As a brief note, this article often uses the term climbing in a broad sense to include everything from rock climbing to mountaineering and hiking.
As I rediscover climbing in middle-age, I find that I’m teaching myself something new all over again.
Climbing! Whether rocks or mountains, humble boulders and hills in your backyard forests, the big walls of Yosemite, or the Alpine peaks of Europe and Asia, climbing matters. Although, people climb for reasons that might not always be clear: to others, or even themselves. George Mallory made famous the phrase, “Because it’s there”. Whereas Warren G. Harding (Yosemite climber, not the once President of the United States), in a CBS interview immediately following the first ascent of El Cap responded with, “Because we’re insane. There can’t be any other reason”. There’s definitely some truth in both of these explanations. However, many people most likely don’t realize that Mallory’s quote, “because it’s there”, is not only an end, the answer to a question, but also a beginning, the first snippet of a slightly longer quote contained in the March 18, 1923 edition of the New York Times: “Because it’s there … Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” Even in Mallory’s response, in his “I suppose”, one senses that there is more to climbing than a desire to conquer the universe. Often, in climbing, the universe we conquer isn’t “out there”, it’s within.
Is there anything more natural than the desire or instinct to climb? Humans certainly display a surprising propensity for it. I mean, really, next to eating and shitting climbing might be the most natural thing in the world. After learning to walk, the first thing many children often do is climb—how many times have you said or heard the phrase, “get down from there”? And think of all the safety gear we’ve invented to prevent children from climbing in order to keep them safe.
Recently, a viral video even featured twin boys, one helping the other out from under a dresser that had fallen on top of him in his effort to climb it. Games and language show its impact: she who climbs best wins (King of the Hill), and nursery rhymes (Jack and Jill), and the countless metaphors involving hills, mountains, peaks and points. Our ancestors climbed trees for safety; in times of war and survival we seek the high ground. In some ways, perhaps many, climbing defines us a species. After all, we share 96% of our DNA with the great apes such as Bonobos and Chimps. So, unlike swimming—a trait, surprisingly perhaps, not programmed into our DNA—we take to climbing naturally.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines climbing as, “to raise oneself by grasping or clinging”. How appropriate: to raise one’s self. In Latin, the verb to climb is scendere (with a hard ‘c’ as Latin had no soft ‘c’), which should look very familiar to readers. Add the Latin prefix trans, meaning to cross or go beyond, and you get transcendere, to climb above or beyond, and from which we get our modern term transcend. So, in a very literal sense, climbing has everything to do with breaking barriers. Taken as a metaphor, climbing helps us to become our best selves by teaching us to transcend the boundary of what we think possible. In a sense, we enter the realm of the spiritual. Often called “the zone”, or “flow”, it happens when we focus so intently and mindfully on the task at hand that everything else fades to black, and we become the moment. However, only fleetingly do we grasp or cling to epiphanic transcendence: completing a previously impossible climb: solving a seemingly unsolvable bouldering puzzle: reaching the top of that mountain: enduring an impossibly long thru-hike. Eventually, swiftly, the moment passes; and we’re left only with our new selves and the world—as it is, was, and will be. That moment changes us. The experience of that moment adds to the cumulative experience of our being.
As with any adventure sport, climbing necessarily involves risk; however, practiced properly, those risks are measured and take us right to the edge of our capabilities. On the one hand it’s easy to see how climbing might be reckless or even lead to reckless behavior, and without question that’s certainly true in some cases: John Bachar and Dean Potter come immediately to mind. Bachar died from a fall while free-soloing and Potter died in a wing suit crash. On the other hand, leaving the house is a risk: “It’s a dangerous business … going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”.
