The Scarlet Letter
Volume IV, Number 4 | December 1997
Climbing and Trance-formation
By Kiri Namtvedt
It would be totally ridiculous, if not absolutely foolish, to attempt to justify our climb. Besides, justification, and for that matter glorification, of climbing is unnecessary. We did what we wanted to do, and that was the whole of our law. —Laura Jasch
Why should one climb a cliff? The uninitiated might call it 'foolish', 'crazy', or 'reckless'; a lot of work to attain a little elevation. For those who explore further, the physical activity leads to a world of intense focus and deep appreciation. Perhaps it would be safe to say that some activities are more likely to lead to self-discovery than others; that there are certain qualities to an action that are more or less transformative.
Climbing, like meditation, is conducive to attaining certain altered states of consciousness. Just as it is possible to sit in asana and think obsessively of what one is going to make for dinner, so it is possible to climb in a state of fear, thinking about the ground. Yet there is a mysterious mindset one can reach, sometimes completely by accident. A moment when the mind moves up instead of down. Fear of heights is not merely visceral, but intellectual, a product of our humanity. We look down over a drop and imagine the death below, the injuries that are all the more frightening for being unknown. It is these fears that make climbing something more than simply exercise.
Yet it is not only the fear, or the overcoming of fear but the intensity of the experience. The fear, or perhaps the knowledge of danger, plays into that. It is because of this knowledge that the climber is able to reach into his or her depths. We rarely reach our limits in the course of daily life. There's a special kind of self-knowledge in tracing the borders of those limits and realizing just how strong one can be.
My friend, Dave, and I were climbing in the Red Rocks area outside of Las Vegas. We had picked a route called Cat in the Hat which was definitely within our abilities, yet still an adventure. I had followed Dave up the first pitch, and now geared up for "the sharp end," to lead the second pitch. I started up the rough, slightly angled rock. Above me a wide crack split the rock, tending left. It was too wide for any of my protection. The only possible protection was a small horizontal notch in front of my face, but the sides angled outward; it would be difficult to get anything to stay in this gap. I fiddled with several different sizes of chocks. One seemed to fit, but it seemed liable to pull out.
I looked down. Dave was only about ten feet below me.
“What's up?” he asked.
Well, indeed. The climbing above didn't look hard, but it was balancy, uncertain stuff. A low-angled slab —but no really positive holds, just the small, rounded nubbins of harder mineral deposits in the sandstone. The next safe spot was a ledge about ten feet up. If I fell and my piece of protection pulled out, the fall could be thirty feet or more.
I had to climb it. I had come here to climb and I couldn't make Dave lead everything. It was voluntary, dammit. And so I reached up, committed myself to the climbing, holding my breath and certain I would slip.
I moved up.
I reached the terrace above. The moment of transformation was not obvious, but as I continued up an interesting chimney the fear was gone. In its place came a focus and intensity of perception that made every motion purposeful, every thought pointed.
There is a physical component to this transformation, of course, as there is with any exercise. Climbing tones the entire body; in fact I've often noticed sore muscles that I didn't even know I had after an intense workout. It requires strength without bulk. This component of the transformation works with the others; as one becomes more aware of body and movement, so one becomes clearer and calmer.
Ultimately it is the self-knowledge gained through climbing that keeps me coming back to it. I am certain that other people gain the same benefits from other activities, yet climbing has maintained this mysterious hold on me. The totality of it, and the genuinely transformative effect it has had upon me, remain sacred and significant.
All quotes originally appeared in Climbing Magazine.