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Freedom Catalogue

This story first appeared in “The Climbing Life” section of Alpinist 58–Summer 2017.

[Photo] John Easterling collection

[Photo] John Easterling collection

The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them. –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I. 4:30 a.m.

A MARIMBA RINGS in the dark. The supercomputer in my pocket, modestly named a phone, has stripped the Guatemalan national instrument down to a tinny jingle, using parts from a network of twenty-eight countries. The silicon semiconductor won’t get me up a thousand feet of uncharted gneiss. Nor will the radio frequency modules or alkali-aluminosilicate sheet glass. But in combination they will help me reach the base by dawn.

Fumbling to the chimes, I find my headlamp, made in China (my spare was made in Malaysia). Night becomes day thanks to 320 lumens shot from another semiconductor, energized by reactions between zinc and manganese oxide.

My climbing partner Alex and I are in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, a place, at least by law, “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A cirque like this, at once guarded and guarding, must have inspired the word fastness. All night long, the wind hammered us, like an admonishment for pretending to belong here. As if to confirm this suspicion, the first two things my hands touch in the predawn are tiny masterworks of industrial craft.

Layers of nylon and polyurethane (ground cloth, tent, mattress, sleeping bag shell) shield my body from the chilled earth and the cold sky. My warmest layer is perhaps the cruelest: workers in China likely plucked half a dozen geese live to fill my old sleeping bag with down.

Closest against me cling three synthetic clothes from China: stocking cap, boxer briefs and long johns. More plastic, from Israel and Colombia, bound with recycled silver dioxide to inhibit bacteria, covers me. The only thing not made from hydrocarbons is the New Zealand wool on my feet.

Finally: coffee, Costa Rica. Steel and aluminum stove, propane and isobutane–ignited prehistoric plankton–South Korea. Hot water and caffeine drizzle through silicone into my blue polycarbonate mug. In the dark, a mile west of the steaming mug in my hands, stands a wall.

FOR ABOUT TEN GENERATIONS, humans have lived in a world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. People nearly everywhere now wield, directly or indirectly, enormous energy and material resources, far beyond what was available before steam engines and mechanized tools. Without breaking a sweat, on my drive to the airport, I harnessed power equivalent to 76 draft horses. I flew west between jet engines as powerful as 10,000. The scale of this astonishing power is still relatively new in history. It is the precondition to this catalogue of equipment that made a single day of freedom of the hills possible.

In one day, without counting food or first aid, I used 117 different items. Of these, I found the manufacturing source of 97 and the raw materials of 113 products. (The dizzying supply chains that produced my iPhone, however, could fill a book on their own). From ascenders to ropes and jackets, my gear was made in 18 different countries: half in East and Southeast Asia (most of the soft goods) and one-third in the United States (mostly hard goods). Many of the remaining items were made in Western Europe. A handful of products came from Latin America. Workers labored to extract raw materials from wells, pits and mines in dozens of other countries. Forty percent of my gear contains the resulting aluminum or steel, and a full two-thirds contains synthetic polymers.

Here, up against the crest of the Bighorn Mountains, about as far as I can get from a road in this country, I am draped in hydrocarbons. I light them on fire. I jug them. They brought me, like a tip of a spear, to a wild and high place. But the mountains offer no freedom from the conundrums of wielding so much extraordinary, extra-human energy.

II. 6:10 a.m.

ALEX AND I leave camp and make for a glacier, the only one within 100 miles. It’s in ragged shape: its edges peel away from the rock; its ice is pockmarked and sunken. Water flows on its surface. A 1903 USGS photograph shows it 100 feet thicker. Our first pitch didn’t exist then. Decades from now, Pitch 1 may be Pitch 2, as if another strip of ice had been mined out.

Our small footprints on the glacier melt by nightfall, but we leave more indelible ones in the sky. One hundred years from now, some carbon dioxide (CO2) released by my activities will still be overhead, trapping infrared heat. To stabilize the climate, scientists have proposed limiting annual emissions to 2 tons (CO2 equivalent) per person. Today, the average American produces 20. The jet fuel burned on my flight here alone released one ton of CO2 attributable to me. Yet I am lost deep in a crowd: every ton from me joins another two billion released each year globally.

