Well, my hard drive seems to have crashed. These things happen I suppose, and there’s always other computers around these days. I just got back from the climbing gym, having managed to climb V6, which is the hardest I’ve ever climbed. I’ve reached the grade before, but always something seems to take me away from climbing before I can solidify my grasp, so hopefully this is not a bad omen but instead another chance.

I’ve just begun reading Mark Twight’s book, Kiss or Kill, which is a collection of articles that he’s written over the years about his climbs at the cutting edge of alpinism.  His writing about climbing is at once unsurpassed and yet very grating, because throughout his stories runs a strong undercurrent of self-destruction and a punk-born anger towards the world.  His tone could be read as arrogant and posturing, but a little bit of openess on the part of the reader leads to a new and uncomfortable kind of understanding of his motivations.  What I struggle with while reading his writing is that I very much admire his boldness, skill, and devotion, as he climbs at a level that I can only hope to emulate, and yet he makes me wonder whether such heights, both literally and figuratively, can be reached without his black motivations.

He writes about his time climbing with Jeff Lowe, a truly great alpinist ten years his superior.  He calls Jeff a hippie, a punk without the anger, and situates his personality within the cultural context of his formative years in climbing.  This seems logical, as Mark is himself a product of the next generation, which turned the unfulfilled dream of the hippies against the institutions that ’caused’ their failure with a lot of anger and frustration.  But where does that leave our generation of climbers?  Those among us who call themselves hippies can’t do more than wear the image like a mask, and punk, even less appealing, only seems to burn on at the fringes of our culture.  We don’t have a similarly useful ethic, be it unconditional freedom or unbridled anger.  Perhaps it is because our parents came at the tail end of the hippies, but before the punks, and so had no extreme views of their own, that we in turn have nothing against which to react.

Climbing as a whole seems to be feeling this effect as a transformation of the sport, away from a fringe culture towards a mainstream movement.  It is arrogant of me to talk about this sport as if I have lived its past and seen movements come and go. I haven’t.  But the writings of Mark Twight and others has given me a sense of history that may soon be forgotten by most in the sport.  I think that climbing’s popularity has skyrocketed because the predominant ethic among climbers has moved away from the edge of what is possible mentally, and more towards a gymnastic challenge.  Accordingly, things have become “safer” and more accessible, and the hordes are moving in.  Climbing as I know and love it is not something that ought to invite this many people.  The climbing that I know is scary, and uncomfortable, and these things are never popular.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t resent sport climbers and boulderers and all of these newer movements except when they are irreverant to this sense of climbing history.  I understand that what draws many to climbing today has little to do with what first drove Warren Harding and Royal Robbins up the great walls of Yosemite.  I understand that by bolting and making protection assured, the limits of physical and gymnastic possibility can be pushed further into new and improbable realms. But I can’t help but feel that what used to be the heart of the sport is being forgotten.

This heart is where each climber meets their fear, and survives.  Again and again.  Few used to be attracted to the sport, because there are few for whom this deep emotional discomfort is worth the effort.  But they who chose it also knew the deep satisfactions and personal growth that come with this challenge.  John Long has mourned the slow death of traditional climbing in the face of bolted routes, and many others have echoed his thoughts.  In the coming weeks I’d like to write about some of what may be lost in the new world of climbing; the value of a real partner, self-sufficiency, success in failure, and others.

But what of those of us who would like to continue in the steps of those who came before us?  We are out here, though in lesser numbers, and we are neither hippies, punks, nor rockers.  Perhaps we have to rely upon our sense of history, and find our bravery out of gratitude rather than anger or love.  It’s certainly no well articulated solution, but it’s an idea.  If we see the beauty in Harding’s ambition, or in Twight’s repeated redemption, that may be our reason to stretch ourselves, counter to the current of our peers.  Time will tell, and maybe fear will win out.  The rock, at least, will outlast us all.  Even sport climbers.

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