Why rock climbing matters, for civilization

Long-time readers are familiar with my story, but let me quickly recap, because it’s important context for what comes next: a year and a half ago I bought this house in New Hampshire, the one I’m writing this in, the one in which I’m riding out the pandemic. I bought it because of climate change, and also because it’s a mile from one of the best climbing areas in the Northeast.

Last year, before all the coronavirus stuff went down, I wrote a post about why I climb. It was a heartfelt post. It was deep and existential and all the things I like to write about with regard to life and its purpose and meaning.

Anyway: that climbing area — Rumney — has been closed since April.

Why it closed in the first place was obvious “abundance of caution” type of stuff; but why it has remained closed nearly three months later, even though literally everything else in New Hampshire has re-opened remains a bit of a mystery to me. (Why everything re-opened is also a mystery, but that’s for another post).

I already wrote in April about Rumney being closed, and about how the local climbing community responded, and of late I’ve also been following a Mountain Project thread in which climbers are engaged in a, shall we say, spirited discussion about the reasons it remains closed, including discussion of what the Rumney Climbers Association has said, or not said, about the whole episode.

Personally, I’m in favor of opening the crags now, at least for locals. Others seem to want them closed a bit longer, or at least, have yet to settle on a way to re-open them such that stakeholders involved feel it’s being done safely. The Rumney Climbers Association says it’s working to get them re-opened some time after July 4th, but when exactly is still unknown.

As an organization, the RCA exists to preserve access to climbing. Like many climbing organizations of its kind around the country, its strategy for doing so has been (and presumably remains) to buy the land on which the crags sit and then gift it or sell it to the US Forest Service. Historically, this has always seemed like a wise move: forest service land is public land, so the assumption was that giving it to the forest service was a way to ensure long-term access for climbers.

Except when that stopped being the case. When the pandemic hit, the RCA put out a statement on its blog which essentially shared responsibility for the closing. “The RCA in conjunction with the USFS and White Mountain National Forest have made the determination that Rumney is closed,” the post read. At time of this writing, the organization’s home page states:

RUMNEY IS CLOSED. FOR THE LENGTH OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

However long that may be. Which, right now, could be a long time indeed.

This is all to say that the whole reason I bought this house and decided to spend so much time here over the past year is because of a reason which, for the moment, has ceased to exist.

To be clear, there are other reasons to love Rumney, and I’ve written about those as well. But the original reason — the crags — is for now up and closed, a victim of a global pandemic which no one saw coming and yet, simultaneously, was also inevitable.

When Rumney closed, local leaders in the climbing community exhorted each other to take a breather, to not get too upset about it. Your project will still be there next season was a common refrain. After all, this line of thinking implied, climbing is, at its heart, a frivolous pursuit. No one needs to climb.

Which is true. I don’t need to climb, even though I love climbing. It satisfies deep human urges inside of me. It lets me forget about time, it helps me stave off depression, it keeps me in shape — far better shape than any weight lifting regimen or treadmill could — and it gives me that elusive feeling of flow.

But this is a newsletter about What Really Matters, and what really matters is health and family and purpose and a roof over one’s head, food to eat, all those things. It doesn’t make any sense to get in a tiff over some climbing crags being closed. Even if I really love climbing, no recreational activity is worth a big fight over. Climbing obviously fits into the good to have category, not the essential goods and services category…

Right?

Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

Actually, not right.

I want to introduce you to John Vervaeke. Vervaeke is an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. And, perhaps taking after his colleague there, Jordan Peterson, some while ago he began filming his lectures on purpose and meaning, which turned into a podcast and YouTube series called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

Purely by coincidence, I began listening to the series around when Rumney closed. And it was in episode 2 that Vervaeke started talking about rock climbing. My ears perked up. Rock climbing? In a podcast about meaning?

Here we were in an episode titled, “Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution.” The previous episode had been about shamanism in hunter gatherer tribes, and he hadn’t even gotten to Socrates yet. So why was he talking about rock climbing?

At first glance, rock climbing would seem to be like “some sort of torture from Greek mythology,” Vervaeke says. “You’re presented with, ‘Here’s a rock face. What I want you to do is I want you to go up that. It’s gonna be really physically demanding, it’s going to hurt you, you might fall and harm yourself, and once you get to the top, you come back down.”

Basically, something like Sisyphus condemned to push the stone up the hill.

But look again, Vervaeke says. Climbing is the epitome of the kind of activity which produces “flow.” The conditions for flow are as follows: it has to be something where the demands of the activity go just slightly beyond your ability, such that you must expend all your effort and focus to do it. It must also be something where there is “very tight feedback between what you’re doing and how the environment responds.” And third, failure must matter. It must be consequential.

As Vervaeke point out, rock climbing (and I would add, lead climbing specifically) satisfies all those conditions for flow. That’s why people do it.

But why is flow good for civilization? Because, Vervaeke continues — it goes back to the shamans. Throughout human history, there have always been humans who try to alter their consciousness in order to achieve insight about the human condition. Shamans were the first. Whether through fasting or chanting or dancing or drugs, shamans sought to achieve altered states of consciousness, the points of which were to increase insight. Tribes who had good shamans did better than tribes without shamans, because the shamans were making cognitive breakthroughs due to their capacity for reaching altered states of consciousness.

