The Glib community is full of people (and reptiles) with some amazing work and recreation skill sets. I read the articles and comments in awe and trepidation of how many valuable skills sets are assembled in this small part of the “Certified Family Friendly” internet. Someday, if the trends continue and Zombie Hillary becomes POTUS we will have to try to survive the HRC/antifa apocalypse then we will be doing nothing but trying to survive.
But until that day arrives we all enjoy recreation in our downtimes. Sometimes that recreation is rumored not to include drinking, drugs or Mexican ass sex. This got me thinking about what outdoors recreation attracts liberty valuing individuals. Many of us participate in or are at least familiar with hunting, fishing, home brewing and other activities that encourage these traits. But I can propose two others for consideration by you, friends, or younger people- rock climbing and sailing. Wait and hear me out. All climbers aren’t hippies and all sailors don’t make Scrooge McDuck look like a welfare recipient. In fact both sports favor those who don’t fit those stereotypes.
PART THE FIRST
Climbing (Or- How do they get the ropes up there?)
Short answer: They bring it themselves.
Rock climbing is the usual gateway into the entire enterprise of mountaineering. The basic skills that you develop on the rocks are adaptable to the other forms of climbing, but most climbers continue in rock climbing alone. Most stay with shorter climbs since these offer plenty of challenges without adding the additional hard work and dangers associated with the deep dark corners of climbing like high altitude expeditionary, extreme ice/mixed, or even big walls. Pat Ament, a famous rock climber from the ’70s, tried a winter mixed rock and ice climbing route one time and after that stated the only ice he ever wanted to encounter again would be in a cocktail glass. So this little essay will only use the “gateway drug” of rock climbing to expound on climbing and liberty.
So why does climbing attract liberty lovers? Trust and autonomous decision making are the simple reasons. People climbing together literally hold their partner’s life in their hands and are responsible for assembling systems to prevent each other from plunging to the ground. They alone are responsible and they know it.
Belaying is life. (Or- climbers, unlike skiers, do not return from the mountains with knee injuries- if a climber misjudges the situation they generally have the good grace to die.)
I was 16 when I learned to rock climb and quickly discovered that if I fucked up, my friend and/or myself would be dead. In my technical rock climbing classes I stopped the sandbag, and then caught controlled falls by fellow students (and they of me) all while being carefully watched by instructors.
It was only a few months later, on a climb with a friend, that the seriousness of what we were doing really got imprinted in me. We were climbing a pretty moderate route and I was belaying about half way up a 300 foot cliff. My partner was slightly below me and moving sideways to get around a bulge so he could then come straight up to the belay ledge. All of a sudden I saw his eyes get big and heard a strained squawk as he disappeared under an overhang below his feet.
I locked up the belay, then felt the shock on myself and the belay anchors system as I caught him after he fell down and left and stopped with a snap and started swinging in a circle a few feet away from the cliff. Now I was holding my friend 150 feet off the ground as he tried to get back on the cliff after falling around 15 feet. He recovered, got back on the rock and then climbed up to me.
As we both let the adrenalin work through our system we took stock. We could retreat, but hell no, we would get our heads back into the game and keep going up. As he prepared to start up the next stretch of the climb the seriousness hit me with a jolt. If I hadn’t caught my friend he would have hit a ledge around 100 feet below and bounced off until the rope ran out about the time he would hit the ground. If I had screwed up the belay anchors it would have been worse. When the shock hit the system they would have ripped out and both of us would be finding out how much gravity sucks until we hit the ground and died.
As it was, the rest of the climb went well and we stuck at the sport. Over the course of the next decades I fell many 100s of times and caught many 100s of falls. Place into a person’s hands the responsibility of life and death and they tend to take other responsibilities more seriously.
Placing protection and arranging belays is life. (Or-Unravel the mystery or soon become history.)
Some climbs take very little thinking to protect since you just clip your rope into existing protection and anchors. This involves trusting other members of the climbing community since they and not any government agency is responsible for placing and maintaining these bits of metal. But on most climbs the climbing party has to design, place, recover and use again the system that enables the rope to stop a fall.
