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Between a Rock and a Sublime Place (Part 1)

Ilona Barash, MD, PhD, leading pitch 3 on “Johnny Vegas,” Red Rock National Conservation Area (Yoav Altman photo)

The academic life sometimes feels like the Labor of Sisyphus, whether pushing one’s own career rock up a steep hill or  teaching pretty much the same thing, in one form or another, to new crops of students. Nonetheless, and despite Camus’s gloriously counter-intuitive suggestion that Sisyphus was happy, some of us really are happy in proportion as we are fooling around on genuine hills, and the steeper the better. (How’s that for a forced segue from the world of Higher Ed to that of Higher Mtns?)

There are three primary ways of doing real-world, non-metaphoric mountaineering, depending on the nature of the terrain to be encountered: rock climbing, ice climbing, and glacier travel. Rock climbing is the most basic, requiring the least equipment. It is a union of primal elements: human skin, muscle, bone and (mostly) nerve on the iconically hard fundament of all things real; namely, rock. Even good rock climbers work hard, often straining themselves to their literal limits-at least, during brief periods of intense effort—and yet, by some magical transmutation, they don’t struggle. They don’t flail. They don’t thrash. They levitate themselves almost, it seems, by will power alone, or perhaps by spiritual purity as much as by skill or strength.

In When the Going Was Good, Evelyn Waugh, normally among the most cynical and critical of observers, described a “little walk” he once took, ostensibly following his acquaintance, a Monsieur Leblanc:

There was a little crack running like fork-lightning down the blank wall of  stone. Mr. Leblanc stood below it, gave one little skip, and suddenly, with great rapidity and no apparent effort, proceeded to ascend the precipice. He did not climb; he rose. It was as if someone were hoisting him up above and he had merely to prevent himself from swinging out of the perpendicular, by keeping contact with rocks in a few light touches of foot and hand. In just the same way, one after another, the Leblanc party were whisked away out of sight.

Needless to say, most of us have never climbed like that. Certainly not me.

A good rock climber (who nonetheless must climb rather than levitate) always tries to keep three points of secure suspension-two hands and a foot, or two feet and one hand-while moving the free limb to a new and higher hold. (Oh, for the prehensile tail of our platyrrhine primate relatives!) Like a daddy long legs or a spindly marine crab, arms and legs move in a kind of rockbound tai chi, a pattern both fluid and deliberate, always relying more on balance, movement and rhythm than on sheer strength or any assist from clanking hardware. Mountains have poise, above all. And the climber must be no less poised than his or her dancing partner.

However, the occasional, very rare climber appears to transcend the limitations of the usual, even, it seems, of the possible, thereby ascending to become what might be called a “magical genius.” I first encountered this phrase applied to the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, a prodigy who is said to have often worked out his extraordinary proofs using a stick in the sand, who died of malnutrition in his native India, and whose notebooks are only now being explicated by competent but distinctly nonmagical journeyman scholars with traditional Ph.D.’s.

Observing a regular, garden-variety genius, whether mathematician or climber (or in fact, any genius) one might conclude that with enough time, training, or incentive, it would be possible to do what he or she has done. But there is simply no way you or I could emulate the doings of magical genius. Among climbers, people like Gaston Rebuffat, Reinhold Messner or the American John Roskelly might well qualify.

For the rest of us, rock climbing still offers challenges aplenty, of which the first is to overcome some of the strictures, inhibitions, and fears that have been drilled into us since childhood, when a horrified parent caught us teetering on the top of the second-floor banister. The rock climber must go farther back in time, several million years or so, and relearn what comes naturally, reversing our silly insistence on coming down from the trees to live in a merely two-dimensional world.

Unlike squirrels, we regrettably do not have the ability to reverse the bones of our wrists and ankles, and thereby to descend trees head first. We have to back down, instead, just as we climbed up, like a motion picture running in reverse, but with a whole lot more difficulty seeing hand- and foot-holds. That is how we presumably first descended from the trees to the floor of the African savannah, (and it is tempting to conclude that we have been backing into our future ever since).

For those of us in the academic world who spend most of our working lives immersed primarily in the realm of thought, concepts, theories, hypotheses, interpretations, conclusions, data, e-mails, manuscripts, computer algorithms, grades, grant proposals, progress reports and interminable, arbitrary meetings that resemble nothing so much as being nibbled to death by ducks, I can think of few things more liberating than, paradoxically, being roped, quite literally, to a real-world pile of genuine, solid rock. Even though, like Sisyphus, we are doomed to come back down.

(To be continued.)

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