Raphael Slawinski doesn’t take his students climbing. He’s happier teaching them the first law of thermodynamics or quantum mechanics in his Calgary classroom. If they’re having a hard time in class, chances are they might have a harder time keeping up with their professor in the hills. The Polish-born physicist also happens to be a world-class alpinist, though he’d still call himself a weekend warrior. We were able to get a moment of his time before the semester starts to ask a few questions about maintaining a career in science, while tempting the laws of physics in his spare time.
Even though your father was a climber in Poland, you didn’t take in on until your family moved to Canada when you were a teenager. How come? It wasn’t until we moved to Calgary that I was living close to the mountains. Before that we lived in places like Warsaw and Paris, not exactly climbing destinations. But even so I did not take to climbing right away. Ironically it was moving away to Chicago to go to graduate school that made me realize how important mountains and climbing had become to me.
Your mother is also a physicist and your father is a geologist. Has science always been a passion for you? Why? I suppose having both parents be scientists made me aware from early on that science wasn’t just something you took at school and then promptly forgot, but that it was something you could do your whole life. I think my fascination with science started with astronomy. Not so much looking through a telescope, but thinking about the incredible things out there, the vastness of space just beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
You mentioned that climbing is a geek sport, and it comes naturally to someone given to science? Can you speak to that? I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize, but it seems to me that climbing attracts more than its fair share of people who could be called that. Maybe it’s because climbing is the kind of sport where the mental aspect is just as important, if not more so, than the physical ones. Alpine climbing, with its challenges of route finding, poor protection and commitment, is certainly very much a mental game, but even bouldering is often more about problem solving than just pullin’ down.
How do you balance being an academic and professional climber? And a husband?
It’s not always easy, and it can cause a fair amount of angst—for myself, agonizing over the fact that I’m either not working or not climbing enough—and for my wife, when all she sees of me is an obsessive rushing around between work and climbing projects. At the same time the academic life does offer the benefit of large chunks of downtime, so maybe it’s not such a bad combination. And sometimes being a weekend warrior can mean that when you do get out, you are that much more motivated to get things done.
Because of where you live (in Calgary) there really isn’t an off season, but a chance to change up the focus? Is the change of season like a semester change? It’s a good analogy. Just like semesters start and end whether you want them to or not, so do the seasons. Right now for example I’m bummed that summer is coming to an end; it’s getting colder, there’s a bunch of fresh snow in the mountains, and all kinds of alpine rock climbing projects will have to be shelved until next year. But I expect that in a couple of weeks I’ll be starting to get psyched about mixed climbing, first high up in the mountains on the big north faces, and in a couple of months down in the valley bottoms too. In the end I love this alternation of the seasons, it keeps the whole game fresh and interesting.
Speaking of semester changing, the seasons are giving way to autumn and Alpine climbs. What SCARPA boots are you keen on these days? For a couple of years now the Phantom Guides have been my go-to boots for long ice and mixed routes, as well as for bigger alpine hits. Of all the boots I’ve used they offer the best combination of dexterity, comfort and warmth. The first time I wore the boots I did a 600-m new route with a 4-hour approach, and I did not even get any hot spots. I’m really sold on the integrated gaiter design: it’s sleek, tough and functional. And the new Phantom 6000 is a great cold-weather version of much the same boot. I used the 6000s last year in Alaska on a couple of single-push missions, and they kept my feet warm while still performing well on some pretty technical ground. Between those two models, I have pretty much all of my alpine climbing covered.
Will Gadd introduced you to Helmcken Falls. Originally, you weren’t interested, but you’ve since changed your tune. Why? I can be perverse sometimes, and the more he enthused about the place, the more I dug my heels in. I think at the time I made some noises about it just being glorified sport climbing, nothing to do with “real” climbing, etc. And yes, it is “just” sport climbing, but with a couple of caveats. First of all, I dare anyone to take a fall on a screw placed in the “snice” that forms on the overhanging walls of the cave. And second, when you are a few overhanging and traversing pitches up, with a whole river pounding into a crater in the ice far below, sport climbing can begin to feel pretty adventurous. But most of all, upside down ice climbing is just amazingly fun. In the end, it’s all the justification you need.
Your father is 75, but he still climbs Water Ice 5. One can see that’s not a common thing. Did you ever imagine yourself teaching college, and weekending with your old man on multi-pitch mixed climbs? He’s definitely an inspiration, both that he’s still so fit, but even more than that, that he still has so much fun getting out. I hope I have some of his energy and drive in 30 years’ time. But did I ever see myself where I’m at now? I don’t think so. This whole middle-age thing has just crept up on me. One moment I was a promising young climber, the next I’m a veteran that young climbers ask for advice. How did that happen?
Do students offer to belay you on hard routes to get extra credit? I’ve climbed with some former students, but only after they were done with my course. Overall, I like to keep my working and climbing lives separate. Over the years I had thought about making a living from climbing, but in the end I’m glad I’ve kept climbing as the ultimate getaway.
Photos courtesy of Wiktor Skupinski.