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The Climbing Life: A Fine Balance

[Photo] Wikimedia Commons

IT’S THE END OF AUTUMN IN YOSEMITE VALLEY, and I’m standing atop a block of golden granite–the belay, I hope, for a new route. Some of the features look familiar to me from years of climbing on these same cliffs. I know these kinds of crystals, dikes and diorite knobs; this golden polish; the shape of the cracks and where they tend to hide; the manzanita, bay and oak trees, their habits and their places; the white-throated swifts–what a lovely name, Aeronautes saxatalis, “rock aeronauts,” and what company they’ve kept me since my earliest climbs, they and their cousins.

The climbing goes remarkably well, though it takes most of the day. The route is like a code written before us in edges and cracks, corners and roofs, in the textures of surfaces and the grip of features. Each time my partner Eric has trouble deciphering it, the solution is simply to go up. It’s a golden line, of moderate difficulty, beautifully textured with edges and bumps, with friction where you need it. Gradually, these features give way to cracks and gnarled forms meant for a climber’s hand: incuts, plates, knurls.

As the day wanes, a peregrine falcon glides around the cliff at my height, maybe ten feet away. Surprised as I am, the bird stops its glide and retreats out of sight around my skyline. And then, as if curious, it returns a little farther out, a bit higher, and makes a few passes. I feel the magic of being part of the falcon’s world, even if for only a moment. When Eric stops to drill a bolt, my mind wanders to thoughts of the falcon hunting swifts, the swifts hunting insects, the insects hunting other insects or plants, the plants turning sunlight into starches. I wonder at the marvelous improbability of making a living entirely off the wilderness, as those animals and plants all do–how close the margins of survival are played.

An hour before the sun sinks below the horizon, Eric calls for me. I wouldn’t have missed what followed for almost anything at that point. A joyful ascent, with interesting moves, nothing very hard, up and up and up. A laugh every once and awhile as my body is levitated by some sequence of moves that needs no thought to execute; just climbing.

The collection of such experiences defines each of our lives, like blazes along a trail that mark a unique path in space and time from our beginning to our end. Understanding nature’s conjuring has always been a part of my intellectual adventures. Since I was very young, my curiosity has led me to seek a few answers to the questions of how that magic works. Eventually, I became a physicist studying arcane features of the universe. Debbie, my wife, is a gardener, a plant biologist and a restoration ecologist. Her passion is learning about plant communities, putting disturbed ecologies back together, and teaching these lessons to the next generation. Our dinner discussions frequently revolve around my pursuit of climbing and her interest in wild habitats.

On that same wonderful pitch, the complex web of biological relationships spans all the way from mega-fauna and -flora to the ubiquitous single-cell organisms. There is no real hierarchy of life: we are all survivors of its 3.6 billion-year history on earth. The vast majority of species that once existed are now extinct. Our limestone cliffs are created out of the skeletons of untold numbers of marine creatures. To get there, we are propelled by petroleum produced by the decomposition of countless more organisms. The legacy of life’s existence on the planet provides for our recreation.

A steep, crackless face is a habitat for only the most hardy–at least to our eyes. We perceive the lichen, the mosses. What climbers know of them is that they create a treacherous covering of holds for hands and feet. We can also see the trail we make. Viewed in a satellite image, a route like The Nutcracker appears as a pale streak on the mottled cliff. The 1967 first ascent by Royal and Liz Robbins used only nuts for protection, making a bold statement about “clean climbing.” Today, the original route is gone–transformed and polished by forty-six seasons of passers-by. I’ve done the climb about once a year for the last fifteen years. The mystery that veiled the first ascent has vanished. Something else is missing that we don’t readily notice: the reason for that white line seen from space.

“GARDENING ON FIRST ASCENTS IS A CONTROVERSIAL DINNER TOPIC at my home. Climbers define this term in the opposite way that most gardeners would. Imagine explaining to a plant biologist the activity of completely cleaning out a crack, removing all the vegetation, and then excavating the soil–merely to generate another climb in a place with more than 2,000 routes existing.

When I assert that there are plenty of other places for plants to grow, Debbie responds, “How do you know what it was you ‘gardened’ out of the cracks?” She’s aware that plant identification is not one of my strengths. I admit that I don’t know, but I suggest that the ecology of this much-visited park must be well researched. She replies, “We know relatively little, and especially about the cliffs.”

In Cliff Ecology: Pattern and Process in Cliff Ecosystems, Douglas W. Larson, Uta Matthes and Peter E. Kelly describe cliffs as unique niches, largely because they are inaccessible to most humans. At times, these sites offer a last refuge for species displaced from the flatlands. The nuances of what constitutes a livable space often escape our eyes. While we notice the lichen and the moss, we don’t see the endolithic organisms that live in the fine cracks of the rock matrix below the surface. Depending on the type of stone, the sun’s rays might penetrate deep enough so that unknown “cryptoendolithic photoautotrophs” can exist by converting light to biomass.

These biological communities change the way the rock appears, creating a black or brown varnish that’s usually a couple of sheets of paper thick. The passage of many climbers wears through this thin layer and leaves the stone looking “clean” in places where our feet and hands have carved their unintentional petrogylphs. Ironically, the Robbins’ clean first ascent of The Nutcracker may have resulted in the unforeseen destruction of this varnish–the result of thousands to tens of thousands of years’ activity of multitudes of invisible inhabitants.

