When Climbing Is Not Enough

Graham Zimmerman aims for K2’s West Ridge—and a full life beyond climbing, too.

Graham Zimmerman has been killing his heroes, so to speak. Not content to live a life rich in climbing but impoverished in other areas, the Piolet d’Or-winning alpinist has been steadily scrutinizing the images held up by the climbing world as heroic. For the past decade, he’s been training hard, consistently setting his sights on difficult unclimbed routes. And with the same determination, he’s been carefully appraising mentors and constructing a life beyond the mountains.

This month Graham is in the Karakoram, route finding and getting acclimated to prepare to attempt K2’s West Ridge. He and Ian Welsted are aiming for an alpine-style push including an unclimbed direct finish. In the days leading up to the trip, we chatted with Graham about how his life philosophy has morphed—how he changed his mind about who to idolize and how that affects his expedition philosophy and his relationships back home. Here’s Graham’s take.

When I was a young climber, all I wanted to do was climb. And I didn't really give a damn about anything else.

I was going to the Alaska Range on a lot of expeditions, and I didn't put any thought toward, "Oh, how is this trip going to make people feel? What do I need to do to keep important people in my life, despite the fact that I'm leaving?" Training was an absolute priority over everything. It didn't matter what else somebody else needed. If I needed to train, I was just going to do it. Back in 2010, I was probably gone six months out of the year on various things. Maybe more. It meant that I got dumped all the time. I didn't have many super close friends outside of my climbing partner or partner group. And that was fine—at the time, I didn't give a damn. I was 24 and I didn't care.

The people who I looked up to were really strong climbers, and I wouldn't really make any judgments on them other than their resume. And if climbing is the only thing that you do, it doesn't necessarily mean you're a good person or a positive contributor to society.

I met one of my heroes when I was young and living in Yosemite … and it was like, "Oh. I do not want to end up like you." He’d put up his last hard route in the early ‘90s, and I realized that in the intervening 20 years, nothing really happened. And I was like, I need to reevaluate who I look up to.

When I was probably 26, I remember thinking, Oh man—if I just climb and I don't focus on how to make money or how to have a stable life or how to become a better partner or any of this stuff, I'm never going to figure that shit out. I need to start putting time toward this stuff, otherwise I will fail at it. I‘ll be a grumpy old guy who can no longer climb and doesn't have enough money and is really not sticking it.

What I did was kill those heroes, metaphorically. And then two of my heroes later became more like mentors.


If climbing is the only thing that you do, it doesn't necessarily mean you're a good person or a positive contributor to society.

 


As we grow up, life tends to gain complexity. We start to understand more of the things around us, the things that are adjacent to the things that we do and the way that we interface with the web of the world around us increases in complexity. When I was 20 years old, the vision for what I wanted in life basically ended at like 30. And at some point, I managed to stretch out that timeline to a point where it was like, "What do I want to do when I'm 50?" Or, "Wow, let's think about retirement." And when you start stretching out that timeline, the decisions you make in the moment really have to shift.

Now people like Steve Swenson or Mark Richey have become the people I look up to, my mentors. They’ve found that balance between climbing—climbing hard, climbing well and climbing a lot—and also having a positive influence on society. Also being a good parent, also being a good romantic partner, also being a good business partner. And my inspiration is not just based on, "Oh, how hard of a pitch can you climb? How much fear can you deal with in the mountains?" It's more like, "How can you manage to balance that hard climbing in which you're not hanging it out there too far, but still achieving? And also doing all this other stuff to live a balanced life and be a good person." And I think that's a lot harder to do. It takes a lot more intention.

I first met Steve when he was in his mid 50s, and he owned a place in Canmore, seemed to be pretty comfortable, and was hosting the youngsters to come stay with him and giving them all the beta. Steve still climbs very hard—maybe not climbing the hardest, but he's the one who's passing on the tools, creating the opportunities for the next generation. And I thought, Man, that's what I want. I want to be making the world a better place. I want to be fostering the next generation of alpinists. I want to be giving them the tools to survive and thrive. So I started looking at climate policy, looking at social justice, equity and accessibility.

My first expedition with Swenson, he basically sat me down for three months and just gave me all the tools, we just talked through them all summer. Like how to not fuck it up. And I came back and started trying to apply them. And then for the next two years, or every other year for the next four or five years, we went on expeditions together and it felt like we would just go review. And this isn't just relationship stuff—this is everything from business to working with nonprofits, all sorts of stuff. He's twice my age, and spent a lifetime figuring this out, and had some really good mentors. And I just quizzed him on it and adapted that to my own life.


When I was 20 years old, the vision for what I wanted in life basically ended at 30.


Now, when I look at this expedition we're going on this summer, of course I'm thinking about the climb. Of course I'm thinking about this thing we're taking on and what I need to do to prepare for that. But I'm also doing a lot of planning to make sure that my relationship with [my wife] Shannon is in a great place.

That means most of my training, almost all my training, takes place during the week between 5 AM and 6 PM. In fact, it really means I'm putting in 60-hour weeks, but it also means that at 6 PM, I'm doing everything I can to be home, to be available—emotionally and physically—and just be here with Shannon, be present. And really let her know how much I value her, because it's not automatic that she's going to know that I value her. That takes work.

Another part of it is that I don't go on as many expeditions I used to. I go on one big expedition every other year, which means that every other summer is all Shannon's. And that's a pretty sweet deal. When I come home, my schedule is clear so I can just be hanging out with Shannon and repairing the damage wrought by the fact that I was gone for the summer. Being realistic about that—not thinking it's unreasonable she would be annoyed that I'm gone for two and a half months. In fact, I think that that's reasonable. A lot of it is developing empathy, a lot of that is listening, a lot of that is just putting yourself in somebody else's shoes.

It took a lot of learning. It took a lot of practice. It took a lot of patience, particularly from Shannon, to get there. And I'm very fortunate that I met a woman who was willing to go through that learning curve with me. And another part of it is that I don't go on as many expeditions I used to. I go on one big expedition every other year, which means that every other summer is all Shannon's. And that's a pretty sweet deal. It felt like a sacrifice when we first came to that decision, but it turns out it's great.


A lot of it is developing empathy, a lot of that is listening, a lot of that is just putting yourself in somebody else's shoes.


These days I don't actually think about climbing that much. I go and I train really hard for climbing, but most of what I actually think about on a day to day has a lot more to do with content, accessibility, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice—and how those things intersect with climate policy, and how we can look at long-term solutions for all of that, that are systemic to our society. Of course, when the American Alpine Journal shows up in the mail, I'll probably lose a day to it because I love that stuff. But I've spent so much of my life dialing into climbing that I can put in the time to train, and I can still be learning other stuff.


Play to survive. It's a long-term, lifelong practice.


I'm mentoring a young climber who's just brimming with talent, both as a climate scientist and as an alpinist. And a really powerful exercise I've done in the past that I've talked to him about is to say, look at those people from the past who you really value, who have done the things you want to do. If you sit down and actually look at Swenson's resume for the last 30 years of climbing, you're like, "Oh my God, this is such an impressive list." But then if you look for the gaps between the dates, you'll see he didn't go on an expedition for four years at one point. And I wonder what he was doing during that time. He was starting a family. He was running a business.

So start looking at your heroes, and look at the gaps between the things they did, and recognize that the resume did not happen by going on three expeditions a year. It actually happened by going on expeditions regularly on a longer timescale, and turning this into something less of a sport and less of a do-more-fast, do-more-now.

Over the course of 20 or 30 years, you're going to have some achievements. And during that time you're going to have some big gaps where you do other stuff, and that's okay. Play to survive. It's a long-term, lifelong practice.