Free climbing is not about being at the top of the rock

To be honest, it’s been a while since I last climbed. I still have two pairs of ridiculously tight rock shoes, although one pair still needs to be resoled. My harness is still in good shape. Part of me thinks that I can hit the climbing wall today and pick up where I left off. The rest of me knows that, one, I’m rusty and, two, I’m about ten pounds heavier. Some of that extra weight might actually be useful–stronger back and legs, for example–and some of that might not. My bodyweight is distributed differently from how it used to be so there would have to be an adjustment in how I climb regardless.

That said, for years, I was free climbing at least once a week. It’s kind of like solving Go puzzles as you are doing squats and pull ups. You have to read the rock, then push and contort your body into the necessary positions to solve the climbing problem in front of you so that you can face the climbing problem immediately above it. It’s not for everyone, but I loved it.

Free climbing has definitely had an effect on how I see things and how I do things. Not that everything in life is working your way up the side of a rock face, but one develops certain habits that one can’t shake and, in my case, don’t want to.

Climbing is a dangerous sport. It’s crucial that you inspect your gear every time you climb. If it’s not up to snuff, you don’t go. You understand what constitutes a safe anchor and you build only those. There is an established protocol for how you interact with your climbing partner. You stick to the protocol so that both of you understand the situation at any time. You don’t skip steps or take short cuts with safety. Sometimes, that freak thunderstorm starts while you are still on the rock and you need to know how to use all of that gear you have carried along. Yes, in free climbing, if you don’t fall, it’s as if you’ve never used any of that gear or needed your partner. If you don’t fall, though, is a huge if.

Part of the ethics of free climbing is to leave as little trace as possible. Ideally, the rock face you climb is in the same condition after you climb as before. Realistically, this is well-nigh impossible. You strive for this anyway. Any gear you place on the rock (which is solely for protection) is removable without marring the rock. If you are top-roping, the anchor you’ve constructed for your rope does no damage to the landscape.

Perhaps most importantly, at least to me, the point of free climbing not about topping out. That is, physically being at the top of the climb. Yes, the goal is to get there, but how you get there matters. If being at the top was all that mattered, you might as well use a ladder, or hike to the same point. It’s much easier and much safer. In fact, if you’re top-roping, you’ve probably hiked to the top of the climb to set the anchor that you will use along with rope as protection to free climb up the rock face to the same place.

Hiking to that point or using a ladder, though, does not improve you as a free climber. Simply being at the top of a climb says nothing about how well you free climb.

As a result, free climbing imposes a set of restrictions on how you climb. I don’t think climbing is unique in that respect. Ice dancers are not allowed lifts where the lifter raises their arms above their shoulders. Basketball is a non-contact sport. In baseball, the pitcher is not allowed to hit the batter with the ball. However, I don’t ice dance, play basketball, or play baseball.

You climb the rock, not the gear. Once you have put protective gear on the rock, you don’t touch it until it has been removed from the rock. Your partner, who is following you up the rock, will remove the gear as they climb. Neither of you actually use the gear to make progress. For example, neither of you will use the gear as a foothold or handhold. It’s just there to catch you should you fall. For the climb to count, you don’t put your weight on the rope. That’s tantamount to falling.

You stick to the route. Climbing indoors, this means using only the marked holds on the wall. Yes, that other hold is within reach and exactly what you need to make progress up the wall. However, it has the wrong color tape or no tape at all so it might as well not be there, or, worse, it exists only to get in your way. There are parallels in climbing outdoors where, for example, some plant may be exactly where you want to place your foot or your hand. The plant is off-limits.

You are honest with yourself and others. Continuing to climb up the route after fall is a great training technique. The same goes for having your partner to hold you on the rope so you can rest or take a closer look at a climbing problem that has you stumped. These things may make you a better climber and get you to the point where you climb that route in one go without a fall. However, until you get to that point, you don’t claim to have climbed that route. Maybe you don’t make that claim until you can climb that route without a fall consistently.

Are any of these restrictions necessary? Well, strictly speaking nothing is ever necessary, especially not if all you care about is being at the top of the climb. For a while, my climbing partner was this guy strong enough to pull me up the rock if either of us wanted it. Neither of us did. That wouldn’t have improved my climbing. Getting to the top like that is not climbing in any meaningful way.

Without these restrictions, being at the top of a climb doesn’t mean anything. Without these restrictions, getting to the top of a climb doesn’t make you a better climber. It doesn’t show how well you climb.

How you do things matter. Hitting the end goal in any way possible can make the end goal not worth having. All climbing the gear or taking advantage of the rope does is devalue what you’ve done. Yes, you’ve reach the top of the climb but you’ve done it without actually showing what you can do as a climber. You’ve hit the end goal without developing the skills that improve you as a climber.

For me, anyway, developing those skills, becoming a better climber is far more important. Getting to the top will come in time and when it will mean something.


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