Carlos Buhler has built a climbing resume that spans the globe, much in the rarefied air of the Himalaya. Growing up in New York, he was introduced to the great outdoors at an early age, but it wasn’t until a trip to Europe while still a teenager that the majesty of the vertical wilderness took hold. At 62 year’s old, Buhler has swapped pitons for the pen as he moves into the next chapter of his vertical life. We were able to speak with him briefly during his writing residence in Banff earlier this winter.
What was it about the Italian Alps trip as a teen that sealed the deal for you with climbing?
In the summer of 1972, I was given the reins for the first time. I was given free choice: to climb or not to climb, to risk or not to risk. I was given the authority to risk it all if I so chose. In other words, during the summer of ’72 in the Italian Alps, the leader of our posse basically trained me and set me free to explore my limits. He judiciously watched over my decisions and gave much advice. But he also gave me the opportunity to reach as far as I dared into the climbing unknown. I was seventeen-years-old.
This gift was intoxicating. I had never before felt so in control of my own destiny. While I realized that I was a mere neophyte in the world of mountaineering, I was reckless with ambition and desire. When I emerged from this amazing summer of mental freedom, to make choices that ultimately decided whether I lived or died, I was drunk with desire to see where a life of climbing could lead.
What are the aesthetics or virtues about high altitude climbing that took you back to the big peaks again and again?
The allure of solving puzzles was at the heart of the attraction. Though I climbed in many areas around the globe, including most of the popular destinations that climbers identified, I felt that the greatest puzzles of all were laden with all the elements that mountains could throw at me. Among these elements was the hypoxia factor: with cold, technical barriers a given, what could be more of a hindrance than trying to function at a high enough level to solve extreme mountaineering challenges with a fraction of the oxygen available to my body? The high peaks of Asia represented the epitome of a challenge consisting of numerous and extremely complex moving parts. This complexity was what attracted me over and over to the high peaks of Asia.
When did you realize you had the physical and mental makeup to thrive in high alpine mountaineering?
When I led a small expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the spring of 1988 with Martin Zabaleta and Peter Habeler, it occurred to me that few other mountains would consist of more shifting targets and more complexity. Of course, I was aware that I was not choosing to solo Kangch, or attempt to climb in winter. These would have made things much more difficult. I fully realized I had not chosen to attempt a new route. (We climbed a variation of the North Face/Ridge first climbed by Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman and Doug Scott). But returning from Kangchenjunga, I realized not just my mental and physical strengths but, more importantly, my mental and physical limits. I knew I could thrive in the world of alpine climbing. But I also realized how quickly I could die in the world of alpinism. I realized how much separated me from the truly gifted alpine athletes—and the gifted and elite athletes in any sport. It made me very humble. I still had so much to learn.
You’ve had a long career adventuring in dangerous mountains, with positive and some negative outcomes? What’s your philosophy on managing risk?
I could write a book about managing risk. However, in a nutshell, I believe the essence of managing risk is based on compartmentalizing the risk factors into recognizable and understandable components or blocks. I separated geopolitical risk from interpersonal risk. I kept career risk separate from financial risk. I recognized my professional reputation risk was separate from physical risk. Each one of these was something I spent a great deal of time assessing and contemplating the possible outcomes. In most cases, I considered the absolute worst-case scenarios and tried to assess the likelihood of that outcome. I had to address the many fears I had, as well as the reluctance of my teammates, to take on these risks in all their forms. We had to accept the outcomes given to us: the agony of the mistakes we made as well as the victories we celebrated.
Who were two of your mentors and what were the most significant lessons passed onto you by mentors?
One was Louis F. Reichardt, my American partner with whom I shared a great deal of time on the Kangshung Face of Everest in 1983. Another was Javier Escartín, the Spanish (Aragon) partner with whom I spent much time in the Pyrenees, Alps and Peruvian Andes in the mid 1970’s. Both of these men taught me about so many things that it’s difficult to list them all. I have never tried. Let’s say that I grew up a great deal through the lessons they taught me. Most of the skills l learned from them were not about how to move over rock, ice and snow. They taught me life skills that I could carry with me through a lifetime, on and off the mountain.
Everything was mountaineering to me back then. It was a way of thinking and approaching everything I did. So the lessons they left me with were extremely useful: integrity, honor, keeping my word, respect for others and a willingness to consider really big dreams.
With several notable first ascents on some the world’s most formidable peaks, what does the current state of the art look like to you?
The landscape is beautiful. There is no limit to what is on the horizon today in mountaineering. I see a developing mindset, which continues to solve more and more difficult problems with more efficient and economical means. The development of present day solutions to mountaineering challenges is brimming with creativity and ingenuity. There is no stopping it. What were once complete barriers to productivity are now simply speed bumps along a path of new accomplishments.
After completing this last Banff Mountain and Wilderness Writing Workshop, do you have a certain project that’s keeping you connected to the mountains in other ways?
I am writing more now. The opportunity to spend three weeks as a resident artist at the Banff Centre with five other writers was amazing. We shared two exceptional editors who continuously reviewed our work and nudged us in the right direction. Although I can’t say what certain project awaits, I do know that expressing my thoughts through writing is a rewarding and satisfying process.