Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many variations, but it can be traced back to Asia, where it became a part of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist teachings, among others. In essence, it is as follows:
A king asks a group of blind men to come to his palace and identify the object before them (it’s an elephant). Each man feels a part of the great beast and then exclaims he knows what it is: one says it’s clearly a pillar, another other suggests a plow, yet another says he is holding a brush… . But the first was responding only to the shape of the elephant’s leg, the second its trunk, the third the tip of its tail, and so on.
Each of the metaphorical blind men claim to have a hold on the whole truth based on the limited slice of reality they have before them, but the king sees clearly this is not the case.
Setting aside the strange behavior of the king (was he just trying to give these blind guys a hard time? Having a courtly laugh at their expense?!), I think this little scenario contains some important ideas. Like the blind men, each of us brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to bear. Each offers judgements based solely on a little piece of a bigger picture. But the problem is that we tend to give our own perspectives too much weight and expound on them as if they be true with a capital “T.”
In some versions of the story, the men fall on each other in violence, as if to demonstrate that all of humanity’s great differences spring from blindness, self-certainty, and the inability to see the much grander reality. We fight over doctrine and ideology, the story whispers from beneath its farcical exterior, but really we’re all talking about the same thing.
Even if the king were to explain the elephant to the blind men, they would be unable to see it as he saw it. Which maybe is the point after all: even the king had only a partial understanding of the elephant—he couldn’t see from the elephant’s perspective, he would never know how the elephant lived in the wild with the rest of its parade, nor could he understand the inner biological processes that made the elephant’s life possible.
None of us will ever see the whole elephant, as it were, so the best we can do is admit that there’s much more to the world than we can understand, and accept that from other angles things might appear quite different.
These days I wear my helmet while cragging, mostly because I’ve been around long enough to hear and see firsthand what can happen when you don’t. I’ve witnessed climbers who hooked the rope behind their heel, flipped upside down, and swung into the wall back first. I’ve heard of belayers dropping their climbers into melon-splitting talus. I’ve watched as climbers dislodged chunks of rock down onto their belayers with bloody results. I’ve seen cobbles spontaneously drop from the roofs of caves as unsuspecting climbers strolled through the landing zone.
All of the above took place at sport crags, where most climbers consciously opt out of cranial protection. Horror stories abound, and yet legion are the climbers who will go to the mats over their belief that helmets need not be standard-issue equipment. Following are just some of the common arguments I’ve heard against helmet use, along with a brief response. I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section.
Not all Cases
“If you get hit by a big-ass rock, a helmet’s not going to do anything anyway.”
The Stone Mind responds: Yes, and if a semi rolls over your car, your airbag isn’t going to help, either. But in many cases helmets will help, so it’s better to wear one (and also to have an airbag) than not.
Pick and Choose
“I only wear a helmet in high-risk scenarios: on multi-pitch routes, crags with known rock fall problems, in the mountains, or on ice climbs.”
The Stone Mind responds: I think of a helmet like health insurance: hopefully you never have to use it, but when you need it you’ll be very glad to have it. Add to that the fact that few of us have the Sherlock-like perspicacity to safely judge when and where we truly need a helmet, anyway. Particularly ill-equipped to make such judgements are all the new climbers flocking from gym to crag. Hence, you’re not only protecting your own dome when you helmet up, but you’re setting an example for all those innocent n00bs.
“Climbing is about freedom, and helmets detract from that experience.”
The Stone Mind responds: Motorcyclists make this argument, too. It holds up really well until an accident happens. Then all that freedom is goes the window and you find yourself in a hospital bed, relearning how to use a fork and knife. Plus, how much freedom does a lightweight helmet really suck from your experience on the rock? More than your harness and rope?
“Next you’ll say we should be wearing helmets in the car or walking down the street!”
The Stone Mind responds: Probably not. I mean, the car analogy doesn’t hold up because in any modern vehicle you’re already surrounded by multiple layers of safety, like antilock brakes, airbags, impact zones, seat belts, and more. And clearly, walking on a sidewalk and scaling a wall of friable stone with nothing but a strand of rope for protection exist on different ends of the risk spectrum when it comes to the likelihood of head injury. But you know who does wear helmets? Cyclists, skateboarders (in parks, anyway), snowboarders, football players, (most) motorcyclists, race car drivers, and many other user groups who run a significant risk of cranial impact.
