“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:
- The beauty of the birds
- The joy of being in a natural setting
- The joy of scientific discovery
- The joy of hunting without the bloodshed
- 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)
- The joy of collecting (bird species)
- 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?
- The beauty of the climb
- The joy of being in a natural setting
- The joy of discovering and overcoming ones own limitations
- The joys of exploring new territory
- The joy of puzzle solving
- The joy of collecting
- 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?