Friday, November 12

climbing (part two)

In climbing, the only person you actually compete against is yourself. 

Not that there isn’t plenty of competition: against gravity, balance, time, weakness, fear. But against other people? Pretty much never. In a climbing gym or at a crag you won’t hear anyone say a negative thing to anyone else unless it’s about their hat. I’ve heard climbers chastise themselves for not completing a move or a climb, but criticism of others is non-existent. Support? Encouragement? Even help and information (we call it beta)? We have those in spades. It’s just the way we roll.

I work part time at my local climbing gym. It doesn’t pay tons, but it’s fun as hell, mostly because the atmosphere is just so positive. People come in by themselves or in groups of two or three, but once inside, it’s all one mess of people, all of us united in a love of the movement, the strain, the challenge.

Waiting for your turn on a wall or a route? Chances are somebody beside you has tried it or climbed it, and chances are you’ll get some awesome beta if you ask. New to climbing? Somebody will probably offer some humble and helpful advice when you struggle on the easiest climb. They might point out one that’s easier to start on. They might show you how to manipulate your balance to make a move easier so that you too can defy gravity a bit and glide up the vertical.

And if you stick a move or finish that climb, somebody, even if you’re alone and know nobody, will probably say, “Nice climb”, or share your grin of accomplishment.

"What about the best climbers?" you ask. "Aren't they egotistical and self-absorbed?" Some might be, but I haven't met them. They’re often the most helpful, cheering on the newer climbers, or the weaker ones, urging them on to be better and reinforcing every success.

Sitting at the counter the other day, a couple ladies around my age (which is to say, not young) were getting ready to leave after their bouldering session. I asked how it was and they beamed. “Awesome!” one of them said. “We just started a few weeks ago and, every time I come in, someone offers some new little piece of advice that makes it make more sense.”

I nodded. “It’s one of my favorite things about climbing.”

“Is it like this everywhere?”

I smile, proud of it. “Everywhere I’ve been, yeah. Climbers are just happy folk. We like to see the people around us happy.”

In the gym or out at the crags, it’s the same way. I’ve shown up at crags alone and been climbing with a group or some other single in no time. It takes a bit of trust to climb with people you don’t know, and it’s important to watch them a bit before you trust them to belay you, but that’s part of the thrill; trusting is a rush.

Even when I show up with friends, I don’t think I’ve gone a day in the presence of climbers I don’t know without making a new friend. Maybe it’s the outdoors, or the adrenalin, or the endorphins. Who cares? 

It's possible, to be fair, that there are even climbing gyms or crags where it isn’t like this. Maybe some climbers are just as consumed with shoring up their egos by undermining the self-esteem of those around them as the world seems to be. I’m pleased to say I haven’t met those climbers or seen those places either.

Yes, there are climbing competitions (demonstration sport in the 2012 Olympics as I understand it), and by definition, in a climbing comp one climber is trying to do better than others. But I’ve been to few sporting events where the competitors cheer each other on as much and as sincerely as at a climbing comp.

I know it sure doesn’t happen like that playing hockey. Team sports seem to embolden people to place too much importance on things like final scores. I understand final scores, and I enjoy winning, but it’s tainted for me when that winning requires me to actively dislike my opposition and wish them ill, even for the hour it takes to play the game. There’s something about watching grown men come to blows over a recreational game of hockey that takes the fun right out of it for me.

There’s too much of that in the world, that win at all costs mentality. In sport, business, politics, academics, science, and our schools the emphasis is too often placed on winning as the only goal. Profits are valued over people, bonuses over safety, money over truth, power over integrity. It baffles me. It baffled me in business, where owners and executives only gave lip service to giving a damn about their employees or clientele. It baffles me in politics where those we elect to serve us so blatantly serve the big money that paid for their advertising instead. It baffles me in professional sport, where athletes will destroy themselves and betray their own integrity using drugs to try to get an extra edge. 

I fully and happily admit to not 'getting' that.

I remember watching “A Beautiful Mind” and loving the film as a film. But the part that stayed with me was John Nash’s theorem: That a group of vying agents can achieve greater aggregate success by seeking a cooperative solution rather than competing for one highest-value outcome that excludes success for all but the winner. Nash was American and won the Nobel for his economic theories based on that principle, but the concept seems to have caught on better in other parts of the world than it has in the competitive free-market atmosphere of North America.

This also - baffling.

I volunteer at my gym too, for school groups and birthdays. We volunteers strap on a harness and act as belay slaves for the kids, leading them around the gym to different climbs, making sure it's safe, offering basic climbing tips, encouraging the others to cheer the climber up the wall. Those groups are fun, more than I can explain, but the best moments are with the kids that hate heights or find the prospect intimidating.

Every time I find one of those kids, I try hard to encourage them up the wall, They stop when they want to, and I never push hard, but I tell them they’re doing great, assure them the I’ve got them – that they’re safe – and then ask if they want to try for one more hold before I let them down.

Sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay. I let them down and tell them they did great. They tried, stretched themselves, risked. That’s more than most people ever do.

But often, more often than not, over the course of their hour in the gym they find it within themselves, bolstered by the cheers of their friends, to be courageous and reach for that one extra hold, and then reach for another. It’s rare that they don’t touch the roof by the end of their session.

Maybe it’s clichéd, but I have to say; there is nothing – no thing – better than the look on their face when they get back down and know that they’ve just accomplished something that they were positive they could not do only forty-five minutes earlier. Their friends cheer for them, parents and teachers beam, and their smiles get (somehow) bigger. Wide, surprised eyes squint as the smile spreads upwards and transforms their face. That look is equal parts disbelief and conquering hero. It’s a look that says, in some small way, that their world just had to grow, to swell a bit to accommodate their new selves.

I see that same look on the faces of climbers that have just pulled off a new route, that made them stretch and train and practice hard so they could realize it. They don’t give much of a shit whether the climbers standing around are better or worse. It’s not a competition, after all. It’s just them and the moment and the thrill of growing.

And those standing around? We understand. That’s why we smile too. We might only wish we could climb that well, or maybe we remember what it was like to crack that plateau the first time, but chances are, we’re smiling with the person walking away from the wall because we understand. We are full to overflowing with empathy. So, yeah, we smile too.

But not for too long.

Our turn is next you see, our chance to grow a little bit, to compete against nothing but our hearts and minds and bodies and gravity. Our own smile, one that says “I just grew a notch”, is on the other side of the climb. We have ourselves to be better than, and nobody else.