Editor’s note to issue 23 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
Travelling as a climber can take you to some strange locations. We will literally go anywhere good rock is found, including some of the most inhospitable places on earth, from remote deserts and the Arctic Circle to the boondocks of rural Kentucky and even Nowra. And being a climber in these places can feel just as strange. We land amidst foreign cultures, wearing odd clothes, speaking our own language, obsessed with climbing cliffs you can often walk to the top of, or, even weirder, small boulders. So obviously ‘others’, this otherness can insulate us from country we are visiting.
It’s a form of travel that sometimes feels to me like not ‘real’ travel, or to put it less awkwardly, I feel that climbers rarely fit into the romantic conception of travellers. If you believe Lao Tzu, ‘A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.’ But climbers are (generally) not wanderers. Whether you’re a boulderer or an alpinist, we travel with destinations firmly fixed. But it’s even more formulaic than that: we take what we do in our homeland and we simply move it to another location (often with the same people). It’s like we’re in a real world version of the social media bubble, except we’re traversing the planet in our climbing bubble.
Ostensibly, travelling in a bubble is not a great way of travelling if you want to absorb local cultures. Although, to be fair, we (mostly) don’t pretend it’s about immersing ourselves in new cultures. Whether you’re drinking Bavarian beer, visiting a French chateau on a rest day or listening to the call to prayer echo across an Omani village, the surrounding culture is often a welcome bonus, the cherry on top of the pie (unless you’re stuck in Horsham for a rest day, where Peak Culture is a visit to Trev’s Bargain Emporium), rather than something you’ve travelled halfway around the world to experience.
Of course, I don’t actually think there is any such thing as a ‘real’ traveller, there are just ways of travelling. And in the multitude of ways to travel it seems to me that climbing is far from the worst. When climbers travel we often drop off the tourist radar, ending up in places that are largely unadulterated by attendant infrastructure and mercantile culture tourism brings. (Equally, we also end up in places like Yosemite, where close to 4 million tourists visit annually.) We are also less transient and tend to stay in the one place for longer periods of time. This allows us to get to know areas well – find the good bakeries, get a casual job, locate cheap accommodation – which opens up a window into local cultures most tourists don’t have the time to explore.
And climbing is social; we congregate at crags and can easily strike up friendships with local climbers, transcending language barriers through our shared climbing culture. Climbing is the bubble we carry around the globe, but it’s a bubble that includes people of many nations, and through this connection we can form quick, easy relations. We speak the same language, share the same stories, and have sometimes even climbed the same routes.
When I think back on my own travels, I rarely remember individual routes or problems. What I remember more than anything are the moments that were incidental to climbing: lunching with the non-English-speaking owners of our gîte in Fontainebleau, our understanding of each other improving with each bottle of €4 du vin; or walking into the marijuana fug of the beer van at the edge of the dry county in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, the stoned owner struggling to understand our ‘Strayan accents just as we struggled to understand his Southern drawl. We travel to climb, but somehow the rock is just another medium through which we learn about the vast richness of our planet and its people. And it’s just another reason that I find climbing to be such a beautiful, addictive sport.