More Forays Into The Monochrome

In a continuation of the discussion that started on Tuesday (“The Gray Zone”), John Wolins has crafted a response from a different perspective.  John is something of an amateur climbing historian, outdoorsman, mountain man, conquistador of the useless, and an all-around nice guy.

Against my better judgment, and in spite of my genetic inclination to remain detached and observant, I will attempt to enter blog-world and try to concoct a reply to Brian. The first thing I want to do is thank Brian for starting this chat, as I sense that there’s insufficient quality discourse in the climbing community.

Well, I read the blog entry “Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch On The Rocks?” on Climbing Narcissist, the basis for Brian’s remarks, and I must say that, although it seems a fairly well considered discussion, the topic bores the hell out of me. Besides the fact that the writer just barely hints at the history of competition between the US and European climbers, which in fact extends far back to early parts of the 20th century, none of the people I’ve spent any time with on the rocks or in the mountains were ever concerned with competing, or climbing at the highest technical standards, and in fact many of us have “clipped a few bolts” in our time, but always remained traditional, adventurous climbers.

I grant the writer some credit for summing up the differences as cultural, but I don’t think he goes nearly deep enough into the distinction. My views of this go beyond the scope of these remarks.

Everything is relative. Yes, western culture likes to invent Platonic ideals, universal absolutes that float eternally out there in the ether. Brian may see me as a purist, but it’s just relative to everyone else. Of course we all have no choice as we affect the physical world simply by living our daily lives, but we also exercise “extracurricular” free-will choices when we go off to recreate. At one end of the spectrum we might find a more pure, traditional climber, eschewing bolts, climbing vedy clean, vedy clean*, someone we think of as a purist despite the fact that he or she also must pee, poop, consume and otherwise live on the earth. At the other end we might find, if I may, less traditional, sport-climbing, bolt-drilling, gym-climbing folks who may, to widely varying degrees, be less leave-no-trace oriented.

Now it’s important to note that an aspect of this spectrum may be something that, arguably, may not be relative at all. We climb for a number of different reasons. Some of us for one or two of these reasons, others climb for reasons three, four and five. I’ll elaborate. I think these reasons are culture-based. Our various motivations to climb speak to and spring from some of our basic values. I’m no psychologist so I won’t attempt to dissect and describe these values in academic terms other than to suggest the commonly held notion that there are “outdoorsy” people and, well, people who aren’t “outdoorsy”, as well as those who might be just a little “outdoorsy”. I’m aware that I might not succeed in tip-toeing around harsh value judgments.

I’m unique, but of course no more unique than anyone else. I was raised in New York City by an extraordinary man. My father was no climber but he managed to transmit to me a fundamental appreciation for nature. Despite growing up on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn I gradually regained, over the course of my early teens and twenties, my so-called connection to the natural world. This semi-conscious sense was nurtured in the Catskill Mountains and Adirondacks of New York. Now it’s clear that I was becoming a member of the “outdoorsy” camp.

The basic value instilled in me was that the natural world had priority, not me. It was the important thing. It’s where I came from, and it’s where I’m going, like it or not. If and when one is able to make a choice, we must choose to preserve nature. It’s the only one we’ve got, and it’s clearly diminishing every single day. This is a basic value. It seems to ring true to me. It applies all the time. It’s why we recycle. It applies when we walk, when we bike, when we camp, and when we climb. It’s as if my puny life isn’t about me. It’s about every one else. It’s also about the future. It applies everywhere. Where isn’t there nature?

Of course I can only pontificate with any authority about myself. About others, I’ll risk condemnation by speculating about what I observe. Sometimes, at certain climbing venues, it seems to me that some climbers stop behaving as if nature is the priority. Bolts, pitons, webbing, chalk, garbage, cigarette butts, gymnasiums, parking lots filled with private automobiles, I realize how slippery this slope can be, and I realize also how much overlap exists with sport climbers who may otherwise behave in the most virtuous, environmentally conscious ways, as well as traditional (by the way, I hate the way we’ve abbreviated this all-important term. I just can’t be that lazy or hip) climbers who may decide that the climbing is more important than the place.

I believe that these distinctions should be what informs our ethical sense. Yes, I might be harping back to long-haired, tree-hugging granola-laced liberalism, and I know a few climbers that will react with claims that I’m against “progress” and the “growth” of the sport, but if ethics are about determining what are the right and wrong actions to take, it seems to me that any discussions that focus on topics like red pointing versus pink pointing, or whether there’s consensus for that new 5.14a, or whether Billy Boy Klimber has been able to get sponsored by Power Bar, or what country produces the most talented technicians, well, perhaps they’re missing the point.

Climb with the other parts of your being first, then let your muscles succeed. Don’t climb hard, climb smart. Climb as if you’re not the only climber on the climb, on the crag, in the state, in the world. Climb as if it matters that your great, great, great granddaughter can venture out one day into the woods, and find the lost crag, and quietly find a new and intricate way, on her own, without help, and top out in the sun.

* Pablo Casals, from “The Whole Natural Art Of Protection” by Doug Robinson


1 comment so far

  1. Chuck on

    I enjoyed reading this John.

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