“Helmets make me sweat, are heavy, chafe, and in general aren’t comfy.”
The Stone Mind responds: Maybe back in the day, but modern helmet technology has come a long way. Most major brands now offer well ventilated, ultralight options that weigh half a pound or even less… not much more than that beanie you insist on wearing even when it’s hot enough to take your shirt off.
Pay to Play
“I can’t afford a helmet; I spent all my money on cams.”
The Stone Mind responds: That is a good point. Can’t skimp on those cams. Still, I bet you can find a brain bucket on sale somewhere for under fifty simoleons. Or your buddy who works in the industry can probably hook you with a bro deal, amiright??!
“I heard someone once got a carabiner hooked on their chin strap and then fell and ended up getting hung.”
The Stone Mind responds: This kind of reasoning is often trotted out by seatbelt haters, who suggest buckling up is actually dangerous because it could trap you in a flaming car. I’m sure such tragedies have occurred in the history of the world, but I think we should be more concerned about the scenario likely to happen 99.9% of the time versus the one that happens 0.1% of the time, don’t you? Like the scenario where your helmet prevents injury and doesn’t cause it…
“No one else at the crag is wearing one!”
The Stone Mind responds: The standard mom response works pretty well here: if everyone decided to jump off a bridge, would you?! (Don’t answer that, BASE jumpers.) Luckily, helmets appear to be more and more common at the crags, perhaps as a result of a younger generation accustomed to wearing protection on bikes, boards, and skis.
I Do What I Want
“I don’t care what you say—you’re not the helmet police and no one can make me wear one.”
The Stone Mind responds: This is absolutely correct. If you understand that a helmet might help save you from serious pain and suffering, and that wearing one needn’t be a great burden in terms weight or comfort or financial cost, and you still choose not to wear one, then there’s not much to be said. You can also choose to climb without a rope, live without health insurance, and drive without a seatbelt (though the latter is illegal in most states). It is your life and your health—may the force be with you!
Disclaimer: I work for Petzl, a company that manufactures helmets. However, as a climber of more than two decades, the views in this post are entirely my own and informed by my own experiences. This blog is in no way intended to advocate the use of any particular brand of helmet over another. Add to that the fact that helmets are not designed for nor capable of preventing all the dangers of climbing. Educate yourself, read the manufacturer’s technical information provided with your helmet, and decide for yourself when and how to use your helmet.
“Climbing is my religion.” I’ve heard it many times, often in an effort to express the depth of feeling the speaker holds for climbing. Other times it’s been a response to the diminution of climbing as “recreation,” a “pastime,” or a “sport,” or to conflicts between more commonly accepted religions and climbing,
Typically, such conflicts have arisen in the mountain West, between Native American tribes and climbers, who by dint of public land use statutes have been allowed to climb on rock formations that various tribes deem sacred. Perhaps the best known such site is Devil’s Tower, where over a dozen tribes claim religious or ancestral ties. Many climbers claim a religious connection of their own in the act of climbing the 1,200-foot igneous intrusion.
I lean towards skepticism when it comes to such claims of climbing’s deeper significance. Just because we love rock climbing and dedicate our time, money, and energy to it, doesn’t mean it’s our religion. A religion has so much more to it, doesn’t it? There’s ritual and context, history and culture. Us climbers, we were just fooling around—albeit in a pretty serious way—right?
But for some reason the idea of climbing as religion stuck with me, maybe because I’ve never been entirely clear on what a religion is or isn’t, anyway. Is a holy book required? Millions of followers? A thousand-year-old history? The Internal Revenue Service defines a “church” for the purposes of taxation or lack thereof, listing attributes such as: definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, schools for the preparation of its members, literature of its own, and more. It would be hard to see climbing fitting this admittedly loose definition… And yet…
In his bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, the famed late-nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist William James reviews an assortment of specific cases of religious believers. He concludes that there is “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously,” and that it consists of two parts: “1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.” The first is an uneasiness about ourselves, that we are fallen from grace or under the spell of a delusion. The second is the belief that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”
A connection with higher powers, in the religious context, is often described as an overwhelming sense of oneness with something greater than oneself and a disconnection from the day-to-day struggles and worries that consume our conscious minds. A Christian might call this a direct connection with God. A Buddhist would say it’s a taste of Nirvana. Plenty of climbers have felt such connection high above the earth, moving over rock faces and mountain slopes.
