He had to make a decision fast.
It was the summer of 2013 and in five minutes, Raphael Slawinski was scheduled to leave his Islamabad hotel for a major expedition up K6 West mountain in Pakistan.
But only days before, a massacre at the hands of militants associated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had left 10 visiting climbers and one Pakistani cook dead near K6 basecamp. Now Slawinski and his partner Ian Welsted were faced with an excruciating call.
“I still had no idea what I was doing,” said Slawinski, “My bags were packed, but I still hadn’t fully committed.”
Not all of Slawinski’s life has been quite so dramatic. Though he is regarded as a world-class climber, his work in the field occupies only a fraction of his time. He has also earned a PhD in physics and has taught the subject since 2003 at Mount Royal University.
Slawinski, born in Warsaw, moved from the then Soviet controlled territory with his parents at 12 years old. His family briefly travelled throughout Europe and Northern Africa, living in France and Algeria briefly, before eventually settling in Calgary when Slawinski was 15. Though a majority of his life has been spent in North America, he still speaks with a slight Polish accent.
In Pakistan, Welsted and Slawinski chose to push forward to K6, partially thanks to the nudge Welsted gave in offering the option to turn around after their first flight into the mountains.
“I think that was a really good way of sort of fooling myself into thinking ‘yeah, I really haven’t decided yet. I’m still hedging my bets.’ In reality, probably by the time we got on the flight up north to the mountains, the decision had effectively been made that we’re continuing with the trip.”
The 7,040 metre peak proved to be the most significant climb of Slawinski’s 20-plus year mountaineering career so far, earning him and Welsted a nod as two of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year, as well as the Piolet d’Or Award, an annual prize presented from within the climbing community to the most inspiring big mountain climbs of the year.
Tough decisions such as what he faced nearing K6 seem to be a theme in Slawinski’s life. The choice to pursue a double life as both an academic and climber was not an obvious one, and Slawinski admits he still considers what could have been if he’d chosen a singular career.
“Are there times when I wish I’d thrown myself into one or the other without any reservations? For sure… you sort of question ‘well, what if I would’ve taken the other path?’” says Slawinski.
Ultimately, Slawinski could not bring himself to leave his work in physics behind.
“Whenever I thought about devoting myself entirely to climbing, I thought about all the time and effort invested into physics; I didn’t want to throw that away.” Slawinski says, “Also I worry that if I were to now try to make a living at something that, at this point, is a source of fun for me, that maybe it would stop being fun.”
Slawinski said a parallel between his passions lay in the necessity of enjoying the procedure, as the summits, both metaphorically and literally, occupy just a small space in both.
“Whether it’s earning a PhD or scientific research, I think you really have to enjoy the process,” explains Slawinski. “If you just do it for the end goal, you won’t stick with it because the achievement that comes in at the end is such a small part of the whole thing.”
Process is at the centre of what Slawinski, now 49-years-old, does in climbing. Refusal to set goals drives him to continue his progression.
“Basically you keep failing until maybe one day – and sometimes those failures can be spread over a year or two – you end up succeeding. But the thing is, before you’re even lowered from you’re successful climb, you’re already thinking about what to fail on next.”
As he nears 50 years old, Slawinski has begun to reflect on the dangerous implications of his love of climbing. The high stress toll of expeditions such as his K6 West climb on both himself and his family, particularly his wife, has made Slawinski’s interest shift slightly to the more technically oriented practice of rock climbing.
As for his extensive work in the Canadian Rockies, Slawinski still has unfinished business. Mount Alberta’s north face in particular has caught his attention. Just recently a climbing friend of his summited the peak while Slawinski was occupied in class.
“People have said to me ‘oh you’ve [done] so much in the Rockies. You must’ve done everything you wanted to in the Rockies.’ And my response is no, absolutely not. It just feels like I’ve scratched the surface.”