An excerpt from “Why We Climb: The World’s Most Inspiring Climbers,” by Chris Noble.
Chapter 1: The Way Home
“I could climb for a million years and still not know why I do it… WHY?…WHY? Why am I here?” —Chuck Pratt, during the first ascent of Ribbon East Portal, June 27, 1964
I’ve tried to quit climbing more than once. I figured it was time to try new things, meet new people, broaden my horizons. I couldn’t do it.
In the autumn, when the air cools and the cottonwoods turn gold, my thoughts flee south, to the towers and mesas of Southern Utah, to evening light on sandstone, to constellations hanging like lamps above the camp, to waking in the back of a pick-up, knuckles bruised, body aching like it’s been in a prize fight, but the spirit soaring in anticipation of adventures yet to come.
With its liberal doses of pain, suffering, and fear, the reasons why people climb can seem an enigma—even to climbers themselves. To the uninitiated, climbing appears dangerous, crazy, obsessive. For evidence there are the piles of guidebooks and magazines strewn across the kitchen table. Wind blown peaks instead of family portraits lining the walls. The training log, timer, and finger-board down the stairs. The late night texts: “Dude, Rifle tomorrow?” Three short words with the power to shatter sacred oaths made weeks before to clean out the garage.
My friends and I all like to joke that we would quit climbing in a heartbeat—if only we could find something half as good to take its place.
So what is climbing and why do people do it? Is it a sport or a lifestyle? Is it a frivolous hobby or meaningful quest? Is it a healthy discipline for body and mind or a reckless and selfish addiction?
Perhaps most puzzling—why for some, does climbing become a life-long love affair while others scratch their heads in wonder anyone’s crazy enough to climb at all?
And can climbing aspire to be something more? In our secular age, can sport rise to the level of spiritual path—a Way in the traditional Oriental sense of the word—like yoga, Zen, tai chi and the martial arts—a life-long mental and physical discipline that elevates the mundane to the transcendent?
It would be naïve to think there is a single answer to the question, “Why do we climb?” The truth is, there are as many answers to that question as there are climbers (and in 2015 Time Magazine estimated that number to be 35 million worldwide and growing).
Why do we climb? At the most basic level because it’s fun. Let’s face it, we’re primates. Our evolutionary predecessors spent millennia scrambling up trees and over rough terrain. Climbing is literally in our DNA. For proof one has only to observe young kids testing themselves on jungle gyms, rocks, trees, and other high places—risk-taking made all the more delicious by its ability to scare one’s parents half to death.
George Mallory’s famous koan-like response had just the right blend of truth and mystery in it to capture people’s imagination and endure.
Along with walking, running, and speech, climbing is fundamental to the human animal. However, because it’s dangerous and for the most part serves no economic purpose, society has always viewed it with suspicion.
“What are those kids doing off climbing all the time?” asked the farmers of South Tyrol about the young Messner brothers, Reinhold and Gunther, as tales of their mountaineering prowess began to spread. “Haven’t they got anything better to do? If they want exercise, they should be chopping wood or fetching hay down from the meadows.” [i]
In other words, 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?”
For these reasons, ever since climbing began as an organized activity in the Victorian Era, climbers have tried—and mostly failed—to find a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why do we climb?”
History’s most famous answer “because it’s there,” came from George Leigh Mallory at a press conference in 1922 before leaving to meet his death on Everest. And even though Mallory’s reply was probably more annoyance at having been asked ad nauseam to explain mountaineering to people who had never seen a mountain, his koan-like response had just the right blend of truth and mystery in it to capture people’s imagination and endure.
That kind of mystery clings to high places and the creatures who inhabit them. Because they are largely inaccessible, mountains, towers, mesas, and plateaus pose a question. Somehow of this earth, yet standing apart, mountains form a bridge between heaven and earth. To explore them requires voluntarily abandoning the comfort, security, and support of civilization. In this way, they have come to symbolize renunciation, spiritual growth, and transcendence, offering a fleeting glimpse, through rushing cloud and blowing mist, of a realm pure and unstained by the moral ambiguity of human affairs.
Because mountain regions, protected by their harsh climate, poor soil, and challenging terrain, remain relatively untamed, they are also seen as lying somewhat beyond the control of central governments. Traditionally, they have been viewed as the home of outlaws and mountain ascetics such as the Chinese Tang-era poet Hanshan:
“I’m happy with my way of life,
living in mountain caves amid mist and vines.
My wild moods are mostly unrestrained;
I’m carefree as my friends the clouds.
There are paths here, but they don’t lead to the world.
Emptied of illusion, what can the mind cling to?