In an attempt to further unyoke such connection from any specific belief system, the contemporary philosopher Sam Harris writes, “Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.” In his book Waking Up, he defines spirituality simply as “repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self.”
With all this in mind, I might suggest that many climbers (though certainly not all) share this essential human experience that is so often tied to religion but, depending on who you ask, need not be. Many climbers experience an uneasiness with the world as it is and life as it is commonly lived. We also believe we have found a solution in the act of climbing, which helps us connect with something bigger than our day-to-day selves.
Neither the IRSnor practitioners of the world’s many recognized religions are likely to buy climbing’s holy claims. Where is our good book? Our ordained ministers? Our formal code of doctrine? In the end, the only thing we have is our direct experience of the sublime, those moments where the self dissolves into pure being and acting, often in the original and most primal place of human worship: nature.
It may not be enough to garner any official designation, but I think this is the experiential underpinning on which all religions are built, and without which all the hallowed traditions and rituals of the world would seem as flat as filling out a tax form.
One of climbing’s greatest benefits is the travel it entails. Most of my friends have been all over in search of great stone: France, Spain, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, Australia, etc.
It’s not uncommon to grow addicted to this peripatetic lifestyle. We make new friends wherever we roam and depart before the inevitable complications begin to surface. We chase new vistas, sunsets over unfamiliar seas and mountains, the freedom of being untethered. Travel, for many of us, is an escape from the stultifying responsibilities (or at least, they can feel stultifying) of a life lived anchored in place—by job, family, financial obligations…
So it is that we lust after the latest destination. And while great experiences may indeed await us abroad, they are ultimately most valuable as channels into our inner geography.
All places we love are, in a sense, different doors to the inside. Each has a specific feel, a particular ambience, but really the place you end up loving is in your mind more than it is out there. (Consider how easily a place is colored by some joyous or disastrous event—a dull hospital façade’s radiance as the place where your child was born, or the haunted feel of a beautiful meadow where a plane once crashed). In short, much is available to us even when we’re sitting still. In fact, Zen practitioners view the seated position as ideal for accessing the sublime.
In one of his lectures, delivered in the 1969, the Sōtō Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki commented dismissively on the lunar landing, still fresh in the news: “If you [want to] find out something very interesting,” he said, “only way is—instead of hopping around the universe … —to enjoy our life in every minute … to observe things which we have now. … To live in the surrounding in its true sense.” To him, the wildly expensive and time consuming mission to the moon did not bring humanity one step closer to the type of understanding that mattered.
I think Suzuki was perhaps being a bit strict in his reaction, but I guess he didn’t want people getting distracted from the fact that the most important realizations don’t exist out there in the world (or on other celestial bodies)—they cannot be accessed by boat or car or space shuttle.
Still, I think traveling, like pondering zen koans or sitting in meditation, actually can help us better access the internal, if approached with the proper mindset. To focus only on achieving some goal, proving your superiority or escaping some unpleasantness, this is the mistake. But to follow our interests and inspiration to far away places with a love of each step in the process—here I think you can hardly go wrong.
As a student, I worked at the university climbing gym with an odd character I’ll refer to as KP. This fellow claimed a disorder that somehow linked his left and right hand; when he gripped with one, the other was compelled to contract sympathetically. To adapt his climbing to his condition, KP developed a unique approach to climbing. He needed to execute moves very efficiently to be able to climb at all.
This approach, in turn, formed the basis of his teaching technique. Balance, timing, and power—these three elements were the building blocks of all climbing movement, KP believed. By mixing and matching them in various degrees, once could achieve the highest level of ability. And like the “four humors” of medical history, an imbalance of any of these elements would impede one’s development as a climber.
I’m not sure I ever fully bought in to KP’s philosophy. Still, there was something to it. It encapsulated some useful truths about climbing and allowed people an entrance into the subtle art of vertical movement. Here, a few thoughts on the three elements, based only vaguely on the ideas KP espoused those many years ago.
Balance – The most fundamental element of climbing is balance. Without balance, we would be flailing and straining constantly. It is the foundation on which everything is built.
