Miles Smart: Stripped Down and Going Light
For the Rest of Us
Cruising the Zodiac
Chamonix: To Climb
or Not to Climb
In the spring of 1998, an unknown 18-year-old climber from Seattle, Washington, settled into Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park and proceeded to push the limits of speed ascents in the Valley.
In just two seasons, '98 and '99, Miles Smart broke four speed records, three of those on popular trade routes: South Face on Washington's Column, 2:27 (with Dean Potter, which has since been broken); the Zodiac, 7:04 (with Chris MacNamara, the pair broke the previous record by an hour and 40 minutes); Tangerine Trip, 11:56 (with Dean Potter, over six hours ahead of the previous record); and, Aurora, 23:55 (with Brian McCray).
While the notion of speed ascents itself remains somewhat controversial, no one can doubt that wonderkind Smart has quickly become a serious contender in speed climbing in Yosemite, while at the same time making his mark in ice climbing and mountaineering. "I use Yosemite as my training ground for mountaineering," Smart says.
For years, the Cascade Mountains of the Northwest and the water ice of Canada were the young alpinist's stomping grounds. Since childhood, Smart has been ticking off some of the best technical routes in North America. At the tender age of 12, he climbed Mt. Rainier with his father, and shortly thereafter proceeded to summit almost all of the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.
After being introduced to the basics of technical climbing as a teenager, Smart began to climb faster and harder than his father...and his peers. Smart worked on his advanced freeclimbing skills at the University of Washington's "rock" a modernistic, man-made, outdoor climbing gym. And he further honed his alpine skills by climbing every weekend in the Cascades.
"Miles was not taught to climb by some bad ass mentor who hauled him up and taught him everything. No way, he's done this on his own," is how one climbing partner summed up the climbing education of Miles Smart.
In 1996 Smart met Bart Paull, another highly spirited, teenaged climber, who was equally obsessed with mountaineering. A sympatico relationship developed between the two that would see the pair on dozens of ascents.
"Miles is super mechanical," Paull explains. "I'd show Miles once and he'd have it."
One of the pair's most memorable climbing experiences was ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies. "Seven WI 6 climbs in one week," Smart recalls, "including T2, Nemesis, and Curtain Call, three were long ones with alpine starts. It was quite a trip."
The climbing partnership, however, was not to last. Smart's benchmark as an independent climber began at 16. Disgruntled after not being included on a coveted climb with Paull and Seattle climber Sean Courage, Smart found a young neophyte and attempted the formidable, Girth Pillar route on Mt. Stuart. Smart led every pitch.
Smart was so motivated to climb while still in high school that he elected to graduate a semester early so he could pursue climbing full time. By the end of high school in June 1998, Smart and Paull went in separate directions. Paull choose the path of higher education at Dartmouth, while, for now, Smart has decided to receive his "higher education" on the granite of Yosemite and in the mountains of the world.
When he left for Yosemite at the age of 17, Smart's climbing ethics and philosophical ideologies were already formed: "I like to climb mountains and ice and rock routes in the purest form possible, which is the free solo ascent. If a free solo ascent is not possible, then I like to climb the route in as stripped down a style (minimal equipment) as possible."
"When I climb a route," he said, "I respect the style in which it was put up. For instance, if it was put up with three bolts per pitch, then I climb it that way. I respect the creation and intent of the route." Smart has only sportclimbed about five times. With regards to rap bolting, he said, "I have no objection, I just haven't done it."
Again he emphasizes that his favorite climbing is free soloing, "Stripped down and going light is when it really becomes fun. When you are comfortable without a rope, that's the purest way to climb as long as you know your limits and stick to them. I solo routes within my limitation. People use the rope as a false sense of security. I love going out for the day with only my shoes and chalk bag. I climb all day - usually on-sight soloing, no harder than 5.9 and WI5+."
Miles Smart has a boyish look, but those who know and climb with him say he's a powerhouse of intelligence, determination, and confidence. Sean Courage, a climber 15 years Smart's senior, said, "Miles lacks fear, has total confidence in his ability, and is super calm and composed under pressure. He's not a brilliant athlete, he's just got a specific kind of mental strength that allows him to be a full-on, no bullshit, climber. Miles is the master of - 'it all goes.'"
Miles Smart already is hot, and a lot of people think he's just beginning to warm up. Working as a freelance guide, he is currently employed by Yosemite Search and Rescue. His goals include alpine style climbing in the Alps, Kyrgyzstan, Baffin Island, South America and the Himalaya.
Smart explains his past, present and future ascents simply, "I am inspired by Jim Donini, his style is pure - I'll always remember what he said to me: 'Remember, style is everything.'"
Jane Bromet, MountainZone.com correspondent