Thomas Huber: “Impossible means a challenge to me.”9 min read
Urgently, I make my way to Thomas Huber’s presentation in Bansko, presuming I am late and worried I may not squeeze in the normally packed hall, when I find him walking back and forth in the lobby.
Apparently, the only one late around here is the presenter before Thomas. Lucky me, as I get to talk to him for a while.
Thomas Huber is German and as the blood in his veins dictates, punctuality is something he appreciates. I may be wrong but I believe the man presenting before him is Italian. Need I say more?
Anyway, some 40 minutes later Thomas is on stage. I have seen many accomplished climbers present their adventures – all worthy of the public’s attention, but Thomas goes beyond just storytelling. He is quite the narrator, one who knows how to compel the public in an exquisite, yet improvised, style.
I listen to Thomas explaining about the speed record of The Zodiac in Yosemite. One he did with his brother Alex back in 2004. They would climb the route, rest for a day, climb it again, rest for a day and again, while some people where still on the climb, greeting them each time. I think about my humble big wall experience and I laught at the scene he depicts. Three years later they break another record – that of the Nose.
The news spreads like a wildfire. After much dedication and effort in which the brothers repeated over and over those routes, they made it. Incredible, I think to myself, and wonder what Einstein would say to that! They are pretty nuts, no doubt about it, but repeating the same route so many times proved worth the while and gave the desired different outcome.
I take a note: “Ask him about Einstein.”
Thomas Huber is a highly motivated man, driven by his passion. He is a father, a husband, a friend, a brother, a climber, a survivor, a musician and one hell of a nutcase. He is also a man of his word.
Who do you see when you look at the mirror?
Thomas: When I look in the mirror, I see a 50-year old climber and one lucky man. Lucky because I have three wonderful kids, a wife, I’ve survived a few things and I am happy to still be alive. So, I see a very happy man.
Your lifeline seems inevitably intertwined with a line leading to the top of Latok 1. How would you describe your connection with the peak?
Thomas: The connection to Latok 1 is growing stronger over the years. My whole career started with an ascent of the SW face of Latok 2 in ‘97. I was climbing that with Alex. In 2001 I made a first ascent of the Ogre 3 and the second ascent of the Ogre. This is when I saw Latok 1 but back then I thought it is an American problem and did not pay much attention to it and I went back climbing with my brother.
Going back to the older days of mountaineering, there is no doubt that Latok 1 has been in the mind of all alpinists. So many expeditions were there and from all those great climbers everybody failed on Latok 1’s North side. One day, it came to me that I also want to try it. When I reached for the first time Choktoi, I thought that’s the best place in the world. I never saw mountains like that surrounded by great options, with Latok 1 among many others.
I went for it, but I failed two times and then I wanted to go back because I saw a line. My personal line, what I really want to climb. It might as well be one of the best climbs ever. When I went back again in 2018 it was not so easy for me to see that there are so many other climbers. I was lucky to start in the late season because one thing I cannot do is to climb with so many people on the route.
Latok 1 is such a major part of my life, maybe, because I think it is one of the best, remotest mountains I have ever seen. With the most radical wall.
Why has the North Ridge become such an impossible climb?
Thomas: I think it is all about conditions. I think technically the North Ridge is not really that hard, it is just very long. But it is hard enough that when the weather gets bad, it nearly becomes impossible. There are a lot of mushrooms, you need a lot of luck and endurance, plus, you can never count on a full week of good weather to push the climb in one go. Thus, you have to be up there on bad days, as well, and wait for the climb.
We met Tom, Luka and Ales when they went down after their climb on the ridge this summer. When I heard that they climbed it, I thought OMG now it’s done but the real North Ridge to the summit is still an option. That keeps the motivation for us to continue. More or less the big secret about the North side is done now, but we will see what time will bring. One thing I know for sure is that one day I will be back to Choktoi.
What do you believe happened with Sergei Glazunov?
Thomas: When Alex Gukov and Sergei Glazunov were there, they really pushed hard. The conditions weren’t perfect but they went for it. I have no idea what really happened with Sergei, I was not there. I think nobody knows. The only guy who can say is Alex. All about this rescue- while I was sitting at home, I was hoping that he will survive. In that moment nobody could help from the ground, the only chance was with a helicopter.
What really happened with Sergei, I have no idea. It is just a really, really sad story. For sure I know they did not reach the summit, they reached the end of the North Ridge, may be. Or may be not? The answer hides in the story of Alex.
Are you planning to go back? Would that be with Simon Gietl?
Thomas: I haven’t finished my story, so for sure I will go back. When? I don’t know, yet, but for sure it will be with Simon Gietl. Simon is such a strong climber. Mentally ready to make a climb like the North Ridge. Time can only tell when we will go.
What would you tell Einstein who said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”?
Thomas: What can I tell Einstein, he is in a totally different league from me. I am just a climber, but one thing is true – I am crazy. Yet, I am not doing it the same way over and over again. It is only a process. You learn something new each time. If you want to push the impossible, you have to go step by step. Then, you do not expect different results, you only expect reaching the next level. With the gained knowledge you know exactly what you have to do to get to the top.
When you look back to the earlier days of climbing, how do you see yourself changed/evolved as a climber and as a person?
Thomas: I didn’t change so much since my childhood. I still have the same desire to do the impossible. I am so curious about a new terrain. If I know that it has already been done, it is no longer in my focus. I want to put all my knowledge and energy in something that for me is very special. Like when we did the speed record on the Nose. Everybody thought it was impossible for Europeans to do that. But we made it happen. It is important to have the courage to start, otherwise you will always remain in base camp.
How heavy is the ego of a climber on an expedition?
Thomas: Of course your ego has to be very strong on an expedition because you put all your personality in a climb and in a team. But you shouldn’t be an ego-driven hero/leader, you have to be part of one unit. What I learned is that when you are one system as a team, you can achieve the impossible. If you think you are the best, you have already lost. It is important to be a group, a system that merges with the wall and gets in the flow, otherwise you will lose.
What is the hardest decision you have had to make?
Thomas: One of the hardest decisions I have had to make was when we were in the middle of the wall of Cerro Kishtwar in perfect conditions, yet with no more food. I said to my partners:
“Hey, let’s go down. Trust me the weather will stay. Let’s come back with more energy and supplies.”
To step back in those conditions was not easy but it was the right thing to do. What I learned was that sometimes you need to have the courage to step back in order to reach the summit.
What are some of your deepest fears?
Thomas: Fear is a very bad thing. For some reason I can say I am fearless because I have no more fear about life. We all die. But still, to say, my biggest fear is to lose the love I have in my life and that is my kids and my wife. That is the only fear that I have, because if you have fear in the mountains than you are in the wrong place. You always have the option to step back because the most important thing you have to achieve is not the summit but life itself.
You once said “The Crux is not the wall, but the man.” Which is the crux inside of you?
Thomas: That you are blind and don’t accept that sometimes a certain thing is not doable for you, that you have to accept that and do something else.
What is adventure to you?
Thomas: Adventure is my life. Sometimes it is daily things like handling the kids if they have problems. The small things could be a bigger adventure than when you are facing a great wall which feels more natural.
What does ‘impossible’ mean?
Thomas: Impossible means a challenge to me.
If you could give one piece of advice to all the aspiring climbers out there, what would that be?
Thomas: Don’t copy other people. Look, learn and go your own way. Do things because you want to do them, not because you want to show how great you are. You have to do it because you really love and want it.
Photos: courtesy of Thomas Huber