Hobby – Rock Climbing

It’s hard to even call climbing a hobby.  It’s more of an obsession—an addiction, that, like all compulsions, has its share of ups and downs.  Luckily, my time spent climbing has been more characterized by the former than the latter.

I have been climbing for twenty-odd years now.  I started before the Olympics, before Dawn Wall and Free Solo, before Instagram and the relentless pursuit of #sponsorship.  Way back in the late 90s, climbing was not as easy to get into as it is now—gyms were few and far between, and the nascent internet had just a few sites dedicated to climbing, but it was still a lot of word-of-mouth communication among climbers. This was still an easier time than a decade or two earlier when no information existed and you just had to hope someone would mentor you if you wandered bright-eyed to the cliff.  That mentorship piece has faded with time as entry into climbing has become more…streamlined? Democratized? Systematic?  Yet, even with these changes, the simple equation holds true:  Some friend invites you climbing, you try it, and that first touch of the rock acts as a gateway drug that “rocks” your whole life.

Why is climbing so addictive?  Why would someone enjoy a sport that is 99% failure?  Personally, it stems from the infinite amount of challenges the rock can throw at me.  No matter what the skill level of the climber, he or she will never climb all the routes in the world.  There is granite, sandstone, limestone, cobbles, gneiss, shale, and more—and each general category has variations in quality, texture, color, composition, and so on.  For example, just around where I live in Germany, I can climb limestone that is extremely compact, necessitating delicate footwork and technical body positioning, or limestone that is well featured and overhanging, requiring large, powerful, “hero” moves. And south of Germany, one finds limestone that is fluted and tufa’ed—flowing ridges and stalactites that need a whole different set of skills.

And I haven’t yet touched on the difficulty aspect.  Climbing has a grading system (too complex and debated over beers to cover in this blog post) but broken down, climbing gets progressively more difficult.  After finally unlocking the secret to “sending” (meaning climbing the whole route on lead from bottom to top without hanging on the gear), the high is fleeting, because I am already thinking about the next project.  And if somehow, you are as strong as Adam Ondra (the best climber in the world currently), there are all manner of other challenges waiting.  You could get into developing new routes—finding virgin rock and putting up routes for yourself and others.  You could start traditional climbing—using removeable gear to make your way into the unknown (currently, new climbers use the word “trad” to simply mean using removeable gear, but in the spirit of tradition, it should be an adventure into the unknown).  You could focus on bouldering—simply doing the hardest moves possible on rock. Or alpine climbing, where the challenge is more the logistics, speed, and knowledge to go up and down big mountains safely.  Or ice climbing. Or deepwater soloing. Or aid climbing. Or combining some aspects of everything on some nasty north face in the Alps…

For me, climbing has fostered some of my best memories. A multi-pitch in Kenya with zebras grazing 200 feet below. The feeling of the cold beer after a 27-hour car-to-car push on Mt. Stuart in the North Cascades. A cool summer afternoon on immaculate granite at Donner Summit under bluebird skies. Getting handed a beer after finally clipping the chains here in Germany.  Taking my wife up peaks in the Dolomites, Cascades, and Zion National Park.  Summits and views.  The joy of suddenly understanding exactly how to move one extra inch or shift one extra pound to make an impossible move possible.  Visiting new countries and areas to make quick friends with the local climbing community. Flipping through guidebooks, imagining the possibilities.

I circle back to the notion of climbing as a hobby—that depends on how you understand the word “hobby…”  In keeping with the notion of a dilettante, I’m not a professional climber.  There have been periods of my life where climbing has taken a backseat. And I’m certainly not a member of the climbing scene. But does hobby sound too pejorative for a 20-year obsession? Maybe, but Lionel Terray (one of the first to climb an 8,000-meter peak) called climbers “Conquistadors of the Useless.” Calling climbing a hobby fits into that paradigm where that which can be deadly serious is still recognized as questionable, if not downright non-sensical, to the outside world, providing only intrinsic value to the climber him- or herself.  And that is why I am proud to call climbing my hobby.

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