Call me David. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing and drooling at the ice giants marching about me here in the Pacific Northwest, such that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking the hats off any Republican I meet -- then, I account it high time to get back into the mountains as soon as I can. (Nearly always, without a copy of Moby Dick.)
Or, when that isn’t immediately possible, to think and write about those mountains once again.
“Learning the ropes” applied originally to seamanship, but it aptly describes mountain training as well; to a large extent, climbing technique is proper rope handling. And the ropes themselves receive rapt attention from mountaineers, not merely because they are the thread from which lives may hang. They are nothing less than wonderful in themselves: Smooth, supple, just a wee bit elastic, and patterned in beguilingly garish colors. Coiling your rope is a nontrivial exercise; failing to coil it properly can be a disaster.
And you learn quickly, when crossing a glacier or steep, hardened snowfield, to swing the rope aside when negotiating a switch-back, just as you never, ever, under no circumstances at all step on your rope, whether on rock or (worse yet) with crampons. An old and beloved rope, moreover, is not thrown away, discarded or junked, any more than is an American flag. Rather, it is reverently “retired,” perhaps to be used as a top rope for bouldering.
I won’t bother deciphering the various kinds of deployed hardware, whose purpose is to provide that ultimate accolade: “protection.” (For my generation, this often referred to condoms. Among climbers, the bottom line is similar: To keep something unwanted from happening, and in the process, protect oneself and others.) In the current context, protection similarly involves insertion, although more specifically that which is carefully placed by the lead climber on the way up, and which is then attached via sturdy metal clips known as carabineers (“beeners,” to the initiated), connecting rope to climber as well as to partner, who is firmly anchored to the mountain, thereby “belaying” the leader. With experience, one learns various fine points in the placement of protection, beyond simply making it secure. It is important, for example, to avoid making too many zigzags, or else the rope drag can become a serious handicap. Also, much as you want your protection to be strong and solid, you also want it readily removable on demand.
Climbing itself is done in a series of “pitches,” each pitch an ascent that is no longer than the rope. With the belaying partner secured to the rock via slings, chocks, pitons, or wraps around projections of rock or trunks of trees, the lead climber climbs, putting in protection as she goes. If she falls, and if the rope holds (it pretty much always does), and if the protection holds (it damned well better!), then the leader is still vulnerable, liable to fall twice the distance to her nearest protection. If the leader falls while free climbing, for example, 10 feet above a solid chock, he or she will drop 20 feet before the tightened rope, going to the belayer, will arrest that fall.
If, as belayer, you see a fall developing (often, you don’t), your job, in addition to arresting it once the tug arrives, is to take in as much rope as possible before that Moment of Truth. By contrast, once the leader has uneventfully completed the pitch and located a secure belay spot in turn, the person below can climb with much more security, because if the top rope, belayed from above, is kept reasonably taut, there isn’t much room for an unplanned descent.
Strong, agile and adroit climbers take pride in “leading.” Needless to say, I’ve nearly always preferred following.
There is a small triumph in every successful placement of reliable protection. Although climbing is undoubtedly more dangerous than watching television, and to some extent, the extremis of the activity provides the spice, the fact is that climbers do not seek out shaky placements, frayed ropes, or wet or rotten rock. These things break the unspoken contract: Admittedly, mountains present dangers to those who would climb them, but they are supposed to be known and openly confronted.
There are more than enough unpredictables, like weird weather (sudden storms, including lightning, fog with zero visibility, heavy winds that threaten to blow you off your footing or to demolish your tent), snow bridges that may collapse into yawning glacial crevasses, and (at high elevations) altitude sickness that can range from the uncomfortable such as nausea and interrupted sleep, to the deadly such as pulmonary or cerebral edema. So, having voluntarily entered a world of unknowns, climbers cling to the known, deriving great satisfaction from every accomplishment. Every ascent of a difficult pitch—especially if you lead it—becomes a personalized, internal celebration.
