I hope you’re well. In my spare time I’ve been puzzling over a “climbing thought” question and would be interested to hear your take: When we name a boulder problem (or route), what is it that we are naming?
This was the text my friend Victor sent me the other day. Like all good questions, this one seemed simple at first glance, until I tried to pin it down. The quiddity or “whatness” of a problem or route, I’ve decided, is harder to define that one might think.
To start, it helps to pause on the fact that problems and routes do not exist in either a rock or in a person alone, but at the intersection of these two entities.
Without a person, there is just a rock, with its chaotic array of forms and facets. Without a rock, there is just a person, with her physical and mental capacities. The climber creates meaning on the rock while the rock offers a certain fulfillment for the climber.
So when naming a climb, a first ascentionist names not just a particular thing, a chunk of rock, but also an interaction with that piece of rock. But that statement is a bit vague, so you might propose that a climb is a particular sequence of movements on a specific piece of rock.
Such a definition doesn’t account for the fact that it is rare for two people to climb a route or problem in the same way. Different climbers — due to their morphology and their climbing style — will grab holds in a different order or use different holds altogether than did the first ascentionist. Further, even if several holds break on a problem or route, we rarely rename the problem, so there’s a certain plasticity to the thing being named. In either case, it is clear that when we name a problem or route, we are not naming a specific series of bodily movements or holds, but something a little broader.
With this in mind, you could say that what we’re naming is a starting point and a finishing point on a particular piece of rock. This clears up the issue of different approaches to the same climb, but it doesn’t address what happens between the start to the finish. What’s to say that a climber couldn’t start a particular climb at point A and then, holds permitting, climb in a sweeping zigzag pattern before arriving at point B. I think the typical climber would admit this is not the route that the first ascentionist had in mind. We would probably say this zigzagging fellow has climbed another problem or route altogether, or at least a strange variation. This points to the idea of boundaries, ergo:
A problem or route is the collection of all the possible hand and foot holds a human could use, and all the possible ways a human could use them, to ascend a defined section of a particular rock.
It seems the thing we’re naming is a bit of a fuzzy character. A place, yes, and also a physical thing, but also an interaction or set of possible interactions. Add to that the fact that, over time, a climb’s name comes to encompass the shared experiences of many climbers.
As I continued to ponder, I came to feel that the thing being named is perhaps not as important as why we name it at all. For example, we name a thing to lay claim to it (as the British claimed Chomolungma/Sagarmāthā by calling it Everest); we name a thing so that we have a noun to which we can affix adjectives and other bits of information — a grade, a context, a history… ; we name in order to more easily discuss a thing; we name to indicate a certain level of importance — it’s the reason we name our pets but not our livestock, our first ascents but not the down-climbs. Perhaps most basically, most importantly, a name separates a thing from, well, everything else.
If Bachar never named Midnight Lightning, would it still be such a touchstone of climbing culture today? Or would it be just some boulder that climbers like to horse around on in Camp 4? But we can hardly imagine not naming the things that matter to us in the world. Culture abhors a name vacuum…
All of which leaves me wondering what would it be like to climb at an area without names.
Imagine visiting some far off land where your tour guide brings you to a beautiful crag full of classic routes. There, he walks you to the base of one perfect line and gives a thumbs up.
“Five stars,” he says, with an unidentifiable accent. “Soooo good.” You get on the route knowing no grade, no stories — just the moves as they present themselves, one after another. As you clip the anchors, your guide lowers you to the ground and gives you a high-five, and then takes you to the next nameless route.
Your amazing trip over, how would you talk about it to your friends back home, who’d never been there? You’d have to use descriptions: a 70-meter prow of crimpers, a steep wall of pockets. Maybe you’d realize the futility of the exercise and just let it go. The climbs were what they were, in that moment and for you. Without names, they’d lack hooks to snag on the fibers of your neural network and would dissolve into the past, where you couldn’t easily collect them or dwell on them or (gasp!) spray about them.
Who would have the guts to create a new climbing area without names?
“What’s this route called?” a visitor might ask.
“Well, it’s the third one from the left,” the local would reply.
“How hard is it?” the visitor would counter.
“It’s as hard as it is. Why don’t you give it a try?”
It sounds pretty good to me, at least in theory. What do you think? And what do you think it is we’re naming when we give a problem or route a name?