Austria it seems totally quite the opposite: many young strong climbers are extremely active on a number of projects. What is the key for this? Is it simply due to a different cultural environment? How is it possible to encourage the next generation of alpinists?
This is one of the better questions that I get asked by journalists. It’s true, that it’s much easier to make a living from mountaineering, than from sport climbing. This is because if you go mountaineering you will always have a story to tell. In sport climbing not so much. Being a strong alpinist means that you need to be strong in many different disciplines, and that you need to be able to combine them all and capitalise on everything exactly when it’s needed on the expedition D-Day. You also need to have a special mindset about taking risks and being super exposed out there in the wild. Like I can’t tell you how it feels to climb 9b, then nobody else, except those who experienced it already, can tell you how hard it is to be in a bivy at 7000m after many days of hard alpinism.
On the other hand it is very easy to tell if somebody is a really strong rock-climber. You just watch him climbing at the local crag and you immediately have the answer. But to determine how strong an alpinist is, it’s a much harder thing to do, because he would normally climb in the high mountains or in some remote area without any people watching him.
And yes, there are big differences between the alpinists out there. Some are doing good stuff but never pushing too much. And some tole to talk more of it rather than actually being in the mountains. But there are a few, who are really strong. Look to Slovenia, Italy, France, Poland, Spain and Switzerland. It’s not only in Austria. And those who are really strong have also a certain level in sport climbing, in bouldering, ice climbing or whatever. So, at the end of the day, understanding how strong an alpinist is, is not that hard after all. 😉

Marmolada Freesolo – ph.credits Matteo Mocellin

L0: How do you relate to fear? How do you handle it before, and during your most dangerous ascents. Are you in total control over  irrational thoughts?
Fear is something that is really important. There are days when fear is a major topic, but there are other days when you are simply fearless. In general, I can easy handle fear. Or I would say, if I feel fear, that means that it’s not the right moment to do something on the edge. It is pretty much the same thing during free solo climbing. If I think of a project with fear then it simply means that the right time for me has not yet come. This game is all about waiting for the right moment. Only in that moment you will be able to achieve something great and unique.

 

L0: what is your relationship with sponsors?
The North Face is the ideal partner for me. The collaboration is casual, no pressure, a really nice cooperation. We also implement one or two projects together per year. If I have something big planned, I pay the costs out of my pocket, if need be. Then I relinquish any rights and can do what I want with the photos and videos so that I stay free and flexible. If you let everything you do to be financed by a company, then, technically speaking, you’re just taking on a job. If you bear the expedition costs yourself, then there’s no one to meddle with you.

 

L0: ok! Do we have time for a couple more questions?
Actually not! It is midnight and I have a plane to catch tomorrow morning at 06.30 AM for a climbing trip to Ethiopia. So I’d better start packing my bags and gear!!

 

For more news and updates you can follow Hansjörg Auer on his InstagramFacebook or Twitter accounts. Do not forget also to check his website, packed with a lot of interesting stuff and with a preview of Hansjörg’s latest book Südwand.

Nilgiri South Face – ph.credit Auer Archive

 

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Environment

Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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