The Purists

Flush with tech-boom cash and answering to no one, Alpinist chronicles the exploits of a loosely aligned group of climbers known as the Brotherhood, who devote themselves to difficult routes, minimal gear, and big-time pain and suffering. Are these guys just a holier-than-thou elite—or the salvation of mountaineering?

CLEAN LINES: a cover from Christian Beckwith's Alpinist    

The Alpinist

CLEAN LINES: a cover from Christian Beckwith's Alpinist

Christian Beckwith

BIG DREAMER: Alpinist editor Christian Beckwith at home in Jackson, Wyoming

Marc Ewing

MONEY MAN: Marc Ewing inside his Jackson living room

When Christian Beckwith hitchhiked into Jackson, Wyoming, in the spring of 1993, his game plan was pretty simple: find a couch to sleep on, score a part-time job, go climbing. A little over a year later, though, the bookish, bespectacled 25-year-old New Englander had embarked on something more ambitious: a climbing 'zine called The Mountain Yodel. True, the Yodel was just 20 pages of throwaway newsprint, but it had a lofty aim: to give a voice to the Tetons' passionate but sometimes divergent community of rock climbers, skiers, and mountaineers. And for a few years there, locals say, it did just that.

Among the juiciest morsels in the Yodel were its editorials—or, rather, manifestos. Despite the relative skimpiness of his climbing résumé, Beckwith didn't hesitate to condemn what he saw as climbing's evils, including the increasing reliance on bolts, or artificial anchors, and other adventure-killing contrivances. Above all, he denounced the drift toward commercial sponsorship and "business climbing."

"Who will speak of the integrity and respect and humility that climbers need to practice and defend?" he thundered in the Yodel's first issue. The answer was found at the bottom of the page, where Beckwith affixed his huge, looping, decidedly unhumble signature.

"It's pretty interesting the way Christian signs his name," says snowboarder and climber Stephen Koch, nodding with mock solemnity. "There's definitely something going on there. You ought to get one of those handwriting-analyst guys to look into it."

Across the table—I'm with Koch and Beckwith in a Jackson restaurant, late at night—Beckwith folds his arms over his chest, looking slightly miffed. But eventually he offers a story. When he left Jackson in 1996 to take his first "real" job, as the youngest-ever editor of The American Alpine Journal, he found himself working with Bradford Washburn, the Harvard-educated cartographer, now 94, who is the American Alpine Club's grayest eminence. Washburn told Beckwith that while he liked everything about him, he wondered about his signature.

"‘Young man,'" says Beckwith, imitating Washburn's patrician speech and scowl, "‘it looks like you fancy yourself!'"

Beckwith is no longer the editor of The American Alpine Journal. Three years ago, in an episode that startled the insular world of climbing, he abruptly lost his job—a job that, like an appointment to the Supreme Court, was widely regarded as a life-tenure position. But just a few months later he resurfaced at the helm of a most unlikely climbing magazine: Alpinist, a glossy quarterly predominantly focused on the sport's most demanding—and perhaps most obscure—subdiscipline.

In essence, alpinism is the art of climbing big mountains in good style—in other words, by hard routes and "fair means," with a minimum of gear and support. Slogging up the beaten path on Mount Everest doesn't count, but tackle it Messner style—alone, without oxygen, and by a new route—and you definitely qualify. For Beckwith and his heroes—past demigods like Walter Bonatti and contemporary standouts like Steve House—alpinism sometimes seems to be as much a spiritual challenge as a physical one.

"You take the biggest problems and resolve them in the simplest, most aesthetic way possible," he explains. "It's more interesting, more nuanced, more beautiful than any other form of climbing. It's so complex, so dangerous, that it just becomes this paradigm of human potential."

Featuring detailed expedition stories, some as long as 10,000 words, and in-depth "mountain profiles" (climbing histories of famously challenging peaks like Patagonia's Fitz Roy and Pakistan's Gasherbrum IV), the two-and-a-half-year-old Alpinist is a throwback to a simpler era, one in which readers actually had time to read. Its thick, gleaming paper, arresting photos, hyperclean layout, and almost eerie lack of ads make it what magazine pros call a "dream book"—the publishing world's equivalent of a concept car.

"Climbing and Rock & Ice—people chuck those things all the time," says climber Kelly Cordes, referring to the two most established American climbing magazines. "But nobody is chucking their Alpinists—they're too beautiful. They're works of art."

Therein lies the magazine's unique appeal, and its dilemma. Alpinist clearly wants to be the bible of mountaineering's hardcore, the men (and sometimes women) who live in their vans and eat sardines with their pitons, and especially the so-called Brotherhood, true believers like House who risk it all on high, stormy faces. Yet its $12.95-an-issue price makes it an extravagant indulgence for the average rock jock—and, with just over 5,000 subscribers, it has yet to be profitable.