Balance is the art of using our skeletons to support our weight under the pull of gravity. When we stand over foot holds on a vertical or slabby wall, we can hold ourselves easily on the smallest of pockets and edges. Our muscles can relax, almost as if we were standing on flat ground. This changes with the angle and shape of the wall, but the basic concept still holds, even if that means we’re balancing the pull of opposing holds against one another on an overhang.
The problem with balance is that moving the center of gravity requires us to exit perfect balance, in which case power and timing come into play. For example, when you go from standing to walking, you immediately begin to fall forward, swinging your leg out to catch yourself before going too far out of balance. In such a case, timing is critical to not falling on one’s face. Which leads us to our next point…
Timing – On a climb, timing allows us to move without relying only on power (strength, muscular exertion) to stay on the wall. A deadpoint is a moment that takes full advantage of timing. At the top of an upward movement, our bodies experience a brief moment of respite from gravity’s pull. Before our mass begins accelerating down, there’s a chance to grab a hold and control it. This is the deadpoint. Grab too soon or too late, and the movement becomes significantly harder to execute. Timing is the thing.
The points in a climbing movement that free us up to move our feet and hands are often fleeting, and a kinetic sensibility and general practice allow us to make the most of them. This is the art of timing. Paired with balance and power, it makes for that effortless style that the best climbers exhibit.
Power– I put power last not because it’s the least important, but because it’s the flashiest of the three elements and therefore can distract from the development of a well-rounded style. Most climbers think the best way to improve is to do pull-ups, lift weight, and hangboard, ignoring the development of balance and timing skills. Strength is the first attribute we cite when describing an impressive climber: “Oh, she’s strong,” or, “He’s a beast.”
One would be well served to focus on the development of balance and timing solely for much of one’s early climbing days, in an effort to become more efficient and controlled. Muscular fortitude will come somewhat naturally as a result of practice, and can then be augmented as needed through training after such good techniques are in place.
The three elements of balance, timing, and power are really inseparable. To develop one without developing the others at all is nearly impossible. But it is certainly possible to rely too much on one at the expense of the others.
A climber who leans on balance too much is often afraid to attempt dynamics, and thus get stumped by anything he can’t reach with a relatively static motion.
A timing-reliant climber will move too quickly, often putting herself out of balance and relying on fast reflexes to stay on the wall—the problem here is that the slightest misfire will result in a sudden descent.
And power climbers, while able to lock off or campus through moves impressively, can easily find themselves in situations where a simple balance shift or a deft dynamic snatch would have yielded the same result with half the exertion, leaving more fuel in the tank for later.
KP’s theory ofbalance, power, and timing, provides a pretty good framework for addressing individual moves, and I’ve found that martial arts practitioners, baseball pitchers, and golfers, among others, break movement down similarly.
I also feel that one could apply these three elements metaphorically to life as a whole:
Balance is the ability to find one’s center no matter the orientation, to remain relaxed even in challenging contexts.
Timing is needed to move from one balance state to the next. In these periods we are vulnerable to disruption, but we must use timing to our advantage to move in the desired direction. It is often the most efficient way to move from one circumstance to another.
Finally, extreme reliance on power should be used as a last resort. Balance and timing typically allow us to move with greater efficiency, but when we meet a cruxy moment in life and there’s no way around but through, power becomes a necessity.
Even then, the sparing, and wise exertion of power is required, and this understanding is best had when moving from a position of balance.
Here at The Stone Mind, one of our core missions is to shine the unwavering light of scientific research into the darkest corners of the climbing universe. We wish to show things that perhaps would not be evident to the untrained eye. Here, we’ve used the most current sociological methods and also recent exciting developments in big data mining to create new insights and bring them to you in the form of these handy infographics…
What are we doing at the climbing gym?
In a five-year longitudinal study following over 10,000 climbers who frequent the gym one or more times per week, and whose ages, genders, and socioeconomic status run the gamut, we found that the most common climbing gym activity, by a large margin, is socializing, and that a wide variety of non-climbing activities account for the lion’s share of the average individual’s time.
