From Urban Streets to Himalayan Peaks: In Conversation with Chris Warner: the Second American to Successfully Summit all the Worlds’ 8,000 Metre Peaks

RMA: Growing up in the East in the USA doesn’t necessarily inspire a lot of climbers?

Chris: I grew up in New Jersey, and the town parole officer dragged me into the woods for five days on a hoods-in-the-woods trip, one of the first Outward Bound alternative programs in the country.

RMA: So what was the trouble?

Chris: I was extremely entrepreneurial. That’s how I got in trouble. Not to go into detail, let’s just say that I probably had more cash as a seventh, eighth, and ninth grader than I think I do now. Anyway, some of that stuff is now legal. 

That was the way I was headed because I grew up right across the George Washington Bridge from New York City, and it was just like “What do you do in that world?” 

Most of my friends just ended up in prison.

There were two instructors when I was 15 who ran this hoods in the woods course. One of them was Rachel Holtzworth. She had just come off of the first all-women’s expedition to Denali. Funnily enough, she reached out to me the other day after I finished the 14 Peaks. And it was 44 years ago that I first met her! 

The very first person who’s ever taken me climbing reaches out and she’s totally fired up. I’m like, “Look, it was your fault that I started climbing.” 

Then I was in college in Boulder and I just couldn’t stand being in college. I spent more time soloing the First Flatiron than I did in class. I eventually graduated, but I was like, screw this, I’m leaving school. I went to work for that same program back East. I was 18 years old and we were taking kids out of the maximum security prison in New Jersey into the woods for up to six months, trying to rehabilitate them.

Willy Unseould also taught at the same outdoor program that I was working for. Willy’s philosophy and one I’ve always shared is that an expedition is not a success when you summit the peak, but only when you come back home and apply what you’ve learned. An expedition is just an opportunity for personal growth. 

And there is his other great line, “don’t reach the peak, but miss the point.” 

I think a lot of our generation, certainly American and maybe New Zealand and English climbers, all share that same perspective.

Josephine Clark and Chris Warner at Gasherbrum Advanced Base Camp after his ascent of the Gasherbrum peaks. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

RMA: You did a lot of very hard, and undoubtedly, very dangerous climbs, in your formative years, long before you started on the big peaks – what were those like? 

Chris: We went to Peru and my buddy Danny Jenkins and I did 10 peaks in two months. We only climbed hard stuff. We just thought, you know, you’ve rock climbed in Eldorado Canyon – and at the time, if you did Rosie Crucifixion (a notoriously difficult 5.10), you just have this idea of what hard climbing is supposed to be and what’s possible. 

Then three of us went to Shivling in India. 

We got up the peak and then on the way down, the anchor popped and I sailed 450 feet through the air, crashing into the side of the mountain. Luckily, it was a 60 plus degrees slope and covered in snow, and I bounced and landed like a dart about 50 feet later. So in total l lost 500 vertical feet in 6 seconds and had a tiny scratch on my nose, but severe psychological damage.

And at that time, every time everything went wrong – like blizzards, or anything, I was like, bring it on! It just brought out in me this fighter. And that is obviously addicting. 

Then I went to Nepal and I saw the potential for a new route on the West Face of Ama Dablam, but the only time to climb safely seemed to be winter. So we went in December 1990 and we summitted on the afternoon of the third day. It was like 70 pitches and it was badass. The climbing magazines were saying it was probably the hardest things done in the Himalaya that year, and maybe it was, it wasn’t repeated again until 2021. It was super hard mixed climbing, really ballsy. I had frostbite on nine fingers because I had to climb a bunch of pitches with just liner gloves on.

RMA: So it was hard routes, big mountains, nearly getting killed and still loving it – yet at some point you started a business that became highly successful – and legally this time. 

Chris: This was right when I was starting Earth Treks, and I’m also suddenly stuck being a climbing guide. So I was a climber first and then I accidentally become a guide. 

RMA: And your first 8,000 metre peak?

Chris: A friend and I went to do the Polish route on Cho Oyu’s Southwest Face, then bailed and ended up racing up the normal route, going from Camp 2 to the summit without Oxygen or Sherpas..

