Why I Climb — Subtlety, Meditation, and the Regrettable Elusiveness of Levitation

why i climb

Monday. I stroll into my morning lessons with my fingers well and truly shredded from a Sunday climbing sesh. Again.

I once told an ex-girlfriend she was my favorite scar. I lied: these are my favorite scars. Each one is a reminder throughout the working week of the kindly solace from it I’ve so recently enjoyed and will enjoy again soon.

“I just don’t get why you do it,” said one of my students, ogling my slightly mangled fingers with a look of concern, “you risk injury, death, scare yourself silly, and every week turn your hands into bloody mush. Most people would want some kinda compensation for that. There’s something very Van Gogh about it. I mean, it’s not obligatory.”

Let’s talk compensation and obligation.

I started climbing around age five, maybe six. My dad was and still is an enthusiast. A fetishist, you could say. His passion for rock puts the dude who built the Taj Mahal for his missus to shame. My old man wasn’t the pushy kind, not at all.

He had no great vision of his son piling up trophies or laying down new routes on El Cap or Cerro Torre, but instead saw it as a kind of responsibility, a duty to pass on what to himself has been not only a passion but also a benediction and as much a form of sustenance as any job he has ever had. For him, I know, climbing provides both the ballast and counterweight of living a life to the bother and yoke of making a living.

This lesson, this insight into climbing’s utility, was lost on me through the dark ages of my teenage years. As soon as I hit thirteen, sports were relegated as Tennent’s Lager and girls took priority. If you’d asked me then, circa 13, 15, or 18 if I’d ever climb again I’d probably have said ‘no.’

What, after all, was the point?

There was so much to look forward to—cool facial hair, more exotic lagers, casual sex, universal fame, probably… —I just couldn’t foresee any space for dangling on a rope over a lump of rock.

Adulthood came as university ushered me unwillingly into a world falsely advertised, lacking all of the vital ingredients of fun and adventure and containing far more objectionable hardships still. It wasn’t all lager.

The decline of existence’s enjoyability only seemed to enhance the further I got into it. Life, it seemed, was a game of diminishing returns. Soon I’d experienced first-hand such things as stress, real relationships, real heartbreak, poverty, and even thrown into the mix a mental breakdown or two.

Where had it all gone wrong?

By this point I was living in Trieste, Italy, and though I’d revisited the rock on the odd occasion with short-lived, impromptu dabbles here and there, it was in Trieste that my need for some release from the noose imposed by routine and the daily grind reached a critical mass and compelled me to do something about it or risk becoming more familiar than I’d have liked with the routines of the nut-house.

I took lonely bike rides and hikes into the nearby forests and mountains on the border with Slovenia, seeking only solitude, silence, and some redress for the working week I’d just left behind me. Weekends were set aside for nursing the hangover the week had left me with.

It was then that I found Val Rosandra, a sumptuous gorge cut like a mini Grand Canyon through the flinty karst rock where Istria meets Friuli Venezia Giulia, Slovenia meets Italy, the urban emporiums of noise and petrol fumes meet the rock and steeply-inclined slopes of rock, which the demographic shiftings and ‘development’ mania of man have as yet, thankfully, left untouched.

I spent whole weekends cycling up the Napoleonic road, blasted by the man himself (or some of his troops, more likely) into the flanks of the Carso Triestino. I’d leave my bike at the top of the dirt road and from there descend into what soon became my Neverland, my weekly fugue into wonder and awe and what felt, I soon discovered, a bit more like living.

From the valley floor the rock rises upward in huge outcrops, walls, spurs, and megaliths all connected by discreet goat-paths whose makers were, I found, most often the only life-forms I could expect to encounter once off the main walking path threading the foot of the valley.

I arrived soon after dawn and left only reluctantly at nightfall. On occasion I’d take my tent and kip on one of the slopes, scaring the shit out of the wild goats who’d plod sleepily into my encampment of a morning when I was boiling my coffee or taking a leak on their thoroughfare.