Over time, humans have collectively altered the atmosphere. Some gear makers, adopting and advocating for more sustainable practices, have tried to contribute in small but valuable ways to mitigate the damage. Yet only massive and collective action across societies can stave off the more wrenching effects of climate change. These consequences will be the worst in many places where our gear is made, like low-lying Southeast Asia, vulnerable to rising sea levels and intensifying monsoons and typhoons.

On the glacier, Alex and I reach our stashed nylon haulbag (Vietnam: 3 tons CO2e per capita; 10 million people at risk with seas one meter higher). We put on pre-racked synthetic harnesses (Philippines: 1 ton CO2e per capita; 14 million people at risk with seas one meter higher). Leaving behind iodine-treated water in a copolyester bottle, we cinch the haulbag and walk to the lines we fixed yesterday above the randkluft. From the south comes the cannon shot of rocks ricocheting down a couloir. The sun, glaring through the troposphere, burns our bare necks as we step onto the wall.

THE FREEDOM OF THE HILLS, the subtitle of the bible of climbing instruction in the US, puts freedom at the center of our strange pastime. To be free is to lose boundaries, to become unbound: a possibility that draws me to the mountains. In a 1960 letter, Wallace Stegner defended the idea of wilderness for offering an experience that approaches my own sense of this possibility: “The chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil…part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”

While wilderness, an idea fraught with ecological and historical complications, is only one way to experience this freedom, Stegner’s use of the word competent stands out. Freedom of the hills is an accomplishment, not merely a gift: a competency that begins with our innate primate ability to move over terrain and is then refined through adventure, practice and lots of material aid. Like any accomplishment, it may feel simple or even effortless in the moment, a spontaneous act. Perhaps it needs to feel that way to draw us in. But the more competent we become on difficult ground–the more we feel we belong in the vertical parts of the world–the more we rely on a long catalogue of technology and shared knowledge.

Climbing offers an exhilarating and occasionally transformative way of feeling at home on the planet. But in the sense of competency, climbing is merely an extension of the rest of our globalized, industrialized lives. Perhaps we are all just cyborgs. With the possible exception of a naked, chalk-less, barefoot free solo, any trip will involve a gear list that points to a similar conclusion: whatever freedom we find in the hills is highly attenuated, a product of, not an escape from, modern life.

[Photo] Mandi Franz

[Photo] Mandi Franz

III. 10:00 a.m.

ALEX AND I are six hundred feet up a sea of petrified taffy. I belay from a small ledge. The nylon rope, one of many climbing technologies that originated in World War II, catches Alex as he pries out of a heel hook to leap away from a loose flake. As hail turns to snow, I keep dry and warm under a pullover and raingear (polyester and nylon). The hydrocarbons keep adding up: another pitch, another oil well.

For the most part, we climb clean. The old rock accepts new metal: aluminum, brass and steel from Wales, China and Spain. Protection is sparse. On one stretch there is none except thin pins, chromium-molybdenum steel made strong with carbon from coking coal. I pound the steel into small seams, resonant with rising pings.

Industry from near and far converges at my stance. To the east, massive strip mines line the coal-rich prairie. To the northwest, metallurgical mines ship coal to Asian steel mills that send back most of my rack. Downstream of those mines stand aluminum smelters run on cheap hydroelectric power. A few meters to my left, a sheen of water under a roof will eventually make its way through a turbine on the plains to electrify a nearby oilfield.

My rubber soles (Italy) smear against a pink crystal bulge, a shrug in the stone. I reach up, pad about, find nothing. From below, disguised edges blend into this white dike. I lock-off harder with one hand and flutter tap the other high above me again. I am committed now. At the apex of my reach, my trilling fingers uncover a three-digit edge. I exhale, and then crank to the next stance.

