Graham Zimmerman

Approaching Mt Laurens, Courtesy of Mark Allen
Approaching Mt Laurens, Courtesy of Mark Allen
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Let's start here: alpinist Graham Zimmerman is a former recipient of the Piolet d’Or.  French for The Golden Ice Axe, the Piolet’dOr is a prestigious mountaineering award for which Zimmerman was nominated -- along with Mark Allen -- for their first ascent of the northeast buttress of Mt. Laurens in Alaska.

Graham Zimmerman, Courtesy of Austin Sidak
Graham Zimmerman, Courtesy of Austin Sidak

He’s a busy guy with a fascinating background in geo science, video production, and backcountry search and rescue at Yosemite.  His climbing career has taken him to South America, New Zealand and Kyrgyzstan where his efforts resulted in new routes.  Graham considers Seattle home but between geophysics work and climbing he spends a lot of time on the move.

RR:  When did you begin climbing and how did you get into it?

Zimmerman:  I was first exposed to the mountains when I was little with my folks hiking in New Zealand and later in the Cascades. I started spending a lot of time in the hills when I worked as an instructor at Stevens Pass at the beginning of high school. That year I was exposed to climbing and I was immediately hooked. This of course worried my folks who were not initiated into climbing, and they sent me out on a course with the American Alpine Institute so that I might get my ya-yas out or at least learn how to climb safely. It was on that course that I saw the vision that has guided much of my decision making over the last decade.

Approaching Mt Laurens, Courtesy of Mark Allen
Approaching Mt Laurens, Courtesy of Mark Allen

RR:  What is the most difficult climb you’ve done?

Zimmerman:  This is a hard question. Climbing has always been and continues to be a progression of what I am able to physically and mentally handle. My hardest ascents personally were quite possibly some of my first when I was stepping far into the 'deep end of the pool' seeing what I could handle. This said, the first ascents that I have been opening in Alaska over the past few years have been consistently very challenging both in the mental and physical sense. I continue to get myself into the deep end since that is where I see the most progression take place.

RR: What’s the scariest thing that’s happened while climbing?

Zimmerman:  I do everything possible to keep my climbing in control and safe, despite this though there are a number of instances in my career that might be considered hairy.

In 2011, while ice climbing in New Zealand, just after accepting the award for NZ Alpinist of the Year, I was crushed by 200 pounds of ice.  The right side of my body was a mess and I spend many months recovering and thankfully I did make a full recovery. To put it lightly, I was very happy to be wearing a helmet and advocate anyone in the mountains wearing one whether climbing or on skis.

Scoping Bic Ice Routes in Newfoundland
Scoping Bic Ice Routes in Newfoundland

RR:  What drives you?

Zimmerman:  There is a peace that comes from spending time in the mountains, and a strong bond with the folks whom I spend time with in them. These elements are what will keep me coming back to the mountains of the world for the rest of my life. The challenge of hard alpinism is super motivating for me, as is the sense of exploring new terrain.  This has taken me to first ascents in rarely traveled corners of mountain ranges both nearby and far away

RR:  How do you prepare for a difficult climb?

Zimmerman:  I drink a lot of coffee and I listen to a lot of music. I have found that preparation through mediation and mental focus can also be very helpful as well as spending an extended time studying an objective, attempting to learn as much about it as possible.

Bouldering in Patagonia, Courtesy of Scott Bennett
Bouldering in Patagonia, Courtesy of Scott Bennett

RR:  Do you have climbing rituals?

Zimmerman:  Allowing myself time to digest the objective and pack at an unhurried pace. I take it easy until it is time to go and then I tune in very acutely to the task at hand until it is finished and we are back in basecamp safely.

RR:  What is on your to-do list to climb?

Zimmerman:  My to do list includes objectives from Alaska, to Nepal to back home in the States and it seems to be getting longer.  Every time I go the mountains I notice something new that I find enticing.  The mountains of the world are filled with gorgeous unclimbed lines, the problem is not finding them, but rather deciding on which ones I should focus my attention.

A tent city springs up each year at the National Park Service's base camp on Kahiltna Glacier.
A tent city springs up each year at the National Park Service's base camp on Kahiltna Glacier. U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)

RR:  What is your dream climb?

Zimmerman:  I try to keep myself focused on the next big trip. Right now that is to the Revelations in Alaska where Clint Helander and I are going to check out a corner of the range with some excellent possibilities for big, sustained, technical first ascents. Very excited!

RR:  How do you handle fear when you find yourself in a dicey spot?

Zimmerman:  I think that dealing with fear is one of the greatest parts of climbing. First it must be determined whether the fear is justified.  If it is not then it can be dismissed. If it is in fact justified than it is time to focus and make a strong decision as to how to deal. Often times this means quieting the mind and move through to a safer location.

Climbing in the Lacuna Glacier of Alaska on the First Ascent of Voyager Peak, Courtesy of Mark Allen
Climbing in the Lacuna Glacier of Alaska on the First Ascent of Voyager Peak, Courtesy of Mark Allen

RR:  What inspires you for a particular climb?

Zimmerman:  My perfect alpine climb is long, technically sustained, free of objective hazard and maintains an aesthetically appealing line.  These features on a climb that is remote and unclimbed are what really jive with my psyche.

Objectives like Everest, which are big, popular, and not very technical, hold no allure for me. Being deep in remote mountains surrounded by appealing lines is what inspires me and what I work hard for.

RR:  What tips would you give budding climbers?

Zimmerman:  Do it for you and no one else.  Climbing is a dangerous game with big consequences. It is not an arena for untethered egos.  Get out there, get yourself in the deep end and be smart.  With all this in mind, know that that alpine climbing is an amazing activity with excellent opportunities for progression and personal growth in beautiful natural spaces.

You can follow Graham's adventures on his blog, and Instagram @grahamzimmerman.

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