On one occasion I remember coming over the top of a long scramble and finding a particularly kind handhold, a huge flake I could grip to take the strain off of my legs and fingers. I lunged ever so slightly to pull myself up to the next foothold, but as I did so the one I was lunging from gave way—an unusual occurrence on the tough karst rock, but one that nevertheless left me with a clear view of the bone of my pinkie once I’d struggled to the top, leaving a trail of claret over the pastel-white limestone.

I cycled home, somewhat chastened. After opting not to go to the hospital, the wound inevitably got infected and soon I had a fever bad enough to keep me in bed for the best part of a week and rule out a return to Val Rosandra the following weekend. At some point in all this, while the fever was at its worst and my spirits particularly low, the same question my student asked me that Monday morning came to me of its own accord.

Why do I climb?

My answer? The trite, stock replies lined up quickly, but it didn’t take me long to note I was the only one listening …

Climbing, I then and have since realized, is my meditation, my art, my music—epitomizing all the nonessentials of life that, ironically, are the only thing beyond family and love, perhaps, that make life worthwhile.

The music aspect is perhaps easiest to explain.

I hope, when my time comes, at my funeral someone will be there to get up and play ‘my song.’ If they know me well enough—or at all, rather—they will know that song will be silence. It’s a track I can’t get enough of. It gets me out my seat, lifts me when I need lifting, pulls my heartstrings, puts a smile on my face.

We value things most that are most rare, most impermanent, most difficult to come by. Nothing is more rare, impermanent, difficult to come by or utterly precious as silence. An ever-diminishing commodity in our society, yet just a short step outward and upward from that society, one can find it in abundance. Just don’t tell the advertisers.

Art is slightly trickier to explain, but I can perhaps do so by drawing a comparison to what is not art. As a literature geek, I cringe at the overly-crafted novel, those constructed following every rule in the book and within every parameter laid by the publisher, critic, and prospective reader, all in an effort to increase saleability.

‘Cringe’ is perhaps not the best choice of word, for the true sentiment is one of pity for the creative spirit so constrained by convention and expectation that the true voice, the story that matters, cannot flourish.

Artistic license makes way for licensed artistry, a different matter altogether. The macrocosmic analogy to this regrettable bind and circumstance is life itself, wherein most of us are micro-managed and perpetually constrained by social mores, bosses, governments, peers, and politesse into standardized, diluted medians of the people we really might be.

In climbing, these limitations are nowhere in evidence: each new foray onto the rock is one made onto a blank canvas.

The routes are there, sure, but we needn’t follow them, and the inner journey is replete with nuance and vagary. The climber is unbound by any manmade rules; his only limitations are gravity, ability, and meteorological. For once, too, there is no objective in mind.

Yes, we all might like to clean our first 7a or top-out on a long-desired trad route, but essentially this is activity for activity’s sake. Art for art’s sake. Or, we might say, life for life’s sake.

As my student told me—there’s no obligation.

When life is no longer being lived without some ulterior motive in mind, some purpose, and no longer a means to some other end, that is freedom.

Art created without complete freedom is not art, it is acquiescence. Functionality and saleability have their place, but neither is a victual offering particularly good sustenance to the soul.

When mountaineering, my greatest pleasure in summiting is not the chest-beating pride of machismo but the more subtle contrast the perspective allows. From up there, kilometers above the city and towns and stood atop something millions of years in the making, it is easy to look down on the workweek struggle in the domain of society with a degree of clarity, irony, and utter disregard for the non-events and hassles we all too often accord an overblown degree of importance.

We are often fed the philosophy of ‘no regret,’ a notion with which I am not so quickly endeared. Regret, I believe, is a valuable and practical sentiment. From a mountaintop, the regret I feel at having let myself become lost in the manmade games, strictures, and useless intrigues of society are something I carry back down to the valley with me in the form of a lesson learned, each time building a resistance to doing so again before the next visit.

Pay it forward: regret now to avoid doing so later, with interest.

Regret is a candle—one you can either blow out and forget about or can wield when returning to the dark place where the mistakes that fostered it first occurred.