More than that: Every successful transition from foot to hand to foot to elbow to foot and so forth becomes a kind of joyous communion. Broken down into its smallest quantum parts, rock climbing is a series of linked “moves,” each one being the process whereby a new hold is attained, the body suspended in a particular manner, or raised to a higher level. There are difficult moves, free moves, graceful and fluid moves, bold moves, conservative moves, desperate moves.
There are also “problems” posed by the rock itself, and, in the curiously understated language of rock climbing (probably attributable to the strong influence of the British on rock-climbing lore), an “interesting problem” may lead to a “novel” or “unanticipated move.” Terrifying routes with sheer drops have “exposure,” or some “air.” Climbing Nun Kin Peak in the Ladakh Range of China, fabled mountaineer Ralph James glanced over a nearby ridge that “fell five thousand feet directly to the Faribad Glacier” and remarked casually that the route to Camp III would be “a bit airy.”
After such a route, or an especially difficult pitch, one might be tempted to say that the “worst is over.” But in climbing, where challenge is sought, the distinction between “worst” and “best” is not easily made. The best part of a climb is never the easiest; often, it is the most difficult that is most fondly remembered. Almost always, it is the reason for the climb.
One of the pleasures of climbing—especially if you are not following a known route—is route finding, selecting the best way to proceed. This is necessarily done at a distance, whereas close up, things take on a different look. What had previously been a broad canvas (“We’ll make for that ridge, then contour below the icefall, come across the face to the far pinnacle”) becomes a matter of engrossing detail. Will this pitch “go”? Is that crack solid? Where is the next foothold? With vision often limited to just a meter or two, the world shrinks, quickly, powerfully, and intensely to the next toe jam or the prospects of “mantling” up and over the ledge just in front of you.
When it all comes together, something as mundane as climbing a big piece of rock can be no less than sublime, a magical dance in which there dissolves the boundary between doer and thing done. “I have stretched cords from steeple to steeple,” wrote Rimbaud, “garlands from window to window, chains of gold from star to star, and I dance.” He could have written that he climbed.
“Then followed the dream of a rock-climb,” wrote Kurt Diemberger, in Summits and Secrets,
vertical, overhanging, pitonless, with innumerable small holes and wrinkles – perfect free climbing on a sheer wall, with an infinity of air around us. At such moments you are gloriously conscious of your fingers, your muscles; of the toes of your boots winning a hold on the rough Brenta rock, of the wall, close to your face, shining black, brown and bright ochre amid the grey – like flower patterns in a carpet – and all of it high above the comb down there at the foot of the climb. You are enmeshed in a bright web of thoughts, on which you climb ever higher, pulling yourself upwards from hand-hold to hand-hold foot-hold to foot-hold, towards an ever-increasing freedom, while everything below you falls away as you exalt yourself at the time.
Down there at the bottom, you see the shadows of the towers lengthen, and feel that you belong to your mountain with every fibre of your being and yet, at the same time, here, high above the abyss, utterly free of mind and spirit, you are acutely aware that you have arms and legs – and a body to waft you upwards, because you have learned to overcome fear.
It has been said by those who—like me but unlike Diemberger—have not overcome fear, that climbing involves lengthy periods of boredom punctuated by occasional moments of sheer terror. I have not experienced very much of the latter, but lots of the former. Waiting for a break in an interminable high-altitude storm is the classic in mountaineering boredom, readily appreciated by nonclimber alike. Less widely known, however, is the interminable waiting while actually climbing: Belaying a partner (either below you or above), who pokes along, probably much faster than you would have, but nonetheless much too slowly when you have nothing to do but hold the rope, and who, somehow can’t even keep up an interesting conversation while poised perilously a thousand feet above a glacier, with the wind whistling all around.
Added to the boredom of the belayer is the belated discovery—always too late—that the sharp lump of rock upon which you are perched, and that seemed so trivial a few minutes ago has grown in size and discomfort, and, moreover, that no amount of stalwart sitting upon it will cause it to soften.