Climbers get proficient at a real life understanding of high school physics concepts such as forces, vectors, potential and kinetic energy. The other thing they get good at is judging and balancing risks. An old climbing joke is, “Judgment comes from experience and experience comes from poor judgment.”
When a climbing party gets to the base of a cliff they look up and normally see a big old rock and a series of cracks. To get to the top they’ll need to determine how to take a bunch of nylon and a small pile of aluminum shapes and use them in a manner that will prevent people from hitting the ground if they fall. No government agency or larger group is there checking: do they have the right things, is the weather okay, do they have the permitted experience and strength to try the crack? The decision to attempt this climb is totally on the two climbers and their judgment.
Once they start it is up to the first person (aka “the leader”) to use the nylon and aluminum in a manner that will prevent him or her from falling farther than they want to if something goes wrong, while the other person is responsible for using the remaining materials to set up a belay that will hold the force of a fall and the combined impact of two bodies on the belay.
While climbing, the leader evaluates risk and their meager pieces of aluminum and must always remember that they will fall twice as far as they are above the last piece of protection (aluminum bit) they placed into the crack. When the leader decides he wants protection, he must find a place to stop that he can take at least one hand from the rock, then size up the crack with his eyes, unclip the hopefully correct size of aluminum, place the metal into the crack in a manner that won’t rip out under a shock but be removable by the other person, pull up slack rope and clip it to the protection and then start climbing again.
This continues for the entire pitch (one section of a climb between belays) with the leader constantly judging the difficulty of the next section, how the crack changes size, how much stuff he has that will fit the crack and the knowledge that when he stops he must have enough stuff left over to set up the next belay.
When the leader gets to the end of the pitch because the rope runs out, or it is a natural stopping place, the leader uses the remaining stuff to set up an anchor. This anchor will protect the leader from falling to the ground and provide the second with a belay as they climb up removing all the stuff the leader left in the crack.
Normally what happens next is the two people switch roles and the initial leader remains the belayer and the original belayer takes over the role of the leader. This gets swapped back and forth until the top of the climb is reached. Take a person and make them responsible for designing, using and recovering the system that will keep them alive and you get a person who learns to trust in their judgment and not the judgments of others.
Rappeling is Ugg (Or-great climbers die on rappel)
Sometimes when you complete a climb you can just walk off, other times you must set up a rappel. A rappel (or abseil for the Teutons in the crowd) is conducting a controlled slide down a rope normally using a device to provide friction and your hand to control speed.
Most climbers instinctively dislike rappelling. During a climb, if you never fall the climbing chain is a backup. The rope, protection, climbing harness and belay anchors are redundant because you never fully tested them because you never fell. On an abseil, you are 100% dependent on all those items. If one part of the chain fails- you die.
Again, the rappel chain is entirely the responsibility of the climbing party. They set it up, or inspect and use it- or they approve of an earlier anchor set up by parties unknown. The climbers hook into the rope and friction device with only their approval, or after the quick inspection by their partner, and the party is responsible for recovering their rope at the end so it can be used again. Independence is grown within people that learn to trust their own judgments on a regular basis for their continued life.
You are Responsible for You (Or- did you know that a body falling from a great height can break a granite block by the force of the impact?)
Some climbing takes place in intensely public places but most climbing takes place far from the madding crowd. And even within popular climbing areas like Yosemite Valley, Joshua Tree, Mt Lemmon or the Shawangunks, there is a bunch of space, 1000s of climbs and relatively few climbers.
If something goes wrong the chances are you are on your own for a matter of hours (or a day or more on a Yosemite big wall). Go climb at a more remote location and you might be the only two or three people within hours, or even days, of the climb and you are on your own, period.
Combine this with the decisions you make concerning the route you will go, the protection you will place and the chances that you’ll take with the weather or other dangers (avalanches, heat or cold etc.) and climbers tend to trust their own judgment and often are not willing listen to others without the same base knowledge of the subject and environment. Looking at a scary move above a bad piece of protection looks a lot different a 1000 feet up a climb that is multiple days from the trailhead than it does where you can see the parking lot in Joshua Tree. People used to, and who enthusiastically embrace self judgment, tend not to see collective solutions for many issues.
