It’s hard to pin a value on climbing. Like art, it has no clear purpose. Like a poem, a route is open for interpretation. How much would you pay for a perfect fall weekend in the Gunks? I’m not talking about the cost of a plane ticket or campsite or day pass, but the actual worth of the experience. How would you even express it?
Consider the first climber to push a new line up a peak. Like an artist laboring over a painting, he undertakes the act for mostly self-serving reasons: to explore and expand the limits of his ability, understanding, and conviction. He seeks the personal rewards of success or, as a consolation prize, the lessons of failure.
The artist and the first-ascensionist alike learn as they work, surprising themselves, discovering that the path they plotted in their minds might not be the path that works in the end. This discovery is part of the excitement and the value of the creative act.
And at the same time, this act can create value for others, too. Transmitted verbally or through a topographical map, a guidebook, an article, or a blog, it becomes a conceptual blueprint for a powerful experience.
Like a story, a route is inexhaustible. Every person who repeats a route or reads a book can have his own journey of discovery, much like the original creator had. Every one of us can grasp the same holds and enjoy much the same view as Royal Robbins and Pat Ament experienced on the first free ascent of Yellow Spur, in Eldo, fifty years ago.
“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. By extension, when many people experience a work of art, the separation between one receiver and the next can be broken down just a little, too—a shared experience is created, and from this a culture, a community.
Spend any time around a campfire with climbers, and you’ll witness the bonds formed by the shared experiences of icy couloirs and lichen-encrusted rock walls, of headlamp-lit rappels and stomach-flipping whippers. Politics and educations and upbringings may differ, but something found in those high places unites.
The essential value of a climb cannot be measured in dollars nor, as is more commonly thought, difficulty ratings or even guidebook stars. Nearest I can tell, it is measured in the transformations it enables and the communities created by those transformations.
Transformation cannot be sold, bought, or processed. The value of a climbing is as intangible as the value of reading Moby Dick or seeing the Mona Lisa, yet no less profound. The more it resists codification, the greater climbing’s value becomes… or maybe it’s just that the idea of value grows a little fuzzier around the edges.
If you’ve climbed much outside, you have someone to thank. A bunch of someones, really. The someones who own or manage the land, for example. Also the someones who make sure that climbing is recognized as a legit use of that land, the someones who maintain the trails and parking and kiosks and latrines on that land, and the someones who developed the routes and problems on that land, too.
You should say thanks to those people or just be thankful in general—that’s great. But you should also become one of these “someones” yourself, because if you’re reading this you probably climb and climbing has probably changed your life in one or more ways and, despite what we’d all like to think, climbing isn’t an inalienable human right.
I bring this up because I just finished helping my local climbing organization, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, organize an annual fundraiser (full disclosure: I’m on the board). The funds from this event will support all manner of stewardship and education projects that benefit the local climbing community, from the maintenance of latrines in Joe’s Valley to anchor replacement at popular crags to the Adopt A Crag and the Craggin’ Classic events.
Beyond highly visible stewardship and education projects like these, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, like most local climbing organizations (LCOs), spends a lot of time behind the scenes working with land managers and land owners, making sure that the voice of the local climbing community is heard and our particular needs understood. It requires a lot of work from a lot of people, most of whom have day jobs, families, and barely enough time to get out and climb as it is. But without LCOs like the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and larger organizations like the Access Fund, which act on the national level, you might not be able to climb at your favorite crags at all.
Who gets to use a piece of land for what activities and when? These are deceptively complicated questions. For one thing, there’s the issue of liability. Climbing, as every gym waiver you’ve ever signed points out, is inherently dangerous. Who’s responsible when someone hits the deck, catches a rock to the head, or keels over from a heart attack while out at the crag? Who pays for the rescue? Who will be on the receiving end when the family of the injured party decides to sue? Who decides on “best practices” for bolting anchors and who, if anyone, checks and replaces the bolts that are already in place?
Private land owners often look at questions like these, not to mention issues of access trails and parking, and decide to ban climbers outright; sometimes it’s just easier that way. Meanwhile, a lot of public land managers have only a cursory understanding of what’s involved in the practice of rock climbing or of how many people might be showing up to do it. Rules governing climbing on public lands vary from well-researched and highly detailed, to vague and illogical. They also vary widely from one type of public land to the next, from the Bureau of Land Management to Forest Service land to national parks and state parks, etc. When it comes to public climbing management policies, seemingly minor changes can take years or even decades to become reality.
Add to that the complexity of local climbing cultures, where certain practices are frowned on as much because of historical precedent as official policies or land owner concerns. Even within climbing communities, there is ample disagreement on many topics.
Basically, the issues confronting those who just want to go outside and climb are complex and varied, and without organized groups of climbers willing to work on the local and national level, we’d be pretty much hosed. The Access Fund ran an ad campaign not long ago showing crags with gates and No Trespassing signs super-imposed over them. The images might seem alarmist, but they’re not—they show real possibilities in a world where climbers lack a voice.
As tempting as it may be to approach such issues with an anarchic spirit, the tough truth is that we are all connected in a social web. If we live without regard for our actions—parking in the no-parking zone, bringing dogs to crags where they’re not allowed, bolting where bolts are banned, leaving trash, blasting music at the crags, crapping near the trails—we invite trouble for ourselves and our fellow climbers. By attempting to live in total freedom regardless of consequences, we usually end up making ourselves and others less free.
Only a fraction of climbers are members of their local climbing organizations or the Access Fund, and a smaller number still volunteer regularly. With every percent increase in engagement, our crags become better maintained, our relationships with land owners and managers grow stronger, and the voice of the collective climbing community grows louder.
Edit: I just received an email from another national org, the American Alpine Club, which offers Cornerstone Conservation Grants for climbers who propose conservation projects in their areas. Check it out…
CINCINNATI, OH — After pulling at the climbing wall with great visible effort, the guy hogging the third toprope from the left sat back down into his harness having made no visible upward progress, sources confirmed.
“This guy’s ignoring the three-hang rule, that’s for sure,” said eyewitness Jeff Horvath, 32, adding that the man, who had a belay device and pair of gloves clipped to his harness for absolutely no reason had the worst footwork he had ever seen and that there was no way he was going to finish the route before the gym closed and everyone had to go home for the night.
“I could have climbed this route literally three times by now,” said Horvath. “I think this guy is actually making negative progress.”
At press time, the climber had gone in direct to a quickdraw about one-third of the way up the wall and was eating a protein bar.
Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.
People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.
This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.
But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!
And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?
For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.
Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.
We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.
The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.
It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.
Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.