Convict of the Rope – Mark Twight

Portrait: George Marshall

Mark Twight made his name as a daring and pioneering climber in the 1980s and ‘90s. Part of a new wave of mountaineers who relied on physical fitness and minimal equipment to climb quickly and efficiently, he was part of a movement known as ‘extreme alpinism’. Twight’s CV away from the rock face is diverse; he has, among other things, conducted research into extreme weather clothing for both the US military and the Patagonia apparel company. Having retired from a sport notable for its extreme physical challenges, Twight recently turned his attention to cycling and is a keen amateur road racer. He is also the founder of Gym Jones, a personal training company whose uncompromising regimes have conditioned the physiques of Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, and countless other red-carpet regulars. On a recent visit to London, Twight dropped by Imperial Works, Rapha’s London HQ, to shed some light on what cycling and alpinism have in common.

Road racing and mountaineering are similar in that they breed characters. Laurent Fignon, for example, was quite mercurial; Bernard Hinault, on the other hand, was such a strong personality. I think cycling and climbing have a lot in common because the quality of effort changes people in a similar way. They are both sports that lend themselves to storytelling. They are about how people felt at the time, what the conditions were like. Something like Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void is very personal, and Tim Krabbe’s The Rider has achieved something to that effect.

In 2010, I came over to the UK at the end of October to do a seminar, and managed to go out riding with Ben Saunders [the polar explorer] and Yanto Barker. He’s a pro [for Team Raleigh] and he’s also one of the most enthusiastic riders I’ve ever met. And it was an eye-opening experience.

I asked them what they did during the winter to train and they said: “Keep riding.” But in Utah, where I live now, everyone has these systems they set up in their garages, with fans, turbos or rollers, computers, flatscreen TVs, almost to the point of absurdity. What these guys were essentially saying was, “I refuse to ride inside”. They just kitted themselves out carefully and properly.

I was amazed it had never occurred to me before, given I’ve never felt colder in my life than when I was on a bike. In an early-season race in Utah, in 2009, I finished with really bad hypothermia, to the point I couldn’t function. That would never happen climbing in the mountains; you can’t let yourself get that cold because there’s no way back. With riding there’s a way out, generally speaking. I’ve got to the start line of races and decided against it at times. Which is less shameful than sitting up and pulling off after the race has begun.

In the mountains, you can tell who’s proficient by what they are wearing; people inching along in down jackets, they’re not moving well enough to generate their own heat. But then you’ll see guys in functional, stretch clothing, running in the mountains. And it’s the same on the bike. I spent a winter in Vancouver, and cycling culture there is really evolved, with dedicated bike paths and on-road routes that run parallel to the main road arteries. That was where I noticed people sheltered against the weather on their bikes. Some put a barrier between themselves and the weather, with heavy jackets and so on. Others were ‘racing’ to work, in much lighter and more efficient clothing.

When you’re outdoors, it’s possible to create your own climate. The clothing system that is described in my book, Extreme Alpinism, was developed from my work for the military and for Patagonia. It is based on the concept that, whatever I do, I’m going to get wet. I can’t escape the elements. If I develop a system that is constantly self-drying based on the amount of effort I’m putting out, then it doesn’t matter if I get wet because I will remain warm. The same considerations apply in the design of cycling apparel.

Climbing high on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter in Alaska. It was the afternoon of the second day, which turned into night and then another day before we stopped after having been on the go for 39 hours straight.

I was exposed to the mountains from a very early age. I was born in the era when guys like Steve Roper, Wayne Merry, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia’s founder) and Royal Robbins, all north American climbing legends, were actively climbing in Yosemite National Park. My father was a park ranger in Yosemite and I spent my first years there. Later, we moved to Mt Rainier National Park, in Washington State, but my dad was essentially a cop and my great shame, as a climber, is that my dad kicked Steve Roper out of Camp 4 (the infamous bohemian climbing camp in Yosemite) for staying too long. As with cycling, there are sites of power, and for many in the Pacific Northwest, Yosemite was it. But it was never Yosemite for me. For me it was the Alps. The first time I went was in 1984, and then each year after that I would stay a little longer; in 1988, I arrived with two duffel bags and stayed for five years.

At that time, in the early, to mid-Eighties, the best climbers in the world were in Chamonix. Just as the best cycle racers in the world were racing in Europe at that time, so the draw was the same for climbers. If you want to get better at your craft, you have to go to where it’s happening, and being done by the best guys. I was never going to get that staying in the Cascades, in a somewhat insular climbing culture. I mean, guys would travel to the Himalyas infrequently or go to Alaska, but I needed to be in the environment and the culture to be shaped by it – so I went to the Alps.

