Inspired Stone

The Art of Climbing
November 14, 2009, 12:37 am
Filed under: Climbing

It is often said that there is art in climbing. I used to think that this implied some kind of performance art in the actual physical motion of climbing. This may be true for some people, but I’m usually focused on moving past the next sequence, finishing the next pitch, getting up, and getting down, not the grace of my movements. I think art enters into climbing whenever a new climb or new experience is envisioned.

Climbs, and outdoor adventures in general, fall onto a scale of purity or aestheticism. The purest goals are obvious and require the fewest compromises, though by no means are they the easiest to accomplish. For example, in the arena of mountain climbing, ascending a ridge from the foot of the peak to the very apex, lies higher on the aesthetic scale than ascending part-way up a face and descending before reaching the top. However, in rockclimbing we are often doing exactly the latter. So even within the pursuit of climbing, there seems to be different scales for the various disciplines, such as apline, trad, sport and bouldering. It would be hard to imagine judging the purity of a boulder problem next to some beautiful ridge line on an 8000 meter peak. There is a scale for bouldering nonetheless. On the one hand you have the direct line up the most prominent prow of the boulder and on the other, you have the dirty, mossy route up the backside (which usually turns out to be the easiest way down).

The overlap between the different scales is where the controversy begins. What might have been a very beautiful boulder problem, gets bolted and falls onto the low end of sorry sport climbs. On a dominant mountain buttress, a climb goes up the steep rock, but then stops before the final summit ridge. Is it an unfinished mountain climb or an excellent rock route? The most aesthetic would be if it topped more than one scale, if it were a beautiful mountain and an excellent rockclimb.

Alas, there are usually compromises. Free soloing probably sits at the top of rock climbing purity, but so few people practice it that it is easy to ignore that end of the scale. My ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome would have been more pure if I was free-climbing, but ascending the face on aid is more attractive than coming up the cables and planks on the backside (but then on the aesthetic scale of hiking, Half Dome is up there…).

This kind of evaluation is what plays out in my mind when I am scheming new climbs and adventures. And it extends to activities other than climbing. The really exciting ideas are those that are very aesthetic or beautiful. Most people have heard of the John Muir Trail, which traverses the High Sierra from Yosemite to the summit of Mt.Whitney. Fewer people know about what is called the High Route, which takes a less compromising route and traverses the High Sierra much closer to the actual crest of the range. In this match up, I would call the High Route a prouder, more elegant line. But is it at the top of the scale? How about a traverse of the actual Sierra crest itself? It has never been done in its entirety, as far as I know, and many of the mountains traversed along the way are beautiful climbs on their own. It would certainly be longer and more complex than the High Route, which would bring it down a notch. So maybe the true crest route would be a little contrived after all. Hmm….


2 Comments so far
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Very interesting philosphizing—a window into your outdoor scheming brain!

Comment by bluebicicletta

[…] of sharply defined ridges, jagged peaks and steep walls. As I alluded to in the post about aesthetics and climbing, there is something pure about the true crest of the Sierra. A rain drop on one side ends up in the […]

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