Article: Why We Climb
The long read:
The article below is the introduction to the eponymous book “Why We Climb”, which is already on our to-read list.
The author, climber Chris Noble, attempts to answer the question “Why do we climb?” and comes to some interesting (though to us not surprising) conclusions. He draws the line that runs towards and through human evolution ever since we were still inhabiting the canopy, addressing the primal nature climbing comprises.
“At the most basic level because it’s fun. Let’s face it, we’re primates. Our evolutionary predecessors spent millennia scrambling up trees and over rough terrain. Climbing is literally in our DNA. For proof one has only to observe young kids testing themselves on jungle gyms, rocks, trees, and other high places—risk-taking made all the more delicious by its ability to scare one’s parents half to death.
Along with walking, running, and speech, climbing is fundamental to the human animal. However, because it’s dangerous and for the most part serves no economic purpose, society has always viewed it with suspicion.
[A] kind of mystery clings to high places and the creatures who inhabit them. Because they are largely inaccessible, mountains, towers, mesas, and plateaus pose a question. Somehow of this earth, yet standing apart, mountains form a bridge between heaven and earth. To explore them requires voluntarily abandoning the comfort, security, and support of civilization. In this way, they have come to symbolize renunciation, spiritual growth, and transcendence, offering a fleeting glimpse, through rushing cloud and blowing mist, of a realm pure and unstained by the moral ambiguity of human affairs.”
He observes that “mountain regions, protected by their harsh climate, poor soil, and challenging terrain, remain relatively untamed, they are also seen as lying somewhat beyond the control of central governments.” Humans are wild animals (though temporarily domesticated), and we need wild Nature to be content and happy. Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote that when any species is removed from its natural habitat its behaviors will become pathological. Exposure to Wilderness has a wide variety of psychological and physical health benefits to humans, as a growing number of studies shows. To be in the Wilderness is to be truly at home with our most basic and rudimentary human
The simple life in Nature is fundamentally important for human well being, as he rightfully determines.
“We were made for this. We were made to sleep on the open ground, to rise before dawn and set off once more… toward what? To discover where the elk lie in the next valley; to press on down river in search of better fishing; or to discover an elegant parabola of stone that takes us far beyond, and simultaneously deep within, ourselves.”
Noble realized that this society is not moving in the right direction and will only continue to further alienate us from the natural way that evolved over millions of years:
“In contrast, humanity now faces an era of unprecedented social, environmental, and spiritual crises. Somehow our long journey from Hunter Gatherer to Industrial Man has led us into a box canyon. Dark walls rise on every side. It is unthinkable to go back, to abandon all that we’ve gained yet the way forward is dark, shrouded in fog.
We find ourselves waking in the night, as the poet Wendell Berry put it, “afraid of what our lives and our children’s lives have become.” We have tamed the original wilderness, but now seek refuge from a more troubling, and possibly far more dangerous wilderness of our own making.”
One of our favorite authors, Paul Shepard, is also cited in the text:
“The ecologist Paul Shepard believed the anxiety we feel is the longing of the human genome for it’s one true home–the world where it evolved–the vanished world of the Pleistocene. We have been exiled, cast adrift, left to run endlessly on treadmills, hunting through strip malls, questing in video games for a world that remains only in fragments.
But if the species has lost its way, at least its individual members can have the pleasure of reclaiming the lithe and powerful bodies, the quicksilver minds, which are our human birthright.”
What we learned from living in simple, self-made shelters without walls is that feeling the force of Nature during a thunderstorm or heavy monsoon rain can be a spiritual experience. Much as “modern activities such as climbing, surfing, skiing, sailing, and kayaking”, those experiences “allow us to re-discover an ancient and intimate dance with untamed, elemental forces. More than just sport, such activities offer a way of being in the world, a practical down-to-earth philosophy founded on voluntary simplicity and the appropriate use of technology.”
The following differentiation between technology and technique is, even though in this case an example for the sport of climbing, universally applicable ;
“In the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog, Doug Robinson wrote, “Technology is imposed on the land, but technique means conforming to the landscape. They work in opposite ways, one forcing a passage, while the other discovers it. The goal of developing technique is to conform to the most improbable landscape by means of the greatest degree of skill and boldness, supported by the least equipment.”
This is the climber’s manifesto, to voluntarily seek a balance between technology and adventure. It is based on a philosophy of boldness and grace, discipline and restraint, and as Robinson states in his interview it may provide a bridge across our fraught and perilous experiment with industrialization.”
Here an excerpt from his conclusions:
“Because the path to a sustainable future cannot be purchased or engineered. The way forward is not to abandon all that we have been in the past, nor is it to replace blind faith in kings and religion with an equally blind faith in economics and technology.
The way ahead is to become more human—not less. It is to find the courage to stare into the stone mirror and see our selves clearly—perhaps for the first time—with all our strengths and weaknesses. Which coincidentally, is the best ways to improve as a climber as well, to identify and work with one’s weaknesses.”
“In a world with ever-shrinking options to know nature, and know ourselves, skills which return us to the elements become increasingly vital. In a culture ever more preoccupied with virtual reality—experiences which reunite us with wind and rock, ice and snow, provide the dash of cold water which shock us from our all too human dreams.”
“The children of the Pleistocene live on.”