Interview: Iker and Eneko Pou on Adventure, Technical Difficulty and Olympic Climbing

Brothers Iker and Eneko Pou share their love of the mountains, their thoughts about the addition of climbing as an Olympic sport, and some of the highlights from their 7 walls in 7 continents project.

Basque country climber Iker Pou announced himself as one of the world’s strongest sport’s climbers as a teenager, but rather than continue down a purely competitive route he was inspired by his love for the mountains, and mountaineer brother Eneko, to branch out and seek adventures around the world.

In an in depth interview with our friends over at Alpinism Online, the brothers discussed some of their greatest adventures and their thoughts on subjects ranging from the Olympics, to modern alpinism and sponsorship. You can find our translation of the original Spanish interview below.

Q: In 2009 you climbed Aguja Negra, Morro Von Ronsen, and the Chañi, four walls of the Andes here in Argentina. How did you come up with the idea for such a project? What can you tell us about the projects escalation, its greatest difficulty and how it compared technically to other challenges you have undertaken?

We have been to Argentina seven times, I think of it like our second home, and we have many friends, both in the south in Patagonia and in the north, in Salta. The Chañi expedition actually arose from a blurred photo that we saw in an Argentine magazine. The photo was of a first expedition that had been made on the south face of the mountains. We realized that we did not have much information, but that something could be done there.

We then contacted the person who had made a book about the climbing the Chañi massif, Emilio González Turu, and it turns out that he was the president of the Basque house in Salta! We arrived in Salta and conducted some interviews for the newspapers through him.

The Chañi massif was a great surprise, a pleasant surprise, because we went with super technical equipment to climb there, hammocks, fixed ropes, etc. But when we got to the south face of the mountains we realized that, except for that Vázquez Nono route, everything else was unclimbed. Routes that in the Pyrenees and Alps would have been climbed since the late nineteenth century, were all virgins on the Chañi.

We took ice axes and crampons, because the conditions were very wintry, and we opened four fantastic routes. We have a fantastic memories of the place, especially because we were the first to arrive, after the Nono route team. The cultural aspect of the climb was also very interesting, during the approach and even during the climb we found pieces of wood, clay pots and other Inca artifacts.

We don’t always climb at high altitude due to the physical strain this puts on our bodies, but this time we were climbing between 5,200m and 6,000m, it was a fantastic experience and we were very happy.

Q: What has been the most complex of all your challenges? Not referring only to the difficulty of the wall but also to the planning, access, geographic location or isolation issues you might have faced.

Throughout our career we have basically traveled for two main reasons, one has been for adventure and the other has been the technical difficulty; short climbs, sport climbing or wall climbing etc. Two of our adventures that really stand out are from our 7 walls, 7 continents project in 2007 and another trip in 2012 to Baffin Island.

For our 2007 trip to Antarctica we left from Ushuaia on a sailboat. We then did all of Cape Horn and crossed the entire Drake Sea for four or five days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. There we climbed in alpine style on virgin mountains for twenty-four consecutive hours. We climbed from Christmas Eve through to the end of Christmas day and the truth is that it was a very difficult climb. We bet on lightness and wanted to do something cool, without fixing ropes. It was very cold. We had only our climbing equipment and the clothes we were wearing. Eventually we got dizzy because of the cold and had to descend. Climbing down we hit a very difficult rock wall and had to use rappels, we almost skipped a whole section and would have fallen in to the void for 600m! But hey, we managed to climb an incredible wall in Antarctica and I think that has been one of our most important adventures.

Our 2012 expedition on Baffin Island was for two whole months. We arrived at a village called Clyde River, inside the Arctic Circle and from there we made about a 100km journey by snowmobile to reach our base camp. We had virtually no information about the area, which had not been reached by any climber previously. For two months we were totally isolated there waiting for the thaw of the fjord so that they could take us out by boat. We opened four new routes there with a team from North Face, Hansjörg Auer and Ben Lepesant. We were joined by two photographers, and even an American hunter to protect us a little from the bears!

I particularly remember these two adventures because I think they are regions where you have to survive first, before you can even think about climbing.

Q: Your last challenge of 2017 was in the Amazon and seems very exciting. How was your experience of this challenge and how did the idea come about?

We feel good about this last challenge. It’s actually the second stage of a project with four elements, the macro project in which we are now involved, is the project of 7 walls, 7 continents. We did the first stage in Patagonia this year, in the Los Glaciares National Park. We had an awful time in Patagonia for the entire 2016-17 season, with only 24 hours of good weather. But we opened a very nice route, the Guillaumet needle, that we baptized as Aupa 40, in reference to the forty years that Iker fulfilled during the ascent. After this second stage we headed to Peru in the Amazon, which is the challenge you are referring to.