That being said, no one ever achieved anything without some form of measured risk. Take Alex Honnold’s free-solo ascent of El Capitain, or Sasha DiGiulian’s free-climb of Magic Mushroom. Both represent huge risks, without question. Honnold prepared by studying and climbing the route something like three or four times on a rope before making his historic attempt and DiGuilian called her ascent “trial by fire“, with “big rocks falling all around”. Arguably, Honnold knew every move and hold he would need to make and felt comfortable in his ability to make them before attempting the free climb, while DiGiulian had the appropriate safety gear, exercised excessive vigilance and knew the route and it’s dangers before-hand, not to mention the fact that she had attempted the route a fair number of times before finding success. The same principles hold true for hikers. Spending weeks or months on trails such as the Pacific Crest or Appalachian involves risk, but preparation and knowledge make it less likely that you’ll run into trouble. Or, when and if you do, you’ll have put yourself in a much better position to be prepared to handle it. Measured risks reward climbers rather than harm them.
When we prepare to take on a new challenge we teach ourselves new skills. Learning keeps the brain sharp by creating new and strengthening old pathways in the brain. Additionally, once you get out there (hashtag getoutthere) and climb, you are exercising, which literally increases brain volume (NPR.org). For climbing rookies an entirely new data set must be learned: terminology, tools, proper use of those tools, reading maps, using a compass, etc. Climbing pros are not exempt from this. Climbers who continue to seek new challenges and push limits learn something new on every trip. Perhaps it’s studying the route they’re going to take to the top of a particularly technical ascent, or studying the history of those who’ve come before them and the mistakes they need to avoid. So, whether you’re a seasoned pro, or someone beginning your journey, climbing involves two of the most important aspects of physical and cognitive health: exercise and learning.
Climbing also teaches us competence, which leads to confidence. While it only takes a couple minutes to learn how to properly tie a figure eight, if you have any doubts or uncertainty about whether that knot is going to keep you alive or suspended in the air should you lose your footing or grip, you’re probably going to climb very tentatively, and therefore unsuccessfully. In fact, such a climber might even be a danger to others. If you’re worried that you’re not using your gear properly, you won’t be focused on what moves to make on the wall or which route to take to the summit. On the other hand, knowing that you’ve tied a safe, secure knot allows you to find the flow and begin to focus on the climb. The same principle holds true for other types of gear: cams, pitons, grigris, crampons. In terms of accidents, gear failure is almost never the cause of injury or death. Human error such as poor decision making, incompetence, or improperly using gear will almost certainly always be the reason someone gets hurt, lost, or dies on a climb. Trusting in your gear and becoming competent and confident in the use of your tools and your abilities makes you a better climber. And this competence can’t help but carry over to other aspects of your life. Once you climb that mountain, complete your first thru-hike, or learn a skill that has been particularly challenging to master, you will start to believe that few things, if any, can stand in your way.
Trusting in yourself necessarily leads to trust in other people. How do we build trust in society? Ridiculous videos of people blindly falling into someone’s arms at a corporate retreat probably come to mind, right? Team building exercises. Now, there’s folly in blindly trusting anyone, but the deepest and strongest human relationships are, in fact, built upon trust. Often, we learn that trust through shared experiences. Climbing builds those kinds of connections. You rely on that person holding the rope so you don’t fall. If you’re out hiking you need to trust that your partner, assuming you’re not hiking solo, will have the skills necessary and willingness to help should things get a bit sticky. Episode 24 of the Outside Podcast’s Science of Survival highlights this especially well. In this episode, the show’s narrator breaks his leg jumping off a waterfall. He trusts that the friends he’s with will do everything they can to help him. And they do. Chances are, outside of a marriage or having children, the relationships you form climbing will be the deepest, longest lasting and most rewarding relationships of your life.
Outside of diet and exercise, researchers identify community as perhaps the single most important aspect of a long and healthy life. And the climbing community is amazing. Maybe it comes down to the type of personality it takes to be a climber; maybe it comes down to something as simple as sharing an interest; but whatever the reason, climbers, as individuals and as a group, are a welcoming, supportive and friendly bunch.
