“Climbing is my religion.” I’ve heard it many times, often in an effort to express the depth of feeling the speaker holds for climbing. Other times it’s been a response to the diminution of climbing as “recreation,” a “pastime,” or a “sport,” or to conflicts between more commonly accepted religions and climbing,
Typically, such conflicts have arisen in the mountain West, between Native American tribes and climbers, who by dint of public land use statutes have been allowed to climb on rock formations that various tribes deem sacred. Perhaps the best known such site is Devil’s Tower, where over a dozen tribes claim religious or ancestral ties. Many climbers claim a religious connection of their own in the act of climbing the 1,200-foot igneous intrusion.
I lean towards skepticism when it comes to such claims of climbing’s deeper significance. Just because we love rock climbing and dedicate our time, money, and energy to it, doesn’t mean it’s our religion. A religion has so much more to it, doesn’t it? There’s ritual and context, history and culture. Us climbers, we were just fooling around—albeit in a pretty serious way—right?
But for some reason the idea of climbing as religion stuck with me, maybe because I’ve never been entirely clear on what a religion is or isn’t, anyway. Is a holy book required? Millions of followers? A thousand-year-old history? The Internal Revenue Service defines a “church” for the purposes of taxation or lack thereof, listing attributes such as: definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, schools for the preparation of its members, literature of its own, and more. It would be hard to see climbing fitting this admittedly loose definition… And yet…
In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the famed late-nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist William James reviews an assortment of specific cases of religious believers. He concludes that there is “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously,” and that it consists of two parts: “1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.” The first is an uneasiness about ourselves, that we are fallen from grace or under the spell of a delusion. The second is the belief that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”
A connection with higher powers, in the religious context, is often described as an overwhelming sense of oneness with something greater than oneself and a disconnection from the day-to-day struggles and worries that consume our conscious minds. A Christian might call this a direct connection with God. A Buddhist would say it’s a taste of Nirvana. Plenty of climbers have felt such connection high above the earth, moving over rock faces and mountain slopes.
In an attempt to further unyoke such connection from any specific belief system, the contemporary philosopher Sam Harris writes, “Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.” In his book Waking Up, he defines spirituality simply as “repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self.”
With all this in mind, I might suggest that many climbers (though certainly not all) share this essential human experience that is so often tied to religion but, depending on who you ask, need not be. Many climbers experience an uneasiness with the world as it is and life as it is commonly lived. We also believe we have found a solution in the act of climbing, which helps us connect with something bigger than our day-to-day selves.
Neither the IRS nor practitioners of the world’s many recognized religions are likely to buy climbing’s holy claims. Where is our good book? Our ordained ministers? Our formal code of doctrine? In the end, the only thing we have is our direct experience of the sublime, those moments where the self dissolves into pure being and acting, often in the original and most primal place of human worship: nature.
It may not be enough to garner any official designation, but I think this is the experiential underpinning on which all religions are built, and without which all the hallowed traditions and rituals of the world would seem as flat as filling out a tax form.