"My dirtbag friends who are sitting in a tent right now down at Indian Creek might not be able to afford it," acknowledges Beckwith. "But one will buy it and it'll circulate through 20 sets of hands—we hear that all the time."

What's kept Alpinist afloat until now is a latter-day Medici named Marc Ewing, an amiable, self-effacing 35-year-old software tycoon and sometime climber. The Chicago-based Ewing, who cofounded Alpinist with Beckwith, has so far sunk more than $1.5 million into the magazine, and though he threatened to back out last summer, he says he's willing to spend more. But at some point, even Medicis run out of patience, and it seems inevitable that Alpinist will either have to make its way in the marketplace or fold. Which, for the magazine's defiantly purist editor, could pose some interesting challenges.

"I don't want to do commercial art," Beckwith says. "For me the ideal is something that has no commercial aspect whatsoever."

On a sunny morning in Jackson, Beckwith, Koch, and I pile into Beckwith's Subaru wagon and head 160 miles east for a day of sport climbing near Lander, Wyoming. (Sport climbing, which Alpinist has never featured, involves using ample, evenly spaced bolts from top to bottom on a route.) A few days ago, Beckwith shipped the final pages of Alpinist 9 to a printing plant in China. Now, from behind the wheel, he recaps the issue's highlights, including a story on what he calls one of the "climbs of the year": Kelly Cordes and Josh Wharton's first ascent, in July, of the southwest ridge of Pakistan's 20,623-foot Great Trango Tower.

Though Beckwith has never set foot in Pakistan, he deftly conjures the jagged, 7,400-vertical-foot route and the terrible choice it posed for the two Colorado climbers. "They ran out of water on day three, but there was no way they were going back," he says, glancing over, eyes shining. "The route was way too complicated—too many runouts and tension traverses and pendulums—to turn around. The only way off was to go up and over."

As we approach the limestone cliffs of Sinks Canyon, a few miles outside Lander, Beckwith's expansive mood gives way to seriousness. At five foot seven, with rimless glasses and a stern demeanor, he stands in marked contrast to his strapping, gregarious climbing partner—a brooding Jeff to Koch's Mutt. He climbs deliberately and with dark intensity, and when he falls he glowers. "It's frustrating," he says after peeling off a route rated 5.11a. "You just can't do 70 hours in the office and then come out here and expect to climb halfway decently."

Beckwith, who grew up on a farm in Warren, Maine, and went to college at the University of Vermont, got his first taste of rock climbing during a 1990 junior year abroad in Canterbury, England. There, classmates introduced him to the legendary crags of North Wales—as well as the area's lively pub scene. When Beckwith arrived in Jackson three years later, after stints at climber hangouts like Joshua Tree, California, and Hueco Tanks, Texas, he was struck by the lack of similar social opportunities for Teton climbers. So he helped create an outing club called the Wayward Mountaineers.

"Christian was always the instigator," says Angus Thuermer, co-editor of the Jackson Hole News & Guide. "He organized slide shows, speaker programs, avalanche-training sessions —stuff that went pretty deep. And it was always followed by a party."

Beckwith was a night owl who could quote poetry and argue climbing history into the wee hours—and still find time, as Koch jokes, "to kiss every woman in Jackson." Not everyone was charmed, however, especially once his moralizing editorials began appearing in the Yodel.

"I remember thinking, Man, this guy is fun and bright, but he's only been climbing a very short while," says Sam Lightner Jr., a former Jackson resident and accomplished sport climber. "Seems like a pretty short time in the sport to make all these beliefs the absolute gospel."

One summer, Lightner and some friends put up a difficult route in the Tetons' Garnet Canyon, placing a few bolts in the process. Lightner knew that the route, a tough 5.12, was too hard for Beckwith to climb, so as a rebuttal to his anti-bolting rants he named it Yodel This.

Another rebuff came from Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and a part-time Jackson resident. When Beckwith approached him in 1994 asking for advice about the Yodel, Chouinard told him it would never succeed. Still, Beckwith clearly made an impression. A few months later, when the longtime editor of The American Alpine Journal, H. Adams Carter, suddenly died, Chouinard recommended Beckwith for the position.

Thus did Beckwith obtain what's undoubtedly the most influential post in mountain climbing: the editorship of the Journal, an annual 500-page compendium of "the world's most significant climbs" that is distributed to the club's roughly 7,000 members. By all accounts, he worked tirelessly, in particular reaching out to climbers in the former Soviet Union, whose many accomplishments had never been fully appreciated in the West.