For these same reasons, when we go to the mountains we must go as pilgrims, not conquerors: what nature, solitude, and wilderness can teach us is nothing less than imperative, critical to anyone who might wish to live life deliberately and mindful of the mistakes that lead them to live life in a way contrary to their deepest wishes. Together they are the great terrestrial ‘other’ that reflects back on the status quo, the reference point through which we can come to see and know our follies, foibles and attain the societally-unencumbered perspective that might let us weed out its superfluities and unearth what is truly important.

It is for us to discover what this may be, but mountains and solitude, in my experience, have never taught me that I ought to spend more time and energy farting around on social networks, working more than I need to, living inauthentically or letting the clock run down by simply ticking off the days as they pass, all of which I’ve fallen into at various intervals in life but can say I am far less guilty of now.

The meditative aspect of climbing is perhaps most difficult to explain, or at least to rationalize, to those who do not climb. This, I believe, stems from a misunderstanding of what meditation is, rather than what climbing is.

As a fairly seasoned meditator—I am, my calculator and I have discovered, approaching the 5,000-hour mark of lifetime meditation—I have come across many delusions about what meditation really is, many of which were of my own creation. Foremost amongst these has been the belief that meditation is some kind of magic solution or panacea designed to make you a happier, better person who may or may not occasionally levitate. Time, experience, and countless reproofs have taught me that this is not the case.

Happiness, I’ve learned, is merely one face of many coins we tossed in or against our favor in our lifetimes, the pursuit of ‘betterment’ relative and often prohibitive to a more useful quest for acceptance of what is, and levitation, alas, irksomely elusive.

Meditation, in the most fundamental expression of the practice, is a means of living more authentically, of seeing and acting clearly, free of our emotional hang-ups and conditioning, of our endless leaps between attraction, aversion, and indifference for what we encounter in our experience.

It is a toolkit utilized to chip away at the selfishness we acquire, with time, in consequence of our recurring habituated reactions to stimuli, which have crystallized and hardened into fixed positions and filtered to experience what we term our ‘personality’, our selves.

Leaving the self behind, even for a moment, frees us to explore and bask in the absolute wonder and awe of the world we live in, the bodies we inhabit—the ordinary, everyday miracle of existence we are inured to taking for granted.

In our recording of the subtle, the nuanced, and the simple phenomena occurring to us unadorned by mental exaggeration or comment, we see what is and always has been so obvious. The meh is, in fact, miraculous, the ordinary extraordinary, the dull delightful. The more we do so, the more the fact impresses upon us. It is a game of increasing returns.

How then, does this relate to climbing?

For starters, to access this clarity it is necessary to break up the perma-chatter of thought and personal narrative in our heads, the mental gymnastics performed by our cerebral cortices to construct something sensible of the infinitude of fragmented data being fed to them by our interior and exterior worlds. Finding oneself several hundred feet above the nearest landing place on a thin strip of rope—or minus the rope, even—is a remarkably effective means of achieving such a gap in the nonessential, of breaking down this nasty habit and prioritizing the resources of headspace to those things most deserving of it. One wrong move and you’re a goner.

In mountaineering, likewise, any venture above 4,000 meters will soon inform you that thoughts, despite their merely ‘metaphysical,’ asomatous character, have weight. Trying to carry one at that altitude whilst simultaneously negotiating a glacier, crevasse, serac, cliff face, or just a gentle plod through snow just isn’t going to happen, not without compromising the climber’s ability to do so safely and at a decent rate of progress.

When all energies are focused on the next step, handhold or foothold, and the consequences of not doing so well are potentially grave, the mind enters the present moment as it never has to during our ordinary lives. Our experience, finally, has our full attention.

We live in a world in which we are anesthetized to subtlety. Every day we are force-fed the extravagant, the overstated, the garish: every sense assaulted by noise, smell, and visual stimuli of all forms in an ever-multiplying and intensifying panoply of attacks both solicited and unsolicited. Our attentions are grabbed this way and that by overbearing salespeople, bosses, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, advertising, television shows, art, music, apps, and even the languages we speak, all of it crying out ‘look at me.’

