Mike Farris is a dedicated climber who hasn't let living in a low-altitude state impede his love of the sport. Farris, 50, is an associate professor of biology at Hamline University in St. Paul and has been climbing since the mid-'70s. He is the author of the only guide to Minnesota and Wisconsin rock climbing. He still enjoys scrambling up granite and sandstone cliffs near the Twin Cities, but has traveled to Pakistan, Nepal and Alaska during the past four years, looking for bigger challenges. As the climbing season nears, we wanted to hear about Farris' travels and get his thoughts on the state of the sport.
Q I read your online account of your last trip, when you attempted to climb Broad Peak (12th-highest mountain in the world) in the Pakistani Himalayas. You spent nearly two weeks in a tiny tent in blizzards, saw two companions seriously injured, and ultimately were unable to make the peak, and I can't get the photo of your last lunch out of my head (a stale piece of Indian bread and a beat-up looking boiled egg). The whole trip sounded pretty miserable. Why do you do it?
A The British have an expression about the "rat in the belly" as a way to talk about why people climb. They say some people have a small rat that gets some food and is satisfied, while others have a rat that gets bigger and hungrier the more you feed it. When I am coming down from these trips I always think I'm never going to do it again. But after a while I start to remember the good experiences -- which are hard to relay in words -- and then there's that rat in the belly, that challenge to try again. It looks suspiciously like addictive behavior, but I guess you can be obsessive about anything, even teaching. I guess the difference is teaching isn't inherently dangerous.
Q What are some of those good experiences?
A The people you meet. Getting to know people in Pakistan has been a tremendous experience and gift, especially in these times. It's important now to have Americans out in the world talking to average people, showing them that we're good, and also learning about them. There's also the chance to be in a wild and beautiful place. In Pakistan I got to go six weeks without hearing a single engine or seeing a single plane. Most of us have never experienced absolute silence, or seen the stars in a place like that, with no ambient light. The stars were so bright I didn't need a flashlight.
Q The popularity of climbing and the increase in guided trips means that inexperienced climbers are tackling peaks that in the past would have been the sole territory of experts. What do you think about that?
A On the one hand, commercial trips have opened opportunities to people like me who might want to do these ambitious climbs and is qualified to do them. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of people on the mountains who don't belong there. The main qualification for joining some expeditions is if your check clears. As a climber, you have control over yourself, but not the other people on the mountain. When things get out of control, and someone from another party on one of these big mountains is injured or hurt, you're faced with the question, "What is my responsibility?" Also, there are a limited number of days when these big peaks are climbable, because of weather. Now there are always these "conga lines" going up the mountain. The day I attempted Denali there were at least 100 people in front of me. I don't see a solution.
Q What is your proudest moment in climbing?
A In the last two years there have been two rescues at above 22,000 feet on expeditions I was on. In the first case it was two guys who couldn't walk because of altitude sickness. I was the rescue coordinator at base camp. Seeing those guys make it out alive on a helicopter, what could be better than that? Last year, a Polish member of our group on Broad Peak broke his leg at 24,000 feet. When I heard that, I thought, "He's dead." No one gets rescued at that altitude. We put up fixed ropes. I went down to base camp and then to another camp to get a plastic sled. We got him down, and he lived.
Chris Welsch 612-673-7113
Where to climb, what to bring, how to start: Farris, who has been climbing for more than 20 years, offers tips.
You don't need to go around the world for a worthy challenge. Farris, author of "Rock Climbing in Minnesota and Wisconsin" (Falcon, $25), still climbs close to home. Local favorites: The cliffs at Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota, Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore, and Devil's Lake in the Wisconsin Dells, which he calls the premier destination for climbers in the Upper Midwest.
Find a knowledgeable teacher. "Climbing is like parachuting. It's not hard to jump out of a plane, but if you didn't pack the chute right, you're in big trouble," Farris says. "Climbing is very safe if you learn the fundamentals from a good teacher."
TIP FOR THE TENT
Bring entertainment to help pass the time. "I download as many audio books on my I-Pod as I can. That really has changed the experience of sitting in a tent for days, waiting for weather to clear. I also bring a satellite phone so I can call my wife periodically."