Because It’s Fun

An interview with Chris Noble, author of “Why We Climb: The Worlds Most Inspiring Climbers”

The question can be eye-rolling. The proverbial dead horse. Yet, Chris’s book dives into it in a way that makes it new again, exploring the unique motives and seemingly inhuman talent of many of the world’s best climbers. What we find is that there are as many reasons “why” as there are climbers, and also there are plenty that we all share. One of which, as Chris quips in the first chapter, is that “When your Aunt Hazel asks, ‘Why do you climb?’ what she’s really asking is, ‘Why risk your life and waste your time on such a worthless activity?'”

I caught up with Chris a few times this winter to chat about his book (and ice conditions).

SD: How did you know I had an Aunt Hazel? Mine was actually an Aunt Helen, but still… 

CN: Haha! I’m pretty sure all climbers have an Aunt Hazel or Helen—someone in their families, who in their wildest dreams, can’t imagine why anyone would risk their life and waste their time climbing. Why is this?  Because from a practical standpoint, climbing seems useless. It’s uncomfortable, scary, and offers few financial rewards.

That’s why people who aren’t climbers always ask—why do you do this? And it’s why climbers themselves have such a difficult time answering—the rewards are intensely personal, intangible, and like any inner experience—frustratingly difficult to explain to those who haven’t shared them. Why We Climb delves deep into those intangibles.

Tommy Caldwell practicing “elective hardship” on the Alien Roof (5.12b), North Face of the Rostrum | Photo: Chris Noble

Describe your first time climbing or your first memory of climbing. 

I grew up in Ohio long before there were climbing gyms. We had no rock but we had plenty of trees. I spent a large part of my summers at my grandmother’s house climbing fruit trees in her back yard. Just like Peter Croft talks about in the book, my hero during that period was Tarzan. I would read about Tarzan’s adventures then go outside and act them out.

Then, in 1973, my first week as a freshman at the University of Colorado, I signed up for a beginning rock climbing course. By coincidence my instructor was Jeff Long, who is still one of my favorite climbing writers. At that time Jeff was trying to read something, write something, and climb something every day. That left a deep impression on me. I was a creative writing major so we had plenty in common. Even after the class ended he was kind enough to take me climbing a few times. At that time climbing had a rich and dynamic literary tradition, and for me that was a big part of its appeal. I’ve always loved the combination of action and contemplation Gaston Rebuffat wrote about. You go out and have these amazing adventures, then you come home, light a fire, pour a glass of wine, and write about what you learned.

Did you know at that point that you’d be climbing for the rest of your life? If not, when did this click?

Not really, in those days skiing was my main passion. Like so many kids from the Midwest, skiing led me to the Rockies, but over time the sheer diversity of the climbing experience, the beautiful places to pursue it; the close-knit community one meets, and the fact that it’s so bloody hard to master have made it my number one interest.

The funny thing is that it’s always been difficult for me to shake a slightly Puritanical attitude toward outdoor recreation—the view my parent’s generation had that skiing and climbing were things you outgrow. For me, the turning point came when I was working on my earlier book Women Who Dare, about inspiring women climbers. Spending time with people who have realized that their soul’s true purpose is to be a climber gave me permission to feel the same, to unapologetically shrug off the idea that climbing isn’t grown up, serious, or worthwhile.  In Why We Climb I point out that the climbing lifestyle is what philosophers call autotelic— that is an end in itself, not a tool or instrument of something else, but the expression of an elegant and noble way of being in the world.

Adam Ondra climbing Les Tres Panes (5.14b), Pelvoux, France | Photo: Chris Noble

Which climbers in your book surprised you most?

I suppose Adam Ondra surprised me most one day when I was photographing him at a crag in France. At the time he was competing on the World Cup (he subsequently won the Lead title for the year) so he was trying to on-sight 5.14’s, which, as he points out, is what’s required to win World Cup Lead events. When we were eating lunch, Adam said, “Don’t you want to climb something for yourself?”

The question perfectly exemplifies Adam’s personality. He’s incredibly grounded, humble, and kind. He’s the most talented climber in the world but there’s not a whiff of attitude. Even so, his question made me laugh.

“Dude, you are so nice to ask!” I responded, “but seriously, the ‘Warm Up’ here would be a summer-long project for me!”

I felt that same sort of strange disconnect after spending time with Alex Honnold in Yosemite. Being around Alex is like living in a dream–eventually, it begins to seem normal to think about soloing the Steck-Salathe’ on a rest day, or soloing fifty routes at J-Tree in a morning. Then suddenly you wake up.

“Hey, wait a minute!”

The point is that when these guys touch rock they are lightyears beyond most human beings—but when they’re standing around in the parking lot—they’re just like the rest of us. It’s a difficult paradox to wrap your head around.

Peter Croft climbing Wicked West of the Witch (5.10X), The Needles. “I take climbing very seriously,” Croft says, “but I don’t take myself seriously.” | Photo: Chris Noble

Are there any lines or anecdotes in the book that still echo in your mind?

I love Peter Croft’s story about when he and John Bachar became the first to link The Nose on El Cap and the Regular Route on Half Dome in a day. Peter tells the story with his typical humor and humility, but as he says, at the time he felt that being asked to attempt that link-up with Bachar (who was then widely believed to be the best climber in the world) was his ultimate dream come true.

Many people had a hard time with Bachar. He’s often remembered as arrogant and competitive, but Peter describes him as supportive and forgiving—even when Peter somehow dropped their tag line off the back of his harness, then nearly pulled a huge loose flake off the wall while climbing. As Croft says, when those things happened, Bachar could have crushed him with a single word, but instead, he demonstrated what a true hero is—in Peter’s words: “someone who inspires you to be better than you are.” To me, that’s one of the wisest observations in the book.

Chris Sharma climbing his route Bon Combat (5.15b/c), Cova de Ocell, Spain | Photo: Chris Noble

“In order to become a lifer, we must each find something more durable than numbers and grades to hang on to.” As a climber who recently reached 40, I love that line. What is that for you?

Again and again the climbers I interviewed—regardless of their age, specialty, or background—point out that the only way to really enjoy climbing and stick with it is to learn to love the entire experience—and that means the highs and the lows. This can be love of the movement and the challenge, the wild places you visit, the incredible bonds of friendship that form—but, hopefully, all of the above.

Yet the competitive impulse is so strong that as Chris Kalous says, “The obvious advice is not to worry about grades. But I won’t say that, because it won’t work.  Grades and competition are fundamental to climbing, especially coming out of a gym background. So telling people not be concerned with numbers is the right thing to say, but in my heart I don’t even believe it myself.”

Everyone wants to improve and on some level, we all want to excel at what we do. That’s positive, but if the only reason you climb is to compete, then as your level inevitably declines you will move on to other things, because you don’t really love climbing—you love competition.

What’s often overlooked or ignored is the incredible amount of effort, dedication, and sheer failure the best climbers in the world accept on a daily basis in order to grasp fleeting moments of success—and their time in the sun is so fleeting as well! Every one of the people profiled in this book realize that their days as a pro are numbered, that in a gym somewhere there’s already a nine-year-old gunning for their position.

So as the British mountaineer Don Whillans said, “We must all learn to down climb gracefully,” in other words, to find pleasure not simply in how hard we climb, but in how we climb—to find joy in every aspect of the experience regardless of whether or not we make it to the chains.

Read an excerpt of Chris’s book here.

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