The Art of Climbing

Australian Editor’s note to issue eight of Vertical LifeDownload the brand new Vertical Life App from iTunes or the Kindle Fire App Store here.

Climbing is complicated. After years of skill-aquisition, conditioning, adaptation and storytelling it may not always appear so, but it is.

Training theories, approaches to conditioning, the satisfaction derived from competence, discipline through dieting, applying mental focus, disarming fear, achieving proficiency with technology, understanding forces and protection, learning to fall, the warmth of camaraderie, confronting challenge and relishing achievement, compartmentalising frustration, being in nature and removing oneself from the noise of modernity. Climbing is a farrago of all of these interconnected elements.

Depending on which of its many forms you engage in, the degree of complication may differ though no discipline is immune. Even adherents of bouldering, those who may profess theirs to be the most pure, the most natural, are engaging in an act of contrivance that is supported by technology.

And yet despite the onion of complication, it is possible to distil climbing into a common pure essence. Difficulty may increasingly be seen as the currency of climbing, with grades guiding decisions and dominating discussions, but if you quieten the noise you see that at its very core climbing is the art of movement.

Slowly rambling up the easiest of trad routes is an act governed by bodily movement, as is outlasting the wave of pump to redpoint a long, hard sport route, and controlling tension in a body made mutinous by a dynamic boulder problem. Climbing is the body moving through space and time over rock.

If being in nature were key, you could walk through the bush or sit before an expansive vista. If it were solely a confrontation with fear you could unsettle yourself watching horror films. Similarly, there are other ways to rebel against the strangulation of modern society, and if fitness were the end game you could get ripped by pumping iron and injecting ‘roids. No, these things are important but they are symptoms. Movement is the beating heart.

And this movement is maturing. As climbing has evolved so too has the need for a distinct lexicon to describe the new ways we have discovered to use our climbing bodies. Gaston, drop-knee, go-again, drive-by, fridge, barn-door, reading these terms evokes a sense in the climber, visualising them leads to something unique being manifest in our physical selves. Our bodies even respond to the memory of climbing.

These words mark the development of climbing, the act, however, is not described by single, isolated movements, nor through holding static postures, rather it is series of movements combined into sequences. Any climber knows that executing stopper moves off the rope, or rehearsing the crux in isolation is very different to stringing together the complete routine required for a send.

There are moves that we are naturally good at and, though different for everyone, it is these that we will always try first. But these default preferences will not always yield a solution to the problem of a route. We need to develop. The longer we climb the more diverse the range of movements we have in our arsenal to draw upon.

This increased proficiency in climbing is marked by greater proprioception, which is an awareness of where the body is in space and time without the need to rely on visual cues. This instinctual awareness frees up attention that can then be trained upon critical tasks, ensuring you latch a hold correctly or keep a heel hook engaged. So when we gain the ability to move through a gaston, sweep in and out of a drop-knee or unfurl from a rose, we feel the necessary body positions without the need for conscious attention. Our body becomes appropriately torqued, our foot twisted just right, the press in the heel of our left palm is held despite our focus being applied to slapping to the sloper with our right.

Whilst it is a given that humans are constantly moving, most of this movement passes unnoticed, leaving no imprint on our memories. It is because the majority is habitual, the movement of survival – breathing, walking, sitting, the processes of feeding. It is the non-habitual that is memorable and this is the movement of climbing.

The movement of climbing serves no purpose and yet it provides a vehicle out of the repetition of the quotidian routine. In that there is no point to climbing it is inessential, and it is perhaps this that brings it closest to art.

Similarly, all movement is related to emotion. The way we use our bodies is not solely symptomatic of emotion, it is a progenitor of emotion. The reciprocal communication between brain and body affects the way we perceive ourselves and alters or establishes our mood.

It is difficult to interrogate the connection between the posture and movement of an individual climb and the emotion evoked as a result. But we have all said the vague ‘it climbs well’ or ‘that move is great’. It is this that betrays our visceral understanding that the way we use our body when climbing creates emotion. It is more than being in the wild that makes us feel good, more than heart-swelling accomplishment that elevates our mood. To move in climbing is a thing of beauty, of grace and power, of fighting against the habitual, of memory, and of finding joy.
Simon Madden, Editor


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.


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