Mount Royal professor reaches new heights

Mountain climbers like Raphael Slawinski must grow weary of non-climbers like me asking that famous question, “Why do you climb?”

Although the question may be a cliché, Slawinski’s answer is not. Sitting in his office, surrounded by maps and photographs of Himalayan peaks, the associate professor of physics gives an insightful and personal response.

Professor Raphael Slawinski studies a route before climbing as diligently as if he were working on a complex theorem. In fact perhaps moreso considering the tiniest error puts his life at risk on an expedition.

“One of the things that draws me to climbing is that you lose yourself in it,” says Slawinski, who has taught in Mount Royal University’s Department of Math, Physics and Engineering for six years.

“Climbing is one of the few times when I’m truly in the moment — when I think only about what I’m doing at this very moment and not the future or the past. That kind of purity of thought and action is appealing sometimes.

“The people I climb with don’t question it; it’s just something we like doing. I think the moment you start questioning it you’re done, because it’s such an absurd activity,” Slawinski continues, with a laugh.

“But I get questions from colleagues here: ‘Why do you get up at ungodly hours in the morning? There’s some real physical risk that’s involved, so what’s the appeal?’

“I have a hard time coming up with a pithy response — other than it makes me feel extremely alive.”

It’s a passion that has also earned Slawinski an international reputation as a skilled ice climber. Known for making the first winter ascents of several mountains in the Canadian Rockies, Slawinski recently spoke at the Krakow Mountain Festival, Poland’s biggest mountaineering festival.

Later this year, he will also travel to Michigan and California to speak about his climbing.

A passion for the peaks

Slawinski’s parents were both climbers, so mountaineering is something he was aware of even as a child. But he didn’t think of himself as a climber until he moved away from the Rockies to attend graduate school in Chicago.

“All of a sudden, here I am in the middle of cornfields — and I was surprised that I actually missed going up into the mountains and climbing,” he says. “That made me realize how important climbing is to me.”

Since then, Slawinski has done countless climbs in the Rockies and in Alaska. This past summer, he made his third trip to Pakistan, part of a three-person team aiming to climb Pumari Chhish East, a mountain near the border between Pakistan and China.

At nearly 7,000 metres, the peak is renowned for its technical difficulty.

“Like a lot of peaks in the area, Pumari Chhish was still unclimbed, but that wasn’t the only reason we were attracted to it,” says Slawinski. “The unknown was a big part of the attraction — we didn’t know what we would run into.”

Award has ties to MRU history

A prestigious mountaineering award with links to Mount Royal University was instrumental in funding associate professor Raphael Slawinski’s expedition to Pakistan.

The John Lauchlan Memorial Award  was established in honour of a legendary mountaineer who was also the son of Douglas Lauchlan, Mount Royal’s President from 1976 until 1980.

“John was one of Canada’s best alpinists in the late 70s and early 80s,” Slawinski says.

“I never knew John, but from everything I’ve read about and heard about him, he was a brilliant climber.

“He saw possibilities that other people didn’t see and left behind him a legacy of these visionary climbs.”

John Lauchlan died in an avalanche in 1982.

The cash award that bears his name is administered in partnership with the Alpine Club of Canada to promote the development of Canadian mountaineers and explorers at an international level.

The 2008 award was presented to Slawinski and his climbing partners Eamonn Walsh and Ian Wested for their 2009 Pumari Chhish East Expedition.

“This award is given to small expeditions that propose to do something interesting, and we were fortunate enough to receive it,” Slawinski says.

“In some ways, we got the award so we could take the skills we’ve learned in the Canadian Rockies and use them on some of the biggest mountains on the planet.”

Slawinski’s expedition didn’t receive the award because of his connection to Mount Royal, but he is intrigued by how the Lauchlan award connects two major facets of his life: his teaching and his love for the mountains.

“I thought it was kind of neat that the award had these two aspects to it,” Slawinski says.

“It commemorates this brilliant climber but, at the same time, there are these academic roots to the very institution where I work.”

A matter of style

There were also technical challenges that attracted the team, who wanted to climb Pumari Chhish using a style of climbing called alpine style.

“Basically, you take everything you might need on your back,” Slawinski explains.

“Then you just start climbing and you climb until you get to the top — or until something else happens that forces you to go down.

“You’re climbing the mountain using as few means as possible. It’s kind of a self-imposed minimalism,” he says.

Ultimately, the team never did make the summit of Pumari Chhish — but that was not the only objective of the journey. (For more detail, see the Photo Gallery and read Slawinski’s blog.)

“What we tried was interesting because of that element of the unknown,” Slawinski says.

“It’s kind of funny to speak of progress in mountaineering — a discipline that ultimately is useless — but we were pushing the envelope — trying to push past a certain barrier to do something that hadn’t been done before.

“If one climbed for the moment when you stand on the summit, I don’t think you would enjoy it because that’s such a tiny, tiny part of the whole process,” Slawinski explains.

“It’s definitely the entire process that I enjoy. And yet, that means that a lot of the time you actually fail, especially because when you try harder things, you fail a lot. Which makes the few successes that much more precious.”

Peak inspiration

Slawinski and his climbing partners are already planning a return trip for the summer of 2011, and they’ve already identified a mountain they’d like to try — a 7925 metre peak called Gasherbrum IV.

“It’s been climbed before, but it has a fairly iconic status among climbers,” he says. “It’s simply an extremely beautiful mountain, so we’re inspired by both the difficulty and the aesthetic appeal.”

In the meantime, Slawinski is busy planning other trips — including a father-son expedition to Mount McKinley with his 73-year-old father this spring.

Slawinski also has some words of encouragement for those who think they aren’t capable of the kind of expedition he undertook on Pumari Chhish.

Slawinski says such a trip is something anyone can do if they’re passionate enough and if they want it badly enough.

“None of the people (on the expedition) was a professional climber,” he says. “It’s basically a few friends just going on an adventure. Just as some people might go on a fishing trip, that’s what we do.”

—Nancy Cope, Jan. 21, 2010

MRU goes global

It’s official: news about Mount Royal University’s name change has gone global.

Last October, Judy Hamilton, assistant to the associate vice-president, enrolment management, and her husband, George Sykora, did a 16-day trek through Nepal’s Gokyo and Solo Khumbu Valleys.

On the trek, they travelled with a team of a trip leader, three Sherpas and six porters.

“We couldn't have done the trek without them,” Hamilton says. “For us, they really made the trip seem ‘all about U.’”

Hamilton and her husband began their trek by flying from Kathmandu to Lukla in a 16-seat aircraft. Then they trekked to Gokyo Ri, Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar, which Hamilton says was the high point of the trek at 18,192 feet.

Left to right: Raj Rai, Mingma Sherpa and Ramesh Tamang show off their official Mount Royal University T-shirts.
“Interestingly, the cumulative elevation change we did on the trek, counting all the ups and downs along the way — and there were a lot of them — was more than the 29,028-foot height of Everest itself,” she says.

At the end of the trip, a big celebration was held where Hamilton and her husband presented the team with clothing, including three Mount Royal University T-shirts for the three Sherpas.

“They were very pleased with the T-shirts,” Hamilton says. “The standard of living over there is so different from here in Canada, so they were extremely grateful.”

When she got home, Hamilton also sent the team leader, Gauri, a package for the team that included additional clothing, gifts and photographs — including this one of the Sherpas wearing their T-shirts.

“They will absolutely love getting the pictures,” Hamilton says. “I will also e-mail this Face Time article to them once it comes out, as well as to the nine Australian clients who also trekked with us. I know the Sherpas will be very impressed with this!”