Climbing is like nothing else. Thousands of men and women have heroically explored frontiers literal and metaphorical while pushing themselves high on cliff faces and into remote mountain ranges, sometimes with uncertain odds of success and survival. Countless of essays have been poetically written about it, idolizing the mountains, climbers and climbs, and creating a mythology around the sport.
But some things about it are kind of dumb. Like, for example, when everyone wore Lycra to do it. And some other stuff:
1. The Fit of Shoes
Have you ever listened to a climbing shoe salesperson try to describe to a first-time climbing shoe buyer how shoes should fit? They might as well be trying to explain an eggplant parmigiana recipe to a space alien. “So, you want them to be tight, but not uncomfortable, and your toes should be bent, but not curled, and there should be no room in the end of the shoe, but enough room that blood can still circulate, but barely, in your toes. The rear part of the upper of this shoe is leather, and that will stretch one-fourth to one-half size with use, but the front is a synthetic material and sticky rubber, and that won’t stretch at all. How do those feel? Do they hurt when you walk in them? That’s great.”
2. The American Difficulty Rating System
So, rock climbs are rated from 5.1 to 5.15c, and the higher the number following the decimal point, the more difficult the climb is, and after 5.10, we start using letters to denote the next levels of difficulty, i.e., 5.11a is harder than 5.10d, and so forth, unless you’re climbing without a rope, which is called bouldering, and that’s a scale from V0 to V16, which roughly equates to the 5.1-5.15c system, except it’s way harder — V0 is roughly equivalent to 5.9 climbing, and V5 is approximately 5.12, etc., and then ice is rated on two different scales, WI (which means “water ice”) and AI (which means “alpine ice”), except if there’s rock on the ice climbing route, in which case a “mixed” rating is added to the end, like M4, M5, and so on. Got it? You know what, just forget it.
3. Uphill Walking
Fact: To get to most climbing areas (besides a few things in Joshua Tree and a couple other places), climbers have to walk uphill, which is a strenuous, often sweaty, activity. Climbers will shoulder heavy packs full of ropes and gear and spend hours, even days, to get somewhere promising. Wait, you say there’s six pitches of marginally exciting rock climbing and it’s only seven miles and 2,500 vertical feet away from the trailhead? Where do I sign up?
4. People Don’t Get It
People who don’t climb understand the process of moving upward on rock. The gear, how you get the rope up there, not so much. Try to tell someone that you spent your weekend trying to send your project, which in layperson’s terms is, “Well, I tie a rope to my harness, take my shirt off, cover my hands in chalk and try to climb up 65 feet of overhanging rock, where there’s a set of chains…” — and they start to glaze over. I mean, come on, it’s easily no more ridiculous than, say, golf, or cricket, right?
5. Ice Climbing
When a block of ice the size of a toaster falls and smashes your kneecaps on its way to the ground, and you caused it because you’re hacking at a frozen waterfall with ice picks and crampons, and you grit your teeth and deal with the pain, and you finish the pitch and find that you have the painful “screaming barfies” (the phenomenon in which your fingers fill with searing pain for several minutes as they warm back up from being numb and held high above your head hanging onto ice tools, and you become nauseous), and you’re freezing through several layers of clothes and dodging chunks of ice that fall from above, and on Monday people ask you if you had a nice weekend and you say “Yes, it was nice — I went ice climbing,” well, you know. It’s a little hard to rationalize, isn’t it?
6. Using A Toothbrush To Clean Off Rocks So You Can Climb Them
One of those things that makes sense when you’re doing it, but in the broad scheme of things, seems a little … dumb. And by “dumb,” I mean, like, making artificial snow to ski on in drought-prone areas, stripping your bike down to one gear, hiking out to the middle of nowhere and risking getting eaten by a bear in the name of finding meaning. You know, stuff like that.
7. Free Soloing
Thousands of words have been typed on the internet endorsing and condemning free soloing. As a sometime practitioner, I can attest that free soloing is exciting and totally worth the experience when you don’t fall and die. When you fall while free soloing and die, you’re not on earth anymore and people miss you. And probably nobody thinks that last free solo was a good idea.