We went with Manu Ponce and Pedro Galán, and the cameramen Luis Rizo and Lina Schütze. Although we did not manage to climb the two falls of the waterfall, mainly because the second jump was very dangerous, we managed to open a beautiful route to the first jump. Afterwards we still had time to go to the Andes and make a first climb near Huaraz, a route of the Ragni di Lecco, which had been opened but had not been completed. We were very happy with that and then we also opened “Zerain” another route, so we were super satisfied.

Q: In this last expedition to Peru, you gave the name of Zerain to the route you opened. Can you tell us about this?

We opened the route in the Rurec valley, almost 900m of climbing and I believe it’s one of the best that we have opened. This was shortly after the disappearance of Alberto Zerain and Mariano Galván. It was a horrible situation because at that moment we were in the Amazon as we started to get some news about the disappearance. It was very painful, because we are mountaineers since we were little, we know the reality of the news very well. We had a good friendship with Alberto, whom we had been with in 2004 on Ama Dablam, he was one of the icons of our generation and a very nice guy besides. We had heard very good things about Mariano Galván too, and in addition Mariano was Argentine, and I have already discussed our relationship with Argentina. So it made our time in the Amazon very hard. When we arrived in the Andes and opened this new route the truth is that we all agreed that Alberto’s name should be given to the route. It also crossed our mind to mention Mariano by name, but we did not have a personal relationship with him so we left it as a nice tribute to a friend we knew and loved a lot.

Q: In recent years expeditions have become something essential for the great climbers, do you go in search of extreme difficulty, or adventure?

I believe that before this global mega-crisis, there was more money and there was a lot going on with many more possibilities. But it is normal for the mountaineer to look a little further afield. The mountaineer by nature is restless, he is a person who likes to discover, who likes to explore, so I think it is logical for climbers to take on more expeditions.

This is without belittling what you have close to home, because you can always go on great adventures near to home, look at a place where nobody has seen anything new, and you see an impressive line, and you climb it. So I think both things are very important, in our case when we go abroad, it’s usually for adventure, though of course you also want the technical difficulty because you want to measure yourself a bit, you want to overcome a challenge.

It’s a good question because I think that in recent years that sometimes the adventure gets lost. Everyone goes after the big numbers, either in Himalayism, with all the mountains at 8,000m, or in climbing, with the eighth and ninth grades. People don’t realize that the challenge can also be provided by other factors, such as an isolated place, an inhospitable site, or a complicated place to get to. In these cases you do not need the difficulties to be an 8,000m peak or an eighth or ninth grade climb. We believe that we have to go back a little to the magic of exploration and adventure.

During a recent talk we said that the keys to modern mountaineering may be those things; exploration, adventure and technical difficulty. Those three things together. And what is being done a lot in recent years, is to repeat things. People are going to repeat a lot, because people lack imagination. Exploration, that adventure, to be able to do things that really go down in the annals of the history of mountaineering. Things that mark a time. These are more important.

It is more difficult now than in the nineteenth or even the twentieth century to be able to do new things, but I think that climbers and mountaineers who dedicate themselves to this have the responsibility to always look forwards and to be able to try new things and not repeat.

Q: You are on tour giving lectures through Spain. How are the people responding to your talks? Any anecdotes you’d like to share?

The autumn for us is a time of tours, meeting with sponsors of screenings, conferences, we have many commitments. We prepare for it and we train when we can, but we have less time to go out to the mountains.

The talks have gone very well. It’s great to reach the public. We are in the mountains practically alone, we do not see anyone, especially with the type of mountains that we do, we do not coincide with almost anyone or with other expeditions. So, this is a chance for people to hear about our achievements, for people to ask us questions. For us it is a very comforting and very beautiful time.

It was great to make a presentation in Gran Canaria, which is home to a people with a very distant relationship with the great mountains, but that have come on mass to see us. The truth is that everywhere we have gone we have received ta warm welcome and the rooms have been full. It is comforting to see that you are not alone in this, and that mountain people, who are your people, follow you, lend a hand, support you and encourage you.

Q: Do you see a future in mountaineering for our country within the next generation of climbers?

Of course I see a future in mountaineering. Look at Argentina, I think that Argentina has great mountains, on the one hand in the north, the Andes and Aconcagua and we also have the entire Patagonian massif in the south. This will always makes mountaineers go out, because they are beautiful mountains to which everyone wants to ascend.

In Spain things could be the same, but what has happened is that, in general, international society has been gentrified a great deal. We live much better, much more comfortably, and that makes people want to suffer much less. Out in the wild, in the end, you must suffer. You have to win the summit, you have to earn everything. With youth I think that does not come easily. They do not come with these values, they come from more comfortable lives and this is mirrored in their values, of short-term successes that come in an easy way. So this is a problem facing the next generation, but it is also true that those who really stand out in this generation, are usually very strong people.

Those who arrive at the top are very strong because they are very technically gifted, at the training level, there has been a lot of progress. They have a lot of possibilities. They even have more money, that means you can travel more, that you can move around much more than we did when we started.

