Synnott speaks on travels to Tibet

The disappointing experience of having to turn back before reaching a summit after traveling thousands of miles and performing a steep and dangerous ascent has happened to Mark Synnott many times.

“It’s the story of my life,” he said. At his slide show last Friday night, entitled “Adventures in the Tibetan Borderlands,” presented by the Williams Outing Club (WOC), Synnott, a world-class climber, talked about some of his most interesting expeditions in the past few years, as well as his motivations for and love of climbing.

When Synnott was growing up, he watched the climbers on Cathedral Ledge, a cliff in New Hampshire, through binoculars with his father. He thought that mountain climbing was one of the most interesting things he had ever seen, and so, at the age of 14, decided to try the sport for himself. He went to Cathedral to learn from the more experienced climbers, read books, worked with guides and taught himself how to climb. He attended Middlebury College, where he continued working on improving his climbing skills. His talent caught the eye of North Face, which sponsors a team of experimental mountain climbers on their expeditions, and he was accepted as part of the team. North Face financed his exotic expeditions and allowed him to travel to many different parts of the world, including Pakistan and Tibet, and perform feats never before attempted.

Synnott’s presentation focused on a few of his more recent expeditions. He first talked about his adventures in Alaska in the summer of 2001. Traveling there with another member of the North Face team, he decided to climb a mountain near Denali, the highest peak in North America, without knowing exactly what it was (They later discovered that it was Moose’s Tooth). They planned to make the climb a day trip so that they would not need to bring much heavy gear, such as sleeping bags. As they neared the top, however, it started snowing, and the day grew later. They attempted to rappel down the wrong side of the mountain, and then had to climb back up and find the correct side for the descent in blinding white out, when they were hardly able to see. “Even at the worst of it, I never said I was going to quit climbing,” Synott said. “I thought about it, and said ‘Um, no.’” Luckily, the pair eventually found the correct route down, although they were too drained, emotionally and physically, to continue on their Alaskan trip.

Synnott went to Alaska again in the summer of 2002 for another trip. He was initially supposed to go to India, but two days before the North Face expedition left, the U.S. government ordered all Americans to evacuate because of an escalating border dispute with Pakistan. The North Face team then decided to go to Alaska in order to attempt to climb Mt. Dickey, which has the largest rock face in America (5,000 ft.). Before attempting Mt. Dickey, however, they decided to warm up on the nearby Eyetooth. They climbed for 12 hours, and ended up within 100 feet of the summit when clouds began descending. Within half an hour, the cliff was covered with snow and ice, and the three-person team could not finish the route and had to descend.

After this, they spent time resting to rebuild their confidence before attempting Mt. Dickey. Due to a two week storm, they had plenty of resting time. Although one of the three decided to go back, the other two climbers wanted to attempt Mt. Dickey. As on his other climbs, Synnott decided it would be best to travel in a fast and light style, with a minimal amount of gear. The climbing was not too difficult, and pair covered 4000 feet in 11 hours.

However, at this point both climbers were quite tired, and a storm was approaching. They were unable to cover the last 1,000 feet and reach the summit, and once again had to rappel down the way they came up. This concluded the team’s Alaskan expedition.

In August, Synnott, Jared Ogden, Pete Athens and a few other members of the North Face team traveled to a small valley in the mountains in Tibet. It had never been reached by outsiders before 1997, and the nomads were very friendly to the team. “The best thing about this expedition was that it was a really amazing cultural experience,” Synnott said. In the valley he visited, there was a 700 year old monastery that, unlike most others in China, was not destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, due to its remote location. Synnott was particularly interested in the religious aspect of the lives of the nomads because he has been interested in Buddhism since college. His slides of the valley and the village he visited were breathtakingly beautiful, and he said, “it was like a paradise.” The team decided to climb some of the surrounding mountains, which had never been climbed before by outsiders, and asked permission from the monastery’s living Buddha to climb them.

“He thought it was really weird, but said okay,” Synnott said.The team climbed many of the rock spires, and was encouraged by the fact that the rock was very good. “The rock was some of the best stuff we’d ever seen,” Synnott said. At the top of one of the towers they climbed, they needed to climb a very smooth face to reach the summit. Thus, there were no cracks for handholds, and the climbers realized that they would need to drill bolts into the rock in order to climb it. Although they had done this before, they were unsure whether or not they should leave this rock in its pristine state. Athens, a Buddhist, recommended that they should, and Synnott agreed. Although they were unable to reach the summit of that particular tower, they still felt that they had an amazing experience overall in Tibet. Synnott said “The reason why I do this is that I seek adventure – I didn’t really need to do the climbs to get this experience.”

At the conclusion of the presentation, Synnott responded to questions, including many about the ethics of going into a practically untouched valley and possibly corrupting its beauty. Synnott explained how he tried to have as little impact as possible, and felt few people, if any, would follow in the team’s footsteps and also go to this valley. Due to a new road leading up to it, more Chinese tourists are visiting it, and Synnott feels that they will probably have more effect on the valley’s way of life in the long term than he and his team.

Synnott plans to continue climbing, and in the spring will go on a North Face sponsored expedition to Venezuela to climb tepuis, which are rock spires, in the Amazonian jungle. He is also interested in returning to Tibet. He likes to climb places where no one has climbed before, because, as he quoted his friend Alex Lowe, “you can’t have a true adventure unless the outcome is uncertain.”