Another Kind of Sport

Climber Anna Stohr bouldering at a competition in Colorado.
Who are we competing with when we climb? Anna Stohr at the 2011 Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO.

On the way back from a day out bouldering, a story came on the radio about some classic pigskin rivalry that I don’t follow. When I got home, I surfed over to Google News and found a headline about an airport shooting with a subhead that read: “Analysis: Hawaii team’s flight for Utah State game could be delayed.” Ah yes, football season, I muttered to myself. It got me thinking about just how different climbing and football really are.

For instance, tens of millions of my countrymen and women spend large chunks of their free time watching other people play sports, rather than engaging in any physical activity themselves. The fantasy football industry alone has been valued at over $70 billion. Meanwhile, a first-place purse in a really big climbing competition might clock in at $5,000, and the number of rock climbers who have achieved household status can be counted on one hand.

To me, the disparity in climbing’s popularity and that of competitive sports like football isn’t so surprising. Team sports are all about drama and performance. The elements of the battle are visually evident. Players collide, snatch balls out of the air, arc hail-Mary passes towards uncertainty, spin and juke and leap over each other…

In climbing, the battle is more internal.

This is why climbing videographers must constantly work to amp things up, focusing on foot-swinging dynos and gut-clenching falls, setting it all to throbbing electronic soundtracks. When Hollywood gets its hands on climbing, it churns out absurdities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, and zooms in on a ropeless Tom Cruise suspended in a reverse iron cross on a sandy desert tower. But climbing is a game played as much on the inner landscape as on the wall. If it is a battle against anything, it is against oneself. This can be hard to translate for mass consumption.

Yes, there are plenty of climbing competitions. I’ve taken part in a few. But the vibe at most of these events is so chill that the competitors cheer each other on instead of psyche each other out. Score is typically kept on the honor system. Climbing events that create the tension of head-to-head combat, like speed climbing, can often feel contrived. High-level competition, while serious, has yet to make it into the public eye or the Olympics, and high-level competitors rarely make magazine covers or command much screen-time in the vids.

I think climbing’s attitude might be a byproduct of its exploratory, if not a little anarchic, roots. It started with mountaineers whose mantra was “to the top, by any means necessary.” With twenty- or thirty-thousand-foot adversaries covered in snow and ice and wracked with avalanches and brutal storms, there was challenge aplenty without further regulation. And while mountaineers constantly seek to climb in better “style,” winning or losing on the mountain is a far more subjective matter than on the gridiron.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened with the phrase, “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.” In the climbing sphere, quotes like Alex Lowe’s “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” seem to resonate more strongly. Meanwhile, the modern climbing hero tends to be the first-ascentionist, or the bold free-soloist who risks everything, artfully and for no discernible reason, rather than the competitor festooned with medals. Many of us are happy to remain what Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the useless” — there’s a certain freedom in it.

Ultimately, climbing can and should be many things to many people. Right now, there are fledgling gym rats poised to change the way we think of climbing, and there are plenty of climbers who love competing above all else. But I tend think a lot of us out there love the climbing life precisely because there are no numbered jerseys, screaming coaches, or rulebooks. Because we each get to develop firsthand our own understanding of what climbing is over the course of years or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime. Who climb not in spite of but because no one cares whether we reach the top or don’t, and there’s no money in it in either case. Who climb not to beat anything but our own idea of what we can do, after all…

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.”