"Christian really modernized the Journal and kept it relevant, and by going out and getting the stories of those guys, he made sure it stayed the journal of record, not just for America but the world," says Michael Kennedy, the former publisher and editor of Climbing and a seasoned Alpinist in his own right. "I thought he was pretty well psyched to settle in and run the thing for the next 25 or 30 years."

But six and a half years into the job, in February 2002, Beckwith's tenure came to an abrupt end. There was no single cause, and in part Beckwith simply got caught up in power struggles that were swirling around inside the club. But his high-handedness and brusque business manner were factors, too. He'd alienated a large portion of the club staff, and he sometimes leaped before he looked. In one 1998 e-mail, for instance, sent to a climber friend who had participated in an expedition on Baffin Island whose apparent first ascents Beckwith had questioned, Beckwith added a profane reference to one of the expedition's sponsors, National Geographic. This gratuitous slap got forwarded around, and it did considerable damage to Beckwith's standing in the climbing world.

"It burned me pretty hard," Beckwith says of the episode. "I never realized the power of e-mail before that."

Beckwith committed his final blunder on the eve of the club's 2002 annual meeting in Snowbird, Utah, when he threatened to resign in a phone conversation with the club's executive director, Charlie Shimanski. When club president Jim Frush heard about it, he convened a closed-door board meeting at Snowbird and informed the attendees that he had another editor, John Harlin III, ready to take over the Journal. Two hours later, Beckwith was out of a job.

"In the end, I think it was a 'doesn't play well with others' kind of thing," says Kelly Cordes, a Beckwith hire who is still an assistant editor at the Journal. "When you're part of a big organization, you have to be diplomatic and accountable. When the president of the club is calling you, you gotta call him back. You don't resign and then say you're just kidding."

The day after his dismissal, Beckwith went ice-climbing in Utah's Maple Canyon—one of his best ice-climbing days ever, he says. When he woke up the next morning, he says, he "felt like I'd been run over by a truck. Then, still processing what had happened, he made the six-hour drive back to Jackson.

Not long after he got back, the phone rang. It was a secretary from Chicago, asking if Beckwith had time to speak with her boss, some guy named Marc Ewing.

"I'm starting a climbing magazine," Ewing explained a few minutes later, "and I wanted to see if you were interested."

"Well," said Beckwith, "your timing is impeccable."

Like Beckwith, Marc Ewing discovered climbing in college. A computer-science and mathematics major at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, he occasionally weekended at Seneca Rocks, in nearby West Virginia. After graduating in 1992, Ewing began tinkering with something called Linux—a new, free, nonproprietary computer operating system that was sprouting up in pieces all over the Internet. He soon realized that the working version he'd cobbled together for himself might be something his fellow techies would pay for. "It wasn't like I had some sort of business plan," Ewing says. "I just wanted to avoid getting a real job."

In 1994, Ewing and a partner formed Red Hat, a company that made and distributed Linux products and would later be swarmed by investors keen to cash in on the tech boom. Red Hat was capitalized at around $6.5 billion in 1999, and though a lot of that value subsequently vanished, Ewing is in no danger of going broke. According to the 2004 Forbes "40 Under 40" report—an annual ranking of the youngest, richest people in the country—Ewing occupies the 24th spot, just ahead of Julia Roberts, with a fortune estimated at $217 million.

With time and money to spare, Ewing found himself drawn back to climbing, this time in the Tetons. In 2001 he hired Exum guide Kevin Pusey to teach him the basics of winter mountaineering, and a few months later he and his wife, Lisa Lee, bought a house in Jackson. The following winter, Ewing told Pusey he'd been mulling the idea of launching a new climbing magazine. Pusey told him he ought to call a guy named Christian Beckwith.

A lot of people, hearing the short version of the Alpinist story, assume that Beckwith lassoed a gullible nouveau-Jackson type into bankrolling his vision. But in Ewing's first, unsolicited letter to Beckwith, he proposed something very close to what Alpinist became, albeit with a different name.

"Unlike existing books...which cover the world of sport climbing, climbing ‘news,' and competitions, Mountaineering will...place an emphasis on ‘alpine style' climbs, and ‘single push' ascents," Ewing wrote. "These styles of climbing strip away as much of what is not climbing as possible, leaving only the cleanest interactions with the mountain, the purest ascents, the most intimate experiences."

"It was fantastic," recalls Beckwith. "He wanted a magazine devoted to single-push alpine climbs—the market for which is 50. I was like ‘Oh, my God.' " Within a couple of weeks of their first conversation, Beckwith flew to Chicago to meet Ewing in person. The two look-alikes—Ewing is also short, short-haired, and bespectacled—hit it off immediately.

