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Rock Climbing: What’s the Point?

Rock Climbing: What’s the Point?

“What’s the point?”

I know that question may smack of an apathetically slouched youth, or perhaps the plagued-by-existential-dread 20-something. But forget the snark and cynical connotations for a moment, and you’re still left with an important question: what, in fact, is the point?

Why do the things I do? Why post something on Instagram? Why enter into a conversation with a debatable opinion? Why pursue a career in education? Why write a story? Why cut my hair short? Why attempt to get my coworker hooked on the show Hannibal? Why pierce my nose? Why run a 5k? Why raise a child? 

Not necessarily everything must be meaningful. Choosing a new haircut may be as simple as I-just-kinda-felt-like-it-today, and needs to be nothing more. But some of these questions deserve the consideration. 

Lately, I’ve been asking myself this question in particular: Why take up rock-climbing? 

Due to the location of my internship with Summit Adventure, I live an hour away from Yosemite–home to some of the best climbing in the world. And, with the aid and friendship of an experienced coworker, I’m taking advantage of that convenience. I exercise throughout the week to prepare for day-long climbing trips on the weekend, or the half-day excursions that sometimes occur during the work week. My body is often tired, sore, and dotted with bruises, scrapes, and scabs. I started realizing that I fork out a lot of time and energy to yank myself up rocks. 

experiential learning

The aftermath of attempting a finger jam crack in Yosemite Valley the previous weekend.

And what’s the point? 

Sure, I can value the sense of accomplishment in building up my strength to achieve a goal, specifically that glory-feeling in completion of a difficult route. The community factor of spending time with friends by sharing an adventurous activity is also a positive, less narcissistic value. But the more engaged and skilled one becomes in rock-climbing, the more easily it becomes consuming with the need for more gear, technique, commitment, energy. I could just as easily set my physical goals in something simpler and less consuming like running. And I could just as easily invite friends over for dinner to spend time with them.

So, again: what’s the point? Why go rock-climbing?

This past weekend, my coworker Nick took my friend Rosa and I to a climb in Yosemite called the Generator Crack (named so because of its proximity to a generator). The crack begins as an off-width climb before it widens out into a chimney. “Off-width,” I learned, denotes a crack wider than a fist, yet too narrow to fit one’s entire body in (like the chimney). The method of off-width climbing involves using whatever body part you can jam into the crack to create enough leverage to pull yourself up–such as stacking your fists, wedging in your knee, using an arm like a bar between the walls…

After belaying/watching Nick through his struggle to the top the Generator Crack, I “tried” (read: flailed around, cursed at a creation of God, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc.) my hand at it as well. Upon accepting the fact that my physical and mental fortitude weren’t up to par for the off-width, Nick pulled me up on the rope so I could try the upper chimney section. 

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A picture of me belaying Nick up the Generator Crack.
Photo used with permission by Rosaura Hernandez.

I’ve climbed up a chimney at a gym before–a nice, square, smooth space that stayed wide enough to bend my legs and extend my arms as I stemmed up to the top. The Generator’s chimney featured none of those things. 

After I finally found a foothold at the base of the chimney, I slowly wedged myself into the vertical crawlspace. My back and chest contacted each wall, my tank-top-bared shoulders naked to the cold, rough granite. As I clawed to get my belay rope out of the way of my face and neck, an initial wave of claustrophobia rushed me–that sensation of sinking underwater after you forgot to suck in enough air. What happens if I get stuck here, what happens if I can’t move, what happens if

Somehow, I snapped my brain out of it. Nope, can’t think about that. Stop, you’re not stuck. No fear.

But now I needed to start climbing. My feet kicked around to try to find some traction, my arms searched the rugged space to find leverage. The first attempt at pushing myself up gained less than an inch’s worth. The sliver of sky at the top of the chimney seemed so far away.

A feverish brawl began between the granite walls and me, all-inclusive of sweat, clambering, pushing, scraping, straining, and quasi-animal noises escaping my mouth. Mostly I felt like the rock was winning. Hardly five minutes had passed before I started doubting my ability to make it up to the top. My heart pounded in my throat as I would force myself up an inch or two, then sink back to gasp and catch my breath. The idea of struggling so intensely and failing to finish sounded so disappointing, but the idea of impelling myself to keep climbing through the pain already felt excruciating. Ripples of sensation would pass through when I felt like I was either about to throw up or burst into tears. 

In the back of my mind, I flashed back to my years in college, where I first experienced the struggle of trauma and stress-induced anxiety/depression. Every week, I battled to haul my emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical burdens as I climbed the ridge towards Destination: Diploma. And in my current situation, feeling nearly crushed by the physical strain, I realized, This is what that felt like; this is the physical manifestation of what you have gone through the past four years. And if you were given the strength to climb that, surely you can make it through this. 

I gritted my teeth. And slowly, but surely, crept up the walls. Nick’s encouragements from below fueling my spirit. The patch of sky inched closer. This is life. This is straight-up life you’re fighting. I craved the finish.

When my hands reached the top of the chimney, I grappled onto the ledges and pulled myself out of the granite’s clutch. Breathlessly, I inhaled the free Sierra air. 

“I made it to the top!” I shouted to those below. Nick let out a victory whoop. 

experiential learning

A view looking down from the top of the chimney.
Photo used with permission by Rosaura Hernandez.

I turned to lean back on my belay, lowered to the ground in a big sigh of relief.

That day, I finally understood the reason why I climb–my what’s-the-point answer. To take on physically difficult–and even painful–problems is the practice of acquiring understanding through challenge. I needed to finish climbing the chimney in order to fully understand the depth of the suffering required to reach completion–and in order to fully understand the depth of strength given to me to endure that suffering. I believe this is the understanding required to face life itself. The exercise of facing difficulty teaches one endurance of it–and understanding this makes it applicable to difficulty’s many faces, in addition to the increased ability to empathize with others’ pain (Rom 5.3-5). From a humanist’s perspective, this is experiential learning, and from a theologian’s, it is general revelation. 

“What’s the point, then?” Well, rock-climbing just might be the way you come to understand how to climb life itself. 

Featured image credit: David Kracht, Creative Commons

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