Relative likelihood of dropping a piece of climbing gear
Adding nuance to Murphy’s Law, which states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” we present this near-perfect linear relationship between the critical nature of a piece of climbing gear and the likelihood that said piece of gear will be dropped. Therefore, if you will need to perform many rappels, you are likely to drop your belay device. If you are facing a long section of technical ice on your summit bid, chances are good that you’ll bobble one or both ice tools. On the other hand, virtually no one will ever drop their Nipple Portable Bluetooth™ Speaker.
Trends in climbing fashion over time
The style trends of the modern climber have changed considerably since the 1970s, but as this chart shows, certain items (Spandex pants, headbands or bandanas, and tank tops, for example) are making a strong return to favor. For those who want to stay ahead of the fashion curve, these figures also indicate it might be time to get those work pants and rugby shirts out at the crag again.
The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.
The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.
I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.
But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.
Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.
Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.
In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.
We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.
As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.
My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”
At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.
There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.
His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…
But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.
“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.
At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.
It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .
Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.
In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.
When preparing for a journey, we must carefully decide what to bring. To pack too much slows us down. Likewise it’s a problem to pack too little and not have what we need. To carry only what is needed is the middle way of packing.
This challenge is at the heart of fast-and-light alpinism (see: Mark Twight). The right balance must be struck to meet one’s goal with style. The climber must excise the extraneous to find that place where skill and challenge, tool and task are perfectly matched; where she would likely not succeed with any less or more than what she’s brought.
It is the same with our minds. The thoughts we cling to are as items in a pack. We should ask ourselves if they’re useful, how do they contribute to our lives: Do they increase happiness and peace? Compassion and understanding? Or are they useless weight, cluttering our mental space?
Among the heaviest thoughts are desires and fears, guilt and regret. Most of us carry far too many of them all the time, everywhere we go.
My grandfather used to say “The things you own end up owning you,” which I always took as a caution against consumerism. It is, but in a more abstract sense, it’s also a warning against attachment of all kinds.
When we carry too much stuff, we’re unable to move freely, instinctively. We’re bound, anchored. In the mountains, this can be fatal. When such clutter concerns our mental state we become distracted and lose ourselves.
A nice exercise is to ask yourself every day, Can I carry less? When packing for a trip, it can help to choose a smaller bag. A smaller bag asks Do you really need that? of every item you plan to bring. (Imagine yourself as a small bag.)
And what about goals? Those carry weight, too. Can you leave even your goals behind and move with total freedom? It is a tricky business…
As far as I know, there is no instruction manual for such things. Just the act of asking Do I need this? more frequently and of everything we value can lead to some important insights. You can start right now.
We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.
My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.
Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.
In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.
One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:
The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.
Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.
“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt. “How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.
“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil. Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”
The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.
It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…
So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.
I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.
One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.
Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.
My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.
It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.
Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.
When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.
Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.
Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.
Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.
Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.
You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.
Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.
Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.
What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”
Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.
Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives?
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.
Chuck Odette managed the demo gear fleet for Petzl’s national events. This meant that our sales rep force would contact Chuck to request demo harnesses, helmets, and headlamps for events like the Ouray Ice Fest or the Red River Rendezvous. Chuck was notoriously meticulous when it came to scheduling, and he was frustrated to no end when stuff didn’t make it back to Petzl HQ in time for the next event.
One year, at a sales meeting, Chuck stood up and made a demonstration to impress on the sales reps the consequences of not returning gear on time: he had me hold up a thick pine board while he punched it in two with perfect karate form. Those reps would think twice before delaying a return shipment again…
Chuck was in his mid-50s then, yet he had the physique of an athletic 30-year-old. His sandy blond hair was long and he tied it back into a ponytail when he practiced yoga poses and karate katas at lunch. It was around this time that I started to equate Chuck with legendary caucasian martial arts movie star Chuck Norris.
Last week, at the age of 59 and after twelve years at Petzl, Chuck retired. Unlike your average retiree, however, Chuck sold his house in Ogden, Utah, gussied up a Scamp camper trailer, and hit the road with his wife Maggie on a quest to climb (and bolt) hard sport routes.
For his retirement party, I put together some memes based on the famous Chuck Norris Facts that have been circulating on the web for the past decade or so. I didn’t write any of the facts in the memes below; I just copy/pasted and switched out “Odette” for “Norris”—they seemed to work just as well. I think they do a lot to capture this hard-climbing, karate kicking grandpa’s badass personality and sense of humor.