Higher up, I stem against a shallow pilaster. Shuffling, I swing my right elbow above my head, my fingers slotting behind the crisp edge of a flake. Cold rock, a layback, another ledge.

Another pitch, and thunder sounds retreat. We know a heavy storm is moving in: I received a weather report the night before by hiking to the top of the nearest moraine with my phone.

IN CATALOGUING MATERIAL THINGS on this climb, I have left out the many non-material things we bring along: the training, the technical knowledge and experience; the relationship between Alex and me; our sense of adventure; the jobs that supply income and vacations; the life insurance and health insurance that provide us and our families with a safety net.

Every climber knows the shiver in the spine that draws us back to the rocks, just as anglers are drawn back to streams or surfers to the coast. A strange alchemy can arise in the interplay between the earth, our own knobby existence, and the partners who share our ropes or pads. The potential for it is always present.

Most of the time, my movement through the world is habitual, on predesigned paths: sidewalks, crosswalks, subways, hallways, escalators, on-ramps. The cabin fever that afflicts me is a symptom of this built environment, and the freedom of the hills is an antidote. Yet like scuba divers or astronauts, climbers venture out entrusting our lives to technology. Our stories often downplay the irony: the civilization we flee is the same that lets us access climbs and survive them, the source at once of both disaffection and succor. This tension doesn’t resolve itself: we live in it.

IV. 3:00 p.m.

THE WIND HAS RETURNED in artillery gusts from the south, then the west and then the north. It has encircled us again.

I contemplate a dash to the summit, searching for clues on our 7.5-minute USGS map, a product of aerial photography, satellite navigation systems and federal income taxes. My compass has a sapphire bearing and a tungsten needle. Neither compass nor map disclose what mountains host the sapphire or tungsten mines. We decide to descend.

With the warming climate, the standard descent–a snow gully to the north–now melts out early in the summer. The bare gully is too dangerous. As summer wears on, the rockfall becomes a constant barrage. When the hail returns, we wrap our rappel ropes (Switzerland) with polyurethane to keep the sharp gneiss from cutting the nylon.

In order to descend, climbers here and in many places struggle to leave no trace. Invoking the text of the Wilderness Act of 1964, access advocates have argued that fixed anchors enable “outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined type of recreation” and are sometimes “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” It seems whatever we do, we change things.

IN HIS 1971 ESSAY “The Murder of the Impossible,” Reinhold Messner criticized what he called the “plumbline generation” for imposing its will “in a fury of pegs and bolts” on direttissimas that couldn’t be freed. In what became an iconic articulation of self-restraint, Messner argued for free climbing natural lines and leaving too-difficult lines for future climbers.

A non-climbing friend of mine jokes that someday they’ll install an open-air elevator on my favorite walls, and he’ll ride past me laughing. I wouldn’t mind sometimes having an elevator for the descents. But shortcuts would miss the point.

The ideal of progress by hands and feet alone is at the heart of what free climbers do. We use the technology catalogued here to place ourselves in a position of willful weakness. I think of this position as if I am entering a clearing. Outside its perimeter, I constantly overcome my meek resources: a fixed wingspan and the energy contained in a single human body. But once I step inside, I accept those limitations again. In such vulnerable moments, at once intimate and sublime, our machines actually bring us closer to nature.

The freedom of the hills is not the freedom to do anything you want. It is much narrower: to do only what you can, by your own lights, in a place otherwise out of reach. We discover it most vividly in brief interludes when our movement is least encumbered by the technology that nonetheless enables it.

I submit this catalogue as proof of something true of much of modern life: the social and environmental cost of reaching these out-of-reach places, and returning safely, is unsustainably high. Yet I still think the modest freedom we exercise there deserves the name. In an era of overflowing means, self-restraint is a virtue worth celebrating. We need more, not fewer, ways to enter into contact with the Earth, our home. We also need a lower price of admission.

This story first appeared in “The Climbing Life” section of Alpinist 58–Summer 2017. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.