Category Archives: Climbing

What’s In A (Route) Name?

The name of a route called "Disneyland" is painted at the base of a climb in Zillertal, Austria.

The name of this route is painted right on the rock in Zillertal, Austria.

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?

Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time

A woman sitting below a boulder getting ready to climb

My wife Kristin is relatively new to climbing. Like most beginners, she faces regular challenges in her climbing, both physical and mental. Recently, we took a last-minute trip to the gym so she could try her project before they stripped the bouldering wall for a competition (a sign, I feel, that she has been bitten by the climbing “bug”). The problem was a tall V2 with long reaches between big handholds on a steep overhang, and she could do all the moves but the last one. Every time she got up to it, her body went slack and sagged, as if she just wanted to drop down instead of powering up to the finishing jug.

“OK, what’s wrong?” I pressed her. “The floor is twelve inches of foam padding, I’m spotting you; you’re safe! What are you afraid of?”

“I guess it’s scary because I don’t know what will happen if I fall,” she answered. “What if I hit a hold on the way down or fall out of control?”

I’ve heard this, and felt it, many times before. When we lack information, our minds fill in the blanks for us, often creating images of pain and suffering. It seems to be a human instinct — perhaps an ancient survival mechanism designed to keep us on our toes in a world full of predators and other threats. But this attachment to or fear of a picture in our minds can be as much a problem as any physical danger.

As the old saying goes, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. In a way, this is a very Buddhist sentiment. Like Kristin, most of us fear one kind of suffering and in doing so generate another.

After a half-dozen attempts and some odd advice from a very nice girl who had no problem leaping through the air and falling awkwardly to the ground, Kristin looked frustrated.

“I’m done,” she said, unlacing her shoes. “It’s just not that fun anymore.”

“Sure, if that’s what you want,” I replied. “But let me just say: I watched you, and I know you can do this problem.” To me, it was perfectly clear that she could make the move that stymied her — that the real problem wasn’t on the wall, but in her head.

Although she looked unconvinced, I guess she decided to try one more time anyway. On her next attempt, Kristin pulled through the opening moves, made a slight adjustment to her foot placement, and then simply stood up and grabbed the finishing jug, slow and in control.

She came down babbling gleefully. Watching her was like watching myself twenty years ago, and it brought back all that old excitement. When you first realize how quickly you can go from seemingly hopeless to definitely successful in climbing, it’s like discovering something new inside of yourself. You start to wonder, “If I can do that, what else can I do?”

Seeing a newer climber make such discoveries can be renewing. Who hasn’t come to the point where some blockage, mental or physical or both, seems to strip the fun out of our game on the rocks? But we should remember that “fun” is a state of mind and not a tangible object in the outside world. The goal is to find fun in as many moments as possible. Or, at least, not lose sight of the fact that fun can lie just around the corner, so to speak, in the next attempt, or the next, or the next…

“The Sensei”

Yuji Hirayama and Daniel Woods in "The Sensei," part of the 2013 Reel Rock Film Tour

Last week, I went to the Salt Lake City screening of the Reel Rock Film Tour. All the movies were great, interesting in their own unique ways, but the one that stuck with me was “The Sensei,” a story of two exceptional climbers: Yuji Hirayama, of Japan, and Daniel Woods, of the United States. Together, they constitute a sort of yin and yang of climbing personalities: East and West, old and young, patient and eager. Their differences and similarities are the wheel that drives the movie forward.

Hirayama, now 44 years old, is the philosophically minded master who has climbed at the highest levels across disciplines, from trad cracks and big wall speed climbs to sport onsights and World Cup competitions. His words usher us into the video, setting the tone with a shout out to the animistic indigenous belief system of Japan:

“In Japan there is a Shinto idea that all natural objects have a life. For example, when we go climbing, we worship the rock.”