Available now! The Stone Mind T-shirts via adayak.com. Adorned on the chest with a logo designed by artist Kristin Marine, these organic ringspun cotton shirts are lightweight, double needle stitched, and come in three colors.
Recommended uses: climbing, writing, meditating, or even chilling with a fine whiskey on a fall day.
After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.
So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”
From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.
In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.
In a post celebratinghis blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog, semi-rad.com, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.
Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.
I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.
In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.
It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.
In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.
Traveling to climb is great: it gives us the chance to experience not only new stone and unfamiliar cultures, but also to sample various beverages full of local flavor. Below is a tiny slice of the many, many fine crag/drink pairings to be found at famous climbing areas around the world.
What libations should visitors be sure to sample when visiting your local climbing area? Add your crag/drink pairing in the comments…
1. Rifle, Colorado / Avery Beer
Home to blocky limestone routes and the highest concentration of sticky-rubber kneepads in the United States, Rifle Mountain Park also plays host to a strange initiation ritual involving beer and climbing. Adam Avery, proprietor of Boulder-based Avery Brewing Company, is said to have set a challenge: a climber must down a sixer of Avery beer in three hours and then redpoint “certain routes” in order to earn a Team Avery hoody. Even if you’re not trying out for the team, after spending several hours greasing off Rifle’s notoriously sandbagged sport routes, you might want to try a Redpoint Ale, and Ellie’s Brown Ale, or perhaps a Salvation Belgian Golden Ale… to help sooth the sting of defeat.
2. Céüse, France / Gigondas
In France’s Haute Provence, Céüse is routinely ranked amongst the wold’s finest climbing spots. The blue-and-white streaked, pocketed limestone there easily makes up for the long approach. Even better, the region in which this Platonic ideal of a climbing spot rests is full of vineyards and wineries. Among the area’s popular appellations is Gigondas, “a little brother of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The town of Gigondas, about 60 miles from Céüse, lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a mountain range with climbing that actually overlooks the area’s vineyards. While in Céüse, you might also catch a glimpse of Chartreuse on local spirits menus. This tasty herbal aperitif produced by monks in the nearby Chartreuse Mountains is well worth a try.
3. New River Gorge, West Virginia / Mountain Moonshine
With thousands of sport routes, trad routes, and boulder problems on the area’s exceptionally high-quality Nuttall Sandstone, it’s no wonder the New River Gorge frequently ranks on climber’s lists as one America’s finest climbing destinations. The region in which the beautiful NRG is found, however, is economically depressed and not particularly known for its beers, wines, or liquors… except, perhaps, for the famed moonshine that locals have been distilling illegally for well over 100 years. Nowadays, there are numerous legal, tax-paying moonshine distilleries across Appalachia who produce the high-octane, corn-based, unaged white whiskey. One of them, Appalachian Moonshine, can be found in Ripley, West Virginia, about 100 miles from the New River Gorge. Y in liquor stores around the state.
4. Kalymnos, Greece / Mythos Beer
Home to massive, tufa-studded limestone sport routes, the Greek Island of Kalymnos is known as a climber’s paradise. Relatively dry, with year-round climbing possible, many visitors here rent scooters to get around. In keeping with the general holiday mood that Kalymnos inspires, a light, easy drinking lager called Mythos Beer is popular among locals and visitors alike, according to Aris Theodoropoulos. It’s light on alcohol, so it won’t leave you with a hangover to ruin your climbing on the mythic formations the next day. Another popular Greek liquor you can find on the island is Ouzo. It’s a strong, clear booze flavored with anise, lending it an aromatic licorice taste. Add some water and it turns cloudy white… typically served with small plates of food called mezedes.
5. Red River Gorge, Kentucky / Bourbon (various local labels)
Miguel’s Pizza, the prime hangout and campground for Kentucky’s sandstone climbing paradise, is in a dry county. Still, one has only to drive an hour or two to access over a dozen bourbon distilleries. From Maker’s Mark to Woodford Reserve to Evan Williams, there’s no shortage of Kentucky’s famous barrel-aged distilled spirit in these parts. If you choose to tour these distilleries, be sure to assign a designated driver… or better yet, just pick up a bottle on your way into the Red and enjoy it around the campfire. (If you want to blend in with the locals, you might do better to hit the beer trailer just over the country line and grab a case of Budweiser or Miller Lite.)