I believe that the future is geared more towards climbing as a sport as I told you a little bit before. With less of the adventure characteristics and more based on the numbers.

Q: what do you think about climbing as an Olympic sport? If they called you, would you accept?

We are very skeptical about this. Iker competed once a few years ago and we realized that it was not our thing. We are people who like to improve ourselves in the mountains, we like to measure ourselves out there and we like to grow, both as mountaineers and as people. We do not see that competition helps in that aspect, in those mountain values. Competition probably has the opposite effect in fact. You end up meeting climbers who come from the world of competition and who are clearly not measuring themselves with the mountain, with the wall, or with climbing, but they are measuring themselves against the person next to them.

But we also understand that young people need a little competition, see it as something important, and often if they can not compete, they move on to another sport. Then of course, it has a place.

We have a lot of beautiful values, which I believe the competition throws out. Of course, if they would call us, we would not go. In reality we are probably not at a level to compete in the Olympics either. We would have to compete with young people from 15 to 22 who are very strong climbing indoors, on the wall and with dams, we have nothing to do with that type of climbing. We come from a very romantic point of view of the mountain and its great values and it is difficult for us to fit into this type of thing, but it is probably the future and that is what we may see in the coming years.

Q: Do you think that after the Olympics more commercial brands will support climbers and their projects?

The truth is, no. We do not think that the Olympics will bring more economic support. What they are going to do is make it a clear competitive sport with their special plans to fit in with the Olympics. Like in any other sport the focus will be on their medals, their stories. It’s likely that most of those people competing will not even convert to rock climbing in the years to come. I believe that there is not going to be a relationship.

And as I said, any relationship there will be, will not be especially positive. The competitive aspect will bring people who will be able to dope, lie, etc. I do not think it will bring us anything good. And in any case the money that generates all these things will be for the competition itself, not for the adventure. I think that adventure will lose support in favour of competition – socially recognition through a medal. We see almost nothing positive in this story, beyond that it serves to feed the federations, the sporting estates. I do not think that this money will go out or serve or support other areas of the climbing community that we think are much more interesting, much more important and much more about true mountaineering.

Q: Recently there have been a series of accidents throughout Spain, with some very serious injuries and even deaths. Do you think that there is a lack of information and training in high-risk activities in this country?

I think that on the one hand it is normal, statistically it is going to happen. Many more people climb mountains than they did a few years ago, getting to the mountains is much easier, everyone has vehicles, everyone has “money” in quotation marks, or almost everyone, to be able to buy equipment. Then there’s a lot people doing other sports on the mountains, mountain biking, road biking, trail running etc.

All these people need a few years of training, a few years of being able to understand what the mountain is, regardless of physical activity and sporting ability, because all these people are generally great athletes, but you have to understand that in the end the mountain is not just there for sporting activity. You have to survive. From an expedition to a small activity in any of our mountain ranges. You have to put in the work, learning, little by little about the mountain. We have to try to minimize accidents and for that you need training, people can do climbing courses, mountaineering courses, whatever it takes to be trained and minimized the risks in the best possible way.

Q: Classic alpinism or the current alpine style?

Both things have a place. I believe that everyone has to enjoy the mountain in the way they want to. To climb in the alpine style depends on the location; it takes a lot of experience and you need to be a great mountaineer. Not everyone is qualified to climb safely in the alpine style. It is dangerous, it is very committed, and you have to be technically very good and also very fast. So I think it’s not for everyone.

Also, depending on what stage of your life you are at, you can do one or the other. When you want to do something very cool and you are fully prepared, you can climb in the current alpine style. When you do not feel like taking as many risks and you want something calm, and to enjoy the mountain, then classic mountaineering is best. I believe that mountaineering, in all its facets, has to make room for everyone. I think there are few activities, or few sports, as democratic as ours. And it has to continue like this, that way everyone enjoys the mountain in the best possible way.

Q: How do you manage gaining sponsorship? Do you find that you are having to constantly look for companies to work with?

Sponsorship is the workhorse of a professional mountaineer. It is the workhorse because we really want to be in the mountains. Having to find sponsorship takes you out of it and the people you have to deal with don’t usually come from our mountaineering world. You have to make people understand your values, and these values are far from those that a company might have, as they look to optimize resources and make profits. So it is a bit complicated.

There’s an art to it though, trying to convince these people. Normally when a company sponsors us, it is because there is someone with experience in our field, that thinks the same way, or has similar values.

We are in a continuous fight for sponsorship as we know we want to climb for a long time. Right now we do it in a professional way, but in the future, when we do not have this sort of support, it will be again, as when we started, in a totally altruistic way. However, right now, sponsors are important to what we are doing and we are currently looking for another big sponsor in order to go ahead with our projects.

With thanks to our friends at Alpinism Online and the Pou brothers. You can find the original Spanish interview below.

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Alpinism Online: Original Interview (Spanish)