While Mt. Everest is routinely climbed by dozens of people each year, pioneering climbers are trying the most difficult and dangerous mountains on the planet. If they had a leader, it would be Steve House.
“Steve House is here for a Patagonia exhibition. If you’d like to meet him, come on down to Yokohama with me.” This was the message I received on my cell phone from Outdoor Japan Editor Gardner Robinson. I was surprised and super stoked.
I knew a little bit about Steve from my days living and climbing in Colorado and had some mutual friends who spoke about him often as a guide and alpinist. I even almost bought a truck from his climbing partner, Vince Anderson.
It was easy to spot Steve when I arrived. He was explaining a new jacket design for some retailers. He reminded me of many of my friends back in Boulder; they were soft-spoken, yet imposing, similar to Steve. He had a confident walk; each step was deliberate as if he was not afraid of anything.
Once we sat down, Steve and Gardner, both from Oregon, quickly discovered Steve grew up in La Grande, the same small town in Eastern Oregon from where Gardner’s mother hails. Steve’s mom was with him on this trip, and it sounded as if their parents had mutual friends. It must have been nice for Steve to feel a bit of back home here in Japan.
And this is how I found myself sitting down with one of the world’s top alpinists. I’m a climber myself—I even have my own guide company in Tokyo—so you can imagine how cool it was to have the opportunity to find out what climbing means to Steve House.
How did you get into climbing in the first place?
I grew up climbing and skiing in Oregon. My parents taught me to climb when I was about 7years old, and I got really into Nordic ski racing when I was a teenager. Skiing where I grew up was mostly tree skiing, and summit is runs above the tree line, but it gets really cold with a lot of snow.
Then I went to Slovenia in 1988 for a year as an exchange student between high school and university. Instead of going to school, I spent most of my time climbing and picking up the language. Slovenia has a deep climbing culture.
To put it into perspective, the front page of the sports section in the national newspaper every Monday was all about climbing with route conditions and notable climbs during the weekend.
What would you consider your top climbing achievement?
Most people would probably consider climbing Nanga Parbat (Pakistan, ninth highest mountain in the world, 8,125 meters) in 2005 or soloing K7 (Pakistan, 6,934 meters) in 2004. But I am also proud of the climbing I did in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska in the ’90s. All the climbs are different.
Alaska really focused around climbing-style and trying to do the routes really quickly; routes in the Canadian Rockies are technically really serious with many difficult pitches one after another.
The big wall face in Denali, Alaska, is intense and soloing K7 for me felt like the evolution of my Alaskan climbing, such as single push accents. Nanga Parbat was like combining everything I knew about mountain climbing.
When it comes to alpinism, you’re considered a traditionalist.
It has pretty much always been the way I’ve looked at it. I was associated with expeditions twice that fixed rope, and I felt we needed to clean the rope when we were done and take everything out. It’s just logical to me.
I grew up going to the mountain for backpacking, fishing and climbing, and in our family you do not leave things such as trash behind. It is basic stuff you learn in Boy Scouts. So why would you leave any gear on the mountain?
What’s the difference between climbing and professional guiding?
They are completely different activities to me. They just occur in the same environment. I don’t guide nearly as much as I used to, because I’ve had other opportunities in the past few years. I mostly guide in the USA since my schedule is so constrained between expeditions and other work commitments, that I don’t have time to do much international guiding. Usually it’s climbing in Alaska or ice climbing in the lower 48 states.
You’ve traveled all over the world but live in Terrebonne, Oregon. Why there?
There are lots of reasons. Terrebonne is a nice place to live with easy access to good rock climbing areas (such as Smith Rock National Park). It’s a really easy place to travel from now because the Redmond Airport is just 15 minutes away.
What climbers have inspired you the most?
Reinhold Messner and Walter Bonatti. And one of my favorite is Hermann Buhl from Austria, the first person to summit Nanga Parbat in 1953. He wrote an amazing book called Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage. I recommend it.
“The simpler we make things, the richer the experience.” —Steve House
What’s the difference between an amateur and professional climber?
Although a lot of people consider me a professional climber, I do not. I am just a climber. A significant amount of my income comes from working with sponsors who support my trips, but I think there’s a misconception that sponsored athletes cash checks every month and do whatever they want. But there are a lot of commitments. I’m in Japan for two weeks, but I’m here for work.
What climb do you think every mountaineer should do once in their life?
I’d say Mt. McKinley in Alaska. It’s the highest mountain in North America, but what makes it special are the routes. They encompass everything it means to climb a mountain. McKinley is bigger, colder, higher, longer and more difficult than what most people are used to. You get to Alaska and all of a sudden realize it is a whole other level. It’s a really incredible experience.
When did you first climb Mt. McKinley?
I first climbed it in 1992. I actually went there before and did not summit. I wasn’t ready at that time. I learned a lot from that experience, went back home and figured out what I needed to do to climb it again.
You’ve climbed all over, but are there certain climbs you still dream of doing?
Wow, so many…a friend and I are going to Makalu in September; it’s on the border of Nepal and Tibet and is the fifth highest peak in the world.
Any advice for people interested in getting into alpine sports?
Have fun. Start with whatever interests you the most. Some people start sport climbing, some non-technical winter mountaineering …everybody’s different.
What do you enjoy most: skiing, rock climbing or mountaineering?
Mountain climbing, for sure. Although some days I love rock climbing, alpinism is my passion. And my gift definitely lies more towards alpinism than rock climbing.
Was there a point when you decided to be a climber? Do you have any other goals?
Some people might think there are two ways to look at the world in general; either try to experience everything a little, or try to experience a few things really deeply. I chose the latter. Growing up, I was lucky to be able to experience a lot of different things such as kayaking, fly fishing, skiing and everything else I could imagine. Some time in my 20s I wanted to see what it is like to be really good at one thing. It’s been a very rewarding path for me.
I just want to continue to climb the highest level I can, while I can, and see how it goes. At some point in my life, I decided to see how good I could become at alpine climbing. Companies talk about having a mission statement, and that was mine. I shaped everything else around that goal.
How do you rate Japanese alpinists?
I think one of the most striking things, current or past, is Japanese climbers are incredible explorers, especially in the Himalayas. Japanese alpinists contributed a lot more than people realize. I may be wrong, but my impression of the Japanese mountaineering community is that culturally they are quite humble. They have been first to go a lot of places and help develop different areas. I’ve met some Japanese climbers doing hard routes in Alaska and other places in the world, and the younger generations in Japan have some pretty strong alpinists now.
Is there any climbing or other activities you’d like to do in Japan?
I’ve heard the quality of winter climbing here is quite good, and I’d like to do some sport climbing. And I really like the Japanese food. It’s one of my favorite parts of coming over here.
“I wanted to see what it is like to be really good at one thing. It’s been a very rewarding path for me.” —Steve House