I sit alone on my bed of stone all night long,
while the full moon ascends Cold Mountain.”[ii]
Even in the era of Google Earth, mountains, deserts, and cliff faces retain a sense of wilderness in it’s truest sense, “a place of danger and difficulty” as the poet Gary Snyder defines it, “where you take your own chances, depend on your own skills, and do not count on rescue.”[iii]
Out at the end of a thousand dirt roads, living in trucks and vans, rootless nomads searching for the next flash of backcountry satori, modern climbers are the spiritual heirs of Hanshan and other mountain hermits who left the world seeking a life of simplicity, one that is part of (rather than at war with) nature.
As Mallory suggested, by their very existence, because they are there, mountains beg to be experienced and explored.
Yet when we are honest with ourselves, we see that the truth is not simply because mountains are there—it is also because we are here. As the French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat wrote, mountains provide “a mirror of stone or ice, a mirror, which helps us know ourselves.”
Reaching a mountain summit requires that we confront the reflection we find in the stone mirror, working with all that is weak, lazy, and fearful within ourselves.
In ancient Greece, Apollo’s temple at Delphi was inscribed with the injunction “Know Thyself” and three millennia later this remains the central task of human existence. Find a way to know one’s self, discover the soul’s true purpose, and life flows in joyful play.
Fail, and life can seem a wasteland, devoid of any meaning or significance.
Reaching a mountain summit requires that we confront the reflection we find in the stone mirror, working with all that is weak, lazy, and fearful within ourselves. Climbing provides a way (one way) with which to see our selves more clearly, the first step in personal growth.
Big wall climber Jim Bridwell called it “individual character improvement.” Bridwell rated the excellence of different pitches on El Capitan according to their potential to bring out the best in any climber attempting them.
As Conrad Anker discusses in the following pages, he and Mugs Stump once practiced what they called “mental toughness training,” a discipline that would begin long before a climb. Once, on their way from Utah to Yosemite, they vowed to do the entire drive without speaking, a self-imposed form of silent meditation which devolved into farce when Mug’s van died suddenly, leaving charades the only means of dealing with the situation.
I am sitting naked on a boulder in the midst of a stream two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The granite is smooth against my skin, burnished by the passage of amber water flowing down from stone mountains standing against the Alaskan sky like fingers or talons. “Like the fingers of a hand outstretched,” the Inuit observed, giving these mountains their name. Arrigetch. The Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
The cool air raises the skin on my neck and arms, but the boreal sun is warm. I revel in the contrast between warmth and cold, between an exhausted body and the animal luxury of basking in the sun.
Again and again, my eyes are drawn back to the mountain. Of all the peaks in this cirque of stone fingers, she is the most alluring, a perfect granite arc leading to the sky.
Four days ago, we left camp before dawn believing the climb would take one long Arctic summer day, which should have been twenty-four hours of continuous climbing. But we were only four pitches up, when Catherine on lead, felt a block shift beneath her grasp. She lunged for another hold, but too late. The block was already falling. It slid over her right hand crushing her index and middle fingers.
Stunned, we watched the block fall free, strike, shatter into a hundred parts then fall again, like the heavy drops of blood that now dripped from Catherine’s hand.
We could have gone down. By any measure it was the smart thing to do. But something called from high on that peak. And something within us responded.
As gently as I could, I taped Catherine’s fingers together. Bravely, she offered to climb with the pack, if I would lead all the pitches. So we began again, measuring out the mountain a rope length at a time. Twenty hours after leaving camp we threw ourselves on a ledge for a few hours rest. The Arctic sun curtsied toward the horizon then rose again. We ate a few bites of salami and cheese and tried to sleep.
By some gift, the weather held and by afternoon on the third day the summit was within reach. After three days of constant effort and little food I was weak and shaky. Yet Catherine’s quiet courage sustained me. Her fingers painful and swollen, clumsy and nearly useless, she somehow found a way to pull herself and the pack upward without a word of complaint. If she was frightened, it didn’t show. If she doubted our ability to make the summit, it was left unsaid. The mountain had united us, and in the process, we had somehow learned to climb beyond ourselves…
We were made for this. We were made to sleep on the open ground, to rise before dawn and set off once more… toward what? To discover where the elk lie in the next valley; to press on down river in search of better fishing; or to discover an elegant parabola of stone that takes us far beyond, and simultaneously deep within, ourselves.