"I remember thinking, Wow, this guy is pretty rough," Ewing says. "I mean, he looked like a real climber, all weathered and kind of buffed out. But he was charming, very polite, and I thought, This could work out."

Beckwith and Ewing launched Alpinist six months later, in August 2002. The offices they chose, all 870 square feet of them, are still located on the second floor of a boxy commercial building in West Jackson—the unchic, industrial-park end of town. Inside are work spaces for six people: Beckwith and Alpinist's marketing-and-circulation director, Andy Leinicke, who sit in separate cubicles; Jon Jones, the production supervisor; office manager Thea Inoue; and two unpaid interns. But it doesn't take long to realize the truth of what one ex-employee, former "mountain editor" Jeff Hollenbaugh, says: "It's an edit staff of one."

One afternoon during my visit to Jackson, Beckwith wheels across the floor in his chair to show me a mock-up of the latest issue, Alpinist 9. There are only about a dozen full-page ads, clumped at either end of the magazine so as not to distract from the edit pages. The layout is almost self-consciously uncluttered, and the text highly legible. "I want the design to be so utterly simple that readers don't even notice it," he says. "As soon as your design gets too busy, you lose your ability to affect a reader on an aesthetic level."

Beckwith obsesses this way about everything in his life. He likes to quote the 19th-century designer William Morris, who once said, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." And in a strange way his own house—a sagging Victorian, surrounded by a fence planked with old skis, that he rents for the astonishingly low Jackson price of $450 a month—bears that out. There's nothing expensive inside, but there's perfect order in the gear closet, an enameled blue saucepan hangs over the stove just so, and it seems that every wall is painted in a different artsy shade.

It's hard to imagine another person sharing this shrine, but lately Beckwith seems to have settled on one girlfriend, a New York ob-gyn who's apparently keen to move to Jackson and start a new lifestyle. Beckwith admits he's not sure whether he's quite ready for her to move in. "I'd like to live in the same town for a while first," he says.

"Why am I difficult?" he adds rhetorically. "Because I'm a fucking artist—and a perfectionist to boot."

In the fall of 2003, two Russian alpinists, Valeriy Babanov and Yuri Koshelenko, made a bold first ascent of the southeast ridge of Nepal's Nuptse East I, a 25,604-foot subpeak of Everest's immediate neighbor, Nuptse.

Because of the route's phenomenal length (more than 8,000 vertical feet) and difficulty (it had thwarted nine previous expeditions), the two men fixed ropes more than halfway up, drilling several bolts to secure them, and preset two camps before launching their summit bid. They were dangerously overextended when they finally topped out, after dark on day five, and far too tired to remove much of their gear on the descent.

The climbing world can be a remarkably catty place, so it came as no surprise that not everyone was awed by the Russians' feat. As usual, some of the loudest critics were members of the Brotherhood, the diehard alpine-style purists whose American adherents include Mark Twight and Steve House. In a scathing letter published in Alpinist 7, House wrote, "Alpinism is not: fixed ropes, fixed camps, bolts, high-altitude porters or breathing supplemental oxygen," adding that "alpinists from all over the world should stand up strongly for good style and draw a line that the style Babanov and Koshelenko employed is no longer acceptable."

For the Brotherhood, the Nuptse climb is an emotional issue, not just because the route had first been attempted by alpine-style climbers (thus, in their view, ethically obliging subsequent parties to follow suit) but also because the bolts and abandoned ropes had, as House put it, "desecrated" the route. Yet, for the Russians, it is equally emotional. As Babanov explained later, he placed only bolts that he "considered absolutely necessary for safety"—and even so, he and his partner very nearly perished. Had they followed the Brotherhood's rules, they probably would have.

"It comes across too strong sometimes, that hard line, and it's pretty frustrating, because I want to see all climbers become a brotherhood," says Mark Synott, a New Hampshire climber who's been criticized by purists for participating in commercially sponsored expeditions. "To do single-push stuff on Himalayan peaks—I mean, what about the 99 percent of climbers who aren't good enough or committed enough to do that? It's incredibly elitist."

Oddly, considering his reputation for being in the Brotherhood camp, Beckwith published Babanov's lengthy account of the Nuptse climb in the same issue as House's denunciation. "I thought it was a great effort that couldn't be discounted," he says. "I don't publish bullshit, but when I see things that are worthy, I like to publish them regardless of what any individual clique thinks. I believe in beauty; I don't believe in one particular streak of ideology."