His perspective in this video and earlier ones has the equanimous tone of Zen practitioners, accepting of the natural ups and downs of life as necessary compliments. In a 2010 video called “The Stone Rider,” for example, he explains:

“When I climb difficult things and have failure and problems, it still gives me happiness to have something to work on. I smile about that.”

The 24-year-old Woods, on the other hand, comes off as a quintessential American kid — spacey, a little goofy, but full of stoke and energy. Throughout the video, Hirayama refers to Woods as a gemstone in need of polish. Of course, Woods has also accomplished much in his (comparatively few) years of climbing, including first ascents of several of the world’s most difficult boulder problems, high-end sport redpoints, and success in bouldering competitions.

When Hirayama takes Woods to an unrepeated V15 roof called Hydrangea, the young American is eager for success. But his eagerness undermines his efforts, and Hirayama suggests Woods should slow down and “wait for the right moment.” It’s reminiscent of Chris Sharma’s perspective while he worked on the Biographie extension, in Céüse, a route that would later become the world’s first 9a+ (5.15a). “I think the best attitude for me to have on this thing is just, when it’s the right time to do it, I’ll do it,” Sharma explains in a video documenting the project.

Hirayama invites Woods to the strange, high-altitude granite monoliths of Mount Kinabalu, on Borneo, and the trip serves to further highlight Woods’ “unpolished” nature. He is described as ill-prepared for the journey from sea level to 13,000 feet, for the high winds and mists and intense sun. Close-ups show his face raw and cracked like the surface of a dry creek bed, his hair a wild burst in all directions. Blasted and exhausted by the hard projects and inhospitable conditions, Woods nonetheless wakes up day after day with an undiminished desire to climb, and climb hard.

Throughout “The Sensei,” Hirayama carries the air of a teacher, but like the best teachers, he knows the relationship works in both directions. “I myself have changed again and again,” Hirayama explains. “When I was young I just wanted to climb the hardest routes, but as you get older that becomes more difficult.” Woods brings the fire of youth with him to Japan, and it seems to help Hirayama change once again, to revisit an intensity from his own past. “Daniel doesn’t think at all about daily preparations,” says Hirayama, impressed. “What is he focused on? Only that day’s climbing.”

Woods’ determination and beginner’s mind redouble Hirayama’s inspiration to tackle his own daunting 9a project in Borneo, and both climbers walk away from the experience transformed in their own ways. In watching them, it’s hard for us as audience members to not feel a little of that energy and experience a little of that transformation, too.

Learning How To Be Happy

Learning How To Be Happy

When I was young, I was a very anxious person. My mind was constantly in motion, straining and toiling with no particular goal. I would worry about one thing, which would lead me to an entirely different worry, and then another, none of which were connected to any real problem in particular.

When I was six or eight years old, I would get up out of bed and walk, still asleep, into the living room, where my parents were watching The Late Show. Then I would start screaming. Night terrors they called them, and in that state I couldn’t tell dream from reality.

In high school, I was so fixated on acceptance and afraid of rejection that I replayed conversations with other kids from days or weeks before, mulling over every word, inflection, and facial expression. I compulsively replayed the past, reconstructing a world as dark as my night terrors had been.

Over time, I managed to release these negative thoughts, to let go of the fear and desire that generated them. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, but gradually and with effort. It has been a progression towards a happier life that continues now. As George Eliot said, “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Along the way, I mark important things that helped me as I learned to be happy. Among them, the great stories in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, which my dad introduced to me long ago and which I’m perpetually re-reading. Another was discussions with my old friend Mike, who studied Shaolin kung fu and the philosophy of religion. His sifu taught him to picture his mind like a hand. “When stuck on some idea, the hand is like a clenched fist,” he explained. “All you have to do it relax the fist.”

For some reason, the thinking of the East has always framed the world in a way I liked. What strikes me, to this day, is the directive to look inside yourself for answers. I think this is really important. In his essay, “Find Out For Yourself,” Shunryo Suzuki writes, “I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out.”