RMA: And if you think back to those early hard climbs and your first big peak, what’s changed?

Chris: Ego has always been a huge part of 8000 meter peak climbing. And people climbed for their own internal reasons. It really hit me hard in Pakistan this summer, with people climbing with the same amount of ego, but their ego is completely geared towards external things. External validation of what they are doing.

RMA: That’s so interesting, having internal versus external motivation. We were surrounded by that when we met on Gasherbrum last summer weren’t we? It was like the Himalayan Hollywood all came to the mountains in Pakistan this summer?

Chris: That’s right, we weren’t climbing around people. We were climbing around people that were brands. They were trying to be famous because of the content they were creating on Instagram. The mountains were a backdrop for their #lipstickedsmiles.

They’re all externally focused, but I don’t think they get the joy that we get. Like when we were sitting around on the Banana Ridge together looking around, just enjoying the place and the view. 

Camp 2 atop the Banana Ridge, Gasherbrum 2. Photo:Robert Mads Anderson

RMA: I loved that Banana Ridge.

Chris: And it was so much fun. How much time did the four of us just sit there chatting? Because we were ecstatic at the setting. We used our friendship as an excuse to stay in the setting. 

I just had dinner with three people who summited Manaslu, and we were talking about this internal versus external motivation, and I asked “ how many people do you think were externally motivated on a Manuslu?” 

And they thought it was 70 plus percent of the climbers. I was shocked that climbing has attracted people who were taking such risks, spending so much time and money, just to impress others.

RMA: Let’s talk quickly about Vinson, because when I first met you we were stuck in Base Camp for over a week, right over Christmas, and it was the last peak you guided right?

Chris: Yes, I’d done probably a dozen Aconcagua’s, a dozen Kilimanjaro’s, Ecuador more times than I could count. I was on the treadmill forever. 

And I actually think I was really good at the groups, though I never liked the small one-on-one stuff. If you wanted to talk to me about what colored mittens are warmer, I would lose my mind. But if you wanted to talk to me about your cancer diagnosis or wanted to talk about leading teams and building companies, because I taught at the Wharton School of Business, I was totally into it. I liked the big group dynamics, that was the part that really got me excited about that world.

RMA: That’s a very different area, it’s a long ways from doing a new route on Ama Dablam – what do you think is behind that?

Chris: I’m very competitive, but I realized early on, you’ve got to figure things out. You’ve got to be curious to succeed. And I think we came from an era of when curiosity was an amazing advantage. 

Curiosity fuels everything for me, especially as we think about being entrepreneurial. With the climbing walls, I started the business with $592, which is every penny I had, and just built it from there.  

RMA:When we met on Gasherbrum and you scampered up both the peaks so quickly, with just a lone Sherpa, I had to admire your plan for finishing off the 8,000 metre peaks – how did you come up with that, when we were surrounded by people being dragged in groups from one peak to the next?

Chris: Robert, we were a product of this era where purity of style was so incredibly important. It was everything. My climbs of Shivling and Ama Dablam were alpine style climbs of new routes. There is no “purer” style. We tried to climb Cho Oyu in that style but conditions forced us on the normal route. 

The second 8,000 meter peak I did was Everest. But I was guiding and I ended up guiding Everest three different times. So, obviously you’re using oxygen and then Sherpa’s are there with you.  

Then I went on to solo the South Face of Shishapangma in 34 hours. 

That to me was climbing. No partner, no Sherpas, no oxygen. Then I finally did K2, just 3 of us and I fixed the bottleneck, it’s the way that we all climbed back then. 

Finally, 2017 rolled around and now I’m in my 50s. And I’m like, I can’t suffer that much. I physically can’t carry that much weight anymore. When we did K2 and were climbing to Camp Four, I bet I had 50 plus pounds on my back. We had just three people plus our tents and sleeping bags and all the climbing gear.

At some point you just have to admit your age and ask how am I going to do this?

Then I met Chhiring Sherpa and he was always the happiest person, you could hear his laughter from ten miles away. Chhiring is an amazing athlete, he currently holds the record for the fastest climb on K2. 

