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  • Sabin Russell

Henry's Free Ascents

A year ago last January, Henry Barber and his climbing partner, Rob Taylor, were negotiating a wall of ice 18,000 feet up the steep slope of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro. With the sudden violence that is the mark of most mountain accidents, Taylor slipped, fell and shattered his ankle.

Using a limited supply of ice screws to secure a safety line, Henry assisted his injured partner halfway down a 4000-foot descent. When the screws ran out, the two crept down the remaining half of the wall without a rope. Henry then hiked 37 miles through the African jungle to get help.

That was one of the most perilous moments in the life of Henry Barber, but in the comfort of his Madison, New Hampshire, living room, he recalled the incident as if it were a simple stroll through a park. "I have a lot of confidence," he remarked. "Although people around me sometimes think I have more than I need for my own good."

Henry has used that confidence to take him a long way. At the age of 25, he is known today as one of the foremost rock climbers in the world. His specialty is "free climbing," a technique of ascending difficult rock faces without using pitons, nuts and other "aids" to support the climber's weight. Free climbers normally carry a safety line for use only in the event of a fall, but on about 10 percent of Henry Barber's ascents, he carries no safety lines at all. "I enjoy climbing alone," says Henry. "With no equipment and no ropes to carry up and no one telling me what to do."

Climbing has become a way of life for Henry, and he has used his consummate skill and reputation as a climber to make a very comfortable living. As president and founder of Mountain Ventures, Inc., he has traveled to rock climbing sites in more than 20 countries on five continents. He has climbed literally thousands of rock faces, pioneering hundreds of new route and frequently making the first free ascent of routes previously accomplished only through the use of aids.

He is able to pay for these trips through a combination of lecture and consulting fees, climbing lesson fees, and sales commissions as a representative of Chouinard mountaineering equipment and Asolo boot.

For example, Barber is able to earn $200 a shot delivering lectures to mountaineering shops and travel clubs. While he spent $1,700 on a six week climbing tour of the Soviet Union two years ago, he has since earned almost $6,000 by lecturing about the experience.

Henry's Madison home reflects the life of a professional climber. High up on Tasker Hill, his living room window offers a panoramic view of Mount Washington. His bookshelves are lined with books on mountaineering, displaying titles like Hard Rock, Climb, and Straight Up. From the walls hang pictures of mountains and men dangling precariously beneath overhanging ledges.

Above his desk, there is a beautiful color photograph of a man climbing up the sheer face of a seaside cliff; Henry three years ago, ascending the 600 foot Gogarth Cliff on the coast of Wales. Six hundred feet is about the height of a 50-story building. Henry climbed Gogarth without ropes.

That dramatic ascent brought Henry international fame. it was filmed by an ABC television camera and broadcast in 1977 on the series "American Sportsmen." the show was later to win a Teddy Award as the "best sports documentary of the year."

Viewers should get a chance to see Henry on "American Sportsman" again next year with a broadcast of his scheduled ascent of the 500 foot Bridalveil waterfall, near Telluride, Colorado.

Henry has climbed the frozen falls once before, and he plans to climb it again for television on February 16. His partner will be Jeff Lowe, whom Henry described as "the best ice climber in the country." Lowe is pictured on the cover of the December 11,1978, issue of Sports Illustrated, where there is a story about his own solo ascent of Bridalveil falls.

Henry will be climbing this time with both a partner and safety lines, but the climb will be by no means easy. The ice surrounding waterfalls is aerated and brittle, and although Henry did not mention it, there is a celebrated jinx surrounding those who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He pointed to a picture of the frozen falls in the magazine and noted, "a few days ago, a climber was injured when he fell from here to there . . . news travels fast in the climbing world, when it's bad."

Although danger is an inherent aspect of rock climbing, Henry Barber doesn't seem to think about it, Indeed, Henry believes the fear of getting hurt can be a climber's worst enemy "In free climbing, it is ideal to have a good strength-to-weight ratio, and it is nice to be limber, but most important is that you've got to have a good head, a good attitude. Falling doesn't enter into it. Don't ever think I'm going to get hurt."

While Henry says that he has no fear of falling, he does admit to a fear of heights. It is an interesting distinction for a man who spends most of his time hanging onto tiny rock ledges. "I hate ladders," he said. "Wooden ladders scare me and I don't like to be on one. But I feel secure on a natural surface. I like steep walls or overhanging rocks."

Although Henry considers himself a mountaineer, he says "I hate to climb mountains." He sees no point to a sport whose criterion of success is to reach the summit. "Peaks are an added drudge," he explained. "If reaching a peak was all there was to it, you'd be bored."

For Henry, satisfaction comes not in reaching the top, but in the manner in which a challenging section of rock is climbed. In his terminology, a rock face is not "climbed" but is "accomplished." He does not think in terms of beating the mountain ("You can never conquer the elements, "he said), but rather in terms of surpassing human limits.

"I take tremendous pleasure in doing it differently," he explained. "I get a sense of accomplishment by always feeling I've done it differently from somebody else."

Perhaps a mark of Henry's individuality is the sheer number of rock faces he has "accomplished." He records every climb, and for each of his globe hopping trips he has notebooks filled with charts detailing each climb, the method of ascent, and comments about the particular site.

The pace of his climbing activity can only be described as "frenzied." He lists as his best achievement: "constant activity." In the last five years, he has averaged 85 plane flights and 45,000 miles of driving each year. Although his growing business has taken him off the mountiansides to a certain extent this year, he calculates that most years he has spent 250 to 300 days climbing.

A native of Sherborne, Massachusetts, Henry began rock climbing at the age of 15. Rock climbing became a life's ambition, he says, "about three weeks after I got into it."

He adds "I found a niche in something I was good at. Like Willie Mosconi in pool or Chris Evert in tennis, Back then, I could see being outdoors all my life, and rock climbing was an obvious choice, a path to follow . . . There are rocks all over the world, and interesting things on top of rocks."

Indeed, rock climbing has been for Henry Barber a means to an end. "I take more interest in the people and places I've been to than the rocks themselves," he said.

His travels have taken him to every continent except South America and Antarctica. He has criss-crossed the United States dozens of times, and climbed in such diverse regions as Africa, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Thailand, and Australia. In the future? "I'm hot for China," he said.

Rock climbing has afforded Henry a treasured opportunity "to be in places where other people haven't been," and to see what few, if any, people will ever see. "Five percent of Australians will ever have seen a Koala in the wild," he said. "I saw one in only six weeks. That's exciting."

Henry Barber's life is exciting, and as most would observe, dangerous. That seems to be the way he likes it. He told of one close call where, while climbing in Scotland, a film crew accidentally triggered an avalanche on him. As Henry puts it: "The beer tastes better after it."

Postscript: Learn more about Henry Barber in this YouTube video -- "The world was my college." Legendary climber Jeff Lowe is now suffering from a disease similar to ALS, but is still very inspiring.

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