Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.
People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.
This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.
But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!
And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?
For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.
Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.
We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.
The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.
It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.
Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.