So we just bonded. We both like to climb fast and light and just get lots of vertical. 

Chris after back to back dashes up both G2 and G1 and back to Advance Base Camp before headed to Broad Peak. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

RMA: So you started over 20 years ago, but at what point did you decide, I want to do all the 8000 meter peaks?

Chris: Initially, it just wasn’t important to me. It became important after around peak number eight, after I’d crossed the midway point. 

RMA: So this year after finishing up Nanga Parbat, both the Gasherbrums and Broad Peak, your last peak was Manaslu. 

Chris: Right. We knew our climbing pace from Gasherbrum, like 175 – 180 meters of vertical an hour. So if we left our camp on Manaslu at 9 at night, we thought we would summit at six in the morning and see sunrise!  

Then we climbed 220 vertical meters an hour on our summit push of Manaslu. So around 3 a.m. we were on the summit, it’s dark obviously, and we thought:

”Okay, maybe we could sit here for a while, wait for some light. Then we’re just like, do you want to go Base Camp for breakfast?”

RMA: And how many years ago did you start the 8000 metre peaks?

Chris: 23 years and eleven months, it was September 27, of 1999 that I summitted Cho Oyo,  and I only know this because of looking at 8000er’  They know more about the records than I know about myself.

RMA: What really stands out for you when you think back over the years of doing the 8000 meter peaks? 

Chris: Well, K2 really tried to kill me a couple of times. But you’ve got to figure out how to survive. 

Chhiring Sherpa on the slopes of Nanga Parbat.

The worst parts are always the other people on the mountains. Once I had to turn back on Nanga Parbat, there was a big guided German group climbing, and you could see these black clouds forming. These two Austrian guys were following me, but with no ice axes. They said, “Oh, you don’t need an ice ax.”

And I’m like, “Fuck that, if you’re not going to summit because you’re carrying a 14 ounce ice ax, you couldn’t summit anyway.” 

But I had to make the decision to turn back just short of the summit to save about a dozen people because the shit had hit the fan and it was obvious that these people were not going to make it.

And to this day, I’m angry about that. Other people’s selfishness and lack of responsibility cost me that summit. And then I had to go back to Nanga Parbat four times before I could get it and on the fourth time, I still needed two tries.

It’s the only peak where I was literally crying as I walked to the summit. So much shit had happened on that peak, and I was happy to finally get up it.

The steep upper ramparts of Gasherbrum 1, viewed from Camp 2 on Gasherbrum 2. photo Robert Mads Anderson

RMA: And a best time?

Chris: The best time also has to do with the people, and I think it’s really the same idea, about climbing being focused around people.

This summer I celebrated my birthday at K2 Base Camp (for the fourth time), after coming off the Gasherbrums where I saw you and before doing Broad Peak. 

All the foreigners had left to go to Camp One and Camp Two. And it was me and all of the Sherpas and the Pakistani staff. They were relieved, because they didn’t have to take care of all their high maintenance clients. And at 8 at night, all of a sudden, the birthday cake comes out and the bottles of whiskey.

And I was thinking “Oh my God, this is when everybody is happy.”

We were in this bubble of happiness and I realized this is what I’m really going to miss.

And the fact that guys like you and I have been climbing here for four decades. We’ve experienced so much, and we hopefully bring wisdom and respect to the westerners and the Sherpas who are really making it happen. It’s about the unsaid things, reading between the lines that exist between us and them. Because we have years of caring for each other and doing things together. 

The final summit – in the dark atop Manaslu after climbing much faster than expected – and then going back to Base Camp for a late Breakfast.

RMA: You’ve finished all the 8,000 metre peaks now, so what do you do next, any plans?

Chris: Well, I really want to go back to technical climbing. I want to get back to the Nose on El Cap and the Diamond in Colorado.

RMA: Okay. Quick last one. You live in Aspen, Colorado around the corner from where I grew up and started skiing. What is your favorite ski run?

Chris: it’s called Kali. K-A-L-I. It’s this totally badass tree run that is a meter wide at the top and a week after it’s snowed, there’s still fresh powder back there. It is so amazing. And everybody I take in there is like, “Oh my God, this is awesome.”