He’s actually on his way to climb in the Swiss Alps as we schedule an interview. I’m buzzing with anticipation. It’s not every day that you have a David Lama on the other end of a phone line. There are very few people on the planet who climb better than this personable Tyrolean who shook up the climbing world as a youth, winning numerous competitions, and gaining the reputation as the first climbing wunderkind. Hi, David! How are you? I’m great, thanks! I’m enjoying a little downtime before the next expedition. Where are you headed? We’re going back to Lunag Ri in the autumn, and we’re already busy with preparation and planning. Last year you reached a point just below the summit of that 6,900-meter peak in Nepal (22,638 feet). What makes you want to return? The exciting thing about this project is the combination of an unclimbed peak and the very challenging wall. We attempted it last year and made it farther than anyone else has ever climbed, but we didn’t get to the top. We had to turn around 300 meters (984 feet) or so below the summit, and therefore the project remains incomplete for me. You were picked as one of the best free climbers when you were only 15, and you won lots of competitions. Was everyone supportive of you, or were some people envious? A little healthy ambition is generally not a bad thing in life. It can be channelled to help you perform better. I really don’t take much notice of envy in climbing. You have said many times that Cerro Torre turned you from a sport climber into an alpinist. Even Reinhold Messner was seriously impressed. What does it mean to you to be an alpinist? In general, in sport climbing, there are few rules you have to follow. It’s much more a question of which restrictions you impose on yourself. Compared to sport climbing, alpine climbing is much more elemental, the question is -- put very simply -- how you deal with the three-dimensional space the mountain presents to you. This has a lot to do with attitude: your attitude towards climbing, and your attitude towards yourself. To be a good alpinist, you have to remain true to yourself.
‘David Lama’ and ‘Dalai Lama’ aren’t that far apart from one another. Your father is from Nepal. Was there a connection when your name was chosen? I don’t think so, but you would have to ask my parents. Given that you are half Nepali, do you have a certain Buddhist calm inside? You are very much a product of your environment, especially in your childhood when your parents have a great influence over you. You can attribute a ‘Buddhist calm’ to me, if you like. Does that help you to stay cool in precarious situations? I think it’s more the case in alpine climbing that you just avoid precarious situations. In order to do that, you have to think ahead, to imagine the route and the individual moves, and to have to do this without being emotional. You have to weigh things up from a rational, objective viewpoint and be prepared to turn back. You’re hailed as a pioneer of a new generation of alpine climbers, above all because you live for first ascents. What attracts you to this so strongly? On a first ascent, the main thing for me is to give form to my ideas of how a route can be climbed, of which line to take and in which style it should be approached. The best part for me is that the ascent turns the concept into a reality. You leave behind more than a few traces of chalk; you leave behind a physical representation of your ideas visible to other climbers. Is there anything you’re afraid of? I’m not a big fan of snakes. What has been your greatest challenge in climbing so far? The free climb of Cerro Torre was extremely demanding, above all because I had ventured out of my sport climbing comfort zone and into a new realm -- one in which I had to learn to think like an alpinist.
Long expeditions can be really exhausting. Doesn’t this feel a bit like torture? Obviously, there are moments that can be pretty tough, like preparing for months for a project only to have to turn back a few meters shy of a summit. But climbing is my passion, and I know there is nothing that comes close to being so fulfilling. What do you particularly appreciate about GORE-TEX products? During an alpine ascent, it’s not as if we have one GORE-TEX jacket on top of another. We have a system composed of various layers. The GORE-TEX jacket is a layer I always have with me because it can be combined with different layers like no other waterproof material, and because in the long run you can rely on it delivering what it promises. What can’t you do without on an expedition -- cuddly toys, good luck charms or the like? I don’t believe in good luck charms, and I sleep well even without a teddy bear. The thing I would least like to have to do without would be a decent chunk of home-cured bacon. While we’re on the subject of bacon and other food: Are there days when you just lay on the couch and eat chips? Basically, my nature is far more active than passive. Having said that, there’s a huge contrast between the minimal lifestyle without creature comforts, which you’re forced to adopt on an expedition, and enjoying being able to sleep late and enjoy good food and drink back home. If you hadn’t become an alpinist, what would you be today? Maybe at some point I wanted to be a fire fighter or an astronaut, but as far back as I can remember, climbing was the thing that really inspired me. I knew early on what I find fulfilling, and that hasn’t changed to the present day. You can read more about the extremely talented David Lama here.