Tag Archives: philosophy

The Professionals

A climber ascending an artificial wall shaped like an eyeball

The life of a professional is lived in the public eye.

After many years working in the outdoor industry and lurking on Internet climbing forums, I‘ve noticed a certain ambivalence about the idea of the “professional” climber. Some people think being a pro must be the greatest thing on earth—all upside and no down. Others think the idea of a pro is an affront to the spirit of climbing, that pros are nothing more than marketing tools.

Many people feel both ways at once, perhaps resenting pros because, they feel, they’re somehow gaming the system, getting more than their fair share of the good stuff. After all, most of us work forty-plus hours a week doing things we find only vaguely fulfilling to pay the bills. We  squeeze in climbing between the office, chores, family, and the like. If we’re especially lucky, we get a good vacation to some destination like Céüse or Hueco or the Alaska Range every couple of years. The obvious question then: What could these pros possibly be doing that justifies a life of climbing, when the rest of us have to actually work for our money? 

From what I’ve seen, however, the professional climber’s life is less glamorous than many imagine and more like the jobs that most of us work: full of trade-offs and sacrifices.

In his Meditations, the stoic Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius writes

“A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold … you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest.”

A professional climber’s life might seem glamorous to some, charmed even, but consider, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, “the things which come first, and the things which follow.” For example, to be a professional climber, you should be both gifted and dedicated, climbing consistently and consistently better than most. This alone is a great challenge, of which the world’s millions of average climbers stand as proof. 

On top of that, you must accept an itinerant life, flying across the globe and back at the behest of sponsors, living on couches and out the backs of vans. You must pose down for photos and videos, write blogs, submit to interviews, and otherwise hold yourself up for the scrutiny of the unblinking public eye. At the same time, you must be willing to go without the stability and niceties of the typical professional life: a familiar bed, a retirement plan, health insurance, etc. 

If you don’t have such skills and are not willing to live like this, companies will not pay your way—or at least not for very long. After all, as a professional, your value is as inspiration, and inspiration must be constantly renewed in the form of new accomplishments, new trips, new media.

A professional climber, like any athlete, must also remember there are no guarantees. Aurelius continues: “Sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated.” 

Maybe you’ll injure yourself, maybe fail to perform as expected. Maybe you will make some misstep and be criticized and embarrassed. In the end, unless you are the top one-tenth of one percent of climbers, you won’t make enough money to save a nest egg for the future. You’ll just get by, and eventually have to figure out how to make your way in the world when old age or injury set in. Meanwhile, those who resent you or idolize you for your lucky career might well be getting raises, buying houses, having children… .

That’s not to say that being a pro climber isn’t sweet—it certainly can be. If it is the life for you, you should not hesitate to pursue it. But if you are climber who carries some envy or disdain for the professional, remember that for you, climbing is a personal pleasure more than a public performance. The fact that your employer doesn’t care how well you do on the rock is probably part of what makes climbing so satisfying . For most of us climbing’s joy comes not just in the act itself, but also in its contrast to the workaday world.

So I’d leave you with a question: having really considered that which comes first and which follows, how does the life of the professional climber seem to you?

Memento Mori

Memento Mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome, Italy

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
– Steve Jobs

Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy amongst climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:

  • The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo. (See the comments on this thread as an example)
  • The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
  • The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost! (An example here)
  • The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like  Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. (Another example here)

But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both valid and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.

The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation on death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.

Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides — around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.

I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.

In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant … or just because it feels right.

In ancient Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible,  at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste.

Like any concept, Memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but, especially now, we do.

Zen Story: Every-Minute Zen

Sandals and umbrella

Every-Minute Zen*

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

It is easy to live in your head. I have been doing it nearly every moment of my existence, for some 30-odd years. The average human only lives “in the moment” for brief flashes, when facing overwhelming joy, fear, pain, or exhaustion, or during other intense moments of engagement. This “nowness” is one of the things I seek when rock climbing — the singular focus when physical and mental engagement overwhelms my self-awareness, my thoughts of the past and future, my insecurities, my anxieties… .

But living in the moment is not only a function of extreme circumstances. When you practice anything extensively, you can access “flow” states and feel that sort of unconscious action. Athletes frequently speak of it, but artists or the spiritually minded might describe it as a kind of inspired or ecstatic state. Still, it never lasts for long. Many a gifted individual has spent his or her life seeking a longer stay in the perfect moment.

In “Every-Minute Zen,” Nan-in reminds Tenno that understanding Zen is all well and good, but what good is it if you cannot keep it with you always?

After you brushed your teeth this morning, which way did the head of the brush face? When you received change from the cashier, how much was there, and in what denominations? When you drove to work or to school last week, how many blue cars did you pass? If you cannot answer these questions, you do not have every-minute Zen.

Don’t worry, I don’t have it either. I always strive for greater awareness in the moment, but end up loosing track of the simplest things: I forget to put the wet laundry in the dryer and leave my keys dangling in the front-door lock.

The world I inhabit seems very distant from the monastic world of Nan-in and Tenno. I monitor Facebook and Twitter. I send text messages and check my calendar for appointments. I think of things I want to write and then work to create them, slowly and with much hand-wringing. At every turn, something asks for my attention to be directed to somewhere else and to some other time in the past or the future. I am not certain this is so wrong, but to the extent that it causes me anxiety, lack of focus, and confusion, it is something I seek to change.

*      *      *

I kick off my sandals and take note of how they fall, on which side of my umbrella, straining to think of nothing else. But even before they hit the floor, I am adrift — What would it feel like to be enlightened? I ponder. Already I have failed.

But failure lives in the past, which is no longer my concern. We have only to let each moment follow the next as it will; so simple yet so difficult.

Luckily, there is another moment coming — here it is, just now — in which to start the long journey into the infinitesimal nucleus of existence. My thought is, let’s start with one-second Zen and go from there.

*If you find this story to be interesting, please consider purchasing the masterful Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. I have owned and given away three or four copies of the book already. It’s pretty damn good.