If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that climbing has also been an important tool in my learning. I think there are several reasons:

First, it’s exercise. Many studies have shown the benefits of physical activity for health and mindset. Simple.

Second, overcoming the challenges of climbing can offer a sense of control. This is especially evident when we have “projects,” climbs that are too hard for us at the outset but that we can piece together through mental and physical effort. Relatively quickly, a climb can go from “impossible” to “no big deal.” It is the approach we must try to take towards all the challenges in our lives. In it is the implicit lesson that, at least in part, we create our own reality.

Third, climbing is exceptionally conducive to “flow” states. The eight elements that lead to flow, according to author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term, are:

1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is key to achieving happiness in everyday life. It’s something that we can experience in our jobs, while boxing widgets or sitting in on conference calls, but that happens most naturally during certain sorts of activity. A few of his examples include reading, making love, playing a musical instrument, dancing, and, last but not least, rock climbing, which he uses as an example throughout his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 

These days, whenever I feel myself becoming overwhelmed with those strange worries that connect to nothing in particular, I might take one of several approaches:

Maybe I’ll simply remind myself to unclench the fist of my mind (meditation or just some deep, focused breathing helps here).

Sometimes I pretend I am dying. This might not seem very relaxing, but, as Suzuki puts it, “Because your are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.” It’s a way of instantly creating perspective.

Other times, I just go out climbing and see what happens. Often, I’ll find the flow state, but if not, that’s OK — at least there’s the rock and the trees, the sky and the mountains.

What works for you?

Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.

So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.

Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.

All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.

A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.

With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.

One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”

Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.

Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.

Zen Story: A Flash of Enlightenment

A chalk bag with a piece of paper coming out of it that reads, "Answers."

In the Zen tradition, there are many stories describing students and masters who achieve sudden and profound insights during everyday activities. Much of this blog is inspired or informed by such stories, which I have found usefully collected in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen WritingsThe following is a climbing version of the Zen story, based loosely on a true story my friend recounted to me.

An accomplished climber planned a trip to a beautiful limestone crag with the goal of flashing one of the area’s most intimidating and difficult routes, a 40-meter overhanging face that won the praise of all who attempted it.

To flash is to climb, on the first attempt, from the bottom to the top of a route without falling. One must not make any mistakes, or at least no mistakes that cannot be reversed and corrected, so the climber went to a local master who had completed the route and asked for advice.

“I do not think you need any help from me,” said the master of the man’s request.

“Maybe not, but the route is exceptional. Flashing it has been a goal of mine for many years, and it would mean a lot to me,” the climber pressed.

“If it means so much to you, I will help you — with one condition: you must promise not to look at my instruction unless you absolutely need them.”

“Fine,” conceded the climber, “I promise.” The master then turned and wrote something on a piece of paper. Folding it up, he handed it to the climber, who thanked him profusely.

The next day, when the climber arrived at his objective, he tucked the master’s note into his chalk bag and started up. He climbed slowly and purposefully through most of the route, but very near the top, he encountered a difficult section of climbing and stopped. Tired and worried about the climbing ahead, he dangled from a good rest hold and tried to figure out how  best to proceed.

His belayer, tending the rope from far below, observed the climber fussing with his chalk bag tied around his waist, pulling it around in front of him, then scooting it off to the side and shaking it vigorously.

“What are you doing?” shouted up the belayer.

“I don’t want to blow it; I’m going to see what advice the master gave me!” the climber called down.

Finally, the climber succeeded in extracting the note. With one hand he clung to the rock, unfolding the paper with the other. There before him was a detailed description of all the moves he had already completed on his own, but of the final moves above, the sheet said only:

“Enjoy the good rest and contemplate not blowing it at the final crux.”

With that, he was enlightened.

The Joy of Suffering

Like fun… only difference. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.

Like fun… only different. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.