Flow is exactly such a state of altered consciousness which trains your mind to achieve cognitive breakthroughs. Here’s Vervaeke:

So you’re rock climbing, and if that breaks down, you impasse, you’re stuck. And I don’t mean just cognitively, you’re physically stuck. Now if you want to be a good rock climber you have to break that framing. You have train yourself to break the frame, restructure, change what you’re finding relevant and salient and then change yourself to fit that and then you’ve re-fit yourself to the rock face. Then you have to do it again and then you have to do it again and then you have to do it again.

So climbing trains your mind.

Well obviously, you might be thinking. But it’s the specific kind of training that matters. It’s training to strike out into unknown territory, find that you’ve made a mistake, and re-adjust, try a new strategy, break your existing mental framework and restructure your mental map. Climbing does this by bringing us into a state a flow, where the consequences of failure are serious, and where our actions provide immediate, clear physical feedback, and where our consciousness is primed to achieve insights.

Rock climbers are doing what shamans did. Moving civilization forward by training our capacity for cognitive insight. I’ve often marveled about how many climbers I know who are engineers. There is an overlap there: engineers are smart people who experiment and create things to solve problems in the physical world, and climbing trains them to be better at that.

You find this kind of thinking all over rock climbing.

But let me take it one step further than Vervaeke did, because I’m a climber and I have opinions about such things. My opinion is that not just any climbing will do. What you need is lead climbing. And I’m not talking about the climbing gym. I’m talking outdoors.

Why lead climbing, specifically, advances civilization

If you’re not a climber, you may feel a little lost at this point, but fuck it. This is important to me (clearly), so I urge you to stay with me.

Simply put: the kind of continual restructuring of your mental map under high consequence situation that Vervaeke is talking about doesn’t exist in a gym, and it doesn’t exist top-roping either, whether in a gym or outdoors.

The gym is easier to explain: you don’t have to re-adjust your mental map because the holds are in goddamn colored tape right in front of you. It’s never a question in a climbing gym as to where the route goes. You can literally pick out every hold you’ll be using (or choosing to skip) from the ground. The demands of the route are primarily physical demands.

Within a gym setting, there are two ways to go up a route: either lead it or top-rope. Leading is better, because it adds the “head game” I talked so much about in the Why I climb post. That head game is about overcoming fear and doubt to push forward, even if you’re not sure you can do the moves. Especially if you’re not sure. That kind of fear and doubt are endemic to being human, and lead climbing helps you to recognize when to push forward through fear and doubt and when to back off. But though lead climbing in a gym may expose you to some of those mental demons, it still doesn’t provide the kind of route-finding, mind-stretching, back off and try again opportunities which exist outdoors.

Top-roping, meanwhile, doesn’t carry the same kind of fall potential as lead climbing, and thus it doesn’t carry consequence — and as we saw, consequence is necessary for flow. In fact, top-roping carries zero fall potential. So it lacks that key condition. Without that serious consequence, your brain doesn’t actually need to adjust. Top-roping is exercise, plain and simple. It doesn’t much go beyond that.

But if leading is good, and top-roping not as much, why then does it have to be leading outside? As I said: the holds. Outside, you must figure out where they are, and one of the first lessons of outdoor climbing is that the climb looks very different from the ground than it does once you’re on it. Lead climbing outdoors demands the kind of route-finding Vernaeke is talking about when he talks about breaking the frame and restructuring, skills one need not develop in a gym setting where every hold is taped off in bright color for you to follow along, like a color-between-the-lines coloring book.

Outside, on the other hand, you must constantly re-adjust, reframe, and re-build your mental maps over and over, and if you are leading that means you are doing this under threat of consequence in case of failure. If you are trad leading, then you’ve only upped the game on both accounts: greater potential for harm in case of failure, and greater need for adjusting your cognition as you climb. Trad lead climbing up a multi-pitch big wall is the epitome of an environment with the conditions necessary for flow.

In other words: Yosemite.

It’s not just romance or aesthetics that makes Yosemite the center of the climbing universe. It’s something deep down inside in our genes, in our evolution, in our need for flow, in our evolutionary psychology, in our push to move civilization forward.

If I were a religious man (which I’m not), I would say this: God created Yosemite so that we may train ourselves to grow and advance as a human race.

Lead climbing outdoors trains us to be better humans

When I heard Vernaeke talk about this process of reframing your cognition to fit your mind and your body to the environment, I thought about every time in my life I’ve been leading up a cliff, thinking the route went one way, only to touch a hold, find it’s not what I thought it was, and be forced to back down, re-think, find another way.

That’s not just a description of lead climbing; it’s a description of life.

I’ve had to undergo this process of rethinking under physical duress and high consequence a thousand times on hundreds of routes. I never attached too much significance to it, until recently. Climbing for me was simply pushing myself, battling those demons, learning when to push and when to back down, asking myself why I do it, and why I do anything.

What I hadn’t realized was just how much climbing trains us to do that most basic of human things: move civilization forward by training our minds to achieve cognitive insights about ourselves and our place in the world.

All of which is to say, in so many words: it’s time for Rumney crags to damn well re-open. It’s not just about a frivolous recreational pursuit. It’s a matter of civilization itself.