Rock Climbing Explained (kind of…)

“Writing about climbing is boring. I would rather go climbing.”    — Chuck Pratt.


Here I am attempting to do the impossible; explain the passion of rock climbing. Rock climbing is by far the stupidest, most addicting, most unsafe, rewarding, breathtaking, challenging, and enlightening pursuit I have ever embarked on. As soon as my feet leave the trail I am planning my next trip. As soon as I fall 15 feet to the ground I am immediately re-evaluating how to get back on and finish the problem. Hi, my name is Jordan and I am an addict.

My experience with rock climbing started back in high school. I never actually climbed in high school, but several of my friends began their climbing careers during our senior year. I was was confused, like everyone else, about what it actually meant to be a “rock climber.” I imagined my friends strolling around on boulders the size of suitcases wearing weird elf shoes and slapping each others asses. Needless to say, I was not intrigued.

Ok, I was a little intrigued.

Which is why I requested to work as a member of the ropes staff when I was first hired at Camp Y.I. (best decision of my life. It also didn’t hurt that I can barely swim).
Georg-Lenz-7It was during that first summer that I started to understand the dynamics of the way climbing worked. I was constantly nagging Ben (my boss and now climbing buddy) about different styles of climbing, the way climbers trained, and the history of it. Ben didn’t mind, but in retrospect it is funny how badly I misconstrued the heart of the sport. So now, $700.00 worth of gear and a year later, I feel somewhat equipped to examine the dynamic of the appeal of climbing.

Most sports emphasize achievement over progress. No one cares if you can throw a 70 mph fast ball after 20 years of intensive training when there are 18 year olds who can throw 90. Likewise, your 3 pt percentage is worthless if you are 5’5″ and overweight. If you examine the core of most sports, they relate back to competition. That is of course, after we drop the “it’s all about having fun” facade. Climbing is different. It is very true that there are climbing competitions and they are sometimes very competitive, but the difference is the attitude. For instance, I was recently at a bouldering competition in Franklin, TN at the Crag at Cool Springs (great gym, awesome owner). What struck me about this competition was that although every person there was competing against one another, everyone was cheered on. Not only that, but competitors would verbally encourage and push each other to get that “killer send.” Even during the “dyno comp” part of the competition, all of the climbers sat around and encouraged the guys competing with yells, first pumps, and high fives. Even when it was down to the last two climbers, they continued to psyche each other up before each dyno. To give you an idea, this would be like LeBron James walking over to a Yao Ming right before he shot the winning free throw and saying, “come on man you got this!” Or like Michael Phelps giving backstroke tips to the Chinese swim team before they swam their laps. So the first draw of climbing is the community. There is a great warmth that surrounds climbing which all climbers experience. When I see a locking carabiner on a guy’s keychain I know. When we look at each other our eyes are saying, “yeah, my friends don’t get it either.” One of my favorite climbing expressions is, “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”  Alex Lowe.

“I’ve climbed with some of the best climbers in the world, more importantly, to me, they are some of the best people in the world. That’s another reason why I climb.”    — Jim Wickwire

So you think you’ve pushed yourself? Think that you’ve seen what your body can do? Climb an 80′ rock face above the last bolt and any form of protection. Feel the way that your legs start to shake when you’re 20′ off the ground and reaching for that infamous 2nd clip. Try and steady your hands enough to make the next move when you’re so worn out that you couldn’t grip a pencil enough to sign your name. Learn to thrive under conditions so unnatural that your mind can barely comprehend what you’re doing. I thought I was an athletic person. I thought that I was an adventurous person. I was wrong. Climbers always talk about the way that climbing pushes their limits. This is easy to understand and impossible to relate to. It’s easy to grasp how climbing would be an intense and rewarding adventure, but there’s no way to explain the feeling you get when you stick the last move of that boulder problem you’ve worked for months or explain what drives us to work out in lonely climbing gyms 4 days a week for months at a time.

If you read anything written by a professional climber you will undoubtedly realize how stupid climbers can sound. Professional climbers will refer to the rock as “their god.” They will claim that ultimate inner peace can only be achieved by reaching the summit of K2. They will tell you how climbing puts them at peace with nature. While some of these claims are definitely outrageous and hilarious, there is more than a little truth to the way they are describing their feelings. The moral of the story is this. I now have a better understanding of who I am as a person and what I am capable of because I was able to push my limits in ways I didn’t know was possible. Ask any somewhat experienced climber and they will tell you the same thing. You don’t even have to be good at climbing to experience the personal growth involved with the sport. I know better than most how physically demanding climbing can be, but anyone can climb. Anyone.

I love the way the rock feels against my fingers. I love the way my chalk bag smells when I open it at the first face of the day. I love the days when I hike five miles just to get to that perfect spot and climb one route. I love climbing because climbing makes me come alive. Makes me feel invincible, but realize how weak I really am. Climbers don’t conquer mountains, we don’t tame the wild. The mountain allows us to challenge ourselves. We are visitors and we treat ourselves as such. We don’t want a Wal-Mart next to our favorite bluff. We want nature as it is, (or as close as we can manage). We strive to understand ourselves more clearly by seeing just how high we can go.

“Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile initially scared me to death”      -anonymous


4 responses to “Rock Climbing Explained (kind of…)

  1. Really great post. I think that you offer as good a description as any could for the mindset of a climber. I remember when I first really started to consider myself a climber: I started looking at everything and would think, “Can I climb that?”

    Another great feeling that can;t be described is when you bag a first ascent. I’ve been getting a few in Philly, but am still chasing that first, really awesome one. It’s like chasing that first high or first drink.

    A great book that also describes the act of climbing is “Conquistidors of the Useless”. Title kind of says it all.


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