The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

What’s In A (Route) Name?

The name of a route called "Disneyland" is painted at the base of a climb in Zillertal, Austria.
The name of this route is painted right on the rock in Zillertal, Austria.

I hope you’re well. In my spare time I’ve been puzzling over a “climbing thought” question and would be interested to hear your take: When we name a boulder problem (or route), what is it that we are naming?

This was the text my friend Victor sent me the other day. Like all good questions, this one seemed simple at first glance, until I tried to pin it down. The quiddity or “whatness” of a problem or route, I’ve decided, is harder to define that one might think.

To start, it helps to pause on the fact that problems and routes do not exist in either a rock or in a person alone, but at the intersection of these two entities.

Without a person, there is just a rock, with its chaotic array of forms and facets. Without a rock, there is just a person, with her physical and mental capacities. The climber creates meaning on the rock while the rock offers a certain fulfillment for the climber.

So when naming a climb, a first ascentionist names not just a particular thing, a chunk of rock, but also an interaction with that piece of rock. But that statement is a bit vague, so you might propose that a climb is a particular sequence of movements on a specific piece of rock.

Such a definition doesn’t account for the fact that it is rare for two people to climb a route or problem in the same way. Different climbers — due to their morphology and their climbing style — will grab holds in a different order or use different holds altogether than did the first ascentionist. Further, even if several holds break on a problem or route, we rarely rename the problem, so there’s a certain plasticity to the thing being named. In either case, it is clear that when we name a problem or route, we are not naming a specific series of bodily movements or holds, but something a little broader.

With this in mind, you could say that what we’re naming is a starting point and a finishing point on a particular piece of rock.  This clears up the issue of different approaches to the same climb, but it doesn’t address what happens between the start to the finish. What’s to say that a climber couldn’t start a particular climb at point A and then, holds permitting, climb in a sweeping zigzag pattern before arriving at point B. I think the typical climber would admit this is not the route that the first ascentionist had in mind. We would probably say this zigzagging fellow has climbed another problem or route altogether, or at least a strange variation. This points to the idea of boundaries, ergo:

A problem or route is the collection of all the possible hand and foot holds a human could use, and all the possible ways a human could use them, to ascend a defined section of a particular rock.

It seems the thing we’re naming is a bit of a fuzzy character. A place, yes, and also a physical thing, but also an interaction or set of possible interactions. Add to that the fact that, over time, a climb’s name comes to encompass the shared experiences of many climbers.

As I continued to ponder, I came to feel that the thing being named is perhaps not as important as why we name it at all. For example, we name a thing to lay claim to it (as the British claimed Chomolungma/Sagarmāthā by calling it Everest); we name a thing so that we have a noun to which we can affix adjectives and other bits of information — a grade, a context, a history… ; we name in order to more easily discuss a thing; we name to indicate a certain level of importance — it’s the reason we name our pets but not our livestock, our first ascents but not the down-climbs. Perhaps most basically, most importantly, a name separates a thing from, well, everything else.

If Bachar never named Midnight Lightning, would it still be such a touchstone of climbing culture today? Or would it be just some boulder that climbers like to horse around on in Camp 4? But we can hardly imagine not naming the things that matter to us in the world. Culture abhors a name vacuum…

All of which leaves me wondering what would it be like to climb at an area without names.

Imagine visiting some far off land where your tour guide brings you to a beautiful crag full of classic routes. There, he walks you to the base of one perfect line and gives a thumbs up.

“Five stars,” he says, with an unidentifiable accent. “Soooo good.” You get on the route knowing no grade, no stories — just the moves as they present themselves, one after another. As you clip the anchors, your guide lowers you to the ground and gives you a high-five, and then takes you to the next nameless route.

Your amazing trip over, how would you talk about it to your friends back home, who’d never been there? You’d have to use descriptions: a 70-meter prow of crimpers, a steep wall of pockets. Maybe you’d realize the futility of the exercise and just let it go. The climbs were what they were, in that moment and for you. Without names, they’d lack hooks to snag on the fibers of your neural network and would dissolve into the past, where you couldn’t easily collect them or dwell on them or (gasp!) spray about them.

Who would have the guts to create a new climbing area without names?

“What’s this route called?” a visitor might ask.

“Well, it’s the third one from the left,” the local would reply.

“How hard is it?” the visitor would counter.

“It’s as hard as it is. Why don’t you give it a try?”

It sounds pretty good to me, at least in theory. What do you think? And what do you think it is we’re naming when we give a problem or route a name?

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.