Integrity and Grace: Lessons from the Cliffside

Devil’s Tower National Monument is a strange aberration, rising almost 1300 feet above the surrounding prairie. It’s a sacred place for several native cultures, but, outside of tourist season, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope are more common than people in this windy and open landscape.

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Devil’s Tower is also a destination for rock climbers. And when you rock climb there, you better prepare to talk to the tourists. They usually notice that you’re carrying ropes and other climbing paraphernalia and some even ask you if you’re a rock climber. But most assume because you’ve got the gear that you are a climber and they almost always ask some variant of these three questions:

  • Did you make it to the top?
  • How long did it take you?
  • What’s it like on top?

As natural as these questions are, they reveal a misunderstanding of the difference between rock climbing and mountaineering. Mountaineers, or alpinists, sometimes climb rocks and rock climbers sometimes climb mountains, but the activities are very different. The primary goal of mountaineering is to get to the top of a peak or other feature and rock climbing started because sometimes mountaineers need to do it as they make their ascent. Mountaineers began to practice climbing on relatively short cliffs and sometime in the mid-20th century, rock climbing began to be something people did as an activity unto itself.

Unlike mountaineering, getting to the top is almost never the point for a rock climber, because there are almost always others ways of getting to the top. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking up the backside of a cliff on an easy trail. Sometimes you actually start at the top of a cliff and lower yourself down to the bottom so you can climb back up.

With Devil’s Tower, there’s no easy backside trail, but a rock climber doesn’t go there to get to the top. In fact, when you do get to the top, you enjoy the view for a few minutes, but usually for far less time than it took to get there. Instead, you go to Devil’s tower for the unique quality and size of the routes. DSC013201

Climbers like rock in ways that other people don’t. They speak of rock features in an entire specialized language – arêtes, dihedrals, faces, cracks, and specialized subcategories of each. Rock can be slick or friable; cracks incipient; handholds and footholds solid; routes have cruxes. Geometry and shapes are seen on rock walls, like glacial clouds. Devil’s Tower rock has cracks, grooves, and straight-sided chimneys that are rare elsewhere.

So the point of rock climbing is in the pleasure of seeing and touching rock up close and, more importantly, from moving over it. When all is right in your climbing world, you move fluidly over rock, feeling the exhilaration of a well-functioning body and mind. You feel confident and competent and ready for whatever comes next.

When all is right, there is no need for the 200-foot ropes and other gear that climbers use. The gear is there to protect you in case you fall, for those days when the holds feel small and tenuous and your body feels weak and incapable. You hope never to need the gear, but you bring it because you know you’re human and you know that there are bad days – and bad days, too, contain the satisfaction of safely negotiating your vulnerability.

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Rock climbing is about deciding how you will get to the top and staying true to your intention. Or if you fail that day, it’s about coming back another day and trying again. It’s as much about about process as product. Getting to the top is nice, but getting to the top with integrity and grace is a transcendent and transformative experience.

It’s hard to talk about transcendence and transformation. It sounds mystical and a long way from carabiners, pitons, and clinging to nubs of rock as you struggle up parts of a 1300-foot wall. So, when tourists at Devil’s Tower ask their questions, you try to smile and answer with the same integrity and grace with which you attempt to climb. Sometimes you fail. But there’s always tomorrow to try again.

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What Fear Teaches: Lessons from the Cliffside

I remember a day in a Colorado canyon, on the side of a 750-foot cliff. I had taken a less experienced climber up a route that would take us a few hours. We were near the top, resting at a belay together before the final stretch of climbing, an exposed section that lead out on semi-rotten rock. The only protection against falling in this part of the rock wall were small metal nails, called pitons, hammered into the rock what looked like decades earlier. They appeared very old and rusted.

Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton
Old piton

There would be a lot of empty air under our heels as we made the moves. We were thirsty and out of water. The view was spectacular, but despite the fact that I had led us to this place, the anticipation of the next part sat very heavy in the pit of my stomach. I asked my friend if he wanted to take the lead on the final section, but he didn’t want it and I didn’t blame him – it was a daunting prospect. I had got us into this and I had to get us out.

I sat there considering the options. Retreating from our location would have been at least as risky, if not more so, than going up. Daylight was waning. I had to go on. I checked to make sure my gear was in order and steeled myself to move. The first part was mostly sideways, angling up a little past those ancient pitons. I didn’t look at or think about anything except placing my hands and feet, testing each hold gingerly before fully committing my weight. Everything held and at the end of the traverse, I looked back at my friend, only 20 feet away, but with hundreds of feet beneath us. He was holding my rope and paying full attention to the situation. We were bound together by that thin cord. Our eyes met, but we said nothing and I smiled a little as I headed up over a vertical section of rock to easier ground and, eventually, to the top of the climb. We made it without mishap.

For me, climbing is a form of meditation and an art form. It is a practice that requires discipline, focus, and strength, both mental and physical. It is about the objective hazards of putting your body in places that your consciousness says are not okay and dealing with the emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of that choice. It is also about solitude and the wilderness and bonding with a friend.

I have been a rock climber for 27 years. At 47 years old, I’ve climbed for more than half my life, putting in thousands of hours and miles of vertical distance. The lessons that I learn are often hard to put into words, but it is part of my life now and I celebrate every opportunity I have to practice.

So much of what we do in life is about trying to keep calm in the face of challenges that literally make us sick. We would do anything to avoid painful circumstances that, if we face the truth, we put ourselves in. When climbing, there is no avoiding the situation. You must deal with it or the consequences will be immediate and severe. You must face your fears head on.

This does not mean you ignore your fears. As I climbed past those old pitons, I connected my rope, and thus my body, to them. And I was afraid at the same time. That fear was justified, because I had little confidence that they were strong enough to hold me if I had fallen. At times the fear of a particular climb has caused me to avoid it and even to head home early. Who knows what would have happened in those cases, but there is little doubt that the fear is rational and should be headed sometimes. As I like to say, a good day of climbing is a day in which you arrive home safely.

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