Rites of Passage


Jake Bresnehan proves his worth on the Ben Lomond testpiece Master Blaster (24). Ross Taylor

Australian Editor’s note to issue four of Vertical Life. Click here to download the full magazine.

Memory may be a fickle, unstable landscape but some monuments on its surface are so powerful they remain recognisable forever; every climber remembers their first climb – that initial disorienting, fumbling journey into the vertical realm. It is our first rite of passage, an experience that is often marked, and marks us, with intense emotions, and it is an experience that unites the tribe as much as it divides society – it leaves you either a climber or not a climber.

The thing about the world carved out by climbers though is that it is an unstructured one. There is no team, no dictatorial central planning committee or corrupt governing body, indeed in many ways climbing is seen as an act of rebellion against these institutions – or, at least we like to think it is. Not only this, but climbers are a diverse bunch: woman and man, old and young, crusher and bumbly, hex sinker and bolt clipper, big mountain sufferer and pebble wrestler, weekend warrior and dirtbag lifestyler.

This loose and eclectic confederation means there is no one gold standard rite of passage, rather there are multitude rites of passage, each tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual and their clique. They can be formal or informal, institutional or tribal, orchestrated or serendipitous.

Sometimes rites of passage are very simple mechanistic things – leading your first route, taking your first whipper on the sharp end, or rigging your first belay. Some are more physical – ticking your first 8a, doing the red problem in the corner of the gym or cranking out your first one-armer. Still other times they may be more psychologically complicated, such as when you take the baton from your climbing mentor by surpassing them in skill, courage or competence in a now-I-am-the-master-and-you-are-the-student moment.

To us, this variety reflects the rich tapestry of climbing. Perhaps it also reflects the tectonic friction between different subsets of our sport; a boulderer’s rite of passage seems ridiculous to the alpinist, just as the alpinist’s is incomprehensible to the comfort-loving sport climber. But it also begs an important question: given that climbers’ rites of passage are so varied, what are we being inducted into?

Well, perhaps we need to go back to that first climb, after all it is the common thread that runs through all our climbing lives. Leaving the ground that first time, full of trepidation and uncertainty, the rock is a mystery we must meet with courage, determination and imagination, and when we do the rewards can be magnificent, transcendent even. Once we as initiates emerge through the other side, we earn the acceptance of our peers and the right to call ourselves climbers. In a way the myths and stories of climbing become ours.

At its heart climbing is struggle, it never gets easier and even the best fail repeatedly (perhaps even more than the rest of us), there is always something harder, something bolder, something more meaningful, a new rite of passage waiting that we imagine as a farther frontier. When we first step foot upon the rock we become a ‘climber’ but with each new rite of passage, each new milestone, we redefine what it is we see as the ‘definitive’ test of ourselves, and we keep pushing ourselves and others against these barriers to see if we pass muster and maintain the right to call ourselves climbers.

Once again, thanks to all our contributors, featured climbers, advertisers, designers, dirtbags, videographers, advice-givers, hand-holders, web gurus, belayers and Adventure Types – your passion and enthusiasm is humbling.


Vertical Life is a home to many voices, if you would like to be one of those voices, be it expressed in words, photography or video, send us an email: simon@adventuretypes.com or ross@adventuretypes.com

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