A sub-set of “you are responsible for you” is “you are responsible for your decisions about your partner.” Since your partner holds your life in their hands and their decisions, you are vested in the determination you make about climbing with somebody. There is no governing body to stamp them OK or to tell somebody you can’t climb because you are a dangerous fool.
At best there is the reputation a climber will earn within a social network. But because climbers travel and may not have their usual partner with them, it is not unusual to link up with a climber you don’t know well for a climb. You watch the new partner on smaller routes and speak to see if styles and techniques mesh. But ultimately it is up to you and nobody else to say. “Yep, I trust her with my life. Let’s go do this climb.” I have done El Capitan with a climber I knew only a few days and there were other climbers I knew for years that I wouldn’t tie into a rope with no matter how short and easy the climb.
Another sub-set of “you are responsible for you” is self-rescue. Climbers will go to great lengths to help other climbers but, and it’s a big but, they are incredibly judgmental of those they try to help. If the accident involved something truly beyond the climbing party, it is a point of honor to help a fellow climber. E.g. in 1980, Yosemite Valley was hit with a large earthquake and a party needed to be rescued from partway up El Capitan. They were well equipped, but the quake changed the size of the cracks so much their gear didn’t fit and falling blocks from the earthquake had destroyed some rappel stations. They couldn’t go up or down so a rescue was mounted to enable them to retreat.
If you need rescue because you didn’t follow basic climbing safety skills- you will be judged harshly. Combine a climber’s inherent pride in their own abilities and responsibility with a desire not to look incompetent/stupid to their group, and people often take the initiative to learn self-rescue skills and figure out their own way out of a problem. These type of people aren’t much fond of handouts.
You Choose the Parameters (Or- This is my Everest so bugger off)
Climbing has many sub-genres, differing levels of commitment and inherent skills, plus no scoring so how to tell a “winner” depends on the person involved. Climbing does have internal socially accepted rules. The most basic socially accepted norm (not a legal requirement) is the first ascent party sets the initial terms of a climb and if you can’t improve on that, don’t bring the climb down to you.
Over the years and decades since technical climbing first started, climbing equipment, training, skills and experience have continued to evolve and improve. Because of these improvements the average climber of today can accomplish more than their predecessors and the very best climbers can now accomplish climbs that were not even dreamed about when I learned how to climb in 1976.
One of these world class athletes recently accomplished a free solo of El Capitan in four hours. Translated: a guy climbed a 3300 foot high cliff that steeply overhangs for hundreds of feet in places with no ropes and no partner in under four hours. (The film in theaters now is incredible.)
The climb in question was originally done in the early 1960s in almost a week with lots of specialized climbing techniques that involve making a movable ladder, and even today most parties take 3-4 days while still using the same movable ladder technique. It is still acceptable to climb that climb the older way or to improve on the older way at some point less than the free solo.
What is NOT acceptable is to chip new holds or add permanent features the original party did not use. Again there is no legal force to the prohibition, but there is a great deal of community pressure. If you want to not face condemnation you don’t bring the climb down to you. Back off and come back when you have the skill and the community will support you for that decision.
There is no scoring in climbing and the mountains don’t care that you are there. Most times there is no other spectator to witness what you do on a climb and talk about afterwards.
Some things are considered cheating, but only if you omit them. What does that mean? A leader placing protection and then having the rope pulled tight so they can rest is considered less than top form. If you say, “I rested from a Hex placed right before the crux but then did the move clean.” No problem. If you lie about that and are found out then people will color their judgments of you.
All that being said, other climbers understand that skills deteriorate with age, work/family commitments etc., but the desire to climb remains in many of us. In my best days I could do some intense climbing and frankly climbed some routes that today I have a hard time believing I did since they are so far beyond me now. I climb more moderate routes with my nearly 60 year old body and still get great joy from doing so. The rest of the climbing community realizes that every route can be just the right difficulty for a person and so enjoy the climb. (As long as the norms are not strangled).
