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?

Connecting the Dots: Climbing and the Creation of Meaning

Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis -
Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis –

White chalk patches speckle the dark grey schist of Rat Rock. Sunlight streaming through the leaves layers another pattern on top of the first. Horns honking, jackhammers chattering, radios squawking, passersby conversing, cyclists chirring, flocks of pigeons exploding into flight… Central Park can be chaotic.

But on Rat Rock, a block of stone the approximate size and shape of a single-family home that’s been partially squashed, I met a middle-aged Japanese guy named Yuki who slowly but surely worked to create order on the boulder’s surface.

I first encountered Yuki in the late 1990s, when I was a college student at NYU. On my early visits to Rat Rock, he was there: wiry and hollow-chested, forearms snaked with muscle. He had short-cropped black hair and a stout mustache and wore a T-shirt, slacks, and an old pair of black and green Boreal rock shoes to climb.

Smooth and choreographed, he climbed as if performing a vertical Tai Chi. Every move was perfectly calibrated for balance, so he could reach from one tiny edge to the next without having to jump or swing or snatch. He was quiet and unobtrusive, but if prompted, Yuki would offer sage snippets of climbing wisdom to the young, graceless climbers like me as we yanked on the holds like we wanted to take them home as souvenirs.

“Center your hips. Pull more with your toes. Hold less but reach farther.”

So thoroughly had Yuki explored the possibilities of Rat Rock that he eventually took to climbing in patterns, geometric shapes. One day, he suggested I join him in this new challenge.

“Try to climb in circles.” He said, and proceeded to show me a path of concentric rings he’d discerned connecting the chalky dots. First a tight circle in the center of the face, then a larger circle encompassing that, and a larger one still, never touching the ground. I tried, but found myself unmotivated. Yuki’s circles seemed overly contrived, and the lack of a grade probably made them less appealing, too. But now, more than a decade later, they make more sense to me.

Climbing a rock is undeniably arbitrary. When we set our sites on a mountain or a piece of stone, we overlay logic onto something random. We see the potential for movement, for a challenge, but the surfaces themselves are meaningless. The climb exists only at the intersection of stone, body, and mind — not in any of these alone.

The universe is chaotic and is growing ever more so (see: the second law of thermodynamics) — this chaos has shaped our brains, trained them to hunt for order and patterns as a means of survival. It’s how we learned to predict the motions of the bison across the plains and how best to hunt them. Perhaps it is even the same reason we painted the bison’s likeness on the walls of caves. It’s why we see familiar objects in the shapes of clouds and human faces in the knotty grain of a wooden fence. It’s why we name the world and map it. Why we make music and formulate equations. The act of ordering offers a comforting sense of understanding and control.

“Through art, create order out of the chaos of living,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. Like art, climbing is an act of creation. Through climbing, create order out of the chaos of stone.