FOR MANY OF US, OUR CLIMBING IS A LIFE-DEFINING PASSION. We venture into that wild seeking a path into the unknown. Along the way, we seek to “improve” that path, removing from that niche something that the other lives there depended upon, perhaps denying the last individuals of a particular species the resources needed for their survival. We don’t fully know yet what damage we are doing. And thus we also take away the possibility of understanding what we did.

At best, we attempt the most minimal impact, yet that approach has risks too. Eric once tried to establish a new route in Yosemite without extensive gardening. As he stemmed up a corner to avoid the vegetation, the climbing became more difficult. He brought his right foot high onto a horizontal weakness and attempted to stand up. A pop sounded in the back of his leg. Surprised, but not in pain, he pushed harder. After another pop, his leg collapsed, and he fell. With his partner’s help, he was able to self-rescue and hobble back to his car, but it took him six months to recover from what turned out to be two snapped hamstrings.

Eric, our friend Linda and I later put up another climb in that same part of Yosemite, along a section of cliff encased in moss and soil. Eric leads the pitch, cleaning the crack where he needs to. Linda and I, in turn, ascend the new pitch, and do a more-extensive job. Now well scrubbed, with anchors installed on top, it’s available for those waiting to do another popular route. When the time came to name it, I suggested, “Don’t Tell Debbie.” There is no best compromise, I’ve realized. All new routes represent a matter of taking something. The question becomes: Is it worth it?

ONCE AGAIN, ERIC AND I ARE IN AN UNCLIMBED CORNER, high above Yosemite Valley’s floor. The sun shines across a mile of mostly untouched granite. A breeze cools us. Climbs in this area are sparse. There might be one route to our west, put up in 1963, but I’ve found no details about it. What a pleasure and a privilege to encounter places no one has ever been. It’s not just about the climbing, at least for me; there is something about being there. The scent of a bay tree, the pungent smell of angry ants, the swoop of falcons, the aerobatics of the swifts, the Dudleya flowering in some impossible crevice. All these things are important too, and on some days, they seem more important than the climbing is.

I watch Eric move up a natural line guided only by the geometry of the rock. We have no idea how hard the climbing will be, no list of recommended gear, no anchors, no knowledge of the lengths of the rappels. I arrive at our highpoint, breathing hard from the physicality of a strenuous overhanging crack and the delicacy of face moves. A bumblebee hovers near us insistently; its nest must be nearby. Debbie has explained to me that these creatures aren’t normally aggressive, and their colonies are relatively small. They are wonderfully adapted, able to control the temperatures of their hives by vibrating their wings.

Eric and I are trying to be careful not to wreck anything here. We rap off a single nut, backed up by a very long sling around a tree. Trunks grow and slings constrict. Descents from old and forgotten routes are often flagged by tight white bands around trees. Even if the slings didn’t turn to dust upon being handled, no rope would fit anymore between the aged nylon and the bark. Our concept of time is so limited that it’s hard to imagine this small tree growing into a large one over the decades beyond our own lifetimes.

The bumblebee flies a kilometer or two to find flowers. It uses 1/400th of a calorie per minute when it forages. This time of year, it must need about one and a half calories for the day. An hour after we get back to the car, Eric and I consume thousands of calories of food and cold beer as we talk about the many new-route possibilities. Our bumblebee host was watching us for nearly an hour, thus taking an hour off from its foraging and leaving one tenth of its energy requirement unmet. Its defense of the nest represents a possible self-sacrifice; all actions have consequences.

Self-sufficiency in a hostile environment, an ideal of climbing mastery, is the daily existence for all the living things we climb past–life that we might not even imagine is there at all. Our play can add even more difficulties to these creatures’ already-daunting challenges. I find no answer to this conundrum. Many of the places climbers go have not been visited by anyone, let alone by the team of biologists necessary to study a diverse ecosystem. And while climbers tend to reject area closures as a solution, perhaps we might be more willing to collaborate with other people who seek a deeper understanding of these unexplored vertical worlds. Through that knowledge, we might be better able to judge the worth of another first ascent. We might remember that our visit is a choice we make–one that we can afford because of our liberation from the necessary toil of subsistence living. Although we don’t have to dwell in that wilderness, we have a responsibility to the life that still does. As successful as our species has become, we still depend on it in known and unknown ways.

NOT LONG AFTER THE REUNIFICATION OF GERMANY, I traveled to Dresden for a conference. On a free day, I started the drive toward the sandstone towers of Elbsandstein, and I quickly arrived in a forest. The thick trees and the lush understory of vegetation appeared shockingly green in contrast with the concrete city. The populace lived in what I consider to be horrible apartment buildings, part of the old communist aesthetic, I suppose. But that same form of urban planning preserved the wild parts of the countryside right up to the city limits. There was no suburban sprawl, yet.

Twenty years later, I remember the outskirts of Dresden as a parable. We seek the freedom to move deeper into such wild places and, inevitably, we change them by our presence. We can love something so much that we destroy it by our attention and desire. As more and more of us love the mountain life, we share that love with our friends and children, and they with theirs.

And at some point the thing we love, the wilderness, is not wild anymore. It looks more like a park. We change it to reduce the potential risk to ourselves and to make our visit more convenient: eliminate the wild predators, add a bridge, put in a concession stand. We impose ourselves there and remove that element of the unknown, which is the setting for adventure. Our ideals embody the notion of risk and uncertain outcomes, yet we conspire to ensure certainty.

How do we balance these contradictory desires?