As the Alaskan poet John Haines wrote, “As many have found, having once lived that life, nothing else ever quite satisfies the spirit. It is the original life of people, and there is in it something inexhaustible and fresh. To rise in the morning, look from the doorway of a tent at the early light on the land; to drink from a tundra pool, break fast, and then break camp; to pack one’s gear and with encouraging cries to the animals, set off once more to the hunting ground: it may in many ways have been the best life we have known on this earth, clean and unburdened, filled with peril and expectation.” [iv]
In contrast, humanity now faces an era of unprecedented social, environmental, and spiritual crises. Somehow our long journey from Hunter Gatherer to Industrial Man has led us into a box canyon. Dark walls rise on every side. It is unthinkable to go back, to abandon all that we’ve gained yet the way forward is dark, shrouded in fog.
We find ourselves waking in the night, as the poet Wendell Berry put it, “afraid of what our lives and our children’s lives have become.” We have tamed the original wilderness, but now seek refuge from a more troubling, and possibly far more dangerous wilderness of our own making.
Participating in modern activities such as climbing, surfing, skiing, sailing, and kayaking allow us to re-discover an ancient and intimate dance with untamed, elemental forces
The ecologist Paul Shepard believed the anxiety we feel is the longing of the human genome for it’s one true home–the world where it evolved–the vanished world of the Pleistocene. We have been exiled, cast adrift, left to run endlessly on treadmills, hunting through strip malls, questing in video games for a world that remains only in fragments.
But if the species has lost its way, at least its individual members can have the pleasure of reclaiming the lithe and powerful bodies, the quicksilver minds, which are our human birthright.
Participating in modern activities such as climbing, surfing, skiing, sailing, and kayaking allow us to re-discover an ancient and intimate dance with untamed, elemental forces. More than just sport, such activities offer a way of being in the world, a practical down-to-earth philosophy founded on voluntary simplicity and the appropriate use of technology.
Where have the Ice Age hunters gone? We may believe they have followed the cave bear and auroch into extinction, but their sons and daughters walk among us. They are attempting high-ball boulder problems in the Buttermilks; enchainements on les Courtes, les Droites, and the Grandes Jorasses. At this very moment they are sharpening ice tools at Rampart Creek; pumping cracks in the desert then doing evening yoga beneath the cottonwoods. The children of the Pleistocene live on.
In the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog, Doug Robinson wrote, “Technology is imposed on the land, but technique means conforming to the landscape. They work in opposite ways, one forcing a passage, while the other discovers it. The goal of developing technique is to conform to the most improbable landscape by means of the greatest degree of skill and boldness, supported by the least equipment.”
This is the climber’s manifesto, to voluntarily seek a balance between technology and adventure. It is based on a philosophy of boldness and grace, discipline and restraint, and as Robinson states in his interview it may provide a bridge across our fraught and perilous experiment with industrialization.
Because the path to a sustainable future cannot be purchased or engineered. The way forward is not to abandon all that we have been in the past, nor is it to replace blind faith in kings and religion with an equally blind faith in economics and technology.
The way ahead is to become more human—not less. It is to find the courage to stare into the stone mirror and see our selves clearly—perhaps for the first time—with all our strengths and weaknesses. Which coincidentally, is the best ways to improve as a climber as well, to identify and work with one’s weaknesses.
In a world with ever-shrinking options to know nature, and know ourselves, skills which return us to the elements become increasingly vital. In a culture ever more preoccupied with virtual reality—experiences which reunite us with wind and rock, ice and snow, provide the dash of cold water which shock us from our all too human dreams.
Mountains demand all that we can give. Then they ask more. The summit is always higher, farther, longer, and steeper than we imagine. But in return they bestow the pearl beyond price—a measure of all the grit, gumption, skill, and pure animal vitality we possess.
“We demonstrate in the most stunning way of all—at the risk of our lives—that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself,” wrote the alpinist Walter Bonnatti. “This quality is the basis of all human achievement in whatever field. It can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers… serve all humanity. We prove there is no limit to what man can do.”
In a letter to the editor in Rock and Ice Magazine, issue 229, a reader wrote, “Climbing is reckless and selfish, it doesn’t create anything, change the world, or improve anyone else’s life.”
In the next issue, Dan Froelich, a climber from Cleveland Ohio responded, “While I have had this same thought, the evidence to the contrary is staggering. Climbing and mountaineering have significantly changed my life for the better, and continue to. Last year my father and I along with two brothers-in-law went to Yosemite. We hiked and climbed. Just planning this adventure caused my brother-in-law to quit smoking and drop 30 pounds. My father lost weight, is in his best shape in 20 years, and brags about it being the best vacation of his life. Climbing these mountains changed the entire family dynamic and everyone is healthier and more present, and has a new outlook on life. Living in the Midwest, I see too many people with diabetes, high blood pressure and depression because they have no passion…”[v]
Some will say that dissecting climbing in order to find it’s meaning is like cutting open the proverbial ball in search of it’s bounce—a fool’s errand
On some deep level, even if we find it difficult to express, we all intuitively know why we climb—whether it be for fitness, challenge, competition, socializing with friends, connecting to nature, travel, or because our girlfriend thinks it’s cool.
