Does Hard Climbing Matter?


I spent the last couple of weeks climbing in Spain with the likes of Chris Sharma, Daila Ojeda, Joe Kinder, Colette McInerny, Jen Vennon, and a thousand 5.14-climbing Spaniards.

Chris has a few new projects that he’s psyched about. One is just to the right of the now famous Dura Dura project at Oliana.

It’s a work in progress and Chris isn’t sure how to finish it—whether to take the line straight up and make it easier, or to keep it hard and have it join the upper section of Dura Dura (he’s leaning toward the latter). Regardless, he’s been checking out the opening crux on the new rig, and he has already done all the moves in two sections. To see him climb on it is kind of insane. It’s the closest thing to someone climbing a completely blank wall that I’ve ever witnessed.

That’s usually how non-climbers will describe “hard” climbing (as in, anything over 5.11). It’s like seeing someone climb a blank wall! They’re just hanging from pockets no deeper than the tips of their fingers! Well, I’ve got a pretty trained, experienced eye. I’ve always been able to see the holds on just about all hard routes I’ve stood under. You can wrap your head around how those routes have been climbed. This one is different.

When Chris took me through the beta sequence, I literally couldn’t see the holds he was talking about. It even took Chris years before he saw that there was a line here.

“We always stared at this wall and never saw any holds,” he said. “But when I was climbing on Dura Dura, I looked over and saw some holds. It’s just barely there…but it all goes. It’s crazy!”

It was reassuring to know that even Chris thinks this route is insane.

I met a Spanish climber named Primo. He was your average 5.14c-crushing local. I asked him how many people in Spain can climb 5.14b. He said he didn’t know, maybe 500 or more. He said that he lives in a tiny town of 6,000 people, and in that town alone, there are about 35 people who are climbing between 5.14b and 5.14d. Trippy. I live in a town of 6,000 people, and I know about three or four people here who can climb 5.14a — and that’s a lot for the United States.

I’ve been recently thinking about whether climbing hard matters. Now, before you go and make that annoying relativistic argument that of course it doesn’t matter because climbing isn’t important because it’s not curing cancer or stopping global climate change, let’s just accept that by that logic nothing ever matters because we all end up dead anyway. Over 107 billion people have been born on earth and not one single person has ever made it out of here alive, so just forget about even trying.

I believe that even inherently selfish, pointless pursuits like climbing can “matter” — and in fact, those pursuits can offer some of the most enriching, vivid moments of our lives.

It’s so easy to reduce the experience of hard climbing to a number or grade, and make it all about that. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing this. Like focusing on whether Pure Imagination is 5.14d, 5.14c or 5.14b, and not on the fact that Adam Ondra must have had a really intense, sensory experience—of feeling so light, in control, and utterly masterful — while onsighting that route.

It’s really not about attaining the grade, or even what the grade is, as much as it is about finding ways to experience those primal, awakened moments when you feel like a master. Pushing yourself to climb hard offers a natural trajectory to reaching those enlightened moments. And I think that’s why hard climbing matters.

Andrew Bisharat is responsible for Evening Sends. A version of this story appeared on Rock & Ice.

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