I was of modest talent before I arrived there but that environment was a catapult, the terrain and the pressure-cooker atmosphere. That period was so intense, crazy really. The Alps weren’t getting any taller and technical standards were well in hand, so guys began ‘linking’ classic routes back-to-back, in long marathon pushes, called enchainments. The Mont Blanc Massif is well set up for that, where often the descent off one mountain puts you at the base of another. There were guys doing incredible things in the mountains, guys like Eric Escoffier, Christophe Profit, Jean-Marc Boivin (who was also flying hang-gliders or skiing from the tops of peaks), Erhard Loretan, and Patrick Gabarrou.

There were many guys in sub-disciplines of extreme skiing, snowboarding, BASE jumping and paragliding as well, and it was mind-boggling what they were imagining, and then doing. The head-to-head competition pushed these guys to incredible levels. Of course, a lot of them died in that era.

And to go there completely open, I just got carried away in the culture. I love it there, still. I speak fluent French and go there as often as I can. I like the culture less in Paris, but I worked there for a few months in 2012. I took my bike over, did some evening ‘club’ rides around the Hippodrome and out into the Vallée de Chevreuse, where all those great racers from the city trained.

I visited the Himalayas seven different times. I failed to climb there more than I actually climbed to the top of anything. It’s difficult even to survive there. There was one trip I did, and probably one of the greatest climbing adventures I’ve had, where we were 13,000ft up the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat and dropped two ropes, our lifeline, during the night. I personally dropped a tent that same night. With the weather and the fatigue, we were up against it. But the following day we were saved by finding equipment that had been left for a Japanese team who’d disappeared four years earlier. A powerful thing itself.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned, it’s a craft and you can go incredibly deep. But it can also teach you how to approach other things in life. The pathway to master things, from ‘apprentice’ to ‘journeyman’ to ‘master’. The titles actually get in the way but it allowed me to know how to get better riding my bike, because I’d done it with climbing. Seeing the value of going as deep as possible and making the commitment, that suits my personality. I used to want everyone to be like that, but in my maturity I’ve realised that you can go far on simple enthusiasm. So there are people who will never get out of the local climbing gym, but they still love being in there doing it. It can be enough.

With Steve House after joining the Cassin Ridge on the south face of Denali. We were about 55 hours into our 60-hour single push ascent of the Slovak Direct (with Scott Backes), out of gas for the stoves, nearly out of water and done with the food. All in.

Near the apex of my climbing career we were trying to climb things non-stop, substituting speed for logistics and protection, tuning into the mountain environment itself. The men who started that movement were a Polish climber called Voytek Kurtyka, one of the great climbing ‘mystics’, Pierre-Alain Steiner, Englishman Alex MacIntyre was along for the ride too. The concept was most brilliantly expressed by Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet with their 43-hour round trip on Everest in 1986. Kurtyka called it ‘night naked climbing’. In the Himalayas, these guys would put on their high-altitude climbing suits, one would take a stove, the other some fuel, another a pan and some Bouillon cubes. They would start climbing at night, stop during the day, melt enough snow to hydrate and then keep going.

And we realised this was the ultimate expression of climbing in the mountains. Because you are essentially naked up there, you can go for 24 hours or more non-stop – you have to. To do so relied largely on fitness, for which there was no formal training in that era. And so we were the first alpinists to use artificial means to train, the weight room and so forth. Fitness was a controllable thing in an uncontrollable environment. And it is true away from the mountains as well. The more fit I become, the more opportunities I have and the bigger my map becomes.

In June 2000, I was part of a team that climbed the Slovak Direct, a famous climb on Mount Denali [at 6,168m, the highest peak in North America]. It was 60 hours non-stop, and my philosophy changed; I decided I wasn’t willing to take the next necessary step, to apply what we had learned to higher mountains. If they don’t get killed, [alpine] climbers eventually grow up. But it’s difficult to transition from those strong mountain experiences into normal life. I think you see the same with bike racing. But as a climber, the riding and racing is a good outlet for me. I’ve taken my mind and body to quite extreme places, and to fill that void has not been simple or easy.

It was my philosophical relationship with climbing and the mountains that allowed me to make the transition, to reintegrate. But it wasn’t easy to learn to race a bike. With climbing I always had to keep something in my back pocket, whereas with racing I can go all out and pull over if I blow up – regardless of how embarrassing it is.

There’s always more in the tank, even if it’s brain matter. The mind is primary. It’s the muscle I’m interested in training now in my work [with Gym Jones]. If you can get right in your head, everything else will follow naturally. You need to un-f**k your own head. Because we all sabotage our minds, in some way, whether consciously or unconsciously.

There were guys in the mountains who were fitter and more technically gifted than me, but I was more willing. My relationship to risk and consequence was different. And that was all in my head. And that’s what I train into people now – you can go beyond what or where you thought you could.

The terrible “one-minute hill” we had to confront on the return leg of any southbound ride we did in Sofia, Bulgaria. After four months I whittled my time down close to that minute but never faster.