Capitalism has quite cunningly tapped into the survival instinct described by Darwinism and the epistemologists to exploit our Achilles heel and greatest hunger—to be seen and heard and thus have our existence confirmed and continued. The effects are devastating, crude, and largely unavoidable. Unavoidable, that is, lest we be willing to gainsay our genetic, memetic, and empirical programming and do something distinctly anti-Darwinian, such as climbing.

Who, after all, concerned merely with the continuation of their genes or assuaging their fears of non-existence or social exclusion would care to partake of something so patently dangerous?

Perhaps the greatest source of confusion to a non-climber regarding the pastime’s merit, however, is not merely concerning the dangers involved but lies in the question of how a lump of rock could be so entertaining. The answer lies in the mindset of the questioner. As she might with meditation, the questioner fails to see the merit in anything that has ‘no point.’

We have become inured to expecting ever-greater, ever-showier, ever more shocking displays to entertain us and grab our attention. We are all captive, in-season peahens and each encounter delivers a kitschily-feathered peacock strolling through the coop of our minds cooing ‘come get me.’ The size, coloring, and cries of the peacock grow exponentially in reverse to our attention spans and the severity or outlandishness of that which we are willing to make the objects of that attention.

To understand climbing’s value as not mere something to the time (i.e. ‘pastime’), we need to sit down and reflect on these past few hundred years of history in which (1) the sheer volume and quality of stimuli reaching our senses has far outgrown and outpaced those senses’ evolutional development and (2) that of the overloaded brain to which they relate their encounters and discoveries.

We’ve been plied with an ever-increasing glut of entertainments, diversions, and distractions available and largely unavoidable in the western world and are trained to await the next big thing before deigning to turn our heads. Boredom and disinterest, alas, are symptomatic not of a lack of the noteworthy but of misplaced attention. The attention-grabbers will not fail to come up with ever more attention-grabbing propositions to lure us into the malls, contracts, and candy stores, all to the detriment of the subtle, and our only response is to stop feeding them.

In climbing the same principles as the above are at play, only they work, gladly, in reverse—in a way that demands an ever-decreasing, ever-more finely-tuned scale of perception. Our attention, as the novice, seeks out those giant holds we might sling an arm or knee into, the cup-sized clefts and table-top ledges you could hold a dinner party on, or else we stand a few paces back from the proposed pitch, gaze at the stolid, po-face proposition before us and deem the task futile.

And maybe we are right, because it is only with time and the very gradual tweaking of our awareness, of our mental vision, of our balance, and our consciousness of the interior weather (that often dictates our progress more than the exterior kind), that we grow to appreciate and become aware of the ever subtler subtleties.

Where once we saw a slick, silvery veneer no more climbable than a sheet of glass, we see minute fingerholds, rough indents where we might press a foot, a miniscule crevice into which we might wiggle a toe, a slender fissure that might accommodate a finger or two.

The rock that was once just an inanimate lump to be conquered becomes a friend, replete with aids to our endeavor—ever willing, ever-giving.

The feel of it under our skin turns our hands from maladroit contrivances fit only for wielding pens and prodding keyboards and touchscreens into finely-crafted organs possessed of millions upon millions of nerve endings capable of feeling myriad variations in texture, temperature, and consistency. The frame of rock beheld in our immediate line of vision is no longer a faceless portion of a very samey quilt of varying greys but a world in itself, decorated by delicate, intricate valleys and ridges and geological nuances; garnished with the coarse, sugary spangle of granite, the glittery lacquer of schist, the intricate, layer-cake stratum of gneiss.

Far from the aural menageries of the town—the diners, the restaurants, the cafes, the car fumes, the airborne industrial detritus—our nostrils become as a sky relieved of a long-held fixture of cloud, into which fly forsaken delicacies prior to unknown.

Then the sound.

To know silence, alas, we must know sound. Only here, the sound is the scratch of our skin on the rock, the wind, and the breath of a body, which has, in the space of the few feet, risen from the ground, materialized from the hegemony of the head, transformed from a functional yet otherwise largely forgotten mass of consenting, subordinate flesh into a dynamo of the sensory.

The sound and the silence work in unison, complementary counterpoints in a harmony that whispers,

Holy shit, I’m alive.


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