Nearly seven years ago, climbers Mark and Janelle Smiley set out to climb a long list of difficult routes made famous by a 1979 guidebook aptly titled “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”. Their goal was to document their journey up more than 150K vertical feet of rock, ice, and glaciated technical terrain from New Mexico to Alaska. They have had Goal Zero products with them almost since the beginning and we have been proud to power their journey.
They took the time to sit down with us to answer a few questions about the project.
Why the 50 classics?
J- “Roughly 11 years ago, Mark was taking a course with the AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) and met a fellow climber who had done 20 in 20 (20 classics in 20 days). He asked the climber what the classics were and he explained they were from an iconic early guidebook called the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. He asked him if anyone had done all 50 and he said no, so Mark decided it would be a great challenge. He came home and asked if I was into it. I like adventure and climbing and said, ‘Let’s do it’. We thought maybe it would take us a couple years, we had no idea what it entailed.”
M- “I had climbed a few in California on my first rock climbing road trips, and they were amazing. I figured they would all be as high quality as Yosemite rock climbing, so why not right? Turns out they have not all been done for pretty good reason.”
What is the biggest thing that has changed for you throughout this journey?
M- “I now have a greater appreciation for just how amazing our continent is. We went to places we would have never gone, were it not for the catalyst of this quest. Every place I visited was magical for one reason or another. Different people, flora, fauna, it was all unique and wonderful in its own way.”
J- “ For me it was my comfort level, confidence, and learning to control my fear. When we started the project, I had climbed a couple peaks in Peru and guided on Mt Rainier. I had never climbed a big wall, nor did I really know what aid climbing was. The first time we went to climb the West Ridge of Moose’s tooth I was terrified, it was way beyond my comfort level. I didn’t have confidence in our ability and I thought everything was going to kill me; glaciers, crevasses, saracs, cornices, rock fall, my partner…. We went back three years later with more experience and it felt like a different peak. I felt confident, comfortable, and I wasn’t afraid. We moved up and down the mountain with style and grace, it almost felt easy.”
Best and worst moment?
M- “Reaching 18,000 feet on the Cassin Ridge on Denali was on of the best moments for me. At that point I knew we would make it to the top. It had taken us three attempts, and we were finally going to succeed. The weather was perfect for us. Janelle and I didn’t argue all all, no horrifying moments on the climb. Everything just clicked. It was amazing. For the worst, there have been plenty; Watching Janelle fly off the glacier early on our Mt Logan attempt due to her hips being injured, seeing Janelle get hit in the leg by a football sized rock that came really close to her head while rappelling off Royal Arches… I also almost killed her on our first attempt of Longs Peak when I pulled loose a huge rock and it zipped past her. Pretty much anytime I thought I might loose my soulmate was the worst.”
J- “Sitting in the helicopter looking out at the massive glacier flow patterns coming off Saint Elias after an unreal and successful mission, one I thought would never happen was definitely a high point in the journey. Getting hit with rockfall… no that wasn’t as bad as having to sit in a tent for nine days on three separate occasions… no that wasn’t as bad as eating freeze dried food, ha. In all reality the worst was when I struggled to control my fear, and it got the best of me.”
How did this project change your relationship?
M- “It’s hard to quantify really. I mean seven of the ten years we have been married have been dedicated to this project in one way or another. A lot changes over that amount of time. But I feel like this project has made us a better team, we can tackle anything together, and we definitely don’t sweat the small stuff. Like putting the toilet seat down, or leaving hair in the shower drain.”
J- “It made our relationship stronger, it had to, we lived in a van or a tent most of the time. When you are upset, you can’t be mad for long because you are depending on each other. Zipping the tent really fast as you get out doesn’t have the same effect as slamming a door. After leaving the tent you realize there’s nowhere to go because you’re on a glacier! Eskimo make up time.”
What do you wish you had known at the beginning?
J- “How big of a commitment it was. Well, if I had known that I may not of signed up for it, so I guess it was good not to know.”
M- “I wish that we had taken inspiration of the idea of 50 classic climbs, and made our own list to climb. That way when things got “real” we would have only ourselves to blame. Initially I thought we could knock them all out in a year or two tops, the climbs in the lower 48 can be done in a year, no problem. When you go north, the seriousness jumps considerably, as does the time and money requirement.”
What’s the most valuable camping hack you picked up through the years?
J- “Always pick a partner you might like to spoon with.”
M- “In cold weather, bring a sponge. Your breath will freeze to the inside of the tent, and then in the morning it drips on your face and sleeping bag. This is really annoying. The sponge is used to wipe it down. One more, if the weather is good, and bugs aren’t bad, leave the tent behind and sleep under the stars…that’s the best.”
Any advice you’d like to share?
J- “When it gets rough, it’s ok to cry… Let it all out, (but definitely don’t beat yourself up for crying and let it ruin your day) shake it off, then start climbing again. Move through those fears and frustrations, that’s courage!”
M- “You only live once, don’t piss it away staring at your phone.”
To learn more about the Smileys visit http://smileysproject.smugmug.com/