Climbing takes commitment (Or- summit or plummet).
A person can learn the basics of belaying and rappelling in a weekend, but to learn how to be a safe and proficient climber takes extended periods of learning, physical training, and the ability to “get into the Zen of the suck.” No matter your skill level there is always the next climb that makes you stretch beyond to increase your limits.
That is one of the addicting things about climbing, there is always a new climb that will challenge you beyond your limits. Whether that “next” climb is because of a harder difficulty, less chances at protection, danger from elements beyond your control, an extensive commitment of energy etc. Even with basic climbs you will be working with muscular exhaustion and failure, fear, pain to the limbs and extremities, remaining focused during periods of intense boredom, heat/cold/wind/rain and even insects, birds or reptiles. (Yes, a chuckwalla bit and opened up my finger that I stuck in a crack too near to it. I had to quickly make a move up without falling while my blood was making the crack too slick to hang from.)
As I told my kids (and others) when I was teaching them to rock climb, “Climbing isn’t necessarily fun, but it is enjoyable on balance. Those are two different concepts.” People who learn how to accept and manage fear or discomfort/pain while remaining focused on accomplishment tend to make their judgments on what a person should accept as a personal responsibility.
Climbing opens up areas, vistas and experiences closed to others. The first is the knowledge of what an amazing thing the body and mind are. When you unlock the mystery of physicality and practical engineering that enable you to climb something new and just beyond your earlier abilities you feel great (maybe after you regain control of muscles and the taste of fear in your mouth subsides).
Plus that great feeling is always there as a potential for you. As an older climber, I have re-climbed routes that were easy for me years earlier, but with my current attributes the same route still had the same sense of individual accomplishment.
Most climbing areas are outdoor wonderlands. Being able to traverse these incredible spaces open up vistas to you that others simply can’t experience. Watching the day end 1500 feet up a vertical cliff while having some food and preparing to sleep because you still have another vertical 1500 feet to go is like being in space and looking down on earth. You are in a different place than the horizontal world below.
Sometimes the experience is not as benign but just as incredible. Huddling part way up a cliff on top of your nylon ropes trying not to touch any metal while in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm gets much more exciting when the St Elmo’s fire starts, you hear buzzing in the air and the simultaneous blinding flash from lightning and artillery like crash of thunder as you smell the ozone from the lightning strike one crack over. With that experience you REALLY get an idea of the power of a storm.
If climbers are so cool and freedom embracing why aren’t they running the world? (Or- At both ends of the economic spectrum there is a leisure class.)
So climbers tend to be self-starters who have a strong independent streak and intense desire to make their own judgments. They enjoy working in small teams who rely on their combined skills (and equipment) to solve problems and realize that the mountains don’t care about their personal issues, and that they must resolve the dilemma in front of them. There are many climbers who are doctors, engineers, run businesses etc. But there are also climbers who are well named “climbing bums” as well.
Climbing can be addicting for people who can’t get the emotional highs and physical rushes elsewhere. The larger world seems too small and insignificant to what they receive from climbing. A percentage of these people have the innate physical and developed emotional skills to drive the sport farther and standards higher. Some push too far and die or suffer grievous injury. The vast majority of climbers do balance the outside world and the climbing world and even if they give up climbing retain the lessons learned and apply them to life and business.
For me, taking up climbing in high school did contribute to my outlook on life and a person’s relationship to society. I embraced climbing fully and went beyond weekend rock climbing for decades. By the time I entered college I had climbed big walls, some well-known mountains by challenging routes and was part of a mountain rescue group.
There has been very little thrown at me by the “real world” that I hadn’t already faced. So IMHO my relative success in life was positively influenced by climbing.
My advice is, tie into a rope yourself, or if a friend or younger relative wants to give climbing a go- tell them “hell yeah.” They’ll have a chance to become a person with a well-developed sense of personal responsibility and most likely will be liberty and freedom embracing individual for it.
**Note- Yes I have done the climbs pictured.