Rolando Garibotti: What I’ve Learned

48, alpinist and guidebook author, lives in both El Chalten and Innsbruck

By Michael Levy (Interview) | December 19th, 2019

Garibotti at home in Patagonia. Photo: Cecelia Lutufyan.

[On the Torre Traverse with Colin Haley, 2008] That climb represented everything I had been working toward …. I started as a young kid from Argentina, visiting Patagonia in 1987 with borrowed gear and no contact with a bigger climbing community. I tried Cerro Torre for the first time in October 1989, when I was 18. We bailed. That year, [Ermanno] Salvaterra and his partners were making the first attempt of the Torre Traverse. So 20 years later, being the one that pulled it off was like closing a circle. The need to keep pushing myself to a great degree vanished.

***

For a while I thought my climbs were somewhat important contributions, little steps to push the sport forward. But when I took the foot off the accelerator and wrote the guidebook to the Chalten Massif, I realized that it was a far bigger contribution that anything I ever did climbing-wise. You think things are ascribed value in a certain way, but then all of a sudden you realize, Shit, I misjudged all of that.

***

For 20 years, basically, I soloed three or four times a week. In retrospect, if there was something I wouldn’t do in my life, it would be that. I can’t deny that it helped me and it served a purpose satiating my emotional hunger, but the risk-reward equation—it’s not worth it. Risk-taking is a readily available crutch, often used by young people, but one that we should not celebrate. There are so many other ways to add value to one’s life, to be creative.

There’s nothing worse than comedians that use topics such as sex to get laughs. It’s cheap and too easy. I think the use of risk to add value to your achievements is an equally poor creative tool.

***

[On the Piolets d’Or] Declaring winners and losers is reductive and unhelpful. Society would be better served with a different philosophy. Choosing winners is not a good way to have a contented, happy life, and is toxic in a risky activity such as alpinism. When every year several of the best die trying to push the bar, we need to rethink the goalposts to include renunciation and good decision-making as measures for success.

Below Cerro Torres summit mushroom on the first ascent of El Arca (6b+ C1 550m 90°), done with Alessandro Beltrami and Ermanno Salvaterra in 2005. Photo: Ermanno Salvaterra.

***

My experience in the Torre Traverse was less meaningful than the first tower I did in Patagonia—Aguja Guillaumet when I was 15 years old. The Traverse wasn’t a departure. That is what I’ve learned in my decades of climbing: Seeking a departure from what you know is the most meaningful thing you can do.

***

[On advocacy projects] I always thought it was important that climbers have a seat at the table when decisions are made. To do so, one needs to contribute, participate. You earn your seat. Climbers often take the anarchic position of hating “the man,” the national park in this case, but the entities that protect the things you love need to be your allies.

***

You can lose a game or fail on a climb and be perfectly satisfied if you feel like you gave it all or made a wise decision about dangers or conditions.

***

I am not a crystal-carrying hippie type. Everyone in my family above the age of 14 has a Ph.D. in science. When I developed MS [multiple sclerosis], I looked at the research and decided to take a secondary preventive approach rather than taking the drugs available. The costs and side effects of the drugs seemed worse than the benefits. Did I make the right decision? I will never know. It is a very complicated, variable disease, but taking agency and responsibility helped me cope, and I was able to continue my sporting career without it getting in the way.

***

[On making his diagnosis public] I thought it was important to share; that people would maybe benefit from knowing that a guy that soloed the Naked Edge and did the first ascent of the Torre Traverse was climbing with an MS diagnosis. Maybe it will empower people. I know it would have helped me.

***

In 2005, I walked up the Torre Valley for the first time post-diagnosis. All those mountains looked more beautiful than ever. It took a  year to realize it was not a death sentence, and to learn to live with it. The next step was realizing I could return to the life and activities I was doing before, with no restrictions or limitations. I was so afraid that everything was going to be taken away from me, so when I got them back I enjoyed everything that much more.

***

In those years, the MS gave me a sense of urgency I hadn’t had before. Before, I had the attitude that many of us have— we live every day without realizing or acknowledging that we’ll never live that day again. The big driver behind the Torre Traverse and some of the other climbs in that period was the MS.

***

My record for the Tetons Grand Traverse stood for 16 years or something like that. The main reason I was happy about that day is because I had nothing more to give. By the time I was on the Middle Teton, I already knew I had at least an hour on Alex Lowe’s record.So I could have easily taken my foot off the gas. But I didn’t because I wanted never to have a single regret about it. I am surely glad for that. It is a day I will never forget.

 


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 260 (November 2019).


 

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