Climbing Community

Climbers in the Red River Gorge
Climbing brought us together: the old Ohio crew hanging out in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

At the end of the song “Cliff Hanger,” by Blackalicious, there’s a sample from a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech. It goes: “Wherever you go, the first place you go is to your people … And once we begin to understand that the concept of community is simply one of our people, it don’t make a difference where we are. We are with our people and, therefore, we are home.” Carmichael was talking about the African diaspora, about black Africans living not just in the U.S. but all over the world. This remains a serious topic, and Carmichael’s context, as an activist during the civil rights era, was exceptionally charged. Despite coming from a very different background, that snippet of his speech alway seemed to stick in my ear. Sometimes I’d wonder, Who are my “people”? Who do I go to first when I’m in a new place?

My parents moved to Virginia a few years after I went away to college. The first time I visited my new familial home base, I immediately located the local climbing gym and the nearest outdoor gear shop. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than any other group to which I claim membership, climbers are my people. Wherever the climbers are, that’s where I find a certain sense of home.

In an interesting essay, climber and CU-Boulder Religious Studies Professor Greg Johnson writes, “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors. So it is that climbers can travel the world and have ready-made communities waiting to accept them.” This last sentence rang particularly true for me, and following are two of quite a few examples that illustrate it:

In 2006, I went to Italy. There, a guy named Lorenzo, who I met on a bizarre, nearly defunct internet forum called boldering.com, picked me up at a train station and took me to his local climbing spot. Lorenzo knew next to nothing about me except that I climbed. Still, each of us took it on faith that the other would be a good and agreeable person. Just hours after meeting, we sat under big boulders in an ancient wood and spoke like old friends. That night we drank wine at an osteria and ate pasta his friend’s 500-year-old apartment. Without the climbing community to act as bonding agent, I doubt Lorenzo (or anyone) would have shown a random tourist such hospitality.

The second example is set in Australia, where I was rolling around solo for a month after a friend’s wedding. Here, a small group of climbers I met while at the crags in Grampians National Park offered me beer, beta, and places to crash. One of them showed me around the Blue Mountains, and another took me to a little sport crag called Nowra, which I’d probably never have visited otherwise. Another of these guys, a pro climber named Chris, handed me the key to his house back in Sydney and told me to make myself at home while he stayed on to climb.

“The very ritualism of climbing is so explicit and marked that it constitutes the primary identity of most adherents,” writes Johnson in his essay. “This makes climbers remarkably visible and sympathetic to one another.” And it’s true. How else would a lone traveler find such warm reception amongst strangers? No, not all climbers are so welcoming, but the fact remains that a strong connection exists between and among many of us, sight unseen.

Communal connection is by no stretch unique to climbers. Stokely Carmichael believed that blackness was the most important form of community (indeed, he believed it was a matter of survival that black people stand together in the face of extreme racism). For many, religion is the primary identity that binds them to others. Most of us belong to multiple communities, based on language, sexual orientation, interests, alma maters, and on and on…

The great thing about these communities is that they all can be powerful sources of human connection, and therefore strength, happiness, growth. The bad thing about these communities is that they can be grounds for excluding the “other,” and therefore negativity, anger, blame, and—with depressing frequency—violence.

That is why, as climbers, I think we should embrace our shared identity in positive ways, as we often do when a fellow climber is injured or in need, while at the same time rejecting the inter-group strife (sport vs. trad, gym vs. outdoor, experienced vs. n00b) and the unhealthy desire to exclude and judge that belonging to a community can encourage. We must remember that we draw strength from belonging not only to specific groups, but also to that most general of groups, humanity, to which we all belong.

Take it even farther and consider that we share the Earth not only with other humans, but also with living beings and natural places of unimaginable variety and beauty. That these, too, can be treated as if they are “our people.” Learn to do this and wherever you go can be your home. It’s a bit of a tall order, I admit, but a noble quest, if ever there was one.

Social Climbing

Crowded climbing area
The climber in isolation is just a thought experiment.

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.

Cycles

sit_and_watch

This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.