My friend Rick and his climbing partner Adam had just finished some mixed ice and rock climbs in Alaska. While on the route Shaken Not Stirred, on the Moose’s Tooth, Rick’s arm had been buzz-sawed by a falling dinner plate of ice, leaving it bruised and numb, and Adam tore his lips open while trying to blow snow out of a frozen ice screw. They climbed another route, Ham and Eggs, and then settled in at basecamp, ready to head home. Unfortunately, some bad weather kept the air taxi from its scheduled pick-up and, after a few days socked in, the pair found themselves nearly out of food, swapping gel packets with another party stuck on the glacier in an effort to keep a modicum of variety in their calorie-poor diets.

During their unplanned stay, Rick and Adam were mostly confined to a small bivvy tent. The snow was falling so fast and heavy that they could hear it cascading over the waterproof shell. So they sat and sipped melted snow, read, listened to music, watched Chappelle’s Show on Rick’s tablet — whatever they could do to ward off terminal boredom and hunger pangs. Every so often, the sound of the wind and snowfall would stop.

“That’s when we played a little game,” explains Rick. “We called it ‘Stopped Snowing, or Buried?’” At some point the storm would pass and their ride would buzz in from Talkeetna — that would be the “stopped snowing” option. But mostly when it went quiet it was because the snow had accumulated enough to cover the tent, burying them. When this happened, it was time to get out and dig.

Eventually the skies cleared, the plane landed, and everyone got home safely. But on the way back, Rick, already a tall and skinny dude, had to walk around Anchorage with one hand dedicated to keeping his pants up, now several sizes too big thanks to the alpine weight loss program.

Of course, none of this stopped Rick from going back into the mountains. He just returned from a trip to the Bugaboos with his wife, and he’s probably already plotting something big for next year — a trip to Patagonia or the like — with his sufferbuddy, Chris.

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Your worst nightmare is my dream vacation.” Typically attributed to alpine pursuits, it could just as well apply for folks who run ultra marathons, wriggle through shoulder-width, lightless caves deep underground, or plummet down rock-strewn, high-angle chutes on skis. Writing a book or a PhD dissertation could be seen as similarly nightmarish scenarios for the average person.

The truth is, while undertaking any grand quest, you will find yourself at varying points exhausted, frustrated, scared, in physical pain, or just praying for it all to be over. But when it is over, there is almost always a magical moment when the suffering that seemed so present and oppressive in the moment evaporates and you find yourself suffused with a profound joy. Soon, you’ll seek out the same kind of challenge again. Why? Alpinist and writer Kelly Cordes offers the old adage that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. But maybe there’s something more to it…

Both Rick and Kelly admit that, on some level, suffering isn’t just something we put out of our minds to make room for a sense of fulfillment; it’s also an active part of that fulfillment.

“We place a higher value on things we have to work for,” Rick said. “And fear, pain, and exhaustion are very poignant, universally recognizable forms of work.”

Likewise, Kelly lists suffering as an ingredient in a powerful emotional stew: “Only the laziest slob would argue that putting forth effort in something is never rewarding, and so you magnify that effort, require something huge of yourself that includes some suffering, put yourself in the most beautiful places on the planet, rely completely on yourself and your partner and nobody else, no societal bullshit, no people drama, no petty daily toils, and no excuses, and it creates the most lasting memories of your life.”

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty.” I think this is exactly the strange contradiction that people like Kelly or Rick, or Rick’s wife who is a diehard cross fit practitioner, or my friend who runs 100 mile races through the mountains, understand intuitively, almost compulsively. Seeking to strain out the difficulties of life and leave only the pleasurable and agreeable will leave nothing but a meagre broth behind.

The challenges in life, like the successes, are just a part of an endlessly swirling tableaux of ends and beginnings, discovering and forgetting, creating and destroying. Along the way, hopefully, we use them to learn who we are and what we believe. Without failure and struggle, what joy could we take from any endeavor? What would inspire us? These experiences — the ones my friend Roody calls, “Like fun, only different” — offer a kind of freedom that’s hard to get at in any other way. As Kelly puts it, “Nothing makes me feel so alive as climbing in the mountains.”

