When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

Animals that climb

Baby squirrel climbing concrete wall

We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 11 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.

Bears

This video of climbing bears started making the rounds in April, 2014, and really caught fire—probably because the climbing bears look so much like climbing humans when they move. According to the YouTube description, these “Endangered Mexican Black Bears” are scaling the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. The videographer spotted the momma and her cubs while kayaking and whipped out the ol’ camera, just in time to make an Internet sensation.

Baboons

Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.

Geckos

These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.

Sloths

Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.

Squirrels

We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.

Snakes

Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.

Mountain Goats

Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on…  Five Ten take note…

Crabs

Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.

Cats

As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”

Spiders

Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…

Snails

Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.