6. Blue Mountains, Australia / Victorian Bitter
A few hours east of Sydney, the Blue Mountains (aka “the Blueys”) area in New South Wales is a massive red sandstone canyon chock full of amazing climbs. While perhaps not as popular among international visitors as the Grampians, the Blueys is worth a visit, both for the climbing and for the scenery. The small towns of Katoomba, Blackheath, and Mount Victoria offer coffee shops for morning fuel-ups and pubs to entertain in the evening and on rest days. Here, says Australian crush Chris Webb Parson, “The bogan drink—or cliché drink—is a beer called Victorian Bitter. We just call it VB. It’s funny though… If you’re from Queensland, you drink a brand called XXXX (four X).”
7. Frankenjura / Beer (various local brews)
This massive limestone climbing area comprises over 1500 crags spread over hundreds of miles and hundreds of little villages. Home to one of the largest collections of hard climbs in the world, as well as the first 9a ever climbed (Action Directe), visitors and locals looking to unwind after a day of pocket pulling will typically hoist one of the many hundreds of local brews. In fact, Frankenjura is in the Oberfranken region, described in the Huffington Post as “quite possibly the pinnacle of beer awesomeness in Bavaria,” which easily puts it near the top of beer awesomeness pretty much anywhere. Prost!
But wait! Before you click off to that cat video compilation your cousin sent you last week, don’t forget to add your favorite crag/drink pairings in the comments!
What Dean Potter did with his life was risky. Wildly so, by any average American’s estimation. From climbing without a rope, to highlining without a tether, to jumping from cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back, all of Potter’s passions could reasonably be classified as “crazy.” He knowingly dedicated his life to “pursuing some of the most dangerous endeavors man can undertake,” as he put it in an interview on photographer Jimmy Chin’s website.
But amidst the media hype and the dismissive critics, it’s easy to forget that this pursuit required great skill and intense dedication, applied over years with care and focus. From every indication, Potter’s climbs and jumps and highlines were calculated and considered, executed in the face of deep fear by a disciplined practitioner. I do not think it would be too much to call his actions a form of art (he did). An art with the highest stakes, but an art nonetheless, and one that inspired many… Or more importantly inspired many debates and much reflection in the hearts of those who bore witness.
In his interview on Chin’s site, Potter said:
The common thread in my three arts is pushing into fear, exhaustion, beauty and the unknown. I willingly expose myself to death-consequence situations in order to predictably enter heightened awareness. … I empty myself and function within a meditative state where I focus on nothing but my breathing. This manifests emptiness. This void needs to be filled, and somehow it draws in and makes me recognize the roots of my most meaningful ponderings and often leads to a feeling of connectivity with everything.
To access this type of elevated state of awareness, religious practitioners across time have taken to asceticism, self-denial, and self-mortification. They have ingested psychoactive substances, handled venomous snakes, and wandered the desert alone. Athletes of all kinds have pushed themselves to the edge of disaster and beyond in search of the perfect, transcendent moment. Potter was not the first nor will he be the last to seek enlightenment on the razor’s edge.
Some of us are lucky: the life we want can be found in the relatively safe confines of white picket fences, the climate controlled halls of office buildings. I count myself among this group. The styles of climbing I engage in are fairly low on the risk spectrum—probably not much crazier than riding a bicycle on a city street—and my joy for writing has not (yet) put me in harm’s way.
But for others, it seems, the activities that energize and bring life meaning can only be found out on the fringes, past the bounds deemed socially acceptable. This was clearly where Potter needed to be. Whatever you think about him, it’s worth bearing this in mind.
In the final analysis, no one can say for sure what drove Potter. As Andy Kirkpatrick put it, “Dean was ungraspable—the reason being perhaps because his greatest struggle was grasping the contradictions of himself.” Regardless, the imprint left in his wake is clear: like his physical form, it is outsized; like his words and deeds it is awe-inspiring, disruptive, and controversial.
When considering a man who lived “like plankton” on the rock beneath an overhang of the Eiger, meditating and drinking meltwater for more than a month at a stretch, it’s hard to see Potter as anything less that a human dedicated to the deep exploration of his own being, in all its boundless, ragged, fragile glory. A rare and confounding thing indeed.
Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.
We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.
But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.
The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.
In the bookMindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:
“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”
In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)
Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.
This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .
After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?
“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.
“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.
When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.
“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?
I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.
Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.
According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.
Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.
But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.
Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.
So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…
Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.
My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.
Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.
I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.
And of course, I climbed.
I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.
I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.
For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.
Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.
Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.
Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.
It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.
I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.
It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.
So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.
In the old days, it seemed like the epitome of a good indoor climb was one that evoked an outdoor climb. Many of the most classic shapes ever carved from foam came out of this mindset.
I used to pour holds at a place called Pusher, and I remember filling latex molds to produce plastic approximations of Fontainebleau’s sandstone slopers, Little Cottonwood Canyon’s granite flakes and edges, Hueco’s eponymous dog dishes, and limestone pockets and tufas like you might find in France and Spain. I’ve even seen sets designed to replicate the holds of specific routes, like Chris Sharma’s Biographie (back then is was still called Realization). But over time, as any art form does, plastic climbing evolved.
In design speak, skeuomorphism is a style that copies structures that were once necessary elements of the medium or manufacturing process, but no longer. For example Apple used skeuomorphic design in its old Calendar app that looked like a physical paper calendar, complete with leather stitching and the torn remnants of past months’ pages. The design-saavy tech giant eventually did away with such elements and adopted a “flat” design more in keeping with the digital times.
Similarly with hold design, shapers came to see that plastic could do more than imitate rock, and setters realized that the gym’s canvas allowed for more than the simulation of outdoor climbs. Holds shaped like cubes and spheres, or like household objects (lightbulbs and telephones) began to appear.
The only limitations, folks realized, were in the materials and the imagination. There are still plenty of hold sets designed to look and feel stone, but plenty more that aren’t, and the shapes just seem to get funkier all the time.
New production techniques now allow for the creation of big holds, enormous “volumes” to which holds can be affixed, and even modular wall systems, all of which means more possibilities in the setting realm. When I was pouring plastic, the size of the molds, the cost and weight of the plastic resin, and other limitations of our rudimentary production system kept our holds to a certain size and complexity.
These days I’m routinely entertained by the abstract shapes I find waiting on the wall in the local gym. They look cool and often require creative thinking to navigate. I’ve even noticed a trend towards routes that enter the realm of visual design. Beyond just creating cool moves, routesetters are using holds to create arresting patterns of shape and color. Maybe it’s gym climbing’s version of the aesthetic draw found in classic outdoor lines?
At first glance, you might ask, How well do the otherworldly forms of the modern climbing wall prepare people for outdoor climbs?
But I’d suggest that they don’t have to. Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit. (We’ve seen such cleaving off of climbing sub-disciplines time and again: bouldering outdoors was once practice for technical sections of longer ascents, but has grown to be very much a stand-alone activity.) Therefore, indoor climbing is free to go as far as routesetters, hold shapers, gym owners and of course climbers are willing to take it.
I’d also suggest that today’s funky indoor antics will allow climbers to bring new skills and strengths and, most importantly, new eyes to the rocks. An example of this fresh vision for climbing outdoors might be Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation. First climbed in 2007, no one has completed the route in the years since. The route’s name comes from the three massive dynos required to climb it. It’s hard to separate out Chris’ unique vision as an individual and the lessons he learned coming up in the age of plastic, but undoubtedly the two are interconnected. If my guess is correct, the next generation of climbers will continue to make quick work of former dynamic testpieces and add their own where previous climbers saw no possibilities.
Today, gym climbing is taking influences from outside climbing, too. The popularity of dynamic activities like parkour, CrossFit, and American Ninja Warrior has pushed increasingly gymnastic styles of movement into the world of indoor climbing. Some of this is controversial in setting circles, as purists insist that such “circus” climbing—routes that involve running and jumping, monkey-barring, holds suspended on the ends of ropes or chains, or other trickery rarely or never found outdoors—is no longer climbing at all, but something else entirely. Of course there are others who disagree and welcome the change.
What will people be doing in climbing gyms in 10 years? The future is unwritten. What’s cool is that the folks putting their creative energies into this arena today will be the ones shaping the future. I’m pretty sure it’ll be cool to see.