Wherever Beckwith comes down on such matters, he faces a more pressing question: Are there enough people who care either way? To an outsider, the numbers don't seem encouraging: As of January 1, the magazine had just over 5,000 subscribers and was still operating in the red, though Beckwith and Leinicke insist that, at the current rate of growth, subscriber numbers will triple by the end of 2006.

"In advertising-driven magazines, 50,000 readers is kind of the magic number," says Leinicke, a New York publishing veteran who's the third guy to hold the circulation job. "Here, to break even, I think we'd need only about a third of that."

"There are a finite number of climbers, and there are an even smaller number of climbers who are actually interested in what we're doing," Beckwith acknowledges. "That's the inherent limitation of this. We know we can break even and maybe make a small profit, but we don't think we can ever, you know, go gangbusters."

Nevertheless, he argues, as the brand grows, Alpinist can function as a sort of nonprofit flagship for a host of profitable side businesses, including books, calendars, films, and especially custom-published special issues on behalf of individual corporate clients like Nike and The North Face.

This ambitious scheme won't happen without one crucial element: Ewing's continued support. Early last summer, the rumors began flying that Alpinist was on the ropes. Beckwith had written a new prospectus and was looking for additional investors, and if he didn't find them, Ewing was going to drop out. In the climbing world, this generated a collective "I told you so."

"How could Ewing not have known what he was getting into?" says one former climbing-magazine publisher, requesting anonymity. "When people asked what I thought about it, based on my experience, I said that if they expected to run it as a business, it was doomed—there was no way to make money on it."

Ewing relented, after he and Beckwith agreed on a general belt tightening. Hollenbaugh was laid off, and others agreed to pay cuts. Word and photo rates were pared back, and there seems to have been a slight shift in editorial focus, with more coverage of non-Alpinist pursuits like bouldering and rock climbing.

"We were thinking about trying to get some additional investors," acknowledges Ewing. "But Christian is very stubborn. He wants to stick with what we said we were going to do for the readers, and some of the things that came back were going to cause us to change that and maybe lose some control. So I kind of re-upped my commitment to the magazine, just so we could remain independent and keep pushing."

How deep is that commitment? Ewing admits he hasn't been climbing in more than a year, mostly because of a new passion: yacht racing. Last summer, with just 18 months of sailing experience, he led a ten-man crew to a respectable eighth-place finish in the highly competitive Farr 40 World Championship.

"I didn't know I had this competitive thing in me, but apparently I do," says Ewing, laughing. "There's a chance that the next thing could be sailing. It's pretty big for me right now."

One of the classic mountaineering routes in the Tetons—perhaps the classic—is the Grand Traverse, a north–south scramble along the crest of the range that takes in ten of its highest peaks and, in terms of cumulative elevation gain, surpasses 25,000 vertical feet. Parties normally take three days to do it, though in the summer of 2000, Rolando Garibotti, an Italian-born Alpinist living in Boulder, ran it in just under seven hours.

The day after our sport-climbing excursion to Lander, Beckwith and I set out to knock off the first and simplest leg of the Traverse—a quick climb of Teewinot, the 12,325-foot peak just northeast of the Grand Teton. It's more of a walk-up than an exercise in alpinism, especially since there's no snow or ice on the route. Still, it requires a hefty pull of more than 5,500 vertical feet from the parking lot near Jenny Lake.

Three hours into the climb, we come to a steep, slabby section that requires us to put our hands on the rock, and also do a bit of route finding. The top, when it finally comes, feels like a well- deserved reward. It's a beautiful, airy place—a sharp prow hung out in space, opposite the colossal north face of the Grand Teton. There's room for only one of us at a time on the tiny, exposed point of the summit itself. As Beckwith edges out to it, straddling the rock, I'm relieved to see that he, too, is feeling the exposure.

The descent is a long, thigh-crushing ordeal—just the kind of thing, Beckwith notes, that a Garibotti would do at a dead run. One of his recurrent frustrations at Alpinist, he adds, is not being able to get climbers like the publicity-shy Garibotti to write about their exploits. "He wouldn't touch it," Beckwith says, sighing. "Usually the people that really deserve to be the heroes of the world want nothing to do with it."

Toward the bottom of the mountain, Beckwith mentions another, older climber, once a regular in climbing magazines but not heard from much in recent years. "It's a pretty sad story," he says. "The guy was one of the best and really pushed the standard higher. Now he can't climb at the same level, and as a result he's kind of retreated into this shell. He's bitter, he doesn't know what to do with himself—he basically thinks his life is over."

When I tell Beckwith that it sounds like the makings of a good magazine piece, he turns and shoots me a quick glance, then continues down the trail.

"No way," he says. "It's not an Alpinist story."

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