NAMC: Not At My Crag


There’s a certain type of climber who likes to bash anyone who lacks the same skill or experience level that they have. A common refrain from such climbers is that the new generations are bringing a gym-bred lack of climbing knowledge and ethics to already-overcrowded crags. With the throngs of gumby-headed neophytes–the most oblivious horsemen of the climbing apocalypse–come ills ranging from accidents to annoyance, from faux pas to soil erosion.

Judging from the Internet, Not At My Crag climbers constitute either a rather large group, or just a small group with very large mouths—something that’s easily confused in the Wild West of online forums and comments sections. NAMC climbers particularly enjoy posting in discussions about the increasing popularity of climbing due to competitions (especially the Olympics), the rise of the modern climbing gym, and depictions of climbing in the media.

Of course, even the most vocal of NAMCers were almost certainly at one point in their careers the very same type of climber they critique. Now that they’ve made it through the precarious early years of climberdom, they apparently have earned a sort of immunity, a la Survivor. Instead of mere members of the swelling crowds, they have ascended to the status of “locals,” sole and rightful stewards of the places they climb. All others should bow and kiss their swollen, chalky knuckles before deigning to tie in.

But believe it our not, bagging on others on the Internet with an air of seasoned superiority is not the most effective means of making change.

This weekend, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and the American Alpine Club hosted a Craggin’ Classic event in the Salt Lake area. This climbing festival took place at the Alta Peruvian Lodge, in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Despite menacing pockets of storm in the area, a bunch of climbers showed up to take clinics in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, lead by a guiding concession called Mountain Education & Development. Clinic topics ranged from Top Rope basics to Trad Leading and Multi-Pitch Belay Changeovers. There was even a stewardship event that involved trail building, weeding, and such.

I stopped in on the Trad Leading clinic and was happy to see a young but knowledgable instructor patiently showing climbers, from a wide range of age and experience groups, how to place pro, build anchors, and generally think like a climber. The clinic was only four hours long, and so just a small first step in the lifelong learning process that something as complex and potentially dangerous as climbing requires. But still, it was a step—an example of just one of the many ways that new climbers can become more knowledgable and more knowledgable climbers can help raise the average level of know-how at the crags.

One of the things that NAMC climbers most lament is the death of the “mentor” system in climbing, in which a veteran climber takes a n00b under his wing and edumacates him in The Way. It is the hallowed master/apprentice relationship still practiced in some vocations, particularly in Europe and Asia. While these types of relationships are certainly valuable, it is also worth remembering that, in the anarchic craft of climbing, a mentor can be anything from a true sage to a crusty character armed with little more than strong opinions, a lot of misinformation, and a burning urge to be in charge.

I guess what I’m saying is that we all should strive to be better examples and good mentors… and at the same times we all should probably admit that we have something, maybe a lot, left to learn. Events like the Craggin’ Classic are one way to be a part of this change. Coming to the crag with a dose of humility and empathy for those newcomers who probably look at lot like you did once upon a time is another.

Running It Out

The author climbing on Paradise Lost

Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost, deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.

I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.

My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.

Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”

How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.

What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.

Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.

“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.

A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?

One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.

The Seven Pleasures of Climbing

Climber's miming moves

Kenny Barker loves climbing THIS MUCH!

“Oooooohhhh… yeeeaah,” moaned the old woman with pleasure, her jaw dangling, a pair of binoculars pressed to her eyes. Around her, a motley group of bird watchers, their binoculars similarly erect, stood transfixed by a little orange and black ball of feathers high in the trees above. This odd and comical scene from the documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect underlines the deep obsession and primal pleasure that birders can take from their pleasantly innocuous, if not a little nerdy, pursuit.

As I watched the movie, a central theme of which is the total dedication of a small group to something that most people don’t understand or care about, I kept feeling strikes of recognition. The way in which these birders were taken over by their “hobby” seemed to perfectly parallel the climber’s obsession.

