Tommy Caldwell came out to Ventura the other day to present and screen the movie A Line Across the Sky. If you haven’t seen it, A.L.A.S. is pretty much a home movie shot with a point-and-shoot by two of the world’s most accomplished rock climbers and then professionally edited into a bromance that happens to take place against the backdrop of the world’s most impressive alpine enchainment.
In the movie, Caldwell and his partner Alex Honnold (a master of stone but, we learn, an alpine gumby), traverse the ragged skyline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks in the monumental, weather-wracked wilds of Patagonia. Despite legendary prowess in the vertical realm, the duo is pushed into uncomfortable territory more than once, as when Caldwell must lead the half-frozen upper face of Fitz Roy with one ice tool in the dark, leaving Honnold, who is wearing approach shoes with ill-fitting, borrowed crampons, to follow.
At work the next day, my friend asked me how I liked the movie. I explained that my attention was riveted to the screen throughout, which doesn’t often happen with climbing movies these days. Then he asked me if I’d done much alpine climbing. No, I explained, the suffering and danger quotient had always been too high for my taste. Complex body movement, a peaceful communion with nature, and the social aspects of climbing have long been my prime motivators; as such, I tend to prefer sport to trad and bouldering to big wall.
As we talked, I realized how bright the line has been for me: key elements of alpine climbing like complex logistics, prolonged period of extreme physical discomfort, and numerous objective hazards, hold no appeal. But to my fiends who excel in the mountains these are part of the attraction.
I find it fascinating the distance between one type of climber from the next: alpinists and gym climbers, low-angle traddies and red-point obsessed sportos—at times, it can feel like we’re different species. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to use the label “climber” to say anything valuable, or to explain what’s so great about climbing. After all, the answer is different from group to group and person to person. Rare is the true “all-arounder” who relishes all types of climbing at once, perhaps because each style has certain core elements that cut across a few sub-disciplines, but rarely all.
As I pondered such frivolities, I drew in my notebook a little matrix of climbing styles and their particular attractions. Then I went ahead and put together a “handy” online quiz to help identify the types of climbing that best suit your particular tastes. I have no idea if it will work for you. Give it a try and let me know…
Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.
Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?
The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.
The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.
As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”
Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.
At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.
One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”
But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.
In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.
The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.
Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.
As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.
However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)
As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.'” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.
For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.
If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.
Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.
Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.
As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.
Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.
When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension.He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.
“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.
“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.
“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”
I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.
Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.
“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.
It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is.
I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.
“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
– Steve Jobs
Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy amongst climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:
The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo. (See the comments on this thread as an example)
The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost! (An example here)
The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. (Another example here)
But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both valid and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.
The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation on death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.
Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides — around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.
I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.
In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant … or just because it feels right.
In ancient Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible, at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste.
Like any concept, Memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but, especially now, we do.