Climbing Karma

Posted on: July 1, 2008

Melissa Alcorn

At the end of a day spent climbing well below our skill level for the benefit of two less experienced climbers, my husband used the phrase “climbing karma” to express his satisfaction with the experience. We recently started yoga practice as an attempt to boost our core strength, balance and flexibility for climbing. The meditative moments suit our nature loving, play passionately lifestyle, and perhaps through the spiritual reflection and learning to breathe through adversity we are aligning the nonphysical components of climbing along with our spines. I am not sure if there is such a thing as climbing karma, but if there is, this is how I envision it.

Climbing usually feels like a personal experience but truly is a community sport. We go to the crags or our gyms and we build a web of like-minded, albeit diverse, individuals that understand why we allow our hands to be shredded and calloused or our knees bruised with a rainbow of colors. We crave a cluster of pals to witness our triumph over a crux, or even better, to hear exactly HOW we conquered the crux. At a bare minimum there is always at least one other human to which we owe our life and attention, unless, of course, you’re one of those wacky free soloists. While we like to believe the climb is all about the moment of Zen between our spirit and the rock, we’re really managing personal relationships.

So then, we make accommodations to our own personal goals to build our utopian climbing community. Karma, like basic Sunday school dogma, dictates that we act in accordance with the “Golden Rule” -- we must do good things in order to expect good things to happen to us. Or, as I was reared, we treat others as we expect to be treated. If I am to take advantage of the gracious dull end of the rope of a more experienced and gifted climber, then I should also offer up a rope end and a route for someone.

That’s how I found myself in a sport climbing paradise leading 5.6 on jugs and bizarre chickenhead formations when I really wanted to be ruining my fingertips on 5.11 crimps. We had offered to take two 60-somethings out for a day of good-old Ozark climbing. They don’t lead, or hadn’t until that day, and infrequently are on rock, but both are very active at our gym and frequently grace the local newspapers as climbing phenoms, if for no other reason than their dogged-determinism to keep going despite their age and well-established positions in the community. They have no gear, other than shoes and harness, and rely on others to take them to new climbing locations. When they expressed interest, it was without hesitation that we packed our ropes and quickdraws and took them to the grippy cliffs of Arkansas. We spent a gorgeous day climbing at their level rather than ours. Forced to climb easier terrain we took the opportunity to work on precision and flowing, an enjoyable retreat from pulling hard and valuable for skill improvement.

In poetic parallel, we are fortunate to have friends take us to our local granite and push our sorry selves onto tough lines that we’d never attempt without someone tying us in and telling us to climb. Off-width flesh-eating cracks just aren’t the sort of thing I’d normally select for a casual ascent. But in karmic-perfection, my rope-gun and good friend finds patience within himself to take me to new routes and new experiences, and doesn’t mind when he gets stuck at the top of a cliff, baking in the blistering Oklahoma sun for a few extra minutes while I flail and dangle at the end of the rope connecting us. His sacrifice"including skin left in that monster crack"makes me a better climber and I’m deeply grateful.

Each of us has the chance to do the karmically-correct thing on a regular basis at our gyms or crags when someone ties in incorrectly or belays in an utterly reckless manner and we step in to correct the problem and stop potential disaster. We check our partners to make sure knots are finished or carabiners properly locked. But we also need to do the right thing and build the community by helping each other improve. Pushing new grades is exciting, and I sure would have liked to try a 5.11 onsight rather than hang ropes on 5.7s I’ve previously climbed. But there was equal joy in being a part of two old guys finding the nerve to do their first-ever leads and share the buzz of a climber high I helped create. Maybe it’s the part of me that lives in my alternate dream reality as a guide, or maybe it’s just the right alignment of the universe to have other people’s triumphs"simple or epic"be the yardstick for personal success.

It seems climbing karma does exist as something to strive for. On a recent trip to Yosemite Valley I witnessed one of the most gifted climbers in the country ask a more technically versed rope guru how to efficiently back up a rappel. That gracious quick lesson can be the difference that keeps that climber alive to astound us with a new route. If we can all keep humility and generosity as virtues of climbing along with accomplishment, then we’ll all climb happier and stronger.