Veteran climber Dirk Tyler distills climbing’s complex appeal down into three simple categories: The What, The Who, and The Where.
The What refers to what we climb, the numbers, grades, and difficulty of routes and problems. This is where most young climbers and those new to the sport, spend their time. They are obsessed with competition, with knowing where they stand in comparison to their peers.
The Who refers to who we climb with, our partners and the broader climbing community.
The Where is the environment in which we climb, the aesthetics of the vertical landscape, which can range from a home made woody to Switzerland’s Magic Woods to limestone cliffs rising from the Andaman Sea.
As Tyler points out, if you stick with climbing, if it becomes your life, over time The What starts to matter less and less, and The Who and The Where begin to grow in significance.
Some will say that dissecting climbing in order to find it’s meaning is like cutting open the proverbial ball in search of it’s bounce—a fool’s errand. Many climbers will simply shrug, grab their packs and head for the crag. No need for further analysis of what one instinctively knows to be essential for one’s well being.
So why write a book about the question?
Because first, I wanted to understand better why climbing holds such deep appeal for me. Nothing else brings me joy the way climbing does. Nothing else re-enchants the world in the way I felt when I was a child. Nothing else makes me yearn to be young once more, simply so I would have more time to climb.
And secondly, because by listening to the stories of others, we expand our own vision of what’s possible. So when we hear Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, Raphael Slawinski, Chris Kalous, Paige Claassen, Alex Honnold, Peter Croft, Ines Papert, and all the other remarkable climbers profiled in this book talk about why they climb and what they’ve learned, our own perspective expands like the view from a mountain summit. Suddenly we can see much farther than we could before and new horizons open at our feet.
Therefore, this is not a book of answers. It is a book of possibilities. For as Gaston Rebuffat suggested, “We should refuse none of the thousand and one joys the mountains offer us at every turn. We should brush nothing aside, set no restrictions. We should experience hunger and thirst, be able to go fast, but also know how to go slowly and to contemplate.”[vi]
Climbing is a gift.
From time to time, we climbers stumble upon moments of pure grace, when time, space, gravity, and fear all fall away, and we float magically up long vertical passages of stone or ice. Such moments are rare, precious, fleeting. The Japanese have a word shibui that strives to express the inexpressible essence of such things: the mastery that flashes like lightning in the movements of a swordsman; the haiku of steam rising from a cup of tea; the fragile elegance of an orchid. It is the epiphany that washes over us when a sequence of moves—impossible only a moment before—suddenly reveal their secrets; when after days of anxiety and effort the mind surrenders and the climber soars like a falcon released from the fist.
One evening I was climbing with the alpinist Kitty Calhoun. As she lowered her face was glowing.
“You know climbing is a gift,” she said. “We aren’t going to be able to climb our entire lives. None of us know what the future will bring. There’s no time to waste being consumed by fear, self-doubt, and comparison. Those are all negative emotions. We need to spend the time given us climbing with all the joy possible, all the joy climbing deserves.”
I couldn’t agree more. Because I had so many questions of my own, because I felt I had so much to learn, I set out to track down people I would characterize as soul climbers, those who regardless of age, gender, or background have found their true calling. I wanted to learn their Jedi mind tricks and make them my own.
The result is Why We Climb, the accumulated effort of many hands calloused by rock, blackened by ‘biner grease and belaying. These pages are a distillation of the wisdom of some of the world’s best climbers, people who have spent their lives searching for answers to riddles posed by height and distance, soaring arêtes, and arcing splitters.
As free climbing pioneer John Long observed, “The way you climb is the way you will live your life.”
If you approach climbing as recreation, competition, and exercise that is what it will be. But for those who choose to enter the temple and dedicate themselves fully to the mysteries found there, climbing becomes a means of connecting more deeply with nature and one’s self, a way of living intentionally far above the ground, with confidence, boldness, and grace.
The words found here are a rough translation of a much older language, one which each day grows more distant and foreign to our modern ears—the song of wind and rushing water; the hieroglyphics of the stars; the promise of a waterfall frozen to stillness by winter’s cold. If I had my way, when opened, the book might provide a sudden exhalation of sage, sunburned skin, and mountain pennyroyal. Tiny flakes of granite, red sand, and a raven’s feather would fall from the sweat and coffee stained pages…
Belay’s on. Have fun up there.
Find the book here.