Gravity Lessons

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“Liberty Bell” (oil on board) by the late climber and artist Sean McCabe. Turn to p.50 for a tribute to McCabe by his longtime friend Steve House.

“Liberty Bell” (oil on board) by the late climber and artist Sean McCabe. Turn to p.50 for a tribute to McCabe by his longtime friend Steve House.

Climbers’ ancient, rarified connection to the planet

Visiting the wilderness for recreation is a relatively new development — till recent history, wilderness represented food, resources, and territory, not leisure. The impenetrable, uninhabitable high peaks, with their thunderstorms, blizzards, avalanches, and rockfall, have always imposed limits on life and put fear (awe) in our bellies. This fear is the first step toward spirituality: mountains became home to the gods, the divine and the unanswerable.

As Homo sapiens began to walk and float the globe, we almost universally enshrined the mountains. Early man would scale the precipices to receive “messages” from above, a common theme in the world’s mythologies. Some 14,000 years ago, the aborigine of Australia revered Uluru (Ayers Rock) as a place of prime birth. It was on Mount Sinai that Abraham, after an arduous climb, received the Ten Commandments. For the Hindu, Lord Shiva, the great creator and destroyer, lived on the summit of Shivling for an epoch. The Himalayas’ Mount Kailas is at the headwaters of the Indus, Ganges, and Bramaputra, three rivers key to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic faiths; no other mountain inspires the degree of faith that this humble peak does. Chomolungma (Everest) is for the Tibetan Buddhists the “Mother Goddess of the Earth.” The local inhabitants realized its significance long before the Indian Trigometric Survey — the great English 19th-century mapping project — identified it as our planet’s apex.

“Long before man conquered mountains, mountains conquered man.” —Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, 1983

In the 20th century, we began exploring the extreme altitudes and latitudes for the sake of science and nationalism — or perhaps more succinctly, as George Mallory said re. Everest, “Because it is there.” The North Pole in 1909 was the first of the journeys to the truly inhospitable. The South Pole in 1911, by the Norwegians under the precise leadership of Roald Amundson, solidified the quest for intrinsically rewarding goals. Forty-two years later, a well-organized English expedition successfully laid siege to Mount Everest like the Lilliputians tying down the Goliath. By walking on the roof of the planet with bottled oxygen, we’d set the stage for the 1969 “first ascent” of the moon.

Thus today when we climb, we’re tapping into a centuries-old heritage — this knowledge grounds us. It’s humbling to toil away at a mountain, get beaten down by wind, and crushed by falling rock and snow. In this humility, this unique connection to the planet, we’ve found a message about how delicate our world truly is. If we don’t respect the medium, it can kill.

Today we visit the mountains to relax — to find peace and wisdom. As we stare down a looming world population of seven billion, we face enormous challenges. How do we do more with less? Can we share the resources? Just as too many pilgrims can desecrate a holy site, too many climbers can destroy the very places we hold special. It’s not easy finding the balance between existence and sustainability. The following three “Gravity Lessons” — be it Sonnie Trotter giving the cliff its rightful strength (p.44), Verm reflecting on how boulderers need to limit impact (p.45), or Steve House playing the 8,000-meter game with a penknife instead of a bazooka (p.47) — show that we can rise to the occasion, much like the early 20th-century wilderness philosopher John Muir.

Today when we climb, we’re tapping into a sacred, centuries-old heritage.

Muir was one of us. He climbed, he sent, and he was part of the solution — in fact, he invented the solution. If you’ve climbed the 700-foot Southeast Buttress of Tuolumne Meadows’ Cathedral Peak (5.6), you followed in his leather shepherd boots (and no, he did not drill the bolts up there). As Muir stated in his 1901 book, Our National Parks:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Humbled on an Alaskan glacier with his dog, Stickeen, and experiencing the intensity of a storm from atop a swaying pine in Yosemite, Muir lived for the raw experiences that define climbers. He realized he owed his rich life in no small part to the wilds. In 1903, he brought this motivation to Theodore Roosevelt with a shared ascent of Glacier Point, helping to create the National Park system. Muir cofounded the Sierra Club and went on to be the second president of the American Alpine Club. Next time you get a commemorative California quarter, peek at Half Dome, the condor, and the only climber to appear on legal tender.

Taking Muir’s lead, David Brower became the next climber–conservationist. With more than 30 first ascents in the Sierras, this Berkeley climber changed the game when he and his partners introduced the first bolts in 1939, on the FA of Shiprock. Brower aligned his professional life goals with his climbing. He revealed the wilds in coffee-table books, introducing the wilderness to voters. He was instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, legislation that has protected 106 million acres for its natural beauty and low-impact human recreation.

It was Yvon Chouinard who pushed conservation into the business world. With a deep and abiding love for the wilderness and adventure, Chouinard combined the two to create the Lost Arrow Corporation, parent company of Patagonia, Inc. As a privately held entity, Patagonia can make decisions based on the environment, the bottom line for Chouinard. As a climber, he understood the collective benefit of the commons — that world-class areas like Patagonia’s torres or Fontainebleau are open to everyone, unlike a private golf club for the moneyed elite. We share the climb and leave it clean so the next person will have the same experience. In the business realm, Chouinard similarly shares information on how to conduct sustainable business. When Walmart listens to Patagonia on how to be greener, they are connecting to our climber energy, one rarified in the wild places.

The wilderness distills two ingredients most vital to terrestrial life: air and water. Forests scrub the air, and the mountains stock our fresh water. Standing atop a peak gazing across the indifferent ice and rock reveals to us what human existence on Earth truly means. As climbers, we’ve learned to survive where man is not meant to. This teaches humility and, I hope, life with our eyes wide open.

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By applying this vision to humanity, we as climbers are poised to be the change the world needs. From the times when the wilds were something to be feared, and hence conquered, to the present, when we’ve become guardians of the wilds, we’ve come to see the need to care for these special places. As a climber-tribe, I’d like to think we’re responding. After all, we climbers like a solid challenge. With the planet’s future in our hands, we can make the difference.

Green Issue Guest Editor Conrad Anker is an eight-year board member of the Conservation Alliance.