“My fiends mock me for what I do in the spring,” explains a character in Birders named Chris Cooper. “Because … from April 15 until Memorial Day, they won’t see me. Because I’m birding.” He describes the same communications barrier that climbers with non-climbing friends must navigate.

How does the climber translate for the non-climber the strange sign language he uses to mime the moves of a route? Or explain that he’ll be missing another work party because he’s making a 4am start on tomorrow’s multi-pitch outing? What words can convey the joy of wedging your hands into a sandstone fracture and scraping and grunting your way up until your knuckles, knees, and ankles bleed, until your shoulders fail, until you fly through the air and smack into the rock like a clacking ball from an executive’s desk accoutrement?

How can you make someone understand when they just don’t understand?

Well, you could make a list…

In an effort to express why he watches birds in the park for hours a day, every day, to those who would really rather not, Cooper created a list he calls “The Seven Pleasures of Birding,” as follows:

  1. The beauty of the birds
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of scientific discovery
  4. The joy of hunting without the bloodshed
  5. The joy of puzzle solving (figuring out what bird you’re seeing based only on little glimpses of color and form as the specimen flits between lofty branches)
  6. The joy of collecting (bird species)
  7. The unicorn effect (the moment of awe that comes when you see for the first time a bird you’ve only ever read about in field guides)

I think three of these could be transferred directly to climbing without much adjustment: numbers 2, 5, and 6. Clearly, the natural setting is a huge draw for your average climber. Solving puzzles, yes, obviously — whether through finding the right line up a mountain, the right gear to protect a route, or the right moves to unlock a sequence. And how many of us collect climbs? Colorado’s 14ers or 5.12s or all the four-star routes in a guidebook… . There are nearly as many ways to collect as there are climbers driven by collecting.

The other points are connected a little more loosely, but I think they can be made to work. Number 1, the beauty of the birds, for example, could be seen as a more general aesthetic appreciation. Here, too, lies an attraction for many climbers; the look of a beautiful line or of a particular movement certainly enriches the climbing experience.

The joy of scientific discovery could be turned inside out to suit the climbing life — instead of learning about the external world, we rock rats meticulously monitor and experiment with our own physical and mental states as a way of improving, overcoming psychological barriers, and collecting new climbs.

Hunting without bloodshed (number 4) could be seen as the urge to find new routes, new cliffs, new climbing areas or mountain faces to be scaled — it is the developer’s urge, the thirst of the first-ascentionist for the new.

And then there’s the unicorn effect, which at first blush might seem hard to recognize from the climber’s high-angle perspective. But rotate the idea just a quarter turn and you’ll likely recall the first time you visited a classic area or climb you’d only read about in magazines and seen in videos: Yosemite, Cerro Torre, the tenuous summit formation on Ancient Art. My alpinist friend spent hours scrutinizing aerial photographs of a peak in Alaska he was planning to climb. He must have experienced the unicorn effect when he stepped on to that glacier and for the first time encountered his objective’s mythic visage.

So, then, would the Seven Pleasures of Climbing be as follows?

  1. The beauty of the climb
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of discovering and overcoming ones own limitations
  4. The joys of exploring new territory
  5. The joy of puzzle solving
  6. The joy of collecting
  7. The unicorn effect

A while ago, I wrote a blog called Climbing Is (Not) the Best. In it, I argued that climbing is no more or less special that any other pursuit. Birders reminded me of that idea and reinforced it, but also helped me to remember that just because it’s hard to convincingly argue for the primacy of one passion over another, that does nothing to diminish the value, the depth of meaning, that a passion holds for the passionate.

Whether birding or climbing, gardening or knitting, cooking or painting, any pursuit can help us to see and feel deeply. Why any activity snares the wild heart of one person but not another remains fairly mysterious. But the mystery, I think, only adds to the fun of it.

Still, I’m not sure these seven pleasures really encompass all the many things about climbing that bring joy to an obsessed climber. What would you add to the list?