Climbing. It’s a strange thing. You go up a cliff or a mountain, stand at the top for a while and then come back down again. Climbing is a useless endeavour. Nothing so encompasses this as George Harding’s answer to a reporter when asked why do you climb?
“Because we’re crazy!”
I’m sure at one point or another, every climber has found themselves in a sticky situation. Whether be it hang-dogging up a sport climb much harder than they expected, or having an epic on a multi-pitch halfway up a 350m cliff wondering how they got there. I’m sure at one point or another, we’ve all asked ourselves “Why am I doing this?”
As Jon Krauker put it in the documentary Meru, “the rewards of climbing are immense… if you come back”. Is it insane that we put ourselves in what many might call unnecessary risk? Those who have never climbed before may call it crazy, asking for a death wish but I daresay they have never reaped these rewards.
It instills perseverance and self-efficacy. When you’re faced with an obstacle and the uncertainty of whether you can conquer it, are you going to crumble? Did you make the right judgement five hours ago to keep climbing instead of retreating? Do you have enough faith and confidence in yourself?
It teaches trust. To trust that your equipment is going to save your life, that that cam you placed three metres ago is going to hold if you fall on the crux move, to trust that your partner is going to catch you if you fail that move.
It teaches confidence. That you can surmount a physical and mental challenge, come out on top. Exhausted, but victorious.
Of course, there is also the feeling of achievement and general bad-assery. When you look at a sheer vertical cliff face and you can say “yeah, I climbed that.”
We work in safety margins, some larger, some smaller but nevertheless we work within personal safety tolerances. Reducing our risk with placed (cams/nuts) or fixed (bolts, pitons) protection, testing our judgement every step of the way. Did we make the right call? Should we have linked those pitches? Is that block I slung going to hold if I take a whip? Each experience we have, we learn from (hopefully) and each epic we survive we pour from the glass of luck and into the glass of wisdom.
It’d be stupid to say that we are not putting ourselves at risk when we climb. A bolt may shear off, a rope may snap and we could very well find ourselves hitting the ground and breaking a bone, dying or worse, paralysis. But then again, we put ourselves at risk whenever we step into a car and no one questions that. At the very heart of climbing is risk management, reducing the risk to a personally acceptable level. Ropes are made to withstand at least 5 factor 1.77 falls, of which one occurs extremely rarely. Carbiners rated to 20kN or more, slings rated similarly. I don’t believe we are taking careless. unnecessary risks with our lives as the uninitiated may think. I believe the greatest risk is not putting yourself out there and to realize that you never actually lived.
I believe one of the real allures of climbing is the ability to manage risk. To be able to believe in your skill, ability and judgement to save you from harm. Climbing is much more than just a physical act, it’s a mental challenge. Sometimes to dig deep and find out what you’re really made of when push comes to shove; when you’re 200m of the ground and been working for the last 8 hours, can you find it in yourself to keep on going, to shut off that part of you that’s saying I’m tired, I need a rest.
Another allure of climbing is the problem-solving aspect, relating more to big wall and multi-pitch climbing. How do I get up there? Or more importantly, how do I get up there safely? Going to where most people would never even dream of, let alone actually getting there. As Petzl’s slogan so nicely puts it “to access the inaccessible”.
Community. While climbers are typically a odd bunch, the saying that the odd ones are the best is never truer here. Climbers are the friendliest, funnest and warmest bunch of folks to be around. Idiosyncratic with memorable personalities, we may all be a bit different but we all share the same passion. A passion that brings us together, our shared love of the outdoors and being high. The best people I know are all climbers, the best experiences I’ve had were because of climbing, but then again I’m a little biased.
And After all the grueling tortures of exhaustion, dehydration, sleep deprivation of epics endured, you come down back to safety and exclaim “Never again! Never!” But by the next day (or maybe two depending on the severity of your beat-down…) you’re already planning the next epic, the next peak, the next big climb because you realize it’s all worth it.