Carabiner’s Climbing and Fitness, a rock and fitness gym in New Bedford, MA, with nearly 37,000 square feet of climbing space, ranks as the fourth largest climbing gym in the U.S. When it was built, in 2004, it was the largest in the country. Steve, the owner, literally built the place with his own hands, “with some help” as he likes to tell it–a fact that he is rightfully proud of. Steve and the entire staff at Carabiner’s represent the highest standards in professionalism, friendliness and dedication to their craft. The day I purchased a membership for my two youngest, eleven and six, our guide was Nolan, who walked us through everything we would need to know to have a fun, safe experience in the gym. It takes literally two minutes to learn, or relearn, to tie a knot and another two minutes to learn to belay, but Nolan stuck with us for about forty-five minutes or so. He never once gave the impression that he was put out, impatient, or that he would rather be doing something else. In fact, quite the opposite. Perhaps, in part, that’s because this is his job; but I got the sense that there’s more to it than that. Nolan’s wears his passion for climbing and the outdoors on his sleeve. We chatted nearly the entire time about climbing and adventure sports. He seemed surprised that I had heard of Alex Honnold, which, in turn, surprised me, cuz I’m all like “what, don’t I look like a climber? Is this, sir, not the body of a god?”My wife certainly agrees: I’m Buddha. We chatted about what might be my favorite documentary of all time, Valley Uprising, and he shared the story of going to see the premier. I was jealous. Nolan was particularly excited about a new kayak he recently purchased and you could tell he couldn’t wait to get out there (hashtag, getoutthere). Truth be told, I haven’t climbed (or is it clomb? What’s the past tense of climb?) in at least twenty years, but nonetheless, we talked about places we’ve been and want to go. Guys like Nolan represent what’s best about the climbing community, and make even this overweight, yet solidly built, middle-aged man of leisure feel at home in the gym. (Photos counterclockwise from top: Nolan with the kids, Steve the owner/builder, and Matt, climber and guide and Mountain Buddha.)
The last, and perhaps the most poignant benefit climbing offers, is that it gets us outside. It takes us back to where we’re from. We evolved in Nature. It’s where we developed our senses; it’s where we learned to tell friend from foe; it’s where we learned the difference between foods that will sustain us and foods that will kill us. Humans have known forever that nature, particularly wild nature, benefits the mind and body. The oldest known literary text tells the story of Gilgamesh, and his quest into the wild. Admittedly, he battles fierce beasts, demons, and loses his best friend, but he learns a valuable lesson. He somehow becomes complete by journeying into the wilderness. A growing body of scientific research is beginning not only to confirm what we already know, that being outside benefits us both mentally and physically, but also to codify the ways in which this happens. In Florence William’s The Nature Fix, the author describes how researchers from all over the world are just now beginning to tell us why and how Nature helps. Consider this passage from her book about what Korean scientists have found: “immune boosting killer T cells of women with breast cancer increased after a two-week forest visit and stayed elevated for fourteen days; people who exercised in nature (as opposed to the city) achieved better fitness and were more likely to keep exercising; and unmarried pregnant woman [sic] in the forest prenatal classes significantly reduced their symptoms of depression and anxiety” (Williams 71). Whereas those who live near “high volume roads”, regardless of income, are at higher risk for autism, stroke and cognitive decline in aging; although, Williams admits that the reason for this has yet to be determined (76). So, we’re finally at a point where it’s not simply about confirming what poets and naturalists have told us to be true for ages, we’re at a point where we know it to be true and can tell you, scientifically, why and how: nature reduces cortisol levels (attributed to stress), reduces blood pressure, heart rate, and increases focus because it reduces the number of distractions around us. Put simply: nature is medicine for the malady of modernity.
So get climbing, or kayaking, or take a hike. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it out there. Get out there.
Have you had an amazing experience in nature? What did you feel before and after? Share it in the comments below. Learning to measure risk on a big wall or out hiking in the wilderness, even humble-hiking, builds new pathways in the brain that will come in useful in every aspect of life: should I try to pinch that hold? Should I move to that city to take that job? I’ve never thru-hiked, am I prepared? Do I have the gear I need? Maps? Compass? First-aid kit? I’ve never given a public speech before: will my audience find it interesting? Have I done my research? Do I know what I’m talking about? Am I prepared? Knowing limits involves competent, confident decision making. No better way than to climb.