Climbing Prodigy David Lama on Trust, Attitude, and Friendship

While Hugh Jackman is being fawned over by a horde of reporters down the street, David Lama sits on a hotel patio in the midst of movie directors and European starlets awaiting his next interview. There is a stillness to him that draws the attention. He maintains a certain economy of movement that is almost off-putting in a room full of professional demonstratives. Though physically small he appears more substantial than everyone surrounding him.

He’s not out of his element, per sé. The 23-year-old Austrian was tipped as a wunderkind climber when he was only 5-years-old—he has been in the climbing media spot light for a large portion of his life. But one gets the feeling that he’s on autopilot here among the cameras and journalists of the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Lama is here to promote his film, Cerro Torre, which chronicles his first free ascent of the Patagonian peak, a feat which made him a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. This film festival is just the other, less exciting, but much easier part of that project. It’s easy for athletes in these situations to turn surly, but if Lama resents having to smile and jape for the media for large parts of the day, he betrays not a hint. Instead he doles out quotes for anyone who asks and is an engaging small talker at cocktail parties. Earlier in the week he scaled one of San Sebastian’s most iconic buildings while the flashes clicked and the crowd cheered.

He chooses his words carefully in Austrian-inflected English and once the sentences begin to flow the look on his face suggests that there is nothing quite so fascinating as discussing the mountains.

Adventure: What’s the hardest part of your job?

David Lama: Over the last couple of years, I’ve made a big change between sport climbing and alpine climbing. In the competition world you have all these rules and regulations—you must go there and do this but you must not do that or that—whereas outside you have 100 percent freedom. It’s only about your attitude and you have to find your attitude. What I’ve figured out for myself is that you have to stay true to your abilities.

A: Where do your abilities lie?

DL: Un-definable [laughs]. No, I’m kidding. I have certain projects that I want to pull off in a certain way. What I mean by saying “you have to stay true to your abilities’” is that you must not make your life easier than it could be and reach your goal in just any kind of style but rather go the hard way and the way you imagine doing it perfectly.

A: Do you spend a lot of time visualizing climbing?

DL: Basically all the time. Hiking in the mountains for me is all about looking at walls and looking at potential lines. You know, if a mountaineer stands in front of a big mountain, you instantly start to think “where do I want to climb?” You have the rad line that is just in your head and then you draw it onto the rock. It’s always only visible to yourself until you are able to pull it off. And you want to pull it off in perfect style and make no changes to your vision, because once you pull it off it’s visible and you can’t change it, you can’t make it any better.

A: When I come off assignment I often get a little depressed. Do you feel the same way after summiting?

DL: Maybe not depressed. Of course you are happy because you have pulled off what you wanted to pull off but it’s like, I’m happy to say that I was not 100 percent happy that we pulled it off on Cerro Torre because that means the way we did it was pretty damn cool—we had a good time and we didn’t want it to end. Both you and I have no children, but I can imagine that the feeling I get is similar to people who have children who turn 18 or move out of the house; it’s sort of like letting them go and not being responsible for them anymore.

A: Is your climbing partner, Peter Ortner, around the same age as you (23)?

DL: He’s just turned 30.

A: Is he a senior presence in your partnership?

DL: No. I guess why we work together so well is because we don’t have to prove anything to each other. The thing I’m strong in is definitely free climbing, but I consider myself a strong alpinist. It’s great climbing with him because we can just go really hardcore and it feels really natural. Neither of us have to take all the responsibility, we can split it 100 percent.

A: How important is trust in your relationship?

DL: It’s pretty much everything, I guess. I don’t want to climb with someone I don’t trust and I also don’t want to climb with someone I don’t get along with.

A: Have you ever done that?

DL: No. But when Reinhold Messner traversed Gasherbrum I and II, Werner Herzog was doing a documentary about him. He sat Messner in front of the camera and asked him “Do you consider your partner as a friend?’” Messner said: “No, he’s definitely no friend.” I think that wouldn’t work for me. I only want to spend so much time with someone who I can really hang out with and who I’m having a great time with. Trust, friendship—those are two things that are really important to me in a climbing partnership.

A: What was it like to change from sport climbing to alpine climbing?

DL: It was not like I just said, “Tomorrow I want to be an alpinist.” It was more like a development that took place. And when I say development, I mean it less physically and more mentally. As I said you have to find your attitude. The first time I felt more like an alpinist than a sport climber what actually up on Cerro Torre when I stood up there for the very first time. When you look at it in extreme terms, for a sport climber it’s always important to climb. For a mountaineer the most important thing is to reach the summit. Back then, when I stood up there for the first time—aid climbing, not free climbing—I didn’t care whether I aid climbed or not, I just wanted to get up there and when I did it was a breathtaking moment. That was a really emotional moment to me.

A: Is it important for you to free climb your projects?

DL: Not necessarily. There are just some projects where free climbing doesn’t make as much sense as it did on Cerro Torre. Talking about “sense” – I mean, what does make sense? You can only answer that for yourself. Free climbing Cerro Torre was something that made sense to me and still does. I mean … you know what makes sense? If your line is the most beautiful thing you can imagine, that makes sense, actually. On Cerro Torre the most beautiful thing I can imagine was free climbing. But the project I have in Pakistan now–I mean, I wouldn’t care if I would free climb or aid climb because it’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is climbing through the face on the most beautiful line. It’s not about free climbing, it’s about climbing a line that is so beautiful in itself.

A: What does beauty mean in the sense of climbing?

DL: It’s about reading the rock and figuring out the easiest way. It’s an art in some ways. It’s an art of finding the easiest way that is still so difficult that it’s a challenge. But it’s not about making it more difficult. There is a very fine line. You will find it on very few mountains.

A: Do you think about the danger of what you do?

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DL: You have to think about it because if you don’t think about it you won’t know what kind of dangers await you. But once you know what could await, you consider all the eventualities. Peter and I hardly ever talk about it but we both think about it. It’s nothing I seek though, it’s nothing I look for.

A: Is confidence very important for you?

DL: Absolutely. Starting up a wall and not being confident about climbing it is stupid. Self-confidence is one of the most beautiful … not emotions … feelings, maybe that you can have. I remember the third year we were in Patagonia for the Cerro Torre project, we were so confident we would pull it off. The bolts got chopped and Tommy, the director the film came up and said “guys, the bolts got chopped, is this going to change anything in your plan?” I was sleeping at the time and I woke up and just said: “Yea, I don’t care.”

A: It didn’t affect your outlook?

DL: It didn’t affect me at all because I was so confident that I knew basically anything that could be in our way, we would find a solution for it.

A: Can that kind of confidence make things more dangerous?

DL: Of course. In some ways. You must not feel too confident about things. I mean, it would be absolutely stupid to go up there without ropes, for instance. But that’s not the point. What I wanted to say is that it’s just a great feeling to feel so sure about something.

A: How do you find the right line between danger and confidence?

DL: It’s complicated to explain because it’s a feeling that is hard to find words for. It’s an absurd way of thinking but … I mean, there was one scene in McConkey where someone said “Shane would have regretted to die, but he lived to the fullest.” That’s maybe a way to explain it.


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