Striving for eleganceNews, summer 2008: Finally, a couple of years after I wrote this I went to climb the matterhorn with Theron. We had a great time. My imaginings about climbing the peak below seemed to be borne out. That is, it's true, there is no way you could pitch the whole thing out! And any who tried turned back.
This very appropriate quotation came up automatically on summitpost when I was editing this page, pretty neat!
"It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid." --Q
old video of Gaston Rebuffat on the Matterhorn with another climber. It was beautiful. They seemed to turn the climb into a real gentlemen’s affair. Lots of relaxed walking, each climber holding a coil of rope. When it was steep, they dropped the coils and executed a standing hip belay. All very graceful, and then the look of satisfaction from the pipe-smoke at the top made me want to take up the filthy habit. These men clearly had “mountain sense.” They looked at peace with themselves, and were very much at ease. Plainly, they had long ago forged a kinship with steep terrain that was now such a part of them that it simply was them, or at least such a great part of their identity that they couldn’t shuck it off.
Despite our safer technology today, it’s not so easy to attain the true mastery that these older men of the mountains had. Many of us are master technicians, able to climb the steepest terrain imaginable, so long as it’s well protected. I remember my first ventures onto that fearsome terrain: “3rd-4th class,” as we’d say in the U.S., or maybe in the german-speaking countries it would be UIAA II-III. Having already led some 5th class pitches outside, I didn’t understand why I was qualing in fear on the ocean of loose, dirty, mossy, ugly mountainside that I’d climbed into from below. “There is no way to protect anything,” I complained to myself. “I hate this stuff.”
And that was my verdict, and remained so for some time. The desire to do better only came because I loved the mountains, and eventually found it odd that I would spend a glorious day on a climb, then come back to the valley and complain endlessly about the loose, dirty terrain that I’d dragged a rope across. My partners didn’t seem to have such trouble. Why were they always faster than me on this terrain? I seemed to knock more rocks off. Why? I hated that it was so hard to judge the difficulty. I really wanted to know, at that time, was I on 5.1 or 5.3? Was I on 4th class or 5.0? Measured so closely, these vague areas of the mountain seemed all over the chart. That left me to instantly regret whatever choice I’d made about the rope. Maybe I’d agreed with my partner that we could solo this 3rd class ground. But then, I’d hesitate at a short step because it was plainly 5.0, and it seemed unwise to continue without a belay. My partner would either rig a belay or cajole me into getting over the step. I’d only feel comfortable again when back to the “civilized” world of fixed belays and defined rope-length.
It was just too many degrees of freedom. Too many ways to fall and die. I loved rules. I’d read Freedom of the Hills at least 3 times, and many other books. It was an absolutely necessary phase, for me anyway. Venturing onto steep rock was like doing repairs outside the space shuttle. Rigid adherence to a set of rules was the only way to get started. Now, I’m not so sure. In fact, it’s the fluid shifting between belaying, travelling in coils, and soloing that are the most interesting aspect of climbing now. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to chronicle how I turned into a creature for whom ugly mountainside is not difficult, not even unpleasant. I have a friend who is early in this phase, and I feel him looking at me the way you’d look at a strange moth. I remember being where he is today, and looking at my partner the same way: “is he crazy?”
I vaguely remember the idea going through my head that if I was roped up at least I wouldn’t fall a thousand feet and die. The moment I was unroped, or (hyper) aware that we had no fixed belay, I would look down at the gravelly humps of rock and dirty tongues of snow below me and imagine hurtling down to an ugly death. Without actually realizing it, I slowed down dramatically, I hugged the slabs, worsening the chance that my feet would slip. I would lick my lips and paw the same slabby holds over and over. I couldn’t decide what to do! Hunt for protection? Look at the topo again? Go home?
The only thing that kept me going was that, well, every climb that I lusted after (is there any other word? ;-)) had at least some of this stuff. If not on the ascent, then a bucket-full of uncertain, uncomfortable terrain on the descent for sure. I hated this, but thought grimly that if one man could do it then I could too. Change happened by degrees so slight that I can’t really pinpoint when I turned into the guy who says “we can downclimb this,” when my partner says “no way! I’m gonna rappel!”
I do remember the descent from Snow Creek Wall in Washington State as being kind of a testpiece for me. The first time, not only did I hate every step, and have the images of hurtling bodies in my head the whole damn way, but it seemed to take hours. Maybe it did too. Little pebbles on slabs, no good handhold when you need it, everything seems to be downsloping. Why is my partner walking and I’m facing in and nearly crawling? Damn!
But happily, if you want multipitch rock climbing in Washington, you’ll be back to Snow Creek Wall many times, and so eventually I got used to that descent. In time, beaten by sheer repetition I accepted such terrain. It is what It Is. In fact, most terrain on most interesting mountains Looks Like This. If you want to say you love climbing, or you love mountains, you finally have to make peace with this terrain. I don’t think there is any way to know this in your bones other than to be forced on it again and again.
I learned a few axiomatic principles. Always look over edges. It’s usually not as steep as it looks from standing on top of a bulge. Downclimb steep terrain by getting in a sitting position, look for foot holds and extend your feet. Then drop down to sit on them again. You could grade descents and feel justifiably proud of difficult ones. Because then slightly easier ones will by degrees get even easier. Don’t be intimidated. Breath, and go one step at a time.
Had I attempted to climb the Matterhorn at my neophyte stage, I would have certainly been able to climb or even lead well-defined 5th class pitches. But on the “somewhat less than 5th class” terrain the gulf between me and those famous climbers of old would loom wide. I would insist on roped pitches, and fumble for protection. It wouldn’t irritate me when I walked for a long stretch on gravel while my partner belayed. On the contrary, I would think “that was an easy pitch!” That was my comfort zone: always roped means always safe. Only if I thought about it enough would it become clear that I wasn’t safer. I tried not to think about the nut that ripped out when I flipped the rope over a horn, and the sling over the barely-protruding horn that not even I believed would hold. Only then, and further contemplating the two-nut belay in rotten rock where my partner waited, shivering. Only then would the realization come that my rope, my security blanket was not much good at all.
The thought hangs there, in the air: climbing isn’t safe. It’s not technology that will prevent you from acting as a hurling body from your worst inner fears, it’s only your skill. This kind of skill is built in layers, of trips and then seasons. Should your excitement remain, then the skill will come.
That is my new security blanket. A highly complex mesh of interwoven experiences. Of scary descents in the dark. Of the unexpected liberation of traveling in coils and finding we finished the climb hours ahead of schedule. Of going down the wrong gully and climbing back up. Being stuck out overnight and surviving just fine.
The beginning climber, obsessed with rules, will say “yes, but what if you slip?” I hate the question because the inevitable answer is neither comforting nor offers any bridge of understanding.
You do need a bit of luck. Plenty of times I’ve had a hold break, but caught myself thanks to the hoary old “3 points of contact” rule. But what if two holds break at once? Some folks would conclude then, that the whole idea is madness. That is fine. Others will keep plugging on, believing that they are fairly lucky people. I like both of these choices. There is a third choice that I don’t like, and that is to shun traveling in coils, simul-climbing or soloing to try and answer the “but what if you slip?” question. To always use the rope in fixed belays from ground to summit.
I’m the first to say I could be wrong. And one day, finally, my experience may fail me, it is true. But with my small store of strength, I have only wanted to paint a good canvas in this arena. To strive for efficiency of motion and finally elegance.
What do you guys think?