Raphael Slawinski is not your typical sponsored climber.
For starters, he calls himself a weekend warrior. From September to April, Slawinski teaches physics at Calgary’s Mount Royal University five days per week. And he’s 49 years old. So while his sponsors include Black Diamond, Scarpa and Arc’teryx, his inspiration for pushing limits on stone and ice is not a paycheque, but rather his own motivation.
“Raphael has a double persona,” says Justin Sweeney, the sponsored athlete team manager at Arc’teryx. “He’s a working professional by weekday and a professional alpinist on weekends. He does both at a very high level.”
“My Dad gets the credit… or the blame,” Slawinski laughs. Now in his late 70s, the elder Slawinski started climbing more than 50 years ago. Early on, he took Raphael hiking, peak bagging and trekking across glaciers in the Rockies. The teenage Raphael wasn’t grateful—“I was more into team sports,” he says—until he went to graduate school in Chicago.
“With no mountains in my backyard, I realized I missed them,” he remembers. The only climbing near Chicago was short sport climbs. Slawinski pushed himself in new ways, tackling more difficult routes than he ever had growing up. When he returned to Calgary, he was ready to test himself on long and technical mixed rock and ice routes.
“I had a pretty rough apprenticeship,” he says. “I was often the strongest climber on the rope. I jumped into the deep end, biting off more than I could chew. Luck definitely played a role.”
His physics background helped, but not in a physical way. “It doesn’t help me evaluate how solid an ice pillar is,” he says. “But from my scientific background I do tend to be systematic and analytical.” His mountain sense grew and matured and so did his skills, just in time for the mixed-climbing revolution.
Around the turn of the 21st century, ice climbers began playing around with routes with patchy or no ice at all. Still using crampons and ice axes, it was a new niche. Gear, techniques and competitions for mixed-climbing progressed quickly. Slawinski was at the forefront, helping progress the sport in the Rockies and winning competitions—in particular, three Ouray Ice Fest victories, the highest-profile contest in the sport. The attention landed him his first sponsors.
Over the next decade, he moved back towards the mountains. He used summer vacations to plot month-long expeditions to technical mountain objectives. This push culminated on K6 West, an unclimbed 7,040-metre peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains. With his climbing partner Ian Welstead, Slawinski found a route up the peak that had denied several other attempts. The six-day effort won the duo the 2014 Piolets d’Or, the highest honour in mountaineering, along with Ueli Steck, a speed-climbing alpinist.
“It was very flattering to be on the same stage as Ueli,” says the always-humble Slawinski. “I try not to let it go to my head. I’m just a good amateur. He’s truly good.”
Next, he set off to climb a new route on Mount Everest’s north face. Nepal’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2015 derailed the expedition before the real climbing began.
Slawinski bounced back, climbing with his dad in the Bugaboos during the summer and putting up several new ice-climbs and winter alpine routes last winter. This summer, he’s taking a month to climb classic routes on Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter in Alaska. After that, “there’s talk of going back to Pakistan in 2017,” he says.
Regardless of the objective, pleasing his sponsors is never part of the decision-making. “I don’t make a living from sponsors,” he says. “There’s